Ed Villani, PhD, (’73) former chair of the Advisory Board of the Penn Institute for Economic Research conducted an interview with Fredric Price, Wharton MBA (’70), a well-known C-level life sciences executive who has written two award-winning literary novels.
As Fredric Price, he has held multiple CEO and Chairman positions.* Under the pseudonym of David Hirshberg, he is the author of My Mother’s Son, published in 2018—winner of nine literary awards, and Jacobo’s Rainbow, published in May 2021—already the winner of four literary awards. He received his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College; he grew up and currently lives in Westchester County, New York.
Edmond D. Villani spent much of his career at Scudder, Stevens & Clark, one of America’s oldest and largest global asset management firms, rising to the role of CEO in 1996. He earned his PhD in economics in 1973, having received a BA in mathematics from Georgetown University in 1968. Today, Ed divides his time between Tuscany, where he tends a small vineyard and olive grove, and New York.
EV: Before we get into the issue of your writing and managing a dual career, I want to ask you if you remember the circumstances of how we met.
I do, vividly. It was a few days after registration in the fall of 1968 and Ann had just secured a job as an administrative assistant in the Economics Department. Most of the office traffic was with doctoral students; she was the one who introduced us. We went out to dinner, and you asked if I had any specific ideas as to what I’d be doing or wanted to be doing in ten or twenty years. I didn’t have a clue. You mentioned that you’d met a classmate at Georgetown four years earlier, also around the time of registration, and that you’d had that very same conversation with him. It was your impression that he aspired to high political office. In any event, I do remember that you phoned me on election night of 1978 and told me to look for the returns of the governor’s race in Arkansas, where your Georgetown buddy whom you’d referred to—Bill Clinton—had just been elected governor.
EV: What a memory. That’s so funny. At that time—the fall of 1978—eight years after you got your degree—what did you think you’d be doing as your career progressed?
I was at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and had a desire to work my way up to a senior position in the Company. Two years later, I had the privilege of running one of the U.S. drug divisions and also being the top financial person at the U.S. pharmaceutical group, reporting directly to a member of the Board of Directors. But after thirteen years, I got the entrepreneurial bug, starting with a solo strategy consulting practice, working with drug companies in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Europe. Although I enjoyed the freedom it brought, I missed the daily activities of managing and operating businesses, so after five years, I joined a biotech firm at a time when this segment of the industry was moving out of its infancy into the toddler phase. Afterwards, I was fortunate to become CEO of five biotech firms, Chairman of seven, and on the boards of two others.
EV: Do you have a favorite moment or anecdote you can tell us about your time at Wharton?
I was taking a finance course from Doug Vickers, who usually taught doctoral students. All of us MBA candidates in the class were nervous because of his classroom theater (histrionics) and his penchant for complex calculus as the answer to every problem. One morning, he raised a particularly difficult question, drawing his hieroglyphics on the board, and without turning to face us, asked if anyone could answer the question he posed. No one volunteered. We were all intimidated. He turned around, stared at each of us, then looked directly at me and asked if I knew the answer. I gave it a shot, although I can’t say I spoke with certainty. Apparently, I got most of the answer he was looking for. When I was finished, he asked the class what sounded like a non-sequitur: “Do any of you know Ann Price, an assistant in my office?” Several people knew my wife and raised their hands. “Well,” he continued, “do you know that she types up my class notes the night before?” I can tell you that I got stares from just about everyone, and tried to squirm my 6’4” frame into an object that could hide under my desk. It was only after a few awkward moments later that Dr. Vickers announced that he’d been kidding. I assured people after class that I’d never seen any of his notes beforehand. The truth was that Ann typed his notes after he delivered his lectures in class. He asked me to come to his office and apologized, which was readily accepted. At the end of the term, he did his best to recruit me into the doctoral program, and while I went back and forth about his generous offer and compliments, I declined his entreaties in favor of starting my corporate career. All in all, he was my favorite teacher from college and graduate school, in that he taught me how to approach problems from multiple (and not always customary) perspectives, which stuck with me all these years.
EV: What’s the ‘elevator speech’ about some of your business accomplishments?
In the pharma world, the bottom line has to do with getting drugs approved. So talk of funds raised or M&A transactions completed or patents granted is interesting as cocktail party chatter, but misses the main point. In my capacity as Chairman and/or CEO for biotech firms, I was involved in drug development efforts that resulted in six drug approvals. In addition, drugs from the two companies on which I served as a member of the board also received approvals.
EV: You’re not completely out of the life sciences business now. Yet I know you spend a lot of your time writing. How do you square these two fields?
I left my last position as CEO July of 2018 and am now a Chairman of one firm and an advisor to the CEO of another. They are both part-time positions, and the advisory role represents a way to ‘pay it forward.’ As an éminence grise(literally as well, given that my beard is full, white, and gray), I’m trying to give a first-time CEO the benefit of mistakes I and others have made, such that she won’t fall into traps that could delay or prevent promising drugs from reaching the market. The bottom line is that I have time to devote to writing that doesn’t impinge upon my business activities.
EV: Was there anything about your academic studies at Penn in business that aided you in your writing or were these things from two different worlds?
You may be surprised to know that there was a strong correlation between some of my coursework and how I approached my writing.
EV: I wasn’t expecting that response. Can you elaborate on that?
One of the main takeaways from classroom lectures and interactions was the need to focus, to drill down in a particular area and to mine the gems. This message was consistent whether it was from an accounting, marketing, or management course. Strip away the frivolities, don’t get side-tracked, be relentless in your pursuit of answers that are deductively logical.
Today, it’s the same with my writing. One of the most important aspects of how I approach my novels has to do with how I rewrite, returning again and again to the core themes or dialogues to ensure that I haven’t strayed from the narrative or portrayed something differently from how it should be presented.
EV: Had you given any thought when you were at Penn to a writing career?
Honestly, not at all.
EV: What about when you were working earlier in your career?
Not a first. In the mid-eighties, I did get the urge (and the nerve) to sign up for a drama-writing class at the Herbert Berghof Studio in Manhattan. It was an extraordinary experience: we had to prepare short dramatic scenes each week and have them read by fellow students, after which, our little plays would be critiqued by fellow students as well as the class instructor. Although it was intimidating, there’s no doubt that this gave me the impetus to think about writing fiction, although it took many years for this to happen.
EV: What was it that caused you to wake up one day and say “it’s time to try to write fiction seriously?” Literary fiction, no less.
The short answer was that the clock was ticking, and if I kept on postponing this inkling that it was something I should try, I’d be in the position at a later date expressing my regrets at the what could have beens. In the beginning, it was difficult, as I was so deeply involved in my life sciences career, and my new one—writing—could take up a disproportionate amount of my time, which was not unexpected, as I was climbing up a steep learning curve. But I always erred on the side of giving priority to my business activities, which resulted in periods of time in which I did little writing or editing.
EV: Having read all of what you have written, I think it’s safe to say that you set your narratives in the past, but they reflect what is going on today. Am I correct in presuming that you did that on purpose?
In a word, yes. I want to talk about major issues that affect Americans today–war, politics, immigration, discrimination, epidemics, and business. But if the settings were in the here-and-now, there wouldn’t be any distance from the current “talking heads” climate that instantly categorizes and analyzes events from a narrow, partisan perspective.
EV: I can see that if you wanted to write about immigration, discrimination, or free speech issues that are au courant, you would be pilloried by one side of the political divide or the other. Do you think that placing the action in earlier times avoids that kind of labeling?
It does. Book reviewers and interviewers clearly “get it,” and appreciate that I use a mirror to reflect what’s happening now instead of a sledgehammer to get my points across. Audiences (both virtual and in-person) can enjoy a presentation without pigeonholing me, and thereby they can internalize the issues I am trying to raise without feeling threatened.
For example, Jacobo's Rainbow is an historical literary novel set primarily in the 1960s during the convulsive period of the student protest movements and the Vietnam War. It focuses on the issue of being an outsider–the ‘other’–an altogether common circumstance that resonates with readers in today’s America. So rather than setting the action at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 where the Free Speech Movement began, I created the fictitious University of Taos in New Mexico. This gave me the freedom to create characters and scenes that were not duplicates of what actually went on at Berkeley, yet enabled me to write about free speech, campus activism, war protests, discrimination, student leaders, and the “town vs. gown” phenomenon that exists around many universities.
If I’d set the book where the actual Free Speech Movement had taken place, I was concerned that people who’d participated in those events more than 55 years ago would treat the book as non-fiction, and thereby criticize actions and events in the novel by saying it didn’t happen that way. It was likely that this would creep its way into reviews, which would diminish the impact of what I was trying to convey. Moving it to the make-believe University of Taos eliminated that concern.
And by setting the novel in New Mexico, I could introduce two cultures critical to the story that are indigenous to the state, but would have been awkward and unbelievable if I’d tried to bolt them onto the landscape of the Bay Area.
Ultimately, Jacobo’s Rainbow is a story of triumph over adversity (hypocrisy, loss, lies, murder, concealment, and prejudice), which enables readers to identify with the characters who come to life to illustrate who we are, how we behave, and what causes us to change.
EV: Although the narratives are completely different, it occurs to me that this could also have been a summary of the takeaways from your first novel, My Mother’s Son.
For the most part, that’s correct. Instead of the 1960s, the action in My Mother’s Son is played out predominantly in 1952 when the Korean War is raging, there is a major polio epidemic, a young, Catholic Irish congressman is running for the senate against an entrenched WASP, and the sports world is being turned upside down with the move of a baseball franchise out of the city. It’s post-War America, on the cusp of dramatic changes.
There are flashbacks to the early nineteen hundreds that relate to the narrator’s grandfather’s immigrant beginnings and his late wife, as well as to his aunt’s flight with her future husband from Germany on the day following Kristallnacht, in November 1938. The young narrator’s prescience and ability to put disparate things together lead to the discovery of an unimaginable family secret.
EV: Your central characters are Jewish, but they are surrounded by non-Jews who play important roles. When I read your books, I could identify with all the characters, so is it safe to say that these are not necessarily “Jewish books?”
You hit the nail on the head. My books contain stories and themes that relate to the immigrant experience in general, so like the old TV commercial that says “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy’s real Jewish Rye,” you don’t have to be Jewish to identify with the immigrant experience of many groups. My Mother’s Son takes place in Boston, and it’s filled with Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics, all scrambling to rise through the muck to be accepted simply as Americans. One of the main characters in Jacobo’s Rainbow is Native American, and three others are immigrants from India, Central Europe, and Western Europe.
EV: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’re a big believer in the importance of opening lines. Can you elaborate on that?
It’s actually the most critical part of the writing process for me. Until I settle on it, I can’t begin to write the book. It sets the tone for the messages I want to deliver. It’s like the famous line from Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Writing a book is indeed a thousand mile trip, so you have to get off on the right foot.
When the opening line of My Mother’s Son came to me—“When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth”—I knew I could start writing the book.
EV: What’s the opening line of Jacobo’s Rainbow?
Here it is, followed by the rest of the paragraph:
“It seems as if anniversaries have a way of letting spirits loose, and they don’t respect boundaries any more than viruses do, so the only way to fool yourself into thinking you can control them is to make others believe that they can see them as well. A conjurer uses sleights-of-hand, feints, and misdirections, which can succeed because you’re willing to suspend visual disbelief. However, an author only has one dimension to work with, as well as a disconnected audience, which can be a disadvantage. But on the other hand, there’s no one to say that what you’re reading is false. Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of a momentous event in my life—the day I was sent to jail. It’s the obvious time for me now to tell my story. My guess is that you’re going to believe this is fiction; that would be a delusion.”
I’m telling the reader that it’s a novel, but I’m also saying that it’s a delusion if one thinks it’s fiction. That may appear to be oxymoronic, but I’m trying to separate the actual fictional events from what could happen in real life. And to top it off, this Prologue isn’t signed by David Hirshberg, but by the protagonist, Jacobo Toledano. I’m deliberately creating some mystery. As in My Mother’s Son, I want the reader not to automatically presume that what’s being read first is necessarily the truth. Reading the book is a process of discovery that should be enlightening as it unfolds.
EV: In Jacobo’s Rainbow, you dig deeply into the Free Speech Movement on a college campus to expose the intolerance of many on campuses today who refuse to listen to or even allow people with different views to have a forum. When you started to write, was this of paramount importance to you?
It was intentional and absolutely critical. In addition to tackling the Free Speech movement and its legacy today, I wanted to bring campus anti-Semitism—which was then just emerging out of the shadows of the 1950s—to the front and center as a mirror for what’s going on nowadays in a much more virulent form. I want to challenge readers without hitting them over the head with simplistic set ups and denouements. It also allowed me to write about the Vietnam War, which so traumatized college campuses and the country at large—and its reverberations haven’t ceased to this day.
EV: Family relationships are so central in all three of your books. In My Mother’s Son, it’s the good relationship between the two brothers—both as boys and as middle-aged men. In Jacobo’s Rainbow, it’s the closeness of the protagonist with his oldest sister. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired these relationships?
For me, the absence of a strong family story would diminish a hard-driving narrative by making a novel too one dimensional. I want the reader to understand who the key characters are and why they make certain decisions. By setting the family table, I’m trying to make them three dimensional so that readers can get inside their heads to ask themselves what they would’ve done under similar circumstances as presented in the story.
EV: It seems to me that one can read your books on three different levels: (1) As novels of immigrants’ identities; (2) As a coming-of-age stories; and (3) As reflections of what’s going on today. Do I have that right, and if so, was that your intention?
It was, although in saying they’re about identity, I hope that any “outsider” can recognize their trials in what I’ve written. Not that the specifics would be the same. But the difficulties in being marginalized or shut out of parts of the American Dream are shared by many disparate groups within our society. And for those readers who are definitely “privileged,” my hope is that they can get a glimpse of what it’s been like not to have the advantages that class and race can bestow on people who benefit from no action of their own.
And yes, they’re definitely meant to hold a mirror up to reflect what’s going on in our country today.
EV: You write under a pseudonym. Why did you choose to do that? And why David Hirshberg?
This was at the suggestion of my counsel and publicist, who were concerned that if I used my given name, that people searching for me online who find a “biotech guy” would assume that they didn’t have the right person. Or worse, that they’d suspect that this was just another businessman who gussied up some actual anecdotes to write a book that was based on his workday experiences. And you know, I never hide the fact of who I am. I just keep my business and writing lives separated.
I chose the name in honor and memory of David Streger, my father-in-law, and William Hirshberg, my maternal grandfather, both of whom had a major impact on my life.
EV: Is there anything autobiographical about any of your novels?
No. There isn’t one character or scene that has anything to do with me, members of my family or any acquaintances. Actually, it’s very liberating not to have to be constrained by actual people or events. Everything has been made up out of whole cloth. There are, of course, some references to real life events. For example, there’s a scene in My Mother’s Sonthat takes place on June 26, 1963, in West Berlin at the Rathaus Schöneberg (City Hall) in which President Kennedy delivers his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech, but the substance of the scene takes place inside, after the speech, where the narrator, then a member of the U.S. Army, has a brief interaction with the President, all of which is fiction. And in Jacobo’s Rainbow, there are references to the Freedom Summer of 1964 as well as other events of the day. While the scenes in Vietnam are not based on any actual action, they do try to reflect the agonies of the war in a realistic fashion.
EV: Do you have anything else up your sleeve you want to say?
My third novel is called A Bronx Cheer, which is anticipated to be published in late 2022 or early 2023. It’s an historical literary novel set primarily in the 1950s in The Bronx. It’s a modern retelling of the Jacob and Esau story from Genesis. The narrative that propels the story forward concerns the destruction of a neighborhood in the guise of progress. The brothers are estranged, and find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter struggle that pits those in power against the defenseless people of a local community.
I’ve been asked if I have a fourth novel in progress. I don’t. I’ve got some ideas, but since I don’t have a killer opening, I have to wait to begin.
EV: One final question. Do you think you’ll ever retire completely from your business activities?
I used to think I would. But it’s hard to leave an industry that does so much good. I’ve got the best of both worlds: two careers that don’t conflict and keep me energized. What could be better than that?
* Fredric Price is currently Chairman of a private life sciences firm, and previously was CEO of BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, Chiasma, Bioblast Pharma, and Applied Microbiology, as well as Chairman of Bioblast Pharma, Chiasma, BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, Omrix Biopharmaceuticals, Zymenex, and Peptimmune. He also served on the boards of Enobia Pharma and Pharmasset. He has led drug development efforts that resulted in six drug approvals from his C level-suite positions and two others from Board positions. His earlier experience includes having been Vice President of Finance and Administration & CFO of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the founder of the strategy consulting firm RxFDP, and Vice President of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. He is a co-inventor of 18 issued US patents.