From crashing the glass ceiling to contending for the Orange
On the Floor is set in the world of high finance during the late 1980s. You were Morgan Stanley's first female MD on the trading floor. How much did you draw on your own experience?
It's not my story, but obviously there were elements. The trading floor is very fast-moving. You have very little free time. I once worked out that I had about 11 free hours a week. My heroine only goes home once in the entire novel. She's just too busy. But I loved the business.
What do the trading floor and writing novels have in common?
Markets are made up of humans. Companies are run by humans. Everybody's life is shaped by economics, whether you are rich or poor. In order to understand the concepts behind the financial markets, you don't have to understand all the instruments. You do need to see the big picture. Novels can do this. The problem is that too many simplify the story into good versus evil.
Your heroine, Geri Molloy, is one of the few women working in a very male, even macho, environment. How challenging is it for women to be successful in the city?
The atmosphere is a bit like a locker room. Men can become very puerile very quickly if they're in a pack, but also very funny. I am very interested in women at work, and especially in high-stakes environments where on paper the odds are stacked against you. I want to explore what else inhibits women in the workplace. I am fascinated by how few women use the word 'ambitious' to describe themselves, as if it was unfeminine. Women take this on board. When female journalists interview me, they want to discuss my personal life - my post-natal depression. Men ask about the markets, about the job.
What can be done to correct this?
The conversation is always: 'Should we have quotas for women in the workplace?' The really interesting conversation is: 'What do women really want out of work, and why do they seem so ambivalent?' If you get a job, and it's like tokenism, what happens to merit? They introduced quotas in Norway for boardrooms, and it didn't work. There are now hardly any women at executive middle, senior and entry levels. They didn't have quotas in Sweden, where I used to live, and women hold approximately 25 per cent of boardroom posts.
Geri Molloy spends a sizable proportion of her time travelling between London and Hong Kong. When did you first come out here?
It was 1988. I moved from trading to sales. This is before Morgan Stanley had an office in Hong Kong. I was successful and began travelling regularly to Singapore and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong office opened in the late 1980s, shut briefly, and reopened before the handover. It was small, but had that pioneering spirit. We were involved in raising financing for Asian companies in Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia.
What were your first impressions of Hong Kong?
Flying in to Kai Tak [airport] was extraordinary. Nothing prepares you for the physicality of Hong Kong. It's one of those places that grab you by the throat. You can't fail to be impressed by the sense of scale. It was incredibly beautiful. I normally spend time just walking around the streets to get the feel of the place. The first time I stayed in Kowloon, I spent a lot of time walking through the market. I remember walking around Wan Chai, which at that time was not recommended.
Like Geri Molloy, you were born in Ireland. Did you see parallels between your homeland and Hong Kong?
It did bring home the idea of an empire - the concept of just how far it extended. Because Hong Kong is so unusual and astonishing, my first impression was: 'My God, you have to be motivated to want to colonise this!' There are a lot of Chinese people in Ireland. My sister-in-law is Chinese. My niece is learning Cantonese. The Chinese vice-president [Xi Jinping] has just visited Ireland. They had him kicking a Gaelic football in Dublin's biggest stadium.
Did you find significant cultural differences in the way business was conducted in Asia as opposed to, say, Europe?
[Tokyo] was a nightmare. Male fund managers would refuse meetings with me because I was a woman. I succeeded in getting a meeting with the senior fund manager at the Japanese Post Office. When he got over the shock that I was a woman, he insisted on addressing the entire meeting to the interpreter because he was a man. I never found that problem in Singapore or Hong Kong, either at work or in the streets.
Do you have favourite memories?
There's a scene in the book where Geri stands in the 30th-floor office in Exchange Square, where Morgan Stanley's offices were. I can remember looking across the harbour in the morning, watching the planes taking off through the mist. You could see the New Territories. There was a feeling of premonition that things would change. And they did.
On the Floor has been long-listed for the Orange Prize. How does that feel?
There are so many great books this year. I'm just very happy that On the Floor is getting read at the moment. As a writer, it's the best thing that can happen to you.