The Rumpus Book Club chats with Elizabeth Gonzalez James about her debut novel, Mona at Sea (Santa Fe Writers Project, June 2021), approaching difficult subjects like self-harm with humor, wanting to see more “unabashedly angry” women in literature and life, who she’d cast as Mona and other characters in a film or television adaptation of the book, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Cai Emmons, Maggie Nelson, Wendy J. Fox, Gene Kwak, Christopher Gonzalez, Gabrielle Civil, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book club chat with Elizabeth Gonzalez James about her debut novel, Mona at Sea! I’m so excited to delve into this book.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Hi, everyone! Thanks so much for having me!
Rebecca Sanders: Hey there!
Marisa: Elizabeth, I thought I’d begin by asking when you started writing Mona at Sea, and what the road to its publication was like for you. Is this your first completed novel, or do you have “drawer novel” hidden in your computer files somewhere?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: The road to publication was very long. I started writing Mona at Sea in 2011 after I’d just gone through my own experience of unemployment. I worked on it until 2015, when I got an agent, and the manuscript went on submission. Unfortunately, no one picked it up. The feedback I got from editors was that they thought it was funny and well written but they didn’t know how to market it.
So, I started working on a second novel and put Mona at Sea in a drawer. I’d send it out every now and again to small presses and contests, not expecting anything, and entered it into the SFWP literary awards in 2019. To my shock I was named a finalist and they offered me a publishing contract. When I got the email I thought it was spam, lol. I didn’t believe they wanted this book that I’d given up on.
I’m actually really grateful for things having turned out the way they did. I failed and was still able to keep going. I’m not afraid of failing anymore.
Marisa: That is a long journey! I’m so glad the novel found its right home.
Rebecca Sanders: Please define failing for us. What does that mean to you?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Thank you, Marisa.
When you write a book, the worst thing I think that can happen is that you work on it for years and then no one wants to publish it. That feels like failure. But that happened to me and I was able to push past it. That’s what I mean when I say I failed.
Marisa: You shared in your Rumpus interview with Mary Pauline Lowry that before you knew this would be a novel about unemployment, you knew it would be about cutting.
Can you share with us why you wanted to write about self-harm and how you approached doing so? (I cut from early adolescence into my early twenties, and am not sure I’ve ever seen cutting written in such a clear, straightforward, relatable way.)
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Yes, cutting is a subject that is also close to me and I wanted to deal with it in some way. I have a sick sense of humor and I also wanted to see if I could write something funny about cutting. That’s not to diminish what people go through or make light of a difficult subject, but I think humor lets me get closer to a subject. So, that was the impetus.
Also, I think a lot about women’s anger. I think we’re only barely seeing the tip of the iceberg of that. And, I think in Mona’s case, she was cutting in large part out of anger. I want more women in literature to be unabashedly angry. I want more women in real life to be unabashedly angry. There’s a lot to rage about!
Marisa: Well, hell yes to that (in case it doesn’t go without saying). All of it: using humor to discuss cutting, using humor to get close to difficult subject matter, allowing women to be unabashedly angry… yes, yes, yes!
Is there a particular character who you felt closest to? A character who came to you most easily? And, the opposite: one who was hardest to get on the page?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: I think my favorite character to write was Danny. Mona got the IQ but he got the EQ, and once I understood that dynamic he was very easy to put on the page. Plus, I had a lot of dorky friends in frats in college and I have a soft spot for those guys. They get a lot of negative press but a lot of those guys are just sweet and trying to do their best.
The hardest character for me to get right was Mona’s mom. I was just barely a mom when I started the book, and didn’t really get what her deal was. When I edited the final draft I was nine years into motherhood and I could much better see the internal struggles of her character.
Rebecca Sanders: I related to the use of alcohol to find false bravado. I was cringing all over the place in a good way. So visceral. The date with Skip, and Mona cutting the “V” into the neckline [of her shirt]. I could barely handle it, I was so aware of how true that felt. Only under the influence would anyone ever do that. Why do we do these things? Turn it inward. The anger. But we can’t express it. We are not allowed. Toxic masculinity blows others up. Is there a toxic femininity where we blow ourselves up? Seems so.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Yeah, alcohol is a potent force in my life and in Mona’s. It so often feels like a necessary evil.
Marisa: I was going to ask how much changed between that 2015 manuscript and the finished novel we’ve read—it seems like a lot of “big life moments” have probably occurred for you in the intervening years—if only because of what’s happened in our world, and yes, because become a parent is such a swing in perspective. Did you do a lot of editing once the manuscript was taken by SFWP?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Oh yes, tons of editing. I was a much better writer in 2019 than I was in 2015 so a lot of what changed was just making the story better and less predictable. Making the characters more real, and have more depth.
SFWP paired me with an incredible editor Nicole Catherine Schmidt and this was her first book. She was just out of college; she was twenty-three and she helped me really refine everything and help me see the humanity in everyone. I’m so grateful we got to work together. Plus, I’m old now and she could tell me when I was putting thoughts into Mona or words in her mouth that were too old!
Marisa: You’re a fiction writer (who isn’t really that old!) and in Mona at Sea you tackle internet “fame,” among other millennial concerns, and so I must ask: any thoughts on the latest conversation around “Cat Person and Me”? And/or: thoughts more generally, on what our obligation is when we write fiction that borrows details from our own and others’ real lives?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Oh my God are you dragging me into DISCOURSE?
Marisa: I am!
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Haha, yeah. I read that article with great interest. I will say I’m an unrepentant thief. If you told me a funny story twelve years ago, I will probably remember it and put it into a story. However, I will change the identifying details. I think most stuff is fair game when it comes to art but I’m also sensitive to people not wanting their dirty laundry out in the world.
I also think, though, that no one really believes their story is going to blow up and be in the New Yorker. There is a little bit of anonymity through obscurity. I have to believe no one was more surprised about the success of “Cat Person” than Roupenian herself.
And most importantly, the biggest notes of the story were fiction. The things that were fact were the details like how they met, the age difference. Since that’s the case, I feel like it’s not as invasive. Just my opinion, though, as it’s not me who got dragged into this.
Marisa: This is a very mature and reasonable take. (Which, um, is not necessarily what the Twitter discourse is full of.)
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Haha, thanks.
Marisa: I agree; I think we’re always borrowing from real life, and that yes, of course change identifying details when you can, but also who would expect their short story to go viral. And yes: much easier for us to weigh in when we’re not a part of it.
What does your personal relationship with the internet and social media look like? Have you ever had a “Sad Millenial”-type moment? (Obviously not at that extreme level.)
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter. I work by myself so Twitter is where my coworkers are. It’s my social outlet, sadly. It’s also a garbage fire and I often want to run away screaming. When book promotion is done for me, I’m taking a much-needed social media break for a few months.
And no, I’ve never had a “Sad Millenial” moment thank God! But I’m so scared of going viral. It’s a paranoia of mine.
Marisa: Oh, I totally identify with that! I’ve worked from home for the better part of a decade and so Twitter is where I get to connect with my literary community and is also the high-school hell I never wanted to return to lol. And the fear of going viral is so real! I’m a little too old to be a millenial, and I still feel it.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: There’s a very “mean girls” in-crowd feeling on Twitter a lot of the time. But then, I’m also glad to not be in the in-crowd. When you’re lurking you can just walk away and that’s a glorious feeling when people are on there, losing their minds.
Marisa: Long live the lurkers!
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Yes!
Rebecca Sanders: I’m a grandmother, just turned sixty, and it’s amazing to me how we tolerated the occasion ass grab or body push in the elevator. What I love about #MeToo is that I can finally take the effing bag off my head and breathe. I knew all along what was happening to us was wrong, but I thought we just had to deal.“That’s just the way the world is” mentality, but not anymore. I’m excited to see literary characters like Mona dealing with all that bullshit and seeing what they do! I like how freedom-seekers pave new pathways for folks who don’t quite know what their next step should be. Thank you, Ms. Gonzalez James, for paving pathways for us.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Oh my goodness, thank you! It’s really hard to grapple with ten thousand years of patriarchy. I’ve had a lot of moments over the last few years of finding myself defending this or that and then having to stand back and say, Jesus, why am I defending that? That’s not right. But it’s the soup we all swim in. Recognizing bad behavior is the first step and that’s hard enough. Then, finding the courage to call out bad behavior is next and that’s even harder. This goes back to female anger, like I was saying earlier. I want women to be angry. Gosh, there’s a lot we have to be angry about!
Marisa: Could you imagine Mona at Sea being adapted for film or television? I kept thinking as I read, Wow, this could be a great movie, or miniseries. If you could choose, who would you cast as Mona? And/or: as Danny? Ashley? Duncan? Skip? Paulette? Mona’s parents?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Thank you Marisa! From your lips to God’s ears, as they say!
When I was writing it I was thinking of Aubrey Plaza for Mona, though now she’s a little older than twenty-three. So someone like Aubrey Plaza, with a great resting bitch face and perfect deadpan. And Demián Bichir for Skip—he was in Weeds and The Hateful Eight. He’s super super cute and I’d love to see him dance.
Marisa: Yes! Wow, yes. That is exactly the sort of person I was imagining as Mona. Now that you’ve said it, I sort of wonder if I was imagining Aubrey Plaza.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Before I wrote Mona at Sea, the only writing class I’d ever taken was a screenwriting class, so I think it does have a sort of movie quality to it. I visualize scenes like they’re happening on the screen and then write down what I see, so maybe that’s why it reads like that.
Marisa: That makes sense. Do you still think about screenwriting? Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: I definitely do want to write screenplays but I haven’t started one in ten years.
Yes! I’m revising my second novel right now. It’s a magical realism Western based on my great-grandfather who was a bandido in Texas in the 1800s. I think we’re going on submission with it this fall if I can get the manuscript in shape.
Marisa: Oh! Is that at all related to the short story we published back in 2018? I LOVE that story!
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Thanks, Marisa! It’s not related exactly but yeah, I’ve been reading about and thinking about cowboys and ranchers for five years now working on that book. That story actually was my way to try and make sense of Trump voters. I wanted to see if I could find a way to understand them more.
Rebecca Sanders: I’m interest in the duality in Mona’s character. She’s funny as heck, but she is actually not a nice person and has to get her comeuppance, as we say. Her arrogance around her career and money plus the way she treats her family, plus she trashes her best friend… yet even as somehow we don’t like her behavior, we want her to win. How did you do that? Very crafty.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Thank you, Rebecca. I think she can be unlikable but she is sympathetic. I think that’s the difference. I think the audience realizes the problems she’s up against—cutting, drinking, unemployment, her parents marriage, and her general sort of existential crisis. We can see that she’s being ground down into dust by the universe so she’s not going to be at her best. I think that makes her actions a little more forgivable.
I had a friend make some rude comments to our friend group during the pandemic and one of my other friends wanted to say something. I told my other friend, you know, it’s a pandemic. No one’s at their best right now. I think Mona’s in a similar place.
Rebecca Sanders: Maybe we see the bravado as a cover for her vulnerability, but it’s a big jump to care for the character. Somehow you sprinkled pixie dust in there. Maybe it’s the fact that she is honest with herself and that makes her sympathetic to me. I valued that in her character. Steering our sense of mercy to others and to our characters is a gift. And yes, the pandemic has us all dialing the tension level up a notch… plus all the other craziness of this planet… Gosh.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Yeah I can see that—that’s an interesting point about how her honesty with herself making her more sympathetic. I’m going to think on that some more. You might have hit the magic formula!
Marisa: What were you reading, listening to, watching while writing Mona at Sea? Are there specific authors and/or books you looked to while working on the novel, or feel the novel is particularly in conversation with?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: I realized very recently that the TV show Peep Show (it’s British) was a HUGE influence on the book. Also, Candide—he and Mona are both kind of careening through disaster after disaster searching for the way to live the best life.
I listen to a lot of Japanese pop music from the ’70s and ’80s and Taeko Ohnuki is probably another influence, though in a way that probably only makes sense in my own brain.
This whole album I thought could be a soundtrack to the book, but again, I’m not sure this makes sense to anyone that’s not me:
Rebecca Sanders: I’ll check it out!
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: And finally, a book that probably had a big influence is also American Psycho. I can’t say I recommend it, though I did enjoy it. Mona and Patrick Bateman are both very, very bored.
Marisa: We have just a few minutes left, and I always like to end by asking what you’re reading right now, and/or whether there are any new and forthcoming books you’re especially excited about and want to give a shout out to?
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Yes! I’m reading Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which comes out next month. It’s really good and I’m very excited for it to be out in the world. She wrote Mexican Gothic, which was one of my favorite books I read this year.
Rebecca Sanders: Thanks for the tip!
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Also, The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado—best short story collection of 2021!
Marisa: Velvet Was the Night was not on my radar, so I’m particularly glad to hear about it!
Elizabeth, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve enjoyed spending time with Mona, and the novel, tremendously—I feel a little sad to let these characters go!
Rebecca, thank you for your thoughtful questions and comments, too!
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Thank you so much for having me!
Rebecca Sanders: Thank you, Marisa and Elizabeth. This is a great way to spend an hour. Always inspiring, Marisa.
Elizabeth Gonzalez James: Thank you, Rebecca!
Marisa: This was such a lovely conversation, and I hope you both have a lovely afternoon!
Photograph of Elizabeth Gonzalez James by Nancy Rothstein