Meet Elizabeth Gonzalez James, Author of Mona at Sea

Mona Mireles, the prematurely bitter and grumpy protagonist of Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ debut novel Mona at Sea, graduates from college with her dream job at an investment back all lined up. Her hard work has paid off. She’s crossed that major task off her to-do list, which is all an over-achieving control freak could ever want. Then the poop hits the fan.

It’s 2008, and the bank goes belly up. Instead of corporate finance nirvana, Mona lands in her old room at her parents’ house in Tucson, “watching the sun wash across the stucco.” If that weren’t bad enough, a video of her whining (then sobbing) about life’s injustices goes viral and turns her into Sad Millennial, the meme that wouldn’t die. Did I mention she’s also cutting a reproduction of the Mona Lisa into the soft flesh of her thigh with a razor blade?

Until now, Gonzalez James has been best known for her extraordinary short stories. “Children of a Careless God,” published in The Idaho Review, about an apartment-full of cats figuring out what to do with their dead human, is a stunner, as twisted as it is hilarious. Her other stories and essays have appeared in such publications as The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, and the Ploughshares blog, and have received numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. She got a publishing contract with Santa Fe Writing Project after Mona at Sea became a finalist in their 2019 literary awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado. The book was included in Most Anticipated of 2021 by The Rumpus and The Millions, among others, and Summer’s Most Anticipated by Apple Books.

When Gonzalez James and I spoke over Zoom, I mentioned the cow skull hanging on the wall behind her. “It’s practically illegal not to have an animal skull on your wall if you’re from Texas,” the Texas-born author quipped—and later texted me a picture of the skull wearing a Santa hat. That’s how she rolls. Gonzalez James is a writer of tough truths and the precise comic detail that stabs her characters right where it hurts.

Andrea Meyer: What was the original seed of an idea for Mona at Sea?

Elizabeth Gonzalez James: I went back to school in 2007 to get an MBA. I graduated in the winter of 2008, just a couple months after Lehman Brothers and Countrywide and all these other places closed. I was living in my in-laws’ basement, applying for hundreds of jobs in corporate finance and I didn’t find anything. Then I got pregnant and started writing as a way to keep myself sane while I was home taking care of a baby. I was in the shower one day and I remember thinking of this character, Mona the Mutilator. I thought, if this was a comic book character, what would her persona be? And I thought of somebody who was a cutter, but how could I make that funny and not just pure tragedy? I originally wanted to do it as a graphic novel, except I can’t draw so I scrapped that and was like, what if it’s a novel? Then I started asking myself questions: Why is she cutting herself? She’s angry. Why is she angry? Because she’s unemployed. Why is she unemployed? I was able to take that seed and smash it together with my own experience and— that’s where the book came from.

How challenging was it to fictionalize a story with an autobiographical background?

That was tricky, and it took me a really long time. I started writing it in 2011. I’d never written a book before. I’d never really written anything before, so a lot of that process was just learning how to tell a story. Early drafts had a lot of chapters that I eventually threw out, like a whole subplot about melamine poisoning. I started out with 100 pages of backstory and I joined a writers’ group, and they were like, no, no, no, no, no. It was about finding the thread. I knew that I wanted Mona to start painting again and to channel the artistic impulses she’s been using to harm herself and put those into her art in a productive way. I just had to figure out how to get her from unemployed to painting again. That’s how I filled in the rest of the story.

What tools did you use to find the backbone of the story? Are there particular books you like, words of wisdom, structuring tools?

I’m trying to remember, because some of this happened in the Obama administration! A lot of it was really kind feedback from writing partners and friends, my critique group. I don’t have an MFA, I have an MBA, which doesn’t help you with writing at all. So, I had to teach myself how to write. One book that was really helpful was by Oakley Hall, The Art and Craft of Novel Writing, and then just butt in chair time. You can’t replace that.

Let’s talk about Sad Millennial and the viral video that is trying to ruin Mona’s life.

That came fairly late to the draft after I started working with the editor at Santa Fe Writers Project. All the early drafts opened with Mona at the grocery store trying to buy peanut butter. She can’t decide which brand she wants and there are 40 different kinds and she has this whole meltdown because there are too many choices. I was like, this is brilliant! This is a metaphor for her whole life! But it was a little too on the nose.

It seems to me that Mona is speaking for a whole generation of college grads who were supposed to have jobs, but wound up back at their parents’ house instead. Why do people ridicule her when she’s saying what so many of them are thinking?

I was in high school for the dot-com bubble, in college for Enron. I had just graduated and was trying to start my life in the great recession. Millennials have been this punching bag or this punchline for the last 20 years, like, “If you would just stop eating avocado toast, then maybe you could afford to buy a house,” ignoring the fact that inflation has been rampant, the economy has been in this boom-bust thing for 20 years, there was a war for all of my 20s. Things have been pretty bad. Without getting too Marxist here, there’s been a huge drain on the economy and the money is flowing to the 1% or the .1%, and the rest of us are just supposed to duke it out over the scraps, and it’s not our fault! Until we actually look at who the winners are in the economy, we’re not going to see this change. I wanted Mona to see the big lie at the heart of this capitalist dream: that if you work hard, you can do it.

Mona is such a bitch! She’s dark and sarcastic and has the bad habit of pointing out her friends’ and families’ flaws and vulnerabilities, sometimes in public. I wonder where you found her voice and how you managed to make us root for this really bitchy depressed girl.

I’m really glad that you were rooting for her! First of all, she is so toned down from where she started out. I can’t tell you how many people—my husband, my writers’ group, my agent—said you’ve got to bring her way down. To me, she was funny. Maybe I have a demonic inner monologue, but I was like this is good, this is how people think. I was okay with her being unlikable. I just wanted her to be sympathetic. How did I find the voice? It just came out like that. I’m drafting a second book now and the voice is nothing like this at all. So, I don’t know. She might be my alter ego.

I love her nighttime routine, where she reminds herself: I’m unemployed, I’ve never had a boyfriend, I live with my parents in the most boring town on the planet, and I hate myself. Totally turns self-help and self-love on its ass. How did you come up with this detail of Mona’s life?

Going back to your question about finding a way to structure the novel, I think I put that in as a structuring guide for myself. I thought, if I name four problems she has, then I can tackle them one by one in the story. As she conquers each problem, she crosses it out.

I’ve never seen anything about cutting as an art form. It was almost your way of cuing the audience that she has an artistic impulse, but it’s also twisted.

I always knew she was a cutter and one day it just kind of hit me: Her name is Mona. Why wouldn’t she be cutting the Mona Lisa on herself? In terms of people cutting themselves in an artistic way, I don’t know if that’s a thing. I’m sure it is. You know, there are a lot of people in this world, but I didn’t do research on anything like that. I did a lot of reading on why people cut, but I didn’t look into are there communities of people who do scarification for artistic reasons.

What did you learn about cutting in general?

According to the books I read, people who cut are almost always teenagers. Typically, they do it because they feel numb and the cutting allows them to feel something. It’s also something they can control. I read a book by Madeline Levine, a psychologist who followed a cohort of upper middle-class kids in Marin County, California who were having terrible problems: eating disorders, sex addiction, drug addiction, cutting. She thought it was because they had been so hyper-scheduled and pushed to excellence that they had never been allowed to develop their own personality, their own goals. They turned to these self-destructive behaviors as a way to find out who they were, what they actually wanted to do, what their limits were and to give themselves some autonomy and personhood. That book had a pretty big impact when I was trying to figure out this character. It’s a way, I think, for people to feel something physically that they already feel emotionally, but find inexpressible and inaccessible.

So much of the humor comes from observational details and a knack for nailing characters’ quirks and weaknesses. How do you find the details that transform your characters from words on paper into living breathing people?

I have a pretty good memory, and when I brush up against somebody I think is weird or interesting, I tend to keep it in my head for later. When Mona goes to the mixer and meets the French woman selling diet pills out of the trunk of her car, that was an actual person I met going to my own horrible networking mixers in San Francisco in 2009, and the guy with the leather cowboy hat who was just there to poach used office furniture, I met that guy at multiple mixers. He was at every single one trying to find companies that were shuttering so he could go get their furniture. I was like this is NUTS. I read a great quote. I can’t remember who said it but, “Writers are always selling somebody out,” and that’s definitely true for me. If you told me a funny story 12 years ago, it might show up.

Mona’s an upper middle-class kid who’s worked hard in school and feels entitled to a good job. Her mom guilt-trips her about the sacrifices she’s made in her own life to give her those opportunities. Mona is Mexican-American and she wonders if she would have struggled more if her skin were darker. She’s among the fallout of the economic crash of 2008. There’s also a lot of talk about women using their sexuality to succeed professionally. Did you intend to take on issues of race, class and gender, or did the bigger political context take shape during the writing process?

That was always going to be there. That period, 2008-2009, kind of like the last year, was where you saw these issues coming to the forefront. I remember when Obama came into office all the news shows were like, “Is racism over now?” Clearly, no. So, I had to situate the book in a context that existed. She doesn’t live in a vacuum. As a Latina, as a young woman trying to get into finance, she’s going to have these experiences. I just wrote what I knew to be accurate.

What’s your new book about?

It’s magical realism, a Western based on my great grandfather, who was a bandito called The Bullet Swallower. He was arrested and put into jail in Houston and he escaped and was chased down by the Texas Rangers. They shot him in the face, but he lived and was henceforth known as the Bullet Swallower, so it’s loosely based on that story and about 6000 other things. I’m hoping that it will go out on submission in the fall.

What is it like to launch a book just as the world is starting to open up again?

It’s been a wild ride. I started setting up my book tour in February and everybody was 100% virtual back then, but now, especially in California, things are opening up. I have three in-person events up here in northern California and then I’m visiting my parents in Texas, so I have an in-person event in San Antonio. If it had come out even a couple months ago, I wouldn’t have gotten to do this. I feel like it’s happening at exactly the right time. It’s very exciting, and I’m very grateful.

Before becoming a writer, Elizabeth Gonzalez James was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, an opera singer, and a telephone fundraiser. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Idaho Review, Ploughshares Blog, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Originally from South Texas, she currently lives with her family in Oakland, California. Mona at Sea is her first novel.

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