By Mike O'Sullivan
09 July 2009
A book by first-time novelist William Pack, called The Bottom of the Sky, takes readers from rural Montana to the financial center of Wall Street and high-tech hub of Silicon Valley. The writer's own journey had been just as interesting.
The Bottom of the Sky follows the different paths of a brother and sister. Author William Pack says the book is fiction, inspired by elements from his own life.
"Certainly the venues are autobiographical," said William Pack. "The primary protagonists are born and raised in rural Montana, particular outside of Roundup, Montana, in abject poverty. So from that standpoint, that is where my life started as well."
Montana is a northern state of open spaces and mountains, known as Big Sky Country, but in the mining town of Roundup, the economy was bad and the characters started at the bottom. The brother leaves town, while his sister stays behind. Each will face different challenges over the 30 years that the story unfolds.
Pack says his childhood home was plagued with abuse and addiction. Because of those problems, he was emancipated, or declared independent, by the courts at age 15.
"When I was 16, I dropped out of high school," he said. "I was working all night, various jobs, working in the afternoon as well. Just could not stay awake. I was married when I was 17. Became a father at 18, was divorced at 19. So the start was a little bit rough."
He would work on loading docks, tend bar and drive trucks. He was the night auditor at a hotel, and even drove a Zamboni ice resurfacing machine for a local hockey team.
He eventually got into sales and later entered a field with greater earning potential, financial services. Through a friend, Pack got a job at the brokerage firm, Merrill Lynch.
Within a few years, as the industry entered a frenzied time of acquisitions and mergers, Pack moved up the corporate ladder, crossing the country to become an executive on Wall Street and crossing it again to Silicon Valley. He became an executive vice president and divisional director for Northern California for Citigroup Smith Barney.
He says most colleagues in the business were honest and hard working, but some in the industry crossed ethical lines. The book contains incidents inspired by things that Pack saw, and he says the character faces intrigues and moral dilemmas.
"The most important thing for him is to erase this abhorrent legacy of the past, and he works obsessively to do that, ends up in an industry where you are swimming in money," said Pack. "It is very, very opulent, and performs very, very well in that. But the fact is that we all carry that bag of scars with us no matter what the venue, no matter where we go."
The protagonist faces a moment of truth, as Pack did in his own life. For the writer, happily remarried with an enviable income, a major illness led to a change of course at age 41. He questioned the direction of his life.
Retiring from the brokerage business, he decided to pursue something he had missed in his youth, a good formal education. He set his sights on Stanford University, took courses at a community college, and then sat for the SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, which students take before entering college.
He wrote the test at the same time as his teenaged son.
"Much to his chagrin, I was sitting in the same room as him," said William Pack. "And I took the SATs and did very well on them, and applied to Stanford like anybody else applies, and was accepted. And I remember getting the big envelope in the mail. I had the same feelings every kid probably has when they get the big envelope in the mail."
Pack recalls that he was the oldest undergraduate at the university. He studied physical anthropology, finishing his four-year degree program in three years and graduating with honors. He also became director of excavation for an archeological site that explored early native American cultures.
But one goal eluded him. He wanted to write a novel, and turned for help to a Stanford teacher and accomplished novelist, John L'Heureux.
With the writer's help, through draft after draft, Pack learned how to write fiction.
"The lesson of writing novels or writing any long piece of work, or getting good at anything, I think, is always the same, and that is perseverance," he said. "I know that is cliché, but there is a reason it is cliché. And I think that people who achieve what they feel was worth achieving in their lives continue when it is unreasonable to continue."
Pack says his firsthand observations of abuse of power on Wall Street will inform his second novel, and that archeology, his newfound passion from student days at Stanford, may also find its way into the story.