Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Dean Jobb

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Dean Jobb

The conman is a figure that fascinates us in film and novels, and yet some of the most notorious and most unbelievable conman stories are non-fiction. Dean Jobb explores one of the most incredible in his new book, Empire of Deception: From Chicago to Nova Scotia – The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated a Nation (Harper Avenue), which is nominated for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Dean, who is a veteran journalist, explores the stranger-than-fiction story of Leo Koretz, one of the most successful conmen of the twentieth century, who preyed on the citizens of Chicago during the Roaring Twenties. Gangsters, corruption and speakeasies were the realities of the day, and Koretz managed to smooth talk his way to over $30 million in investments in his fraudlent ventures — over $400 million in today's currency. When his empire collapsed, an international manhunt lasted nearly a year, leading to Koretz's eventual, and bizarre, death in prison.

Today we continue with our Weston Words interview series, for which we will be speaking to all five finalists for the prestigious prize before the October 6, 2015 announcement of the winner.

Dean tells us about how Koretz turned himself into a real life Greaty Gatsby, the importance of "marinating" and his upcoming project about a fascinating conflict in Canadian history.

Open Book:

How did your nominated book begin for you? What drew you to your subject matter?

Dean Jobb:

I discovered the story of Leo Koretz and his elaborate Panamanian oil swindle many years ago. I was researching another subject at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia when I spotted a reference to the arrest of a notorious American swindler in Halifax in 1924. I knew it had the makings of a great story. I did some digging and published a newspaper feature on his fraud and his extravagant lifestyle while on the lam in Nova Scotia. But I was convinced there was enough material for a book, and I continued to gather information as I pursued other projects. I was determined to find out everything I could about this charming, flamboyant character.

Koretz was a forgotten master of the Ponzi scheme and one of the most brazen and successful con men in history. He thrived in the money-mad Roaring Twenties, when get-rich-quick schemes were everywhere, so it’s a story grounded in an era of wealth and glamour and a timeless tale of greed and gullibility. Koretz’s story, I discovered, was inseparable from the crime and corruption of 1920s Chicago. Robert Crowe, the Illinois prosecutor who brought him to justice, was a controversial figure with underworld ties and, by coincidence, he and Koretz knew each other — they had worked together as young lawyers. Crowe’s lust for political power became a parallel story that played out as Koretz established and operated his massive fraud. I also discovered that Thomas Raddall, who became one of Canada’s most renowned authors, befriended Koretz during his sojourn in Nova Scotia, when the fugitive swindler was posing as wealthy literary critic Lou Keyte. Raddall’s papers contained unpublished reminiscences that allowed me to recreate the decadent parties and extravagant lifestyle that made Koretz a real-life Great Gatsby.


Where were you when you received news of your nomination?


I was writing, as it turned out. I was in a Halifax coffee shop, working on a newspaper column, as voicemails piled up at my office at the University of King’s College. The shortlist had been posted online by the time my agent, Hilary McMahon, tracked me down to congratulate me — she has been a tireless promoter of this project, so it’s fitting that she was able to deliver the good news. It’s an incredible honour to be nominated for such a prestigious award and to find myself in the company of such accomplished Canadian authors.


What unique experience or benefit does non-fiction provide for readers?


Like a novel, non-fiction should transport the reader to another time and place — but to a place where the people and events are real, even if, in the case of Leo Koretz and his empire of fraud, truth was often stranger than fiction. American author David McCullough, a master of narrative history, argues that writers must “marinate” their heads in a time and a culture if they hope to produce engaging, vivid accounts of lost worlds. He’s right. A writer must thoroughly research every aspect of the story and read as many books, memoirs and historical records as possible that touch on the subject. The challenge is to bring people and events to life without distorting or embellishing the facts.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


There are many books I admire. McCullough, author of The Wright Brothers, John Adams and 1776, brings insight and authority as well as fine storytelling to everything he writes. Erik Larson and Simon Winchester combine deep research and fully-formed characters with riveting narrative and graceful writing.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I’m researching a new book on a sensational 1880s plot, hatched by Irish-American extremists known as the Fenians, to assassinate Prince George of Wales — Queen Victoria’s grandson — during a visit to Canada. The prince (the future King George V) was a trainee in the Royal Navy and two Fenian agents were discovered in Halifax with enough dynamite to destroy his warship while it was anchored in the harbour. The plot was part of a wave of bombings that damaged public buildings in London and other British cities, a campaign designed to win Irish independence by force. The Fenians were radicalized Americans, the first global terrorists, but the United States failed to take decisive action to counter what one American official described as “a new species of crime” — violent acts plotted in one country and carried out in another. It’s a dramatic, untold story of terrorism, detection and international intrigue that holds lessons for today’s War on Terror.

Dean Jobb is an associate professor at the School of Journalism, University of King's College. The author of seven books, he is a past finalist of the National Business Book Award and the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award. A reporter, editor, and columnist during a 20-year career at The Chronicle Herald, Jobb is a three-time winner of the Atlantic Journalism Award. He lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, founded by former Lieutenant Governor the Honourable Hilary Weston, carries a $60,000 purse for the winner and honours the finest Canadian non-fiction published each year. The award succeeds the previous Writers' Trust Nonfiction Award, which was founded in 1997.

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