2021 Debuts author Elizabeth Gonzalez James is living the dream. Her debut novel, Mona at Sea, which launched on June 30, is collecting praise like a numismatist collects coins. So far it has made lists on POPSUGAR, Apple Books, and Harper’s Bazaar, and The Rumpus Book Club selected it as a read for June 2021. And readers are enjoying it too. One Goodreads reviewer called it a “sharp, observant debut novel,” while another wrote, “I love Mona’s snark.” In addition to novel writing, Elizabeth pens essays and short stories, and serves as a developmental editor, helping other writers’ work shine. As always, I’m grateful that a busy author like Elizabeth took the time to chat with me.
Christina: Congratulations on the publication of Mona at Sea! This is your first novel, and it’s sort of a dark comedy about a young woman who goes through a long period of unemployment during the Great Recession. What was your inspiration for writing the book? Is it autobiographical in any way?
Elizabeth: Mona at Sea is absolutely inspired by my own life. I graduated from an MBA program in 2008, just a few months after Lehman Brothers and a number of other high-profile companies went bankrupt. It was probably the worst time to be looking for a job in finance in a generation. And I spent a year looking for jobs and was unable to get anything.
Writing was something I’d always wanted to do but felt that I didn’t have the time for. Being unemployed for that year, while it felt terrible, did finally give me the time to try writing. And when I had the idea for the novel, I knew I wanted to make Mona unemployed because I could really speak to that experience, that desperation, and that feeling like it would go on forever.
Christina: It says in your bio that you also used to work as a waitress, a pollster, and an opera singer. Did your other jobs inform the book as well?
Elizabeth: Somewhat, yeah. When Mona eventually does get a job, it’s at a call center where she robo-dials strangers and tries to raise money for these small, obscure causes, and that was absolutely inspired by my days as a pollster. I was a college student, on any given night I probably had a hangover, and yet I had to put on this bright personality and get people to tell me what they thought about local politics. It felt a lot like acting. In the book there’s this obnoxious yellow smiley face that bounces up and down on the screen while Mona’s on the phone, reminding her to smile. I never had it that bad, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that actually exists.
And singing opera was actually my first job. When I was in high school, I worked weekends at Macaroni Grill, and about three or four times a night I’d climb up on a counter in the middle of the restaurant and sing Verdi and Mozart and whatever else. It was a lot of fun, but there’s a lot to poke fun at when you’re dealing with these highly systematized corporate chain restaurants, and I got to do that a little in the book as well.
Christina: Since this is your first novel, I’d love to know what you learned along the way, either about writing or about yourself?
Elizabeth: Oh my goodness, I learned so much! For starters I learned how to write a book. I’d taken a couple of writing classes here and there, but I’m mostly self-taught, and so a lot of the learning process for me was just learning how to put a novel together: the plot, character development, subtext, tension, the hero’s journey, all of it.
In the first few drafts of the book I started with about a hundred pages of backstory, which were very entertaining for me to write, but I ultimately had to throw them all out because they had nothing to do with the story I was trying to write. So I also had to learn how to train my eye to see what belonged in the book and what didn’t.
And then, just as important as learning how to write and edit, I also had to learn to have confidence in my abilities. That’s sort of something I learned about writing the book, but also something I learned about myself. I learned that I could write, that I could learn and grow, and that my voice was just as deserving of being heard as anyone else. And that confidence has served me just as well as developing my writing skills.
Christina: Is there anything you wish you had done differently in the novel or in your process of writing it?
Elizabeth: Dangerous question. I love that old saw: “Books are never finished; they’re only abandoned.” Because this is my first book, I struggled with it immensely. And then it had a really hard time finding a publisher. I got close at a bunch of places but things just didn’t work out for one reason or another. So there were many times I gave up on it, or times I thought about chucking everything and rewriting it from scratch. If I could draw, I think I would have tried to make it into a graphic novel, for instance.
I wish the process had been easier. I wish I had known more about writing when I started writing it. I would have saved myself a lot of agony. But then I also believe that I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did, or grown as much as I grew, so ultimately I think all the struggle was worth it. It was the best education I could have received.
Christina: What does literary success look like to you?
Elizabeth: It’s funny you ask that because my husband and kids and I were just talking about success the other night at dinner. I asked my ten-year-old what she thought success was and she said it was when you do the thing you set out to do. And I thought that was a great definition, so I’ll just stick with that. If I can write the book I set out to write, saying all the things I set out to say, then that’s success in my mind. Then I can look back at my work and be proud.
Thanks to Elizabeth for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.