Aifric's trading places
She has just published her second novel but Aifric Campbell's life story has had many chapters and plot twists of its own. Driven by a fierce competitive streak, she talks to Emily Hourican about her career as a high-flying female banker and dealing with post-natal depression
Whether there is anything as formal as a pattern to most of our lives is a moot point, often dependent on no more than our own willingness to establish and vouch for one. At other times, it seems impossible not to detect a type of continuity to the events that pile upon each other.
So it is with writer Aifric Campbell, whose second novel, The Loss Adjuster, has just been published. Aifric, described by Joe O'Connor as "a storyteller of really immense gifts", has written a troubling, elusive tale about a trio of childhood friends, the unforgiving nature of the past, and what happens when three is no longer a magic number.
A glance at Aifric's own story shows a consistently determined, ambitious and competitive streak, evident through several changes of direction and interest -- from wanting to be a vet as a young girl growing up in Mount Merrion, Co Dublin, to an interest in psychiatry, a stellar career in banking, and finally, recovery from a vicious spell of post-natal depression, to become the writer she is today.
As she tells the story, which has its very human share of pain and disappointments, the thread of steel that links it all together is very discernable. The fact that her greyhound won the Irish Derby, scooping Aifric £15,000 at the age of 15 (it was spent on an extension to the family home), is no more chance than that her first published novel was an accomplished, sophisticated work of the imagination rather than the callow semi-autobiography that is so often the case.
As a child, what excited her about the racetrack scene was "the competitiveness, and the hard work that goes into training", she says now, from a nook of the Stillorgan Park Hotel. "I loved the drama of it all. Years later, when I was on the trading floor in the investment bank, all that came back to me. Watching the punters, how you make a price, how you make a decision; it felt, in an odd way, familiar."
The overwhelmingly male environment of the trading floor was familiar from her days at the track, and presumably this familiarity gave her a way to cope in a situation that, for many women, is intimidating, and not always for the obvious reasons. "At least with the guys, I knew exactly where I stood," she says,.She continues -- adding "peoplewill probably shoot me for saying this" -- that while she was there, she certainly didn't find many of the women she worked with to be supportive.
It was a bruising indication of the way in which women can still be each other's worst enemies, but it wasn't the first she encountered. As a 14-year-old at the local convent school, Aifric co-wrote a hymn with a school friend, and entered it in Hymn For Ireland, a national competition hosted by RTE. They won. "It was on TV and it won the prize," Aifric recalls. "And the following morning we went into school and a nun called us in and told us not to be getting ideas above our station, just because we were on TV." The girls won £100 and bought themselves guitars, but the bitter little lesson delivered by the nun stuck. "In an odd way, that fuels you to be more pushy, even though it encourages low aspirations."
And so Aifric started on the trading floor. "Now, I wouldn't get a job, but in those days Morgan Stanley were looking for lateral thinkers, not just people with MBAs," she says. Using her experience of the dog-racing track, she eventually became the first woman on the trading floor to make managing director. "I spent a lot of my time fighting against the sexist stereotype, and proving that if I was good, I would have to get promoted."
There is a strong vein of good, old-fashioned feminism that runs through Aifric's conversation -- "in any male environment, two women standing by the water cooler having a chat are gossiping, men in the same circumstance are talking strategy," is one of her observations -- tempered with the realisation that women may not always hold out the hand of sisterhood. "You became increasingly isolated as you went further up," she says, because other women resented it. As a result, her philosophy is a self-reliant one -- "if you want to get ahead, you have to work hard and be tough" -- and her drive relentless: "If you're ambitious, as I always was, there's a certain ruthlessness involved for you to get what you want."
However, there is only so far sheer determination can take you; life will sometimes intervene most shockingly. Aifric married when pregnant, to Ian, her long-term boyfriend -- "I was the oldest shotgun wedding in town!" she laughs now -- then went back to work just eight weeks after her son, Oscar, was born, in accordance with the culture of the time.
"A normal working day would be to leave before he was awake and be back after he was asleep; within days of going back I was in New York for business. And there wasn't a person in the universe who told me this might be a bad idea." She quickly felt "totally redundant" to her newborn son's life, "I felt surplus to requirements," she says now. As a result, and coupled with months of very poor sleep, she sank into a state of wretched depression.
"I went on a trip to New York, and was checking out of the Four
Seasons, I had a driver waiting to take me to the airport to catch my flight home, and I thought, I can't go home! I asked the front desk to get me a flight to San Francisco -- I don't know why -- and as I was waiting for that to come through, something clicked." She realised something was badly wrong and forced herself home. The next day, after seeing a consultant, she was rushed into a psychiatric hospital where she stayed for eight weeks.
"The first time you're admitted to a psychiatric hospital is a real low point," she says now, with no attempt at deliberate irony. "The baby was not admitted with me, which made me feel even more redundant. Looking back, someone should have said, just sit down and be at home for a while."
Aifric was removed from all potential sources of stress, including her job and her child, even though "there was never a problem when I was with Oscar, there was never a time when I didn't want to be with him. But post-natal depression makes people nervous. There are a lot of misconceptions. People have strange ideas, they think you're not the right person to look after the baby, and by the end, your confidence is gone."
For a year and a half she was out of work and on medication so strong she couldn't read. And although these were gentle times with Oscar -- "going to the park, doing all the things I would have been doing if this was my maternity leave" -- that was underpinned with a sense of total failure. "The awful thing about post-natal depression, is you feel like you've failed at the most important thing in your life. And that makes the recovery much more difficult."
She did eventually start back with Morgan Stanley, on a three-day week, but that didn't work out. "It was over for me," she says now. "I'd reached the end point of wanting to be a banker. I had suffered, in my view, an enormous humiliation at work. I knew I would have to do something different."
That something different, for a time, was an exploration of psychotherapy -- "like most people who have been in therapy, you think, 'Oh, this could be an interesting job'," she laughs. She did a one-year course before realising that it would never be for her. "I am not the right person to sit there and contain other people's pain," she reflects. Instead, she applied to the University of East Anglia, for an MA in creative writing. In a sense, this was the move that had been waiting in the wings all through the years. A life-long habit of writing had stuck with her, graduating from diaries and short stories as a child, to a novel written age 17, and then a second novel, written during a year-long sabbatical from Morgan Stanley before she got married.
"An agent really liked it, and a publisher really liked it," she says of that book, "but they wanted me to change the end, and I said, to hell with that." And so she turned down the kind of chance most of us would jump at."Looking back, I realise it was a practice novel for me," is her rationale, although she admits she probably wouldn't be quite so intransigent now.
As a result though, she never did write that typical first novel. Instead she kicked off with The Semantics of Murder, which arose out of her PhD in East Anglia ("it was on the relationship between fiction and psychotherapy, how psychiatrists make it all up anyway, and so may as well be writers!"). In the process, the healing she needed happened.
"I could see something else I could do," she says now. "You can spend a long time looking for reasons after a breakdown, but in the end, it's how you get better and what you learn from it." Writing, and being good at it, gave her something to focus on while getting better, and helped repair the sense of self that had been torn apart.
And maybe we will get that autobiographical work after all. "My next book is a kind of Bonfire of the Vanities, about women on the trading floor." It is not, she says, her story, although some of her experiences will be in there, which suggests it will be an ambitious, focussed and compelling tale.
'The Loss Adjustor' by Aifric Campbell, Serpent's Tail, €11.99