Q&A with Alice Schroeder, author of
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
When did you first meet Warren Buffett, and what was your first impression?
His company, Berkshire Hathaway, bought a company whose stock I followed while working as a Wall Street analyst. I sent him a letter asking to bring some clients to Omaha to meet with him. He called me back in person. I was immensely flattered and impressed that someone like him would call me. He came across as down-to-earth and grandfatherly.
Because you were essentially handpicked by Buffett to write his biography, was it ever difficult to remain objective throughout the process?
By the time I started the book I’d known him for five years. My initial awe gave way to curiosity as I began to understand him as a human being. He became a fascinating puzzle that I wanted to solve. Gradually, I realized that writing the book meant putting my relationship with him on the line. Whether your subject will do future interviews with you, how he will react to what you’ve written, whether he or his powerful friends will approve of you afterward — until you accept the worst outcomes to these questions, the relationship is steering the writing. As somebody once put it, you have to write as though both you and your subject are dead. That’s a tall order, but I tried.
What does the title–The Snowball–signify?
The snowball — snowballing — is a common metaphor for compounding. Warren has a saying about success: “Life is like a snowball — all you need is wet snow and a really long hill.” But mostly when we think of something that snowballs, it rolls along by itself. Warren Buffett’s snowball, on the other hand, was created with immense energy and meticulous care.
You spent thousands of hours with Buffett, his associates, friends, and family to gather the information needed to write this book. What was it like to have such unprecedented access to a man who has remained private (at least by today’s celebrity standards)?
One day early on, his assistant, Debbie Bosanek, walked into the office, saying, “Warren, Senator So-and-so is on the phone for you.” “I’ll call him back later,” Warren said. “Alice and I are going out for a milk shake.” That was my introduction to how he prioritizes his time — milk shakes over politicians. Gradually I got used to the routine and faded into the landscape of the office while watching the other awed visitors tiptoe in and out. When we weren’t doing formal interviews I hung around in his office going through files while he read and talked on the phone. I learned a lot through osmosis.
The public has observed one side of Buffett–that of a successful businessman and investor. After glimpsing both his public and private sides, what do you think might surprise readers most about “the Oracle of Omaha”?
He’s wittier and more interesting when he’s not onstage. The book is full of quotes from our conversations, and I think readers are going to enjoy getting to know Warren Buffett, unplugged.
The Snowball is being called both a life story and a “biography of ideas.” Do you expect it to appeal to fans of biographies and business/finance titles equally?
I think The Snowball should be of interest to both audiences, but as I wrote I envisioned telling the story aloud to my best friend from college, a housewife and mother of two who lives in Texas. Warren’s story is filled with life lessons; I hope that readers will finish the book with some ideas they can use in their own lives.
Buffett has always said he will not write a memoir. Do you think he’ll ever change his mind?
Warren has always said that of all the ways he has to invest his time, one of the least rewarding for him would be to write a memoir. For that reason and many others, I don't think he'll ever do it.
What authors and books have influenced your own work?
I started reading, literally, in my crib, and certain writers' voices echo in my head. But for this book, early in the project, Don Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, gave me some important advice. If you don’t do for Buffett what Boswell did in Life of Johnson, he said, it will be a huge loss to posterity. Boswell portrayed not just Samuel Johnson’s story but his life and times and all of the fascinating characters with whom he surrounded himself. I would never pretend to be another Boswell, but with Don’s encouragement The Snowball aspires to capture the traveling carnival of Warren Buffett’s life.
What’s next for you–more books?
First I’d like to go on my honeymoon. I got married in April (to David Moyer, an executive search consultant). Who knows what will happen after that?
Anything else you’d like to add?
It was an honor and a privilege to write this book. Warren’s decision to cooperate with me changed my life in many ways, but especially by allowing me to spend five years contemplating what is really important in life. I will always be grateful for that.
From the Hardcover edition.