Interview with Richard C. Morais
Richard C. Morais is an award-winning novelist, business journalist and biographer. He is the author of the New York Times and international bestseller The Hundred-Foot Journey, a novel about an Indian chef who conquers the rarified world of French haute cuisine. In 2014 Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey released The Hundred-Foot Journey as a popular film starring Helen Mirren and Om Puri.
Little A, the literary imprint of Amazon Publishing, published his third novel The Man With No Borders on September 1st, 2019. It can be purchased on Amazon hereor at independent bookstores, a list of which can be found here.
Nick Rice is an executive director at a global wealth management firm in New York, specializing in communications on sustainable and impact investing and a wide range of other financial topics. He was formerly an award-winning business journalist.
NR: You’ve published a novel entitled The Man With No Borders at a time when people in many parts of the world are looking to reassert theirs. What were the personal circumstances that inspired the novel, and how did these broader themes play into it?
RCM: People are trying to reassert their borders precisely because borders are not holding. You're talking about the reactionary force to the new, borderless reality that we live in, and it's not just national borders that are porous or have outright collapsed - industrial borders, psychic borders, physical borders, and sexual borders have also shifted and become less defined. So I wanted to paint the picture of a new man, in this case a private banker called José Maria Alvarez de Oviedo, who, at the end of his life, was struggling with the fact there was no country that could contain him, no "walls" of interior behavior that held him in check. The story then became about how he needed to get back to some sharply defined "place" and family code that did hold special meaning to him. But this is all very high-minded. There was also a very personal element to this decision, conscious or not. Two years after I started writing The Man with No Borders, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and, similar to what happens to José, I painfully witnessed the borders of my father's mind collapsing. So the book was also a way to process and grieve my father's disappearance from this world.
NR: José grows up in a conservative family in Franco’s Spain - an environment where traditional borders and boundaries are largely respected. Later, he marries an American, moves to Zurich and establishes his own private bank. Other restrictions that govern his behavior start breaking down from there. What do you feel are the key tipping points in this transformation? As a Portuguese American who grew up in Zurich, how much of his story do you identify with personally?
RCM: Driving José's journey into both public empire building in private banking and into the "underground" in the backstreets of Zurich - and ultimately his transformation during the course of the book - are profound wounds and hurts that he has buried deep and kept secret. I have found, both personally and as a former editor of a Barron's magazine for wealthy families, that family secrets live on and fester, generation after generation, until they inevitably force their way to the surface. That's what happens in José's case.
This is the most autobiographical book I have ever written, but perhaps not in the way the casual reader might think. The specific circumstances of the Alvarez family and the traumas they go through are unique to them, but I do identify very much with the higher truths they reveal and that fiction allows you to explore - in this book, the complexity of father-son relationships; the powerful bonds that can exist between brothers; the painful truth that we usually wind up hurting the people we love most; and how the search for meaning in life doesn't end until we take our last breath, as the process of aging teaches us.
NR: Your response brings up another important aspect of the novel - it deals largely with male characters, be that José, his father, his brother, his three sons, or other men he has dealings with over the course of his life. One of the key activities over which the men bond is fishing. Why did you choose fishing to explore the relationship between them? Is there also a broader metaphor here?
RCM: My father was a world-class fly fisherman. They used to call him "The Professor" in Iceland due to his extraordinary salmon fishing skills, and the story of José's father fishing in Franco's shadow, to get the second best fishing in all Spain, is actually a true story. My father did just that when my family was stationed in Spain and Portugal in the 1950s and 1960s. Fishing was in fact a deep bond that I shared with my father, more so than my brothers, and he and I fished all over the world until shortly before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. For his 80th birthday, for example, I took him back to Newfoundland and Labrador, where Dad came of age, and we went back to some of the rivers of his youth. Some of my happiest moments with my father - some of the happiest moments of my life - were on just such fishing trips.
Fishing is an ideal metaphor and catalyst for this story, partly because fishing is about confronting life and death, which is exactly what Jose must do as his life draws to an end. When fishing, you literally must face the fact a beautiful being is giving its life for you to live. It's a humbling and life-appreciating aspect that is rarely acknowledged about how fishing can make some people a little better. But fishing can also bring out the worst in men, me included. It can bring out your greed, male competitiveness, a lust to kill, all these aspects of your primitive self that are there under the civilized surface and hard to face and acknowledge.
I in fact have a lot of trouble fishing now because Man has overfished almost all waters, and I am revolted by what we - and that includes me - have done and where we have wound up. We have gorged on nature's abundance and are now paying the price, which is also an important societal theme of this story. So fishing came naturally to me as a subject, because of my family history, but it also seems to work in this book on other levels as well.
NR: These different attitudes to fishing and the environment are a source of intergenerational tension in the novel. José’s son Sam is also a financier but focused on funding the fight against overfishing - a problem to which José himself has contributed. Sam helps José understand how to break down traditional boundaries between managing a private business and addressing public concerns. As a financial and business writer, do you sympathize with Sam’s approach?
RCM: Totally. And thanks for the important question. While I was doing some research for the book, I stumbled across an ancient Spanish proverb that I put in the mouth of José's river guide, Felipe. "'Take what you want,' God said. 'Take it - and pay for it.'"
This is where we are now - at the start of the paying phase - and there is a profound battle for our future being waged across the globe. It's not just between resurrected fascist ideals and the classic democratic order, it's between a powerful, growth-at-all-costs consumerist legacy and a sense we need to husband and value more the deeply stressed nature that we still have. When I was young, I totally believed the myth of "limitless" abundance, which has fueled so much reckless consumerism. I don't anymore. We have to start husbanding and valuing more the precious nature still with us, and, luckily, there is a new, brilliant generation coming up who understand this at a profound level. I'm totally with them.
Where I part company with a lot of left-wing idealists who think similarly about our imperiled earth is that I strongly believe that market forces, investment capital, human ingenuity and appetite for risk must play its key role in this transition to a more sustainable future. We have massively reduced car emissions precisely because there were people willing to invest in new technologies. It's clear, in this race against time, we need more individuals and institutions investing in service technologies that will help clean up and restore balance to our poisoned and denuded oceans - not less.
In this battle of ideas for the new world order and what we might call "earth-investing," José's oldest son, Sam, became my vehicle. In this case, my imagination had him create an impact-investing fund that helped convert frigid arctic rivers, since warmed up by global warming, into new spawning grounds for wild salmon, in effect using capital to support nature even while climate change wreaks its havoc. He is, in his way, fighting the good fight.
It's a nice fantasy. Maybe, with divine grace, that impact fund investing in salmon rivers I imagined will one day come true.