Zibby is joined by Academy Award-winning screenwriter and bestselling author Graham Moore to discuss THE WEALTH OF SHADOWS, a thrilling, mind-expanding historical novel about an ordinary man—a tax attorney from Minnesota—who joins a secret mission to undermine the Nazi economy during WWII. Graham explains how he discovered this true story and delves into his extensive, fascinating research process, which included unearthing a hidden 700-page document from the US Treasury and meeting Ansel’s children. The interview also touches on the importance of accurate historical representation and making esoteric topics engaging for readers.


Zibby: Welcome, Graham. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss The Wealth of Shadows. Congratulations. 

Graham: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much for chatting with me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Um, I posted about your book this morning, actually, although this will come out later this episode. Um, I am so taken with your story. I've been a fan of yours for a long time, um, after reading your last book and, you know, my brother Teddy who produced The Imitation Game and everything. So I've been sort of following you from afar and your Just so good.

You're just such a great writer and anyway. 

Graham: Oh, that's, that's so kind of you. Don't, don't tell your brother that, that you think that. He'll, he'll, he'll tell it to me and it'll get in my head and I'll blush and it'll be way too much. So it'll, it'll be our secret, but those are kind words and I appreciate it.

Zibby: Okay. No problem. Um, can you tell listeners what The Wealth of Shadows is about and also how you decided to write this book? 

Graham: Sure. The Wealth of Shadows is based on a true story about a man named Ansel Luxford, who basically, no one has ever heard of, which is part of why I wanted to write this book about him.

Um, in 1939, as the war in Europe broke out, and the U. S. was kind of assiduously neutral in this matter of European conflict, Ansel Luxford was a tax attorney in St. Paul, Minnesota, who, felt that the United States was sort of profoundly not taking the Nazi threat seriously enough. and, but he was a tax attorney.

What could he do? Well, what he did was he ended up joining a clandestine team of economists at the U. S. Treasury Department who were tasked with this top secret mission to crash the Nazi economy. He was sort of a wild tale of this very ordinary guy who sort of found himself deep in a world of espionage and skullduggery, um, in the dawning days of the second world war.

Um, and when I found the story, I couldn't believe I'd never heard it before. I mean, I'd sort of started reading about the economic history of the war, and honestly, I sort of found this guy because I was flipping through kind of various books about I was really interested in the economic warfare between the Americans and Germans in World War II.

I felt that was something that I hadn't really read about before. This kind of, like a shadow war underneath the sort of war of armies and the airplanes and tanks and bullets we've all kind of heard about. And I just kept reading about this one guy who just kept showing up at these meetings. It was like, I'd read these meeting minutes.

And here was Ansel Luxford in a meeting with the president. Here was Ansel Luxford in a meeting in London. Here was Ansel Luxford at a conference in Havana. And I kept going, who is this person? Where, what's his story? Have I never heard of him before? So I started digging. No obituaries had ever been published about him.

No one seemed to have written about him at all. And after a few months, I finally found him. found his children, um, all three of whom are still with us today. And I remember finding his daughter and she, I got her on the phone and she said, I explained who I was and what I wanted to do. And I think at first she thought I was a scammer or something like I was trying to get credit card numbers out of her because he here.

Oh, I'm a Novelist and filmmaker from Los Angeles and I want to write this thing about your father and she was sort of going Yeah, this sounds shady. I don't know. I had to like send her photos of me to prove no no No, this is me. And these are my books that I really am this person and then she kind of said Oh, wait, I understand.

So you want to write a book about my father, but no one's ever heard of him. And I said, yes, that's why I want to write a book about your father. And then I found my way to, she, she put me in touch with her brothers and Ansel Luxford's youngest child is a, he's a sheep herder in rural Montana. It took me months to get him on the phone. He lives off the grid. You can only connect him via satellite phone. It was, as you might imagine, a whole experience to get him on the line. You know, the satellite phone only connects at certain times. I had to call, like once a week, there's a window where you can get him. I finally got him. I was so excited to speak to him and I get him on the line and he says, Oh, my sister told me you'd be calling.

She said, you want to, you might want to read a novel about my father. And I said, yeah, I think I do. And he said, You know, I've been waiting for this phone call my whole life. Is this about how my dad was secretly a spy? And I paused for a long moment, and I think I said, Well, it is now, so let's, let's talk about it.

And that's where I think the story that I found of Ansel Luxford got, got even stranger and more interesting. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh. Wow. And what about the other kids? 

Graham: Yeah. They were, um, they were great. It was, it was great. I mean, it's, it's strange, right? To interview children and say, Hey, I'm gonna, I'm gonna write. a novel based on the life of your father and it's about your mother and about, you know, their relationship and their marriage is a big part of the book.

And, you know, obviously anyone is a little weirded out to talk to someone and say, so you're writing a novel about my parents marriage. I don't, how do I feel about this? Like, what am I going to talk about? But they were, they were great. They've been so supportive. You know, it was interesting hearing debates among the children about whether, was dad really a spy?

How much of a spy was dad? You know, they have different, like all families, they debate the history, right? And they, they have different views. And one of the kids says, Oh no, he wasn't, he, he wasn't a spy. He just, yeah, he kept taking all these business trips to Cairo in the early fifties, but no, he was just a tax lawyer.

And you're kind of going, Yeah, that's not a, that's not a tax lawyer thing in 1951. But it was amazing to hear their stories and hear where they'd agree and then disagree. And I will, I will confess that I was never more nervous to show the book to anyone than to the children when I was, when I was finished and sort of sending them this novel and saying, here's, here's a, here's a novel, here's a piece of historical fiction I've written very much based on the lives of your father and mother.

And I will say my most gratifying moment on finishing the book came when his daughter read it and she called me and said, What did she say? She said, I will confess, it was a little weird for me at first to read a novel about my parents marriage. But I love it and you really capture them and I'm so supportive of this and it was really it meant the world to me to hear that they've been so supportive of the book.

Zibby: Oh, that's amazing. Well, the book does have such strong characters, right? So you, like in any novel, you feel very invested and your emotions are tied up with them and you're rooting for them and rooting against them and all the things. But you also have So much interesting backstory, and I am not someone who is particularly interested in economics.

I took it once, and I went to business school, so I had to take some classes, but this is not something that, like, I would choose to necessarily read about, but you've made it so interesting, almost like how you describe what economics is. Ansel's ability to, like, turn his number charts into, you know, beautiful narratives or whatever, however you described it.

But some of the things that were going on between Germany and the other countries from South America to the U. S. to everywhere and everywhere. The shadow currency and the secret bank accounts in, of the German Jews in the U. S. And, like, all of these things, like, have blown my mind and that I did not realize were going on.

And I don't know if maybe other, maybe I just wasn't paying attention, but I feel like this is part of the narrative that It's definitely not, and maybe that's what you were referring to, but not in the popular vernacular of how another way that Jews were sort of stripped of their rights and things. I don't know.

Tell me about how you discovered all this and what you knew, what you didn't know. 

Graham: Yeah, I'm glad to hear you say all of that because, honestly, I knew none of this history going into it either. This is all new information to me and you, per the description you just gave, I mean you have more of a background in economics than I did going into this.

I never took an economics class in college, I just had nothing, um, which is part of why I was interested in writing this. I think I keep sort of choosing these books. big topics that I know nothing about so that I get to spend a bunch of time learning about them. You know, going into the imitation game, I knew very little about mathematics, so I had to learn a bunch.

Uh, going into this, I knew very little about economics. So, so that was really fascinating. It was, uh, obviously a little bit daunting to get my head around a lot of it. And I think there was a, there was a long research process. Process sort of learning the economic history of the war and as you were and I think in as you were saying the So, so much of it was sort of a, a narrative of the war that I'd never heard before, especially the period between 1939 and 1941.

You know, I'm, I'm American, you're American. I think as Americans, we are, we're sort of used to talking about World War I as this thing, or I, at least I'm used to talking about World War I or World War II is this thing that started in December of 1941 with Pearl Harbor and. You know, what the book is mostly about is the period, the years before that, where the war in Europe was going on and the American government was saying, we're not picking sides.

I mean, I, I didn't even know before getting into the book that the U. S. had passed a sort of this neutrality law saying that the U. S. government is. In as late as 39, including after the invasion of Poland, the US had this law saying we, the federal government is not picking sides between Nazi Germany and Britain.

We are not picking sides between Nazi Germany and France. I didn't even know that was the case before getting into the research process in the book. And that seems sort of wild to me. And that was part of why this unit of economists At Treasury, you had to be so secretive because what they were doing was very much illegal.

They said, yes, we're officially neutral, but no, we're not doing that. And this threat is real and it's serious. And if we don't get involved now, we're certainly going to have to get involved later. So, but we're economists. So what can we do? Well, what we can do is hit the Germans in their wallets and try and really invent the concept of economic warfare.

I mean, I think the sort of economic warfare that they invented was something that hadn't really existed prior. So, so it was a great, it was a great process for me to sort of learn all of that. I think in some ways then, as you were talking about to go, you have to go write a book about it. You have to sort of explain some of these complicated concepts to readers.

I think I guess I would say that I think readers are so much savvier than we often give audiences credit for being. Like, I really believe that readers are at least as smart as I am and can figure out, If I can come to understand these concepts, so can my readers. If someone as dumb as me can figure it out, I'm sure they'll be able to get their heads around it.

That's It's, it's deeply what I believe. And in some ways, when I'm, when I'm kind of trying to get the readers inside the minds of these characters, Ansel and the other economists on his team, you know, I'm, what I've always found is you can describe things. If the thing I'm describing is terribly important to the characters in the scenes, they'll become terribly important to the readers.

Like, yes, some, some bit of, kind of, I don't know, an arcane bit of how the German bond system worked might seem kind of esoteric and, and inessential, but To these characters, to Ansel Luxford and his teammates, this is the most important thing in the world, and the fate of human civilization hangs on this quirk of the German bond market.

So there is nothing in the world more important to these characters than this. point of economics. So when they're arguing about it, they're really arguing about it. And I think that kind of emotional weigh in really helps me sort of get first my head into some of these complicated concepts. And then I think the reader's heads into them as well.

And honestly, because there's such a long research process, there was such a long research process for this book. When I'm, when I'm describing these things, you know, when I'm writing a year or two after having done this research, I'm always kind of telling myself, Okay, how would I describe this to myself a year ago?

Like, to me, a year ago, who knew none of this? What's a description that I would have understood well enough to get the gist of this while, while continuing to, to move along? And then I will, I will say, you know, towards the latter stage of the book, finishing it, I had kind of three preeminent economists come in and read drafts and help correct some errors and that was very nerve wracking for me because I felt like I was a naughty student getting called into the principal's office and they were going to correct my term papers and make mistakes and I was very flattered that frankly all three of them kind of said it.

This is shockingly accurate. This is so much more accurate than I expected it to be. And there were bits in here that I didn't even know. And that made me feel like I'd done my research pretty thoroughly and had, had figured out a way to communicate these complicated concepts in a way that was both accurate and, and had like emotional valence.

Like you're getting it through the characters. Not, not just sort of, it's not just a history lesson. So it's, it's. It's this period of American history as rendered through these people and the things that are on their minds. 

Zibby: Well, to that point, there are a couple times when one of the characters is describing something to someone else, like when they were describing the system to Moynihan or something and, and I could see, and you're like, And then White says something like, no, make it simpler, like, and I'm like, did Graham Moore know that this was sounding a little confusing?

And so he decided to like insert this so that he would make it more clear in the next paragraph or what? 

Graham: Yes. I know exactly what you're talking about. Yes. That was very much the point of that section. And we've had in, you know, Morgenthau, who was the treasury secretary at the time, and he was, he was the treasury secretary.

He was Jewish. He was the only Jewish cabinet member. That becomes sort of a point in the book. 

Zibby: Sorry, did I say the wrong name? I think I'm sorry. Morgan. 

Graham: No, no, it's fine. Sorry. No, it's fine. So he had, this was interesting to me as well that Morgenthau had as much of an economic background as I did when he became the treasury secretary.

He had no background in economics whatsoever. He was just really good friends with the president. And I, nowadays I think we expect our cabinet secretaries to be somewhat more, I don't know, qualified or educated than was the norm in the 1930s. But, so, when I realized how little background the Treasury Secretary had, it actually ended up being really helpful.

Because there's, there's the scene you're talking about where Ansel Luxford, our lead character from whom, from whose perspective we're getting this whole story, is sort of led into Morgenthau's office and told, okay, you have to explain this really complicated concept to the Treasury Secretary. And basically, if you don't do it, you're fired, like your job is on the line here.

And so he's struggling to explain it in a simple way, and Morgenthau keeps not quite getting it and sort of as you're saying, like, wait, sorry, that was simpler, simpler. And so yeah, that ended up being a great technique for, for getting information to an audience in a, in a really like organic way. And it's always helpful when you have characters who genuinely wouldn't know some of this.

So someone needs to go explain it to them to sort of, get their heads around it. But also someone really smart, like Morgenthau is a smart, he's asking smart questions about, wait, I don't go back because that didn't actually quite make sense to me. What's the point? Like he's a, he's a smart questioner and sort of probing Ansel into giving an even more distinct and also compelling answer.

explanation of this point of economics. 

Zibby: And funny too. And he's like, yeah, you think there are a lot of pork farmers and a lot of Jewish pork farmers out there? And he's like, oh, he's funny. 

Graham: He is. But yeah, he tries to go, Morgenthau was a really fun character, right? It's fun. And some of this story was really true.

I mean, I think I was really interested in this idea that this team at treasury basically went to Morgenthau, the treasury secretary, he was the only Jewish cabinet secretary, He was very aware of that, and this becomes a point in the book where he's basically saying, more than other cabinet secretaries, I can't be seen to do anything to stop the Germans because I'm the only Jewish one.

And if I'm the one who's doing this, it's going to seem like I'm biased or something. But this seems, from my research, very much the case. This team basically went to Morgenthau and said, hey, we know we have to be neutral. We know it's, The law is we have to be neutral here, but that's not what we're going to do.

And we're going to go do this thing. And you really want us to stop and Morgenthau basically went to the president and said, this is going to happen. You and I don't know about it and Both the President basically said hands over my ears Nah, nah, nah. I didn't hear that. Let's pretend this never happened as long as it doesn't show up in the newspapers We never know any of this and what they do, what this group of people does is what this group of people does is gonna do and I think that's pretty pretty remarkable But they had the good sense to pretend not to know what was really going on.

Zibby: So you, you give us a glimpse into your process through the notes, which I found really entertaining in and of themselves. And I'm like, when is the last time I read notes? But the way you wrote the notes, it's like part of the book almost like a coda. And in some of them you have to, you explain why you move timelines and this and that, and then you were describing, someone's marriage. I think it, whose marriage was it? Anyway, somebody. 

Graham: Maybe John Maynard Keynes. 

Zibby: Yeah. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And, and even like, he liked men, but he was in love with his wife, but this, and then you were like, whatever, like people are complicated. I was like, that's really funny. You know what I mean?

Like that, you don't usually find that in the notes section. So the way you clearly have such a grasp on all the things enough to like really sort of massage details and timelines and everything. I can't even imagine. Like, the note, like, how did you accomplish this? Did you have stuff everywhere? Like, is this a visual thing for you?

Like, where, how did you do this? Or were you just moving things around in documents? 

Graham: It's a really good question. And yeah, I think one of the, one of the techniques I use a lot in sort of historical fiction is kind of timeline reworking a little bit, sort of to re narrativize, moving things around a little bit, simplifying timelines, something that takes place, something in the real world was like, three meetings just turns into one meeting or one scene for the purpose of the novel.

And so, yeah, so for a lot of that and for sort of figuring out, the first question in the process is always, all right, so what's the real history? Let's try and really drill down on what really happened. And with something like this, what do we know happened? And then what are we just not sure about?

Because for a story like this, so much of it was secret. There's just so much, there's just so much we don't know. You know, there's so much that, that we don't have records for. And with this, what actually happened was, as I think I say in the author's note at the end of the, at the end of the book, I was doing this research and I found this wonderful scholar at the U. S. Holocaust Museum. And she, I didn't even realize that they had these kind of resident scholars who are just sort of around to do research and help out. They have no teaching responsibilities. They have no, um, publishing responsibilities. there to they do some research and I got her on the phone and said hey this is what I'm interested in and I think she's written she'd written some things that are kind of a bit related to this group at treasury and she said oh great yeah sure happy to help you actually I found this box in the basement of the treasury department a couple years ago, and this box had the only copy of a typed up history of this secret unit at treasury written by them.

They wrote this little history of what they'd done just for themselves as a sort of, we don't know if anyone's going to read this. We don't know if anyone's going to care. We don't know if we're going to win the war and any of us are going to be alive, you know, to enjoy. this little history years from now, but this is what happened.

And they kind of wrote this and stuffed it into a box in the basement of the treasury. And it was 700 pages long. And she sort of, I'm on the phone with her and she's telling me, Oh yes, I found this box that's like written by the characters in your book. And it's their history from their perspective of what really happened.

And no one's ever digitized it. There's just one copy sitting in the basement of the treasury, but she says, her name was Rebecca Erbolding, the scholar. She's wonderful. Rebecca said, Oh, but I took my cell phone and I snapped photographs of every page. Do you want me to, do you want me to send you the cell phone photos?

And I said, yes, Rebecca, I do. And so, the next day, 700 cell phone snapshots of individual pages of his history show up. And that was amazing, because that was something, to my knowledge, no one else has ever seen these pages. They're just, they're like sitting on my phone right now, um, because they're just these, because they're just these cell phone photos, right?

They're like next to the pictures of my kids in a folder on my cell phone.

So going through that was really helpful because you're getting, okay, this is what happened according to them. But even, I mean, there's so much kind of espionage going on. Even some of that, I don't think they were being totally honest because we, I was working with one of my research assistants and we were kind of going through this one section where they're saying, Oh, it was actually the bit that you were talking about a minute ago about sort of how the secret method by which the Nazis were confiscating the bank accounts of Jews around the world.

Zibby: Yeah. 

Graham: And. It just says, there's something in the text, I'm probably going to mangle the language somewhat, but it says in, in their history that they wrote, it says, well, information came to us that this was happening. So we decided to go and do X, Y, and Z. And I remember reading that and going, information came to you.

What is this? What does that mean? That sounds like espionage to me. Um, and so even, even in this history, they're not being totally honest about what they're really doing and where they're really learning things and how they're really learning things. So I think in putting everything together, you know, we, we tried to make these really, really detailed charts and timelines and sort of day to day timelines of what was really going on, getting as many photographs as possible.

I really love the photographs of all the scenes of all the. Where they were the offices, the furniture store where they end up moving in to build their offices and then sort of saying, okay, what do we want to fix? Focus on narratively, what can we kind of, what can we kind of condense so that the things we can smush together for simplicity sake, you know, and I read the book was so I think something that unites this book with frankly, all my previous ones is I'm really interested in perspective, like the books that he's really, really precisely delineated perspectives.

They're from one person's perspective. This book is from Ansel Oxford's perspective. It's, it's a close third person, third person narration. He is, we are, it's sort of inside his head, the entire book. And we never see anything he doesn't see. We never learn anything. We don't, he doesn't know. We never hear anything he doesn't hear.

And so in, in a way, a guide is sort of wrestling the history down into something understandable and something kind of traumatizable is okay. Well, what was his experience of it? Like, what was he there for? What were the events that were important to him? What were the bits, you know, there's a bit in the book about the first time he's getting on a military plane to go to Havana for a sort of the secret conference that he has sort of a secret agenda at and you're like, oh, right You know, from his perspective, three months ago, this guy was a tax attorney in St.

Paul, Minnesota. And now he's on this military plane going to a secret conference with a secret agenda that he's trying to enact. That must have felt insane to him. So that's going to be a big point in the book that had like that must have just felt. So if you my, the goal is always kind of looking at from a place of like what, from a place of feeling, like what would feel the most important to him.

And let's focus on those bits. 

Zibby: And he had never even left the country, although they were explaining it was a technicality, but still. 

Graham: Yeah. No, I was trying to find a team. Like he hadn't left the country before that. I mean, it seems so amazing, right? He was just this really normal guy. Um, I think that was part of the bottom, but frankly for me, like the autobiographical part of the book that I was feeling like this kind of middle aged dad in sort of like a happy, comfortable place in my career.

But going, you know, what, imagining, okay, if the end of the world, if this was 1939, if it felt like the end of the world was happening around me, what would I be able to do about it? Because I think Ansel Luxford very much felt the same way. I think it felt to him like the world was ending, and as a tax attorney, what could he do about it?

Zibby: Yeah, I was just going to say, it actually does. I mean, as this book is coming out and Ansel, you know, in your opening scene, he's looking at the march out the window of the, of the trolley and it's going, now we're in a time where there are marches like this all the time, again, like it's all happening again.

And your book like couldn't be better timed. I mean, you know, yay for book marketing and timing and all of that, who would have known? But it's terrifying. You know, it's terrifying. And I, I hope. I'd like to think that there is a group of, lots of groups of people working on trying to solve these bigger problems that we just don't know about.

So I'm hoping that that is occurring, but who knows? 

Graham: From your lips to God's ears. Yeah. One, one hopes. It is, it is funny. I mean, I started the book, gosh, in early 2020. And so a lot of these sort of things hadn't, the things in on the front pages of newspapers say just hadn't happened yet. And so it was, it almost came as grim sort of joke because we were working on it where, you know, the invasion of Ukraine happens.

And then, you know, I'm on the phone with my editor and we're kind of going, Oh gosh, we, she even made a joke. Like, are you, were you trying to be this topical? And I was kind of going, no, I really didn't think this was topical at all. And then here we are. But I think that maybe that was one of the things that was also interesting to me is that these questions are not questions we ever would Like, the questions, the moral questions facing people in 1939 are not moral questions that have left us.

They're moral questions that confront all of us still and will confront all of us a hundred years from now in, in different forms. And I think. That's, I think it's something I like about historical fiction is that I get to write about 1939 but excise all of my own anxieties and fears and thoughts about 2024.

Zibby: And that is nice. Hopefully this is not in the same way, like a preamble to the future. a giant war, but we'll see what happens. 

Graham: Let's hope we don't quite get there. Yeah. 

Zibby: Well, we'll just keep reading your book and, you know, see what happens next in our world. I know we have to go now, but I just want like a quick thing.

What was it like to win an Academy Award? Like, was that just amazing to go on stage? Like just what was that moment like for you? 

Graham: Oh, uh, it was great. It was such a delight. It's funny. It was, Look, it was wonderful. I, I think it's funny. I think sometimes people, friends of mine will ask me that question and will expect me to reveal some kind of like dark underbelly of, oh, you know, be careful what you wish for.

No, don't be careful what you wish for. It was great. It was so much fun. My mom was my date. We got to go to all the parties afterwards. I have a photograph that remains on my phone of my mother at three in the morning that night in her gown in my hotel room. Like, she's sitting on the floor of my hotel room eating popcorn and just staring at the gold trophy in her hands.

And the fact that my mom was up at three in the morning tells you all you need to know about, about what that night must've been like for us. Um, no, but it was this tremendous thing. and I think while unexpected, it was, it was sort of gratifying and fun. And it was a good, both a lovely moment, frankly, for everyone on that film.

I think we all got to sort of celebrate it together. I think, as your brother knows, like, we made it sort of quickly and it was all very, like, carried and we were sort of, everyone was doing their best and we didn't have a lot of time to sort of, while we were making it, we didn't have a lot of time to, like, sit back and relax and have a glass of wine together and, you know, tell stories and get to know each other.

We were all sort of work, work, work, work, and so then kind of getting to go to the Academy Awards together and getting to celebrate together, It felt for the team as if, like, Oh, okay, we can finally get to enjoy each other as human beings for a little bit. And we like each other very much. But no, it was, I think the, that trophy itself remains something that was a good, a good confidence booster for me of sort of, you know, Like pick, pick the stories that I really care about, go write those stories, and hopefully there will be people out there who are as entranced by these tales as much as I am.

Zibby: Amazing. Well, I have a million more questions, but if I ever try to steal someone's iPhone to check out their photos. It will clearly be yours is basically what I'm taking away from this conversation. Anyway, congratulations. Thank you so much. And yeah, best of luck with everything. 

Graham: Thanks. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Okay. Take care. Bye bye. 

Graham: Bye bye. 


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