Laura Hemphill's 'Buying In': Women, Wall Street, and Writing About It

In the opening scene of Laura Hemphill's Buying In (New Harvest), protagonist Sophie is snooping around her coworkers' desks at 2 in the morning. She's the only one still in her Wall Street office, and she can't help but peek into people's desks. Sophie hears the cleaning lady, and there's a brief moment when the reader and Sophie are convinced she'll get axed.

It's not the only moment in the book where both the reader and the character are convinced her career is over. In fact, it's just the first of many. In Buying In, Hemphill seems to have birthed a new member of a genre of novels that depicts the stubbornness and anxiety of living in New York and having ambition. Let's call it "Lean In Lit."

Sophie, a Yale grad with a steadfast boyfriend and a widowed father, is a new analyst at a Wall Street firm. She's one of two women working on her floor. She sleeps irregularly, if at all. And she's pretty miserable, but the reader can't judge her or even begrudge her as she simultaneously complains about the work and still shows up ready to be excellent at her job. And that's the elegance of Buying In: through the humanity of an insider, Hemphill defogs a world that's opaque to an outsider.

Hemphill is a Wall Street-veteran-turned novelist, and she fired away at our questions about her debut novel and her experience in the thick of the finance world, as well as, by mandate, Lena Dunham.

BUSTLE: Did you have an epiphany moment when you knew you wanted to write this novel?

LAURA HEMPHILL: It was more of a slow realization that women on Wall Street have been neglected in fiction. There are fabulous books about Wall Street — Bonfire of the Vanities and Liar’s Poker are my personal favorites — but those books are by men, about men. They’re basically temples to the male ego. In their version of Wall Street, women are practically non-existent. Which is understandable because Wall Street is famously short on women. When I started at Lehman out of college, my analyst class was 110 people, and only 11 of them were women: 10 percent. Half of those women quit within our first year. And those are entry-level women — further up the career ladder, the numbers get much worse. What that means is, as a woman on Wall Street, you always feel like an outsider. Psychologically, it’s a challenging existence. That’s the experience I wanted to address: a young woman trying to find her footing in Wall Street’s male-dominated world.

When discussing Sophie’s college boyfriend, Sophie confesses to Kim, “I’m starting to think that maybe you can’t be with someone for real until you’ve become the person you’re becoming.” This is something Nora Ephron told Lena Dunham, and it’s very good advice, but can be hard to stomach.

Lena Dunham and Nora Ephron, two of my favorite people. Can I say how much I love Girls? I studied the first season while I was doing the final edits for Buying In — that’s one of the great things about being a writer, watching and rewatching amazing TV and calling it homework — because Girls captures being in New York in your early 20s so perfectly. As Sophie puts it, in New York, “It’s like there are all these possible yous out there wandering the streets.” That’s what Sophie’s exploring, both professionally and personally: She’s trying things on and seeing what fits. What she doesn’t want to admit because — you’re right, it’s hard to stomach — is how difficult it is to make a relationship work while you’re doing that. Her college boyfriend tethers her to her college self, and she chafes against that because she’s trying so hard to become something else that she can’t quite define yet.

You do a great job of developing empathy for the bank-insider and for the outsider. Were you conscious of building both sides of the story?

The outsider’s perspective contextualizes the insider’s. When the financial crisis hits, Sophie and her colleagues’ jobs are placed in jeopardy, and it quickly becomes clear that despite all the sacrifices they’ve made — the grueling hours, the neglected and oftentimes destroyed personal relationships — their efforts mean nothing to the investment bank they work for. Wall Street is predicated on an imbalance: you have to give everything to your job, but it will not give everything to you. This makes Sophie and her colleagues desperate, and it motivates them to do some questionable things. But as much as this struggle is very real to them, it isn’t lost on anyone that in the scheme of things, they are the lucky ones: they have well-paying jobs, which can’t be said of people like Sophie’s father, or the employees of AlumiCorp, the company they’re advising. Every time Sophie goes home she’s reminded of this.

Did you plan to write a book about both sides of the crisis, or did you develop the evenhandedness as you went along?

Trick question! I actually started Buying In before the financial crisis, and I had a lot of difficulty because plot-wise, I couldn’t find the right consequence to the bankers’ self-interest. So the crisis was a dramatic boon. Wall Street is always an extreme place, but during 2008, everything was heightened — the personalities, the stress, the risk-taking, the competition. That year was Wall Street crystallized, and recasting the story during that time frame made everything click. As to addressing both sides of the crisis, that happened in phases. I started the book while I was on Wall Street — I worked there for seven years — but I did the real writing after I left, so I myself was crossing the divide between being an insider and an outsider. As I gained distance from Wall Street, it became easier to account for both sides in the book. I don’t think I would have been able to write a worthwhile novel about Wall Street if I’d still been a part of that world.

As one of two female analysts at Sterling, Sophie’s in a minority. What do you think are the biggest challenges women face in working in banking?

The isolation, for sure. When I took my first job on Wall Street, I knew — theoretically, at least — what I was getting myself into, but like so many women born into a post-feminist world, I hadn’t been prepared for how it would feel to always be an outsider. I couldn’t get used to it. Sophie is better equipped than I was because she’s been an outsider her whole life. She’s the child of hippie parents and she’s rejected that upbringing for a more mainstream lifestyle. She likes the challenge of being an outsider, and she makes it work for her. Because the flip-side of being a woman on Wall Street is that unlike your male equivalents, the senior guys and clients always remember you. Sophie learns to use that to her advantage.

You wrote about why you think women should “skip the M.B.A.” for The New Yorker’s blog. Do you ever consider going back to school for a different degree?

Honestly, I’m proud to be grad-school free. When I was in the early stages of writing Buying In, I flirted very briefly with getting an M.F.A. I didn’t have any training as a writer, and I didn’t really know any writers. My only qualification was that I read a lot, which meant I knew just enough to be dangerous: I could tell my writing wasn’t very good, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Going back to school appealed because it was a familiar, structured solution that I thought would legitimize me as a writer. Plus, the idea of quitting my job to go to grad school seemed less crazy than quitting to do something as vague as trying to write a novel. But I am so glad I didn’t go back to school. I really think – and this is something I learned on Wall Street — the best way to learn is by doing. I learned so much more about writing a book by sitting down and trying every day, even though that meant losing my way over and over. It was a whole lot cheaper, too.

What was the most rewarding part of writing this book?

Writing a book is kind of like having an imaginary friend. The best times are the ones when you’re in a room alone, talking to yourself, and no one else is there to break the spell.

Image: Beowulf Sheehan