Letters from Dinosaurs
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Leland Cheuk writes about Letters From Dinosaurs from Thought Catalog.
It was the end of 2008 when I started writing short stories in earnest. The Great Recession had just begun, caused by the world’s largest banks playing with money it had loaned to people they knew couldn’t pay back. Bernie Madoff had just pled guilty to operating the largest Ponzi scheme in history, robbing thousands of their retirement savings. I was working in middle management as a corporate marketer, after graduating from the top undergraduate business program in the country. Many of my friends were shuttling off to top MBA schools that would ensure them six-figure-and-above salaries, while the rest of the world suffered. I was one of the fortunate, a man in a suit traveling the world, dining in the nicest restaurants on a corporate expense account, enjoying “off-sites” in places like Chamonix, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
Were my friends and I right to be having the time of our lives, safe and doing absolutely nothing for the less fortunate? That was the question I asked myself while writing many of the stories in my recently released collection Letters from Dinosaurs.
In 2003, I visited one of my friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a student at Harvard Business School. I sat with him in a class and noticed that one of the guys sitting near me had a last name of Fodor. As in the travel guide Fodor’s. The people who attend HBS are the elite of the elite, the sons and daughters of the highest stratum. George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Michael Bloomberg, and Jamie Dimon are just a few of the many famous HBS grads. In my story “Matador Meltdowns,” I imagined what it would be like to be studying at HBS during the financial meltdown. Wouldn’t you feel like the curriculum was the direct cause of immense suffering in the world?
In the story “Ringleaders,” I drew from my personal experiences as a former corporate ladder climber. Every few years, I would quit my job for extended periods to devote time to writing. During one of these jobless times, I volunteered at 826 Valencia in San Francisco and led an afterschool program with 60 third-graders. I used that experience to imagine what it would be like to be an ex-banker who quit his job in the middle of the financial meltdown out of guilt to become a grade-school teacher. After trying for several years to “do good,” the protagonist begins to feel cynicism infecting him and the pressure to return to a high-earning career.
In corporate marketing, I worked with lots of aging, past-their-prime sales executives. Often these guys (mostly white men, often either named “Pete” or “Steve”) were not the sharpest tools in the shed, but their ability to “grow relationships” with business leaders helped the company make its numbers. If you could hold your liquor, play a decent round of golf, and be a fun guy to hang out with for middle-aged, rich, white suburbanite executives, you could succeed as a sales guy. One big whale account with strong recurring revenue could carry a sales exec for years. If you didn’t catch the whales, however, you’d end up bouncing from company to company. One sales exec I worked with had been at 12 companies in 14 years. In “The Bullet Points of Valley Pete,” I tell the imagined story of that sales executive, floating by on his fraudulent “expertise” and unable to leave his profession because he has his kids’ college tuition to pay for.
I’m in a fantasy baseball league with a few friends, all MBAs. The league is very intense, and emails fly back and forth year-round, creating these long threads that clog up my inbox. One year, a member revealed that his brother died suddenly. Usually, we respond to every email quickly. The communications have the speed of texts. But this time, after the reveal of personal information outside the context of a personal communication, our list went dead for days. Not one condolence. Nothing. In the story “League of Losers,” I filled in the blanks of those communications, imagining emails flying back and forth between members as they tried futilely to devise a proper response to a tragedy.
In the collection’s final story “Pyramid Schemes,” I imagined what it would be like to be Bernie Madoff’s son as a young man. What if your father told you that the family fortune was built on a massive pyramid scheme, while you were in college, caring about little more than drinking beer and getting a girlfriend? Mark Madoff, Bernie’s son, maintained that he knew nothing about his father’s dealings. But what a burden it must have been to deal with the consequences of his father’s sins? Being besieged by lawsuits from the people his father bilked, Mark Madoff committed suicide two years after Bernie’s arrest.
In most of the stories from Letters from Dinosaurs, I tried to portray the many sides of going the way of the idiomatic dinosaur, someone slowly becoming extinct. Valley Pete’s obsolescence is imminent and inevitable; he’s an aging salesperson making too much money, destined to be replaced by someone younger and hungrier. The men of “League of Losers” are almost post-human in the way they struggle to show even an ounce of empathy toward one of their own. In “Matador Meltdowns” and “Ringleaders,” the protagonists are dinosaurs because they actually have a conscience in a world where the idea of having a conscience is becoming passé. As for the rhetorical question of whether we were right back to live the high life during The Great Recession? The answer is obviously no, but it looks like we’re all too eager to forget it ever happened so that we can do it all over again.