John Spooner has spent the last half-century straddling the worlds of finance and literature. The Boston-based investment adviser is author of several best-selling books, including “Confessions of A Stock Broker,” “Smart People,” and “Sex and Money” as well as the novels “Class” and “Foursome.” His articles have appeared in Time, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire and Playboy, among other publications.
His latest book is “No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Letters To My Grandchildren,” a collection of wise lessons about work, relationships and the pursuit of happiness, written to his grandchildren Alyssa and Wes (who are in college and high school, respectively).
Spooner studied English in college and said he knew it was only a matter of when, not if, he would publish his first novel. “Hemingway and Fitzgerald were my gods in college; I was going to sit in the cafés of Paris with a legal pad and write longhand,” he said.
Instead, his father forced him to join the family firm as a stockbroker. “We feared authoritarian fathers in our generation,” said Spooner. “Very few of us were rebels, even though we wore engineer boots and pretended we were Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One.’ I told my father, ‘I can’t even read stock page in the paper.’ He said, ‘If you want to write badly enough, you will no matter what you do.’”
And Spooner did, publishing his first novel three years later. But by then he had changed his mind about business. “I made the incredible discovery that the money biz is much more about human nature than math,” Spooner recalled. “It’s fear and greed -- and human nature is the only thing I know anything about. If I can solve people’s problems in creative ways, it’s interesting to me.”
Moreover, brokerage was considered “an honorable profession” when he started, Spooner explained. “The so-called rich were an elevated group of people I almost had no idea existed,” he recalled. “Everyone in the business was still was 100 percent commission. Sure, there were rogues and thieves and charlatans, but there were mostly mavericks who felt they didn’t fit into conventional careers, and they were family counselors in the best possible way.”
And so Spooner wrote –- nights, weekends and summers: “My wife Susan would be gone for a month or the whole summer with the kids and I would come weekends and take vacations there. But I was in the city working and writing every night, drunk or sober, in restaurants, on a legal pad.”
Spooner’s business supplied grist for his writing, and his writing brought in clients; today he manages nearly $1 billion with his team at Citigroup’s Smith Barney in Boston, he said. The key has been to focus on what he calls the “quality of money” an investor brings, rather than the quantity. In short –- he’s looking for good stories.
“The best investment ideas come not from Wall Street but clients and friends around the world,” Spooner said. “I’d rather take on a scientist at Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution] who has a $250,000 IRA rollover because of what I can learn from the scientist about the sea and water: How important is water? Is it more important than oil or energy? And then I figure out how can I invest in it.”
Spooner has now spent more than a half-century straddling both sides of his brain, but it’s writing that is “the real motivator and great joy in my life,” he said. “I lose myself in writing. I’ve made money writing every year for 45 years. If I don’t have a magazine deal or column or I’m working on book I feel will be published, my life is over in a certain way. The creative life fuels everything else.”
His advice to would-be writers: Just do it. “People say, ‘I’ve always wanted to write, I have a book in me.’ I say, ‘Okay, it’s now Thursday night; by Monday morning give me 1,000 words on the subject of love. And in all the years of writing no one has ever produced the essay. And life -- snap -- it’s over,” he said. “Believe in yourself and don’t stop putting it out there.”
Which sounds very much like a tip from his book of advice for his grandchildren. “The lessons in this book involve something in short supply today -- common sense,” he said. “I hope every lesson that’s in this book will be as valid 50 or 100 years from now, because it involves human nature, and not what’s faddish at the moment.”