Monday, July 19, 2021

Elizabeth Gonzalez James Interview - Mona at Sea

Photo Credit: Nancy Rothstein

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, StorySouth, PANK, and elsewhere, and have received numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. She’s an alum of Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Tin House Writers Workshop, and Lit Camp. In 2021 she is a regular contributor to Ploughshares Blog. Her first novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, June 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.

Can you tell us when you started MONA AT SEA, how that came about?
I started Mona at Sea in 2011 when I found myself sort of unexpectedly staying at home taking care of my newborn daughter. I’d just gone through more than a year of unemployment after getting an MBA, and this book was my attempt to process the anger and frustration I felt about that experience, as well as a way to maintain my sanity while staying at home full-time with a baby.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I hope that they laugh and that they feel for Mona as she goes through her many struggles. I don’t expect readers to always agree with what Mona says and does, but I do hope that they will feel sympathy for her, especially when she can’t feel it for herself.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I would love Mona to meet Roxy from Mary Pauline Lowry’s The Roxy Letters. Roxy is similarly hilarious and outspoken and prone to having a little too much fun. I think our characters would be fast friends.

What was the first job you had?
My first job was singing opera at Macaroni Grill, an experience I draw from in the chapter of Mona where she goes to an upmarket Italian chain restaurant and makes a scene. It was a really fun and unique job, and one I wouldn’t mind going back to, honestly.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
The most foundational experience of my life was my experience of unemployment in 2009. It not only altered the course of my entire life, and not only inspired this novel, but it also made me see the world completely differently. After that experience I realized what a large role luck plays in our lives. I saw how profoundly inequitable the job market is in the US. I saw how unable and unwilling the US government is to regulate Wall Street. It completely reformed my world view and opened my eyes to the many falsehoods at the heart of capitalism. It felt a little like Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
Storytelling is hard-wired into our brains so that we can make sense of ourselves and our history, as well as make sense of the events that happen around us. Storytelling is foundational to our society, our culture, our country. We’ve seen the violence that takes place when our country’s foundational myths are challenged. Storytelling is at the root of all of this.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
I’ve been so lucky to have published at a time when I can have in-person events, and this has bene really wonderful. Releasing a book in person and being surrounded by friends and family is so, so special. It’s been magical.

What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
I am currently revising my second novel, a magical realism western based on the life of my great-grandfather who was a bandido.

  • 1. Truly my story is the saddest of them all.
  • 2. Already calling it the Great Recession is a little presumptuous if you ask me. It could certainly get greater.
  • 3. If I’d been allowed to fail at something when I was a kid maybe I would have learned how to do it better. I don’t need to learn how to swim. I need to learn how to drown.
  • 4. Is there something addictive about achievement? Once you’ve summited Mount Everest, does everywhere else seem flat?
  • 5. They owned one percent of the world’s total wealth. They weren’t a company; they were a goddamn economic system.
  • 6. And now that I think of it, dating is like a job search, isn’t it? There’s a ritual entreaty, a seduction, a mating dance, a presentation of the old gaudy feathers or engorged buttocks or whatever you consider your greatest personal attribute, and then, if you’re lucky and the other party is aroused, consummation.
  • 7. But what do people talk about on dates? War crimes are on the rise in the Sudan, the Euro is crashing, horse starvation rates are through the roof—I can think of a dozen things to talk about but none seem conducive to getting him to tongue kiss me.
  • 8. I actually think carelessness is what most people in America strive for. It’s the terminal point of freedom.
  • 9. Optimism is a cheap sentiment—it’s the only opinion we’re never allowed to question.
  • 10. I always struggled in my economics classes to get past the fundamental assumption that people have rational preferences. That always seemed like crap to me. A lot of the time people have highly irrational preferences for perfectly rational reasons. Maybe honoring sunk costs is the right thing to do sometimes. Maybe irrational belief in the future is one of the best things about being human.
Your journey to publication
As I hinted above, my journey to publication was very long and winding. I started writing Mona at Sea in 2011, and finished it in 2015. I got an agent and we went on submission, and sadly, no editors picked up the book. The feedback I got was that the book was hilarious, but they didn’t know how to market it. I wasn’t defeated, however. I was also told that all the editors said they wanted to see another book by me, and so I got right to work and wrote a second novel. Mona went into a drawer…for the most part. I would occasionally send it out to small presses and contests, not expecting anything. In 2019 I entered it into the SFWP Literary Awards and to my complete shock I was named a finalist and they offered me a publishing contract. I signed and they paired me with an incredible editor, and we spent the next year or so getting the book ready for publication.

Looking back over all that it took to get Mona out into the world, I am very thankful that things happened the way they did. The worst thing that can happen to an author is that they write a book and no one publishes it. Well, that happened to me. I tried and I failed. And I wasn’t defeated. I wrote another book, I improved my writing, I started writing shorter things and getting those published. Failing to get the book published was actually a huge gift because I was able to learn that I can push past failure. I learned I can persevere. I am strong. I can do anything.

In this sharp, witty debut, Elizabeth Gonzalez James introduces us to Mona Mireles — observant to a fault, unflinching in her opinions, and uncompromisingly confident in her professional abilities. Mona is a Millennial perfectionist who fails upwards in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis.

Despite her potential, and her top- of-her-class college degree, Mona finds herself unemployed, living with her parents, and adrift in life and love. Mona’s the sort who says exactly the right thing at absolutely the wrong moments, seeing the world through a cynic’s eyes. In the financial and social malaise of the early 2000s, Mona walks a knife’s edge as she faces down unemployment, underemployment, the complexities of adult relationships, and the downward spiral of her parents’ shattering marriage. The more Mona craves perfection and order, the more she is forced to see that it is never attainable. Mona’s journey asks the question: When we find what gives our life meaning, will we be ready for it?

You can purchase Mona at Sea at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you ELIZABETH GONZALEZ JAMES for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James.