If you’ve ever visited an escape room, you know the drill: You get locked in a room with some friends, and solve puzzles until you crack the code and unlock the door. Megan Goldin’s novel The Escape Room puts a dark twist on this fun activity. In her thriller, four Wall Street colleagues find themselves stuck in an elevator fighting to escape. Here, Goldin chats with Bookish about writing characters who work in finance, gender inequality in the workplace, and her favorite closed-setting thrillers.
Bookish: Gender plays a big role in this novel: Female employees at Stanhope are frequently left out of meetings between male employees, and they rarely get credit for their successes. Was this unequal workplace at all inspired by experiences you’ve had?
Megan Goldin: I have been lucky enough to work with many men who were extremely supportive of my career. However, that’s not the experience of all women. Aside from individual stumbling blocks, many corporations are structurally biased. This bias is deeply embedded in the structure and culture of the organization, so that even though there are many companies, and male managers who try their very best to create an equal workplace, it is only superficial because bias is deeply embedded in the DNA of the organization.
I often found there were inequities in negotiating for salaries over the years. For instance, women who negotiate too hard are considered “’pushy”’ and “’difficult,”’ whereas men can negotiate hard and they are admired for knowing their own worth. I encountered the greatest barriers after having my third child and being out of the workplace for a few months. I had a series of job interviews that were demeaning. One of them was very similar to the one described in The Escape Room. In some ways, my experiences informed some of Sara Hall’s experiences trying to get work.
Bookish: You write that at Stanhope, people use “value” and “money” interchangeably as though they mean the same thing. What drew you to writing about this distinction?
MG: This book is a cynical look at a world of corporate excess, greed, and entitlement. In times of economic uncertainty, office politics are arguably nastier than ever because there is so much at stake. Peoples’ livelihoods and careers can live or die on the whim of a manager, or the latest buzzword from the consulting world which advises companies to create value with restructures and layoffs with little thought of the impact it may have on the people affected who are treated like pawns in a real-life chess game. Often the only value created is to the bank balances of the consultants and the end-of-year C-suite bonuses.
I wanted to explore all of this tension and delve into the backstabbing politics of the modern-day workplace. We are seeing a widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.” I suppose in some ways The Escape Room is about the “haves,” and it explores whether happiness and money go hand-in-hand and how the happiness of some people is truly at the expense of others.
Bookish: I know that you immersed yourself in social media and forums to learn more about the personalities who are drawn to Wall Street jobs. Can you talk a little about that research process? What did you learn? What surprised you?
MG: When I lived in Singapore, there were a lot of investment bankers living in my condominium complex. They’d relax at the swimming pool on weekends, smoking cigars and drinking cognac in oversized snifter glasses with a bevy of beautiful women giving them back massages. I learned a lot by watching and listening to their conversations, which is an occupational hazard for journalists! Beyond that, I spoke with people who work in banking and finance and I read forums and social media feeds to get a sense of who these people are and what keeps them up at night. They live in a pressurized world. I saw enormous anxiety about the smallest things because the stakes are so incredibly high. They obsess about everything from wearing the right clothes, to making a good impression in meetings or social events, to how to avoid looking rundown and exhausted, to how to impress their bosses without looking as if they are trying too hard to impress their bosses. They need to be at the peak of their game all the time.
The online forums where investment bankers swapped notes were real eye-openers in terms of understanding issues for young investment bankers, including a long exchange in which a young banker said he put frozen tea bags on his eyes to make them less puffy. He was worried that if he looked tired then his boss would think that he couldn’t cut it. So freezing tea bags to treat eye puffiness was something very practical that I learned from my research!
Bookish: Many of your characters believe that success is a zero-sum game. Namely, there have to be losers for there to be winners. What are the dangers of this mindset?
MG: It is a dangerous mindset because it means that they will do anything, step over anyone to get what they want. And they do. I know people who work in the finance industry and in business in general who say they face this all the time. There is a mindset that there are winners and there are losers, when in fact there are often ways for everyone to come out winners. Even in the elevator, when it becomes a survival story in essence, the characters still look at it in terms of a zero-sum game. They never really work together as a team. If they did, then the outcome would have been quite different.
Bookish: There’s an interesting reversal of sympathy in this book. Initially, the four people trapped in the elevator seem to the reader to be innocent victims, but as Sara’s story unfolds, it becomes clear that they are villains. What was it like to write characters that you knew readers would grow to hate?
MG: It was great fun writing the characters in the elevator. In many ways, they were once good people who were corrupted, who lost their moral compass. I think that happened to them in their real lives, and then it happened to them in the elevator as well when they had to deal with their predicament. They also have a chance at redemption in the elevator. They have the ability to work together to get themselves out, but they choose to turn it into a zero-sum conflict zone, and there’s a price for that.
Bookish: In the scene at the zoo, Lucy points out to Sara that snow leopards are born blind but learn to see, whereas humans are born with sight but gradually become blind to things they don’t want to see. What kinds of things do you think most people become blind to?
MG: Some people lose their ability to be grateful. They are so busy aspiring to something better that they don’t realize how blessed they are in their own lives, whether it be with material comforts, good health, or wonderful friends and family. It is almost tragic that some people go through life without appreciating their blessings. People sometimes don’t empathize enough with others as well. They become blind to others’ pain or problems.
Bookish: Do you agree with Sara’s mother’s advice that the best revenge is living well?
MG: Often when people try to get revenge, it eats into their soul. It destroys them. Sometimes it’s better to move forward and make the most of your own life. Ultimately, that will frustrate and anger the person who hurt you more than any revenge or punishment.
Bookish: This is a closed-setting thriller. What are some of your favorite closed-setting thrillers by other authors?
MG: Agatha Christie’s closed-setting thrillers are always fun to read. I particularly like Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None. The ultimate locked-room mystery is The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr because of the way the murder is carried out in a small locked room with people right outside. It is a fabulous premise.
Megan Goldin was a journalist before she became a writer. She reported from the Middle East for the Associated Press, Reuters, the (Australian) ABC and other news outlets. She worked in Asia as a reporter and editor for Reuters and Yahoo!. She is the author of The Escape Room, which will be released in the U.S. and UK in 2019, and The Girl In Kellers Way.