I fell hard for Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s writing during my tenure as associate editor of the Idaho Review, when I had the great good fortune to read and publish her funny, weird, iconoclastic, brilliant short story “Children of a Careless God” (reverentially known among Idaho Review staff members as the “cat story”). So, I was overjoyed to hear that James’s debut novel Mona at Sea—selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a finalist in the 2019 SFWP literary awards—would be published by SFWP on June 30, 2021.
But then I got nervous: as a person with a cultish obsession with the “cat story,” what if I found Mona at Sea not to my liking? The galley arrived at my door eight months into the pandemic. With some trepidation, I cracked the book open. As soon as I read the title of the first chapter, I started laughing. Ten pages in and I knew Mona at Sea was going to be exactly the right comic novel for this moment in time—it is sharp, witty, strange, and starts five months after recent college grad Mona lands her dream job in finance, only to see it vaporized by the economic meltdown of 2008. Unemployed and living with her parents, Mona grapples with the rude realization that working hard is not enough to push back the tide of forces beyond her control, and that personal excellence will not necessarily make things go her way. With Mona at Sea, James executes a magic trick, creating a novel with a fundamentally gloomy premise that is an absolute delight to read.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s stories and essays have appeared in The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, [PANK], Barrelhouse, and elsewhere, and have received numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. She is a regular contributor to the Ploughshares blog. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.
I was excited to speak recently with Elizabeth about her debut novel, the real fear of becoming a meme, publishing during a recession, humor, and more.
The Rumpus: As a total fangirl of Mona At Sea, I am eager to hear how you came up with the concept for the novel. How and why did you decide to write about a young woman who is in a tailspin after losing her shot at her dream job?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Before I had the idea to write about unemployment I actually wanted to write something about cutting, or self-mutilation. This title just popped into my head—“Mona the Mutilator”—and I’d originally wanted to write about a young woman who is cutting herself, but is ultimately able to channel that pain into a comic-book alter ego she names Mona the Mutilator. The immediate problem with this setup however, is that I don’t draw at all, and so I pretty quickly scrapped the comic-book plot.
Then I said to myself, I know she’s a cutter. Why is she cutting herself?
She’s cutting herself because she’s angry.
Why is she angry?
She’s angry because she’s unemployed.
Why is she unemployed?
And here’s where I could draw from a lot of personal experience. I went back to school for an MBA in 2007 and graduated in December of 2008, just a few months after Lehman Brothers and Countrywide, and all the others, collapsed. After graduation I started looking for jobs, and I couldn’t get anything. I applied for between three- and four-hundred jobs and couldn’t even get a part-time receptionist job, despite having a graduate degree. I actually started writing because I never did get a job, and writing was something I’d always wanted to try. So, when I settled on the fact that Mona is bitter and in a tailspin because she lost her job during the Great Recession, that was something I could really identify with and write about at length.
Rumpus: One of the things I love best about your writing is your ability to take dark, serious situations and subject matter (like unemployment and cutting!) and make them really very funny. Did you know right away that the tone of Mona At Sea was going to be comedic? And was there a moment in your life (or your writing life) when you realized that you are really freaking funny?
Gonzalez James: I did always have a worry in the back of my head that by the time the book came out we’d be in the middle of another recession, and sadly it looks like that will come true. Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of books about the experience of unemployment, though I hope that changes. We’re all living through the absurdity of late-stage capitalism, and writers are certainly not suffering for lack of source material. Last spring I watched Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas (where I grew up), go on TV and propose letting old people die so we wouldn’t have to shut down the economy—like there weren’t hundreds of other options out there that didn’t involve hurling Granny and Pop Pop off a cliff, Midsommar-style. I’m not sure I’d find that level of villainy convincing if I read it in a book, and yet here we are.
And thank you for thinking I’m funny! External validation is the very air that I breathe, so can I count right now as the moment when I realized I was funny?
I think I always knew the tone of Mona at Sea was going to be sardonic. When I sat down to write, that was what came out, and it felt right. When you’re dealing with really dark material, I think humor makes those topics much more approachable, both as a writer and as a reader. Fleabag is shoot-milk-out-of-your-nose funny, but it’s a show about grief, right? It’s about the main character mourning the death of a close friend, and the way grief forces her to contort herself. Ditto with Rick and Morty, another of my favorite shows. It’s hilarious, but the core of the narrative is Rick’s profound sadness and alienation. There’s nothing funny about cutting, but if I’d tried to write the novel without humor, I’m not sure I would have had much to say about her cutting other than it’s very, very sad. Humor offers different angles on ugly topics, and also lets us poke fun at the things that frighten and horrify us, which takes the sting out of them.
Rumpus: I’m from Texas, too, and my parents are in their late seventies and are still in Texas. I was horrified by the Lieutenant Governor’s suggestion they should be sacrificed for the economy, along with all the other grannies and grandpas of the Lone Star State!
On the subject of things that are horrifying but also funny—in Mona’s worst moment she has an on-camera meltdown that goes wildly viral and lands her the inescapable moniker “Sad Millennial.” It seems everyone she encounters, from people in the grocery store to potential employers, to dates, has seen the video. Can you talk about this millennial fear/potential reality of becoming a meme and why it worked for Mona’s character to be going through that?
Gonzalez James: Yeah, becoming a meme is a real fear. I’ve been on Twitter for twelve years and have seen so many fall. Just yesterday I said to my husband, “Wow, Bean Dad just Milkshake Ducked himself so hard right now,” which, I promise, is a sentence that makes sense, but only if you’ve had your head submerged in that wonderful, toxic swamp for as long as I have.
I’m an elder millennial (hat tip to Iliza Shlesinger), and was in the last generation to graduate college before social media, YouTube, and camera phones became ubiquitous. When I was in my early twenties, I could get drunk and take off my shirt and dance on top of a bar in an old, manky, graying bra and, at the very worst, maybe some rando has a blurry photo of me shoved in a shoebox. Now everyone has to constantly be on guard lest they get filmed and all their frailties go up online to be mocked, magnified, reiterated, and made immortal. At the same time that camera phones have become a powerful tool for holding the wicked accountable, I’m also constantly aware of how quickly a bad day, a misconstrued remark, a momentary lapse of judgement, can come to define a person’s whole life.
As a person who came of age in the first decade of the 2000s, in the golden era of tabloid protagonists (or antagonists) like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, I’ve also had a long fascination with fame and what it does to a person. Paris and Lindsay chose to enter the spotlight, but what does fame feel like when it comes involuntarily, when it strikes like lightning? And getting labeled “Sad Millennial” adds insult to Mona’s injury, as millennials have become a generational punch line, when we’ve done nothing wrong other than inherit a multitude of bad economic and social legacies.
One of the worst things about becoming a meme, I think, is that you become a repository for everyone else’s feelings. You’re objectified; you become public property. And when so much of success today is measured through outward perception, losing authorship of your identity would feel like a kind of death. This isn’t necessarily a modern problem. Certainly Hester Prynne would have a lot to say on the subject. But the scale is new, and I think that’s what frightens me. That you could never be un-memed. David After Dentist could cure cancer and we’d still call him David After Dentist.
Rumpus: Okay, I just went and watched David After Dentist and I have to say I relate to his question, “Is this real life?” which I have asked myself about a hundred times since March 2020, and like a thousand times over the last crazy four years. Also, “What is happening?” and “Is this going to be forever?” are questions that have been ON. MY. MIND.
Back to Mona at Sea: One thing that I find myself searching for in literature more and more lately is a certain strangeness, an acknowledgement of the infinite ways that humans are vulnerable and weird and beautiful. The characters in Mona at Sea positively brim with quirkiness and unique ways of expressing their pain. An example of this is Mona’s bestie, who has had bariatric surgery to lose weight. She finds her thinness unnerving but doesn’t dare gain back the weight and so instead she stuffs her clothes with pillows when she is alone. How did you find this strange and quirky sensibility in your writing? Did it come naturally to you when you first started writing, post-MBA? Or was it something you intentionally cultivated?
Gonzalez James: I’m really not sure where it comes from, other than that I just have weird sensibilities. My favorite place on earth is the Mütter Museum of medical oddities in Philadelphia. Clearly, I’m not a normal person. It makes sense that my characters are weird, too.
When I was a kid in the 1980s in South Texas, it was normal to talk about La Llorona, and demonic possession, and the one time someone’s abuelita saw a ghost when she was taking out the garbage. Octavio Paz famously said that Mexicans are very willing to contemplate horror, and as a Mexican American I’ve absolutely found this to be true. Whether this goes back to marrying pre-Columbian rituals with Catholicism or whether it’s an attempt to exorcise the horrors of colonialism is up for debate, but I’ve always had an affinity for the weird, the grotesque, and the disturbing.
And, I think we’re all weird and grotesque and disturbing, and we spend a ton of energy hiding this fact from everyone. But in literature you get to pull back the covers on people and show off all their weird quirks. Have you ever read those surveys of the most searched-for terms on PornHub? People are out there looking for Toy Story porn and goth grandmas and stuff. I think one of my pleasures as a writer is to just dive straight into those compulsions.
Rumpus: I don’t know what is more horrifying—what La Llorona did to her children or the fact that there is Toy Story porn.
So, I’m always looking for funny novels and I’m wondering what books you would consider influences on Mona at Sea? Mona mentions Ignatius J. Reilly—protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces—a couple of times. And there are a couple scenes—particularly one where Mona is giving her all during a rather inappropriate job interview—that remind me of A Confederacy of Dunces (which I love!). Are there books (like maybe A Confederacy of Dunces and/or others) that you read and thought, “I want to do my version of THAT?”
Gonzalez James: I absolutely love A Confederacy of Dunces, but it wasn’t actually one of the books that I would say was foundational for Mona at Sea. The biggest influence, weirdly, was probably American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. In early drafts, the book was a lot more about boredom and existential ennui, so I read Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, and then all these books on the philosophy of boredom, and one book that kept coming up in these academic discussions of boredom was American Psycho. The surprising thing about that book is how funny it is. The way Ellis describes his vapid Wall Street ghouls is absolutely hilarious. As caustic as Mona is on the page today, she’s way more toned down from where she was originally, owing probably to too close an affinity with Patrick Bateman.
Another great book I read while drafting Mona was Dog of the South by Charles Portis. I took a fiction class with Jim Gavin (author of the incredible short story collection, Middle Men) and he had us read Dog of the South, which is another laugh-out-loud hilarious book. One of my favorite things about Portis in that book is his enthusiastic use of exclamation points. They’re all over the place, and for some reason his jokes land harder because of them.
And then there’s Candide. I read Candide when I was revising Mona and I felt that she, like Candide, was sort of careening through disaster after disaster while people kept handing her these optimistic, Panglossian bits of motivational treacle like, “Just keep going.” “Everything’s going to work out.” And when you’re down in the shit, you don’t want to hear that. Voltaire really appreciated how hollow sentiment is in the face of disaster, and I tried to bring that out in Mona as well.
Rumpus: Looking back on those dark days post-MBA, does it seem inevitable that you would become a writer? Are you glad your life, like Mona’s, took a veer toward the artistic? Or, if you could go back and choose, would you have the finance career you were shooting for in the first place?
Gonzalez James: I don’t know if I’d say it was inevitable that I would become a writer, but it was something I flirted with a lot before I ever had the courage or the opportunity to try. I actually really wanted to write screenplays, and in my early twenties I started drafting a few here and there, but I very quickly realized that I didn’t have anything to write about really. I just hadn’t lived enough. So me going to business school was actually a way to live life a little more.
The fact that I started writing because I couldn’t get a job sounds like things worked out pretty neatly, and maybe it even feels that way in hindsight, but going through it, that time of my life was incredibly chaotic and painful. It felt like I would never get my life together and that I was a complete failure. I’m incredibly grateful that things worked out in the end, and incredibly grateful that I now get to make up stories for a living. It’s the best job in the world. But I’m also aware of how differently things could have turned out, and I don’t take that for granted.
Want to receive your copy of Mona at Sea before it’s available to the general public? We’re featuring the novel as the June selection in our Book Club, and if you subscribe before May 15, you’ll have early access to the book and will be able to participate in an exclusive author conversation with Elizabeth Gonzalez James! – Ed.
Photograph of Elizabeth Gonzalez James by Laurence James.