Matt Taibbi, author of Griftopia, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |November 10, 2010

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Matt Taibbi

author of Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that is Breaking America

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a college town not far from New York; my parents were 19 year-old students. We moved shortly after I was born and I grew up outside of Boston, where my father was a local television reporter. I went to a prep school in Massachusetts and then to Bard College in New York, a liberal arts college. My degree is from Bard, but I actually finished my credits in what at the time was Leningrad, the Soviet Union, where I had done an exchange program (and liked it so much that I stayed).

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

When I was very young I wanted to be a zoologist. I loved animals and weirdly enough I had a fascination with taxonomy (I remember making a huge chart of all the various phyla of the animal kingdom for a school project), which now that I think about it came up again in the writing of this latest book, which is very much about mapping the landscape of American financial crime.

At eighteen and thirty I equally wanted to be a fiction writer. I’ve always been a failed fiction writer! My heroes growing up were comic novelists/short story writers like Mark Twain, Saki, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov (there were a lot of Russians, which is why I went to Russia), Evelyn Waugh, Joseph Heller, and so on.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

This is going to sound odd, but really, none. My views of life were really shaped by all those writers I mentioned above and those views really haven’t changed since my teen years. They taught me to view the human experience as something that was corrupt and cruel and tragic but also beautiful at the same time; that even though God is absent from the absurd comedy of existence it is better to be on the right side of things than on the wrong side as you go through life; to never look back and never worry about losing anything except love, which is the only thing worth having. I’ve obviously had to grow up a lot (I was a very stupid and irresponsible young person) but one of the things that’s been nice to discover as I’ve gotten older is that those writers I admired so much growing up don’t seem any less right about things now in the light of experience.

4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?

In the mid-nineties I was living in Mongolia (believe it or not, I was playing professional basketball there!) when I got sick with pneumonia and very nearly died. This big scare pushed me into a lengthy Carpe Diem-ish stage of my life that included firstly starting my own newspaper in Moscow, Russia, called the eXile. And it was while I was writing for that newspaper that the second influential moment occurred; I had to cover the transformation of the Russian government from communism to capitalism (well, “ostensible capitalism” might be a better term) and was treated to an intimate education in the mechanics of third-world corruption.

Seeing how political power operated in a corrupt kleptocracy like Russia had a profound effect on me. And when I later returned to America and by chance was forced during the 2008 presidential election to investigate a gasoline price spike (which turned out to have been caused by a speculative bubble that was completely ignored by our media), that pushed me into a new career of documenting American corruption, which is very like the Russian version, only more vast and more subtle.

5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?

Books I don’t think will ever be obsolete. The act of picking up a book and reading words on a paper page, and losing oneself in the author’s world, is a specific sensual pleasure that no electronic innovation will ever be able to duplicate. In the case of non-fiction, there are some topics that are so complex and labyrinthine that visual media will never be able to do them justice. My book is a perfect example of that; the subject of American financial corruption simply cannot be done on television, because it is so gigantic and so complicated.

6. Please tell us about your latest book…

Griftopia is a book about American financial corruption; it’s written for people who know nothing or next-to-nothing about economics, with the aim of describing what caused the financial collapse of 2008 and beyond. Topics like the manipulation of the commodities and mortgage markets sound boring, but what I found is that all of the various scams and schemes Wall Street was into in the last ten years are so grotesque and disgusting that they made for a naturally entertaining narrative, particularly for people who have very dark senses of humour. Read an Extract…

7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?

This won’t make sense to Australian readers, but I wish that Bill Buckner had not missed that ground ball in game 6 of the 1986 baseball World Series. (BBGuru: Apparently, in pre-9/11 America, this was considered An American Tragedy)

8. Whom do you most admire and why?

My wife Jeanne, who is a good person without trying.

9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

When I was a teenager I worked for a time with a crew of demolition workers. I had gotten in some trouble and my parents’ very creative punishment was to make me do hard labour with a lot of tough guys in Boston. In the first crew I worked with, all my co-workers were black and some of them were work-release prisoners from the Deer Island jail in town. One of those guys gave me some advice on my last day of work. He said, “Don’t go out like a sucker.” I don’t know if that’s really my great ambition in life, but it’s a good story and I still do think about it all the time.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

In my profession, journalism, I tell young people

a) don’t go to journalism school

b) go overseas to some exotic country right after college, and

c) spend your twenties living and enjoying life and learning a new language or culture.

Start your career as a foreign correspondent or a diplomat or something – you’ll see the world, learn about life, and more importantly you won’t waste being young. Writers need knowledge and experience and energy to succeed, and staying at home and climbing the ladder is the opposite of those things.

Matt, thank you for playing.

Follow Matt on Twitter – here.  Read Matt’s Blog on the Rolling Stone website – here.


The dramatic story behind the most audacious power grab in American history

The global financial crisis isn’t past but prologue. The fall and rescue of Wall street was the coming-out party for the looters at the nexus of American political and economic power. The grifter class-made up the largest players in finance and the politicians who do their bidding-has been growing in power for a generation, transferring wealth upward through complex financial and political manoeuvres. The crisis was on manifestation of how they’ve hijacked America’s political and economic life.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi unravels the fiendish rise of the grifters. He traces the origins to the cult of Ayn Rand and her most influential-and possibly weirdest-acolyte, Alan Greenspan. He reveals backroom deals that decided the winners in the government bailouts; shows how finance dominates politics, from investment bankers auctioning off America’s infrastructure to the battle for healthcare reform; and tells the story of Goldman Sachs, a vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’.

Taibbi combines deep sources, trailblazing reportage, and provocative analysis to create the most lucid, emotionally galvanising, and scathingly funny account yet of the American political and financial crisis. It is essential reading in order to understand the inner workings of politics and finance in America, and the profound consequences for us all.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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