Akhil and Mohsin Get Paid: Moonlighting Salomon Smith Barney, McKinsey Guys Write Novels

Akhil Sharma and Mohsin Hamid are pals. Young, wealthy and whip-smart, they earn nice mid-six-figure salaries in high-powered New York jobs.

Mr. Sharma, 29, is an investment banker at Salomon Smith Barney, works 80-hour weeks and lives on the Upper West Side. Mr. Hamid, 29, is a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, advises media companies on strategy and operational efficiencies and lives in the West Village.

Graduates of both Toni Morrison’s writing class at Princeton University and then Harvard Law School, where they first met, they are hungry and just a bit smug-cocky even. And perhaps they have reason: After all, isn’t it cool what a couple of hyper-intelligent kids from the subcontinent (Mr. Sharma’s family hails from India, Mr. Hamid’s family still lives in Pakistan) can accomplish in the brave new world of yuppie Manhattan?

If that wasn’t enough, they also have this in common: Both are critically acclaimed first novelists-Mr. Sharma for An Obedient Father , Mr. Hamid for Moth Smoke . Both books were published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2000, and both have been nominated for a raft of fiction awards. Best sellers they may not be-both languish deep in the rankings on Amazon-but neither author really seems to care. So what if the hoi polloi are buying Harry Potter? Mr. Hamid and Mr. Sharma can boast reverent blurbs from Joyce Carol Oates and fine notices from The New York Times Book Review .

Short and round-featured, Mr. Sharma does not have the look of a deal-making investment banker. His mien is bookish, his voice soft, and his eyes squint a bit from behind his Giorgio Armani glasses-the result, perhaps, of the book-a-day diet that he maintained through his high school years in New Jersey.

But looks are deceiving. On a Good Friday morning in his deserted Smith Barney offices, he curses like a sailor and rides herd on his junior associates-“my minions,” he calls them-to pull together a pitch book for an upcoming deal.

The cube next to his is empty, although the name tag is still up. The missing employee, a good friend of Mr. Sharma’s, was a victim of Salomon Smith Barney’s first round of layoffs this month.

“They got rid of him, laid him off,” said Mr. Sharma, leaning back in his chair in a conference room. “He left crying; it was the only job he ever had. He was a sweet man-he would tell me not to curse in front of children. So yes, there is always anxiety, hysteria even. But at a certain point, the pain is so high you don’t think it’s going to get worse. Fuck ‘em-if they want to fire me, they fire me. Life goes on.”

For Mr. Sharma, it is the life of the mid-level investment-banking drone. He’s a mechanic, as he puts it, the guy who makes sure that the nitty-gritty of each deal is taken care of-selling off, for example, Bank One’s United Kingdom–based credit-card business and other such detail-laden deals.

For him, an 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. day is an unusually good one; on a normal day, he gets home at 1 a.m., though his day also can end much later. It’s a far different life, perhaps, from the one he’d expected when he enrolled in writing classes at Princeton in 1988.

The son of an accountant, Mr. Sharma immigrated to the U.S. with his parents at the age of 9, eventually settling in the gritty New Jersey city of Edison. Thinking that he wanted to be a writer, he followed Princeton with a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and after that spent a few years as a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood. But a few scripts optioned to Universal did not pay the bills, so Mr. Sharma decided to do a three-year stint at Harvard Law School.

From there, he moved straight on to the banking scene. By early 2000, he was at Smith Barney as an investment banker in the firm’s financial-institutions group.

At the same time, he was finishing his novel-news he did not share with his banking colleagues. Nor were they all that overwhelmed when the book was published and Mr. Sharma experienced a small boomlet of fame, highlighted by a full-page color photo in The New Yorker ‘s “Summer Fiction” issue.

“The first they heard of it is when a colleague saw my picture in Time magazine,” he said with a chuckle. “Now, when I say I have written a novel, they ask me: ‘Well, what sort of novels do you write, fiction or nonfiction?'”

The book itself is no easy read. A dark little tale of a corrupt Indian civil servant, wracked with guilt over his incestuous relationships with his daughter and granddaughter, An Obedient Husband leaves little to the imagination: There are ripe, over-described scenes of a middle-aged man having sex with his 12-year-old daughter. Like many a first novelist, Mr. Sharma-a non-practicing Hindu, he says-seems eager to shock. And so he does. Nevertheless, it stays with you, as indeed Mr. Sharma thinks it should.

“I do believe I’m very good as a writer,” he says, with the assurance of one who has experienced success early and often. “It won the Sue Kaufman prize for a first novel, as well as the P.E.N. Hemingway award. And it was a finalist for the L.A. Times first-novel award.”

Mr. Sharma pulls no punches. “I am as good a writer as anyone that I have interacted with, aside from a few people. Most first novels I read are such awful shit.”

He loves Tolstoy, but is less enthused over the contemporary offerings of the day. “Well, I guess there is Don DeLillo,” he qualified. “I think he is fine, but these days I just don’t read much. I’m too busy.”

Indeed, his punishing hours give him very little time to write, though he does have plans for a book about an Indian family living in the States. No, for now, despite the acclaim, the awards and the imminent debut of the paperback edition, he is a banker-reveling in the cold, technical beauty of a deal artfully crafted and, perhaps, the frisson that comes with that first taste of a banker’s clout. To say nothing of the cash. “It’s nice to make the money. But the money is not what makes it worthwhile. This is about as challenging a job as I can imagine. Right now I’m writing a bid letter. The company that is selling asked me, ‘What will happen to our employees?’ I say, ‘We don’t know how many of them will be retained.’ You are dealing with real people here, people who will be fired.”

Mr. Hamid, on the other hand, is a bit more at ease. As an engagement manager at McKinsey, he is two promotions away from making partner. His days, compared to his friend Mr. Sharma’s, are a relative breeze, 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. five days a week. He writes at night, during the weekends and during the-believe it or not-three months off he gets from McKinsey each year (one month is even paid).

“Yeah, it’s pretty unusual,” Mr. Hamid said one recent day, sitting in his small office at McKinsey. “But it works pretty nicely. I’ll work on a study for three or four months, finish it and then go back to Pakistan and write.” No worries either of layoffs. “McKinsey, as far as I know, does not really lay people off,” he said.

Slim and smooth, Mr. Hamid has a deep, steady voice and ready grin that give off an air of easy confidence. Indeed, there have been few speed bumps along the way for him. The product of a privileged Muslim upbringing in Lahore, Pakistan, he sailed through Princeton and Harvard Law School and had his pick of investment-banking job offers when he graduated in 1996. He picked McKinsey instead, attracted by the more creative atmosphere.

Moth Smoke was published in early 2000 and was the finished product of the final paper Mr. Hamid submitted for his law degree. And while there is much said about well-to-do, dissolute Gen-Xers in Lahore zoning out on Ecstasy and heroin, sleeping with their friends’ wives and hating themselves for it, there is not a lot of jurisprudence in it-save a brief trial at the end. This is a law-school thesis? Mr. Hamid smiles. “A trial is about trying to come at truth through competing, contradictory narratives, and I wanted to write a book that explored the same ideas. It worked out.”

Yes, it did. It’s a brisk, readable account of a young Pakistani’s Robert Downey Jr.–like, heroin-fueled spiral into hell-real and immediate, and full of the rich, colorful detail that comes when one writes about the world that one knows well. Less ambitious and less portentous than An Obedient Father , it does not pretend to be the Great Pakistani Novel. Think instead Less Than Zero , set in Lahore rather than Los Angeles. The reviews were excellent-“stunning,” said the Los Angeles Times -and there were kudos all around within McKinsey.

Unlike Smith Barney, McKinsey seems to get a bit of a charge out of the fact that one of its star consultants is a novelist on the side. Now he is at work on his next novel.

One can’t help but notice that Mr. Hamid sure makes it look easy: Princeton, Harvard, McKinsey, a novel in the bag, three months off a year, the six-figure salary, the apartment in the West Village. And he is a good guy, too-you can tell, in and out of work, that people like being around him. Especially Mr. Sharma.

“Mohsin is a lovely man. He has this optimism because he is brilliant. He is also privileged. He told me once that when his grandfather went off to university in the U.K., 5,000 people came to the train station to send him off; when his father went off to school, he rode to the train station on an elephant.” (Mr. Hamid maintains there was no elephant.) “When he went off to Princeton, it was just his family who saw him off.”

Yes, for Mr. Sharma it has been a harder slog. His upbringing was decidedly middle-class, and he remembers going to school in the fifth grade wearing plastic bags inside his ripped shoes to keep his feet dry. “My classmates were cruel. They demanded I do a rain dance,” he remembered. “When I got straight A’s my first year at Princeton, I remember it was raining. ‘This is what America is all about,’ I thought at the time. ‘You can overcome a lot by working hard.'”

So how about those competitive juices, Mr. Sharma-you don’t check to see where your book trades compared to Mr. Hamid’s, do you? (For the record, An Obedient Father is ranked 55,950 on Amazon; Moth Smoke is 26,562). “I love Mohsin. I’m not competitive with him,” said Mr. Sharma. “I mean, life is so fucking hard-what’s the point of adding this shit to your life?” How about you, Mr. Hamid? “No, I try not to be competitive with Akhil, but at some point I guess you have to feel just a little competitive. I’d love to become a bigger literary name.”

But for now, for both Mr. Sharma and Mr. Hamid, it’s the grind and Mammon that call. Mr. Hamid hopes to make partner at some point, while Mr. Sharma, married just last month, was recently promoted and does not seem ready yet for the quiet literary life.

“I think it is amazing that we do two things well,” said Mr. Sharma. “But it’s hard-extraordinarily hard.”