How does one describe a man who, after a long, eventful career in international finance, hits the jackpot by having his first novel scooped up by a top literary agent, accepted by a mainstream publisher, and handled by an eminent senior editor? Perhaps one could call such a person a whiz kid or a superstar; in his words, he is “damned lucky.”
Colin Harrison, vice president and editor in chief at Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, is debut novelist Jay Newman’s editor. “Once in a blue moon, along comes a wildly talented first-time novelist who has deep off-the-record experience in the real world that few, if any, writers have,” Harrison says.
He goes on to explain how the book came about: “Jay Newman spent four decades in the highest echelons of global finance. He knew all the players and had seen what they did to make such money, how they spent it and how they hid it, and what political power such sums conveyed to them.
“Newman was writing a page-turning thriller that revealed a world unknown to anyone not inside it. He called the novel Undermoney, a Japanese slang term that his son picked up from a Tokyo-based restaurateur. It is a term of art for secret, dark lucre that may be used to commit dark, secret acts.”
Undermoney focuses on seven American operatives who don’t like the way the world is going. To get one of their members elected to an influential position, they divert $2.4 billion for a drop in the Jordanian desert, then secretly take over a hedge fund to use as a front. That fund is the world’s largest dark-money fund; they use it to achieve their goal of influencing domestic and international politics and enhancing U.S. power.
Newman says his dramatic transition into a published novelist began with his retirement in 2016 from Elliott Management after a 20-year career as a senior partner and hedge fund manager. He specialized in sovereign debt issues in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa, and led a successful 15-year battle to force Argentina to pay its defaulted debt. For this feat, Newman became known as a Wall Street wizard.
His knowledge of the shady side of international finance prompted him to think seriously of writing a novel on the subject. He knew fiction would be the proper genre if he were to adequately describe this dark, intriguing phenomenon and its malevolent players.
“Working with a top editor like Harrison was enlightening,” Newman says. “He was vehement that Undermoney needed sex and insisted on it. I duly added steamy sexual scenes, and later he complained with a laugh that now there was too much sex.”
One of the key characters in Undermoney, Don Carter, is based on a colleague and friend from Newman’s earlier stint at Morgan Stanley. He was a military man, very patriotic, who left Wall Street to reenlist in the army and was called on for various dangerous secret missions. Newman’s involvement in the world of espionage, strengthened through both this friendship and his dealings with endemically corrupt countries, guaranteed a trove of material for a work of fiction.
“There are no heroes in my novel,” says Newman. “Each of my characters think themselves to be heroic, honorable, and patriotic, but one man’s hero is another man’s villain. And even if each one is heroic in his own way, there is a single-minded pursuit of ends rendering them blind to the horrors of their means.”
He offers an example: “One character, the Russian commander Volk, operates from his yacht using an iPod as a weapon to eliminate his enemies thousands of miles away.”
The book includes scenes, such as one of Russian oligarchs gathered in Latvia, that eerily echo the world’s current situation.
“I never dreamed that my fictional world of manipulative oligarchs would invade reality so quickly,” Newman says. “I had intended Undermoney as a cautionary tale—and it still is, because it deals with how the West lost Russia.”
How did this inventive mind find its way to Vero Beach and Windsor? The Northern winter of 2020 was bitter cold and, compounded with the hovering threat of COVID, made life very confining. Newman and his wife, Elissa Kramer, a retired radiologist, spent weekends in the shadow of the Berkshire Mountains, in the village of Millerton, where they met recent retirees Marion and Willem de Vogel.
“It was evident from our first encounter with Jay and Elissa that this was an unusually bright and interesting couple,” says Marion de Vogel, a native of Vero Beach. “They built a marvelous house on Silver Mountain, enhanced by vegetable, fruit, and flower gardens that Elissa cultivated with skill and imagination. Soon after our initial meeting, they joined us in the local Millbrook Hunt Club, where we gallop on 5,600 acres of conservation land.”
De Vogel continues, “I was born and bred in the low-key village of Riomar, where we spend our winters. I guess I casually mentioned our life in Vero Beach to Jay and Elissa, but never suggested that they might be interested in living there. In the winter of 2020, Jay rented a house on the ocean in Riomar.”
“In 2020, for the first time in our married life, I broached the subject of going to a warm winter resort,” Newman explains. “On our first visit, Elissa and I liked Vero Beach, and Windsor’s beauty and tranquility made an instant impression. We were fortunate to find an oceanfront house for sale at Windsor that we snapped up.”
Newman is writing a sequel to Undermoney. Titled Uncertainty, it focuses on the relationship between the United States and China. As with Undermoney, Scribner is the publisher.
Asked where he usually writes, his wife gestures with a grin, “He works right here at the kitchen table, with his papers typically spread all over.”
While fast-paced Undermoney exudes racy sex and violent bloodshed, the scene of Newman working at the kitchen table with his two goldendoodles dozing in their beds close by, waves crashing just outside the windows, is a peaceful one.