On the Money: Writer chronicles the dying breed of counterfeiter
New York City-based writer Jason Kersten is one of the happy breed of scribes lucky enough to turn a Rolling Stone assignment into a book, and may yet prove lucky enough to turn that into a full-length film, as his book has been optioned by Paramount Pictures.
For now, however, Kersten's content to talk about what he learned from Art Williams, one of the last of a dying breed of expert counterfeiters and the real-life central character of his book, The Art of Making Money .
Reared in a turbulent family where he was shuttled between an abusive father and mentally unstable mother, Williams' life was irrevocably changed at age 16 upon meeting an expert counterfeiter of U.S. currency bills, and his mother's boyfriend, in a man who dubbed himself "Da Vinci."
But unlike other criminal masterminds who counterfeit for profit alone, Kersten found that both Williams motivation and method of operation were personal, often bordering on ethical. After years spent perfecting a replica of the "1996 New Note" U.S. $100 bill and eventual imprisonment, Williams' criminal quest was more about redeeming and rebuilding a family life lost than "making" money.
A key theme arises in your book early, when you describe how Williams' "desire had not yet turned to rage" when he thought about his broken family and his drive to rise in the world. Writing this book, what did you learn about the connections between money, family and love?
When there is no money, it really threatens family connections and puts pressure on them in ways that people who grow up middle-class or upper-class cannot even conceive. Williams' first crime was robbing parking meters to get food. Anytime someone had money in his family there were people asking about it. It's almost a reductive quote, but without money people become animalistic. And once Williams perfected his counterfeit bill, it changed his relationship with all his family and friends. Suddenly they're vying to see who can go on a spending spree with him. Greed takes over, and greed is not conducive to trust.
Given our economy's current state of play, with all manner of white-collar crime coming to the surface, where does counterfeiting rank?
In a broad sense, it's on the rise now that we're in recession. But it's very hard to get rich off counterfeiting because of the extreme care that must be taken. Expert counterfeiters are on the wane, too. Now it's mostly kids with ink-jet scanners trying to pass bills off at McDonald's, with a lot of these cases tried in local courts. Guys like Art [Williams], who could defeat all the security measures are increasingly rare. What's fascinating is that white collar criminals get less time than someone like Art. Ever since the U.S. Civil War, when government was trying to manage enormous debts, the federal government has felt extremely threatened by counterfeiters.
A guy like Bernie Madoff doesn't interest me. He's just a sort of raw, unbridled greed, and a mirror for greed in others. Guys like him are a dime a dozen. Art was never trying to get rich off his enterprise. He did it for his own sake, and was always aware that he wanted to get off of it. He had a code. He did not spend his money at mom-and-pop stores, he spent it at large chain stores and tried to keep it all [as] benign as possible.
You're the step-son of well-known Chilean author Isabel Allende. Did you learn anything from her growing up?
Absolutely. She calls herself my "alien step-mother" because she married my mom's second husband. I left my short stories on her bed and she'd leave them on the kitchen the next morning. She'd mark them all up. She was ruthless. But she said I had talent, and that she wouldn't lie about that. She said telling someone they could write when they really could not was just an attempt to torture someone if they wanted to be a writer.