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Q&A with Wyn Derbyshire

Date: May 4, 2022 by Cecilia
"For myself at least, and this I think must be true of anyone who is interested in history and biographies, there is always something one can learn from those subjects, and moreover, the “enjoyment aspect” (quite apart from the “learning aspect”) is also important."

When did your interest in financial history and “tycoons” begin? What inspired you to write about them?

I’ve been interested in history and biographies generally all my life – certainly from before I was 10. I grew interested in financial history and biographies, and especially though not exclusively the lives of successful tycoons and financial dynasties from my late teens. I’ve long had an interest in writing – initially mostly I wrote law-related content but one Sunday afternoon, as I was sitting at my desk, the urge seized me to write a short biography of Vanderbilt, I think initially just to see if I could do it…and that was the start of Six Tycoons.

Are there tycoons that you have written about that you most and least admire?

I think the biography of any successful person has value and interest but of the tycoons I’ve written about, probably the ones I most admire are those which left a definitive positive legacy, so for example John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie who set up powerful charitable foundations which benefit the world in various different ways to this day. I’d also add Hetty Green to that list, if only because I admire the way she approached business (there’s no real evidence of her swindling anyone for instance) and the way she succeeded in establishing a multi-million dollar fortune at a time when it was difficult indeed for a woman to achieve this. As for those I least admire, well every tycoon I can think of had some negative characteristics of one kind or another but I think my least favourite tycoons (from a personal perspective) would be Henry Ford (not least for his anti-Semitic views and attitudes towards the Nazis) and Jean Paul Getty, simply because of the bizarre, arguably even cruel, way he approached many aspects of his personal life.

Writing biographies and history books requires a lot of research, do you enjoy this part of the writing process? Why?

Yes because its always good to learn. I need to do a fair amount of research before starting any biography, not least (a) to judge whether I want to write it and (b) so I’ve got a broad idea of the “direction” of the story before I begin writing. That said, the research continues, and shapes, the writing as I go along so it doesn’t come to a halt until the book is finally finished.

Where do you think people’s fascination with the lives of tycoons comes from? What do people want to gain from reading and learning about these figures?

I think for most (not all) people there is an inherent fascination in the lives of successful people generally, and this is especially true in the case of tycoons, especially when we see how the tycoon in question assembled and protected his fortune, and even more so if they have a reasonable claim to being self-made millionaires. For myself at least, and this I think must be true of anyone who is interested in history and biographies, there is always something one can learn from those subjects, and moreover, the “enjoyment aspect” (quite apart from the “learning aspect”) is also important.  I’d also add that there is a dearth of financial education, not just in this country, and studying the lives of tycoons can perhaps help us in developing a better understanding of some basic financial concepts, such as compound interest, what a share is, how stock markets work and so on.

Your book “Dark Realities” looks at the great depression in America and the period surrounding it. Are there any other moments in history that you would be interested in writing about?

Several – for instance, although of course it’s been covered many times in the past, it would be interesting I think to cover the colonial period of North America and the events leading up to the War of Independence, with a particular emphasis on the building up of the financial and economic infra-structures of what became the United States and how they developed to a point that made Independence a genuine possibility.  I’d like to explore the Tudor world in greater detail as well.

The next book to come out will be telling the story of Bess of Hardwick, our second woman, and first UK tycoon. Has the process been different researching and writing about a woman from Britain?

Not really, in the sense that my general approach to researching the book is essentially the same as that I mention above. Of course, given that Bess lived in the sixteenth and very early seventeenth century means that records generally are fewer (and the English used in the records which do survive, such as Bess’ own correspondence, can sometimes be an interesting challenge to decipher! Then too, there’s the fact that the further you go back in time, the less certain you can (sometimes) be about a person’s motivations/approach to life and religion and so on, or rather one needs to be more careful about assuming a person living in say 1550 sees the world in necessarily the same way that we do. But that’s an interesting aspect in its own right I think.