From the military to Wall Street to writing novels - how lost boy Paddy Hirsch finally found love
Paddy Hirsch's adventures in the military and high finance helped him to outrun a difficult childhood but, as he tells Donal Lynch, it was marriage to actress Eileen Fogarty that brought him real healing
Fiction has never been a particular friend of high finance. Even before banker-bashing became common currency, literature saved a special scorn for the emotionless financier, from Emile Zola's L'Argent to Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. And, if reader empathy for the wizards of Wall Street is an issue, it also takes a particular set of writing skills to distil the inherent dryness of white collar crime into riveting prose.
Paddy Hirsch (50) had a particular advantage in this regard, having created one of the most-watched financial reports in the world, in his videos for the American Public Media production house Marketplace, where he had the title of 'Explainer in Chief'. Using only a white board, Hirsch conveyed the complexity and colour of the markets in a way that few before him had managed; millions have watched the videos on YouTube. Now, he has turned that skill for dramatising to fiction, with his novel The Devil's Half Mile, a page-turning historical thriller. Set at the time of the New York financial crisis of the 1790s, it tells the story of how a murder intertwines with the corruption and criminality of the era. It's something he sees as an airport bookstand thriller, he mentions Lee Child as an influence, and the book fairly rollicks along - a perfect holiday read.
If fiction struggles with finance, that might also be because precious few financiers have turned their hand to it. Hirsch's movement from lucrative financial reporting into the precarious world of journalism and the even more precarious world of fiction writing is atypical, not least because the financial world is so much better paid than media work. "The work I was doing on Wall Street was, in a way, a type of trade journalism," he explains. "I was reporting on financial markets. But these were stories about data and I have always been drawn much more to stories about people, the type of reporting I did on specific bank deals and I was offered jobs a few times, but it would have been death to me because I would have been bored. I'm interested in the human story."
That might be partly because Hirsch's own story is so touchingly human. He grew up in the 1980s, between the North, at the height of the Troubles, and Dublin, where his mother came from. He was the elder of two siblings (his younger sister passed away three years ago from ovarian cancer). His parents divorced when he was 13 and he was sent to boarding school, which, he says, felt like it had overtones of abandonment. "The combination of a disruptive home life and being away from home was toxic for me," he recalls. "I would say I felt something of a sense of abandonment and I don't think that played out well in my relationships with other people. Frankly, I was a bit of a bully when I was at school."
Boarding school and the sleepiness of Lisburn, where the family lived for a time, insulated him from the worst of the Troubles, but he was aware of them. "We used to look under the car every time we got into it, because we were living on the base. When my dad left the army, he set up a business and he employed someone whose wife was a policewoman and she was killed in a mortar attack on a station, and that really affected me. That was when it became very real; I knew that man and he had lost his wife."
He joined the British military straight after school, not because of any notion of serving queen and country but because "it seemed like a cool thing to do". He graduated top of his class from the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines, and was awarded the Sword of Honour. The uniform prompted questions about identity, however, and one incident in particular prompted some soul searching. "We had to protect the polling stations in south Tyrone and they said what are you doing in that uniform with that accent and a name like Patrick? I hadn't thought that much about my own nationality, and my opinions on history and the State, but that comment did give me pause for thought and I left the British military soon after that."
He went to fight with the American Marines in the Gulf War and then, a few years later, in Kuwait, but even there he had pangs about the means and ends of militarism. "I remember thinking what, really, are the British doing in Kuwait and what are we doing in Northern Ireland? At that point, I was convinced it wasn't so much about safety, as it was securing assets and I wasn't interested in being a political pawn but as a soldier that's exactly what you are."
He moved to Kuwait, where he worked for a time as a British intelligence officer. It was this role that brought him closer to journalism. "One of the roles of an intelligence officer, when nothing is going on, is to deal with the press and so I was hanging out with all of these journalists and some of them were interesting characters," he recalls. "I decided I wanted to do that, but I couldn't get a job in England. There is an old adage; if you can't make it in London, try Hong Kong. A friend of mine was a lawyer there and had been given a palatial apartment by his employers and he invited me to come and stay." He interned at the South China Morning Post and CNBC and then got a job at the latter organisation. "I was travelling around meeting all these great people, telling great stories, eating great food - and then handover (to the Chinese) came, and everything changed."
He was in Hong Kong for the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and says it served as a type of training for him for what was to come in the financial crisis of 2007/2008. "It was a great grounding for the financial crisis 10 years later. From a journalistic perspective, it was exciting. It made my pulse quicken. I feel like I thrive on that kind of excitement."
Of course, much more 'excitement' was to come. The 2008 crisis was a financial 9/11 which Hirsch chronicled with awestruck gusto. "I still have the copies of The Wall Street Journal, five days in a row the headlines were variants of 'The World Is Falling'," he remembers. "It wasn't a Chicken Little situation; the financial sky was falling. You could see the markets unravelling globally. We saw the employees leaving Bear Stearns with their boxes, but they were just the front end of the crisis, which would ripple through every part of society."
Through some of those heady years, he felt cut off from family life at home. "My mother married another soldier and moved with him to the south of England, but my dad remained in Northern Ireland.
"Initially, it was a little rocky with my mother's new husband, but he was much better for her and he was very protective of her and I saw that. Once I left school and joined the marines I saw them sometimes, but I wouldn't have said it was a real relationship."
His own romantic relationships were also characterised by emotional distance. "As a young man, I also didn't have much time for relationships and regarded most of them as pretty transitory and I think I damaged a few people. I wasn't ready for intimacy and I drove people away."
It was only when he met his wife, the actress Eileen Fogarty (she has starred in the brilliant Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, as well as Modern Family and How To Get Away With Murder) that his personal life began to really change for the better; they married in 1998. "Eileen is Vietnamese-American and was brought up between Singapore and California," he explains. "And she has that American ability to open up and be vulnerable, whereas to me, that seemed a little like Oprah Winfrey stuff. Over time, however, I realised it's a sensible way to be because you get a better understanding of yourself and your relationships. I think, through that process with my wife, I sort of forgave my parents and really developed a better understanding of them and what had gone on."
Eileen showed him the importance of her own family to her, and he says it ignited a better sense of closeness with his own parents. "Getting there required understanding where my resentments came from and that required some openness and vulnerability. I did plenty of therapy. A good therapist asks intelligent questions and if you're open to it, it works. The work is not done in the office, however, it's done when you leave. Initially, I was very resistant but it worked for me."
But isn't therapy, as Douglas Adams once said, 'like complaining about the rain, you still have to go outside and get wet.' "I'd say it's more about understanding why you're getting wet", Hirsch quips, "is it because it's raining, or because you forgot to bring an umbrella?"
He and Eileen never had children - he explains that he had some fertility issues - and for a while they considered adoption. "I may write about this one day. It's my fault, not hers. We got into a queue for adoption, but we learned about the adoption process, that put us off. We are very connected to Asia and considered adopting in China, but a colleague of mine found out there was baby trading going on and we realised that if we did adopt a child from there, we might well be taking a child that had been stolen.
"We thought, 'this is not the place to be'. We looked in Northern Ireland and Europe but there are so many risks: foetal alcohol syndrome, separation issues; in Vietnam there are issues to do with lead consumption, because that's in the paint they use in the orphanages."
The grief at losing his sister still lives with him. "I feel bad for my mum, because she doesn't have my sister close to her and I'm in America," he says. "I think it's fortunate that she's so close to her husband and that he takes such good care of her."
His transient life through boarding school and the military equipped him well for living thousands of miles from Ireland. "I don't really feel that much a connection to anywhere, I don't miss Ireland when I'm away, even though I definitely feel a connection. On the outside, LA looks like a sterile world, where people are very cut off from each other, but it's like anywhere; if you dig in, eventually you find your people, your community. That's what I've done."
He has written a follow-up to The Devil's Half Mile, which is being edited now and is due to be released next year. "My editor is Irish and the character in the book goes to London, and she said to me 'don't you think he should go to Dublin before he goes to London? So I'll be back to do some research. Watch this space."
'The Devil's Half Mile' by Paddy Hirsch is published by Corvus, priced €14
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