From the L.A. Screenwriter collection.
Diana Henriques is an award-winning writer for The New York Times. Her book, The Wizard of Lies, is the basis for HBO’s Emmy-nominated project by the same name.
John Bucher: How did this project first come to your attention and at what point did you decide you were going to write a book about it?
Diana Henriques: I’ve had a busy career as a journalist and, I’ll confess, in the early weeks of covering the Bernie Madoff story, I didn’t have time to even think the word “book.” It was a constant page one story. I was collaborating with a host of other New York Times reporters, which is a delightfully interactive but somewhat time-consuming task. My thought, at the time, was just to try to stay ahead of the rapidly developing and globally competitive story.
My literary agent, though, managed to get through to me. I had missed e-mails that she sent in the crush of work but she finally got a hold of me and said, “I’m sitting here with my hair on fire. This is the book you were born to write. You have to do this.” I just poo-pooed it and said, “I don’t have time to go the restroom. I certainly don’t have time to prepare a book proposal.” It’s not something you do on your lunch break.
So, she said, “Oh you don’t need a proposal. Just give me the go ahead.” The rules at the Times are you cannot take on a book proposal on a developing story that you’re covering without the prior approval of the top editors. It is an ethical concern. It’s rooted in the very real possibility that a reporter would be suspected of trying to heighten a story in order to assist the marketability of a book. So, I went through that drill. I explained that I was very interested in taking on a book project, but only with their agreement. And it went through all the necessary hoops and I got the agreement that I needed.
We were looking at what we hoped would be a definitive book with an 18-month delivery. I will admit that we did wonder whether anybody would still be interested in Bernie Madoff eighteen months from then. If I was going to do this book, I didn’t want it to be just another cartoon creation of a bad guy. Because I truly felt that this was a universal story of betrayal, first of all. And if it was going to pass the test of time, it needed to be as complete as I could possibly make it.
John Bucher: Well, let’s unpack that for a minute. Because I think that you bring up something that’s really important—the universal nature of this story. It feels just as relevant right now, even though it happened a few years ago. It feels especially relevant in light of our current political climate.
Diana Henriques: Well, certainly in terms of its focus on betrayal—of betrayals of trust—and the secretiveness of truth, it is in fact timeless. I’ll quote from the last line in the book, which is, “In a world of lies, the most dangerous ones are those we tell ourselves.” It is an everlasting warning.
I will take exception to the notion that what we’re dealing with here politically is an extrapolation of the financial con man phenomenon. Con men must have ice blood, ice water in their veins, an iron grip on their impulses and their conversation, a fierce degree of self-control. Does any of this sounds familiar from what we’ve seen on the national political stage right now? No, it doesn’t. So, to say that our current political scene is populated by con men is actually an insult to con men. They have a lot more self-control and a lot more strategic thinking than we’ve been seeing lately.
John Bucher: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? I can’t imagine someone who’s constantly covering journalistic stories trying to work in time to write a book. What does your writing day look like?
Diana Henriques: Well, I would get up a little before six, and I would write until nine. I would then get showered and ready to go into work. I’d put in a day at the Times. Our days generally start there about 10 o’clock, unfortunately, and then get home whenever I got home and look at what I’ve done that morning and try to get primed for what I was going to tackle the next day. And then on weekends, it was just wall to wall writing. Holidays, wall to wall writing. To me, the key was to never go to bed until I knew what I was going to be writing about the next day. You have to shift gears when you go from journalism to non-fiction long-form narrative, as well.
John Bucher: What is it like to sit across from Robert De Niro and re-enact a moment that you’ve experienced in real-life with another very well-known person?
Diana Henriques: It was easier than it sounds because De Niro disappeared so completely into the character of Bernie Madoff. So, my mind isn’t telling me, “You’re sitting here across from Robert De Niro.” I was sitting across from this remarkable replica of Bernie Madoff. I have to give Bob the credit. He made it very easy to interview Bernie Madoff by being such a remarkable impersonation of Madoff.
John Bucher: What is it that you hope people get from this story that you’ve told?
Diana Henriques: I hope what they get from it is that you won’t see the con man coming. He is going to look normal. He’s going to look admirable. He’s going to look trustworthy. He’s going to look credible. And you will not see the Mr. Hyde standing behind Dr. Jekyll until it’s too late. The comforting notion that you never would have fallen for Bernie Madoff—this movie pretty much blows that up, I hope.