When we first met Tony D’Souza, 38, back in 2005, he was waiting tables at the old Metro Café on Osprey Avenue and about to publish his first novel, Whiteman, based on his experience with the Peace Corps in Africa’s Cote d’Ivoire.
Fast forward a few years and D’Souza has gone on to publish two more novels and written for the New Yorker, Playboy
, among others; he’s also been featured on The Today Show
, and his most recent novel, Mule
, has been optioned for film by Warner Bros. And D’Souza really loves investigative journalism—which is why he jumped right into writing Eyes Wide Shut
, the revealing piece in our September issue about Peg Nadel, wife of Ponzi schemer Art Nadel, who was convicted in 2009 for his involvement in a scam that stole $168 million from almost 400 investors and rocked Sarasota to its core.
Here, D’Souza talks about his background as a writer, the intense and often emotional process of writing Eyes Wide Shut
, and what he hopes readers will take away from the piece.
How did you get into writing?
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer, but I did want to lead a life of adventure. After high school, I went to Alaska and rode my bicycle 1,200 miles by myself. That trip gave me something to say—or the idea that I had something to say. I started writing seriously around that time.
How did you wind up living part-time in Sarasota?
I came here because I needed a place to stay—I followed a tradition of artist types who’ve lived out of their backpacks or suitcases and who tended to end up on their mothers’ couches. But since then I’ve discovered all the city’s many delights.
What interested you about this particular story?
I’m very interested in crime, and I’ve covered a lot of it. But financial crime really fascinates me because of its complexity, its nuances, and also its injustice. All crime is atrocious, but if a man walks [into a building] with a gun and shoots another man, the crime is easy to identify and the pain of the crime is easy to identify: The victim is killed, the people who loved the victim are hurt, and the people who loved the shooter are hurt.
Financial crime is more devastating than that, in a lot of ways, because it’s not as easy to understand as one man shooting another—and I would say the [effects] of financial crime are more powerful than many other crimes. When you talk about an elderly couple being fleeced of their life savings, that ripples through generations. Their children’s lives are going to change; their children’s children’s lives will change. It’s like casting a stone into a still pond.
What’s most challenging is trying to write in a simple, understandable and engaging way about a subject that is, at its core, designed to deceive.
You mention your writing process in the piece—can you talk a little more about what it was like to write this story?
I would compare this to looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the needle under the last straw of hay. I’ve long since learned that, as a journalist, you haven’t done your job until every little question is crossed off your list. You’re not done until you’re done. This story was like fighting a hydra—every time I went to answer one question, five more would appear. It was all numbers, dates, times, places—such a many-headed beast. I like to think I’m a smart guy and knew what I was getting into, but I wasn’t ready for what was waiting.
I probably put about six weeks of 14- to 20-hour days into this. But I think the amount of time I put in pales in comparison to the amount of time put in [to this case] by the people who have been ripped off.
At what point did you know your research was worth it?
I knew I wanted to do the story, but I couldn’t have told you exactly why [at first]. But then I read the 96 victim impact statements that were collected in preparation for the Nadel sentencing—a novel’s length of pain and misery.
There was one victim statement in particular that I found so moving: A couple had lost all of their money in this Ponzi scheme, and because the husband had invested everything, his wife of 50 years lost respect for him and divorced him. And I read that and thought, You’ve been married for 50 years, and now you’ve reached the end of your life and you’re divorcing. It felt almost like a personal blow. [Financial crime] takes away our most basic dreams; it attacks our sense of safety, our sense of self-worth, and it takes away our life’s work. That was when [it all] clicked for me. I was so excited to get involved with this; it lived up to all my hopes and dreams of being a journalist, and it was one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever written.
What do you hope readers will take away from the piece?
I’d love for a reader to come away with a better understanding of what happened and how it happened. But I also hope it’s an entertaining read. The last thing I want to do is write about financial crime and turn it into math class. I hope all the characters come across as human beings, especially Peg. Whatever you may or may not feel about her, Peg is a real person, and I hope I’ve rendered her humanely. I’ve talked to her a couple of times [since finishing the piece], and I am concerned about how she’ll be affected by it or feel about it—but at the same time, I feel like I did my job.
What’s next for you?
I gotta write a new novel, but right now I’m in transition. I’m always writing something, but I’m doing easy work now.
Photo by Cameron Neilson