The Erika S. Olson Interview

I first met today's interviewee through our mutual friend Mark Graham (those Michigan folk are good folk). Both talky writers, we like to get together to drink and complain about writing (that's what most writers, or at least most writers I know, do when they get together). I think the first time we got together she was talking about a book she was starting work on. Now, that book is a reality, the recently-published Zero-Sum Game: The Rise of the World's Largest Derivatives Exchange, which tells the gripping, and often comical, story of how the historic merger between Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade almost didn't happen. In addition to promoting her book, Erika blogs about movies for Redbox here and still posts at her legendary Lost blog LongLiveLocke.

Did you have a hard time securing permission/blessing from any of the people in Zero-Sum Game? How'd you go about it?
Uh-oh... I never asked anyone for permission, nor did I ever get anyone's blessing. Oops!

I had secretly taken notes on everything my co-workers said and did for the year I was at the Chicago Board of Trade, knowing that the crazy bidding war between the Merc and ICE would make for an incredible story. I'd asked a lawyer early on whether this was legal, and the guiding principle is basically "If it's true, then it's fine." In early February of this year, just a few months before my manuscript was due and I needed to start filling in details, I began calling or emailing most of the people who appear in the book. While everyone was a bit shocked at first, a lot of them were extremely cooperative and agreed to be audiotaped "on the record." In the end, there were just a couple of things that my publisher's lawyers made me cut out--and really, the book is quite positive on the whole. I consider it my love note to the Chicago Board of Trade... and to Chicago overall.

Did you have any methods for making the book relatable for people (like me) who don't know much about business?

I wanted to tell the story so that anyone who's ever worked in an office and/or been through a merger could relate to it, and the way to do that was by focusing on the people (or "characters") rather than getting weighed down with the heavy stuff. I wanted readers to be so entertained by my co-workers' antics that they wouldn't even know they were learning something. So I decided to just write how I always write. I'm not a financial journalist--I've been a film critic since May 2008 and blogged about the TV series Lost for six years, so I just used that same conversational writing voice as much as I could in the book, and also made sure that my love of pop culture was very evident throughout the story. And then I asked my mom and a few others who are far removed from the business world to read everything and tell me if it made sense to them. And it did--phew!

What are you doing to promote the book?
I seriously spend every waking second trying to spread the word. I hired a PR firm to handle a big mailing (and the follow-ups) to print and broadcast media (nope, that stuff isn't necessarily paid for by publishers, folks!), am personally reaching out to certain media contacts, am setting up speaking engagements with tons of business schools and university clubs and business associations, etc., etc. I'm running online ads. Then there's the Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and blog aspects of marketing the book. I'm also networking with other authors and bloggers and people in my target audience who might have large networks that they could recommend the book to. And there's little stuff like offering to mail out personalized bookplates. It's all exhausting--mostly because I still have my day job to keep up with (not that I'm complaining!).

You've been very open about the process of writing, selling and publishing the book: which resources or advice were most helpful to you?
I think I paid something like $50 to attend a "How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal" seminar through, and I gotta say, that was really helpful. I'd read a ton of books on this very same subject, but the speaker at that seminar just really drove home the key points--probably because she was a literary agent. Talking with other authors, even outside of my genre, has also been critical. Few people understand how tough it is to put yourself out there--you have to have a support group, so to speak. (On that note, I hope you saw your shout-out in the Acknowledgments of my book!)

If you had to do the book all over again, would you do anything differently?
I had a moment of truth while I was writing my manuscript that saved me from having any regrets now that the book is published. I saw one of the "characters" out in the city with his/her children--I saw this person from afar, he/she didn't see me--and all of a sudden it hit me like a ton of bricks that I just couldn't keep some of the more incriminating material in. Up until that point, it had been very easy for me to include questionable things that people had said and done because I'd been away from all of them for three years--I think in my mind they didn't even seem real anymore. But the very next day I revised things so that no one's kids would be ashamed of or embarrassed for their parents if they read the book. I think the end result was stronger because I relied more upon the funny things people said and did rather than the idiotic things. And so I've done my part to not put any more negativity out into the world... but those people whose reputations I didn't ruin will never even know! I hope it will come back to me in good karma somehow.

How much cocaine did you see during your days at CBOT?
Ha! I hate to disappoint you, but none. I worked on the business side of the exchange where people probably swore and drank just as much as the floor traders did, but I never saw anything beyond that!

What does the hand signal on the cover of the book mean?
It's a tad more complicated than this, but to spare your readers the nerdy details, I will simply say that he's "selling at 3." Palms out means selling, palms in means buying.

What are some of your favorite movies about the business/trading world?
I loved the original Wall Street... it's so, so, SO much better than the sequel that came out this year. The TV movie adapted from Barbarians at the Gate is a classic, too. And then of course there's the '80s comedy Trading Places, the one and only movie about futures trading.

Did you buy anything fun with your advance?
Every penny of my advance went to the PR firm I hired. Sadness. But my husband and I did celebrate some of the big milestones--getting the deal, finishing the manuscript, publication day--with nice dinners!

What do you think your next book will be on?
I have two ideas--both are still nonfiction but they'll probably appeal to wider audiences. The first is about my experience working at start-ups during the dot-com boom. Yep, I was taking notes on my co-workers even back then! Bwah ha ha. The other is about a two-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia that my now-husband and I took before I went back to grad school. I'm envisioning it being a cross between "chick lit" and a travelogue.

I realized, after I published my book, that there are certain questions well-meaning people ask that sort of rub authors the wrong way (like the one I got recently: "Why haven't I heard of you?") Have you experienced anything like this?
I thought long and hard before answering this question because I know that when my friends and family members read this they're going to feel bad... because everyone has asked me the question I dread the most, which is: "How are sales?" That question kills me for two reasons: 1) It just seems kind of personal, and 2) I don't really know the answer anyway! I don't have access to sales data, only my publisher knows the full picture, and even they don't know it in real-time (apparently Kindle sales reports have a significant lag time--as in more than a month). I don't like to keep bugging them about it, so I try to only check in every few weeks.

What have been some of your favorite movies you've reviewed lately?
I loved The Fighter and The King's Speech and the documentaries Restrepo and Waiting for "Superman." And let me say for the record that while I did think Black Swan was incredible, there's a part of me that wonders if it's getting SO MUCH over-the-top praise because most film critics are guys and they're all gaga over the Portman/Kunis sex scene. Yeah, I said it!

What has been the most overrated?

All of the different parts of The Social Network were great -- loved Eisenberg, Garfield, Timberlake, loved the Reznor score, thought Fincher brought it (he's one of my favorite directors), but when I left the theater I was just like, "Huh. I'm not feeling the 'BEST MOVIE OF THE DECADE' vibe here at all." Something about it fell flat to me. I think my expectations were too high going in. But maybe that means it's over-hyped and not necessarily overrated. I also read the book RIGHT before I saw the movie, which is never a smart idea.

Since you review movies for Redbox, has watching them for simple fun, non-writey pleasure become obsolete for you?
No, not at all. A great movie is still a great movie and will suck me in and make me forget about the fact that I have to write about it for work a few days later. For every ten films that are a waste of my time, there will be one that's so amazing that it makes up for all of the others.

What show would you come closest to caring about as much as Lost?
Back in the day I had loved The X-Files almost as much as I ended up loving Lost. I don't think there will ever be another show I'm so committed to. That's probably a good thing.

I'm always jealous of your travels: where are you heading next?
It had been our goal to get to all of the continents, which we finally did. Our experience in Antarctica made us want to go to the Arctic Circle--specifically Svalbard, so that's the front-runner. I guess we just like being cold (though it was actually warmer in Antarctica when we were there than it was in Chicago -- D'OH.)

How does it feel to be the 270th person interviewed for
I was going to be SO depressed if you didn't interview me, so now I'm elated... as well as relieved that I don't need to secretly pout about this the next time I see you.