Elizabeth Gonzalez James was certain Mona at Sea would never be published. It was passed on in 2015 and sat in a drawer until she entered it to the Santa Fe Writers Project award. Even when she won, she wasn’t sure if she’d sign a contract.
We discussed the long journey she took and Mona took from graduating with a business degree during the Great Recession to publishing a book about unemployment over a decade later.
Your bio says you’ve been through multiple careers and odd jobs before publishing. How did you get into writing?
I went back to school for an MBA and, unfortunately, I graduated in the winter of 2008, just a couple of months after the financial collapse. I tried for over a year to get a job and I couldn’t get anything. I applied between 300 and 400 jobs. I got pregnant because my husband and I were both unemployed and living in-laws basement. I figured it was a great time to start a family.
I found myself staying at home with the baby and I started writing to preserve my sanity during that time. I was also really angry about the recession and my inability to find a job. I started writing as a way to channel all those frustrations and to cope with everything.
Did Mona come from those early writings?
Absolutely. I had never written anything before. I’d written a few short stories but they were pretty bad. I had the idea for Mona at Sea in 2011. It’s absolutely inspired by my experiences of unemployment. I wanted to get down on paper what an existential crisis that is longterm unemployment.
Was writing Mona therapeutic for you?
I never thought writing was therapeutic. If anything, it confuses me more because it introduces more questions and more things I don’t understand. It’s a way for me to sort out my thoughts. Over a lot of time, I was able to find meaning in the experiences I lived through. I wouldn’t call it therapeutic, but it probably is eventually. In the moment: no, absolutely not. It’s only when I can look way back to see the narrative of my own life where I can see what caused what and how I got to where I am now.
Did you ever go back to the business world at all?
No, I never did. I stayed at home raising my daughter then I had son and I stayed at home. Then it didn’t make sense financially to try to find a job because I wasn’t sure I’d find a job that could cover childcare. Then I started writing more and more. I thought it could be something. I set a goal of five years to have the book published by then. If I didn’t have anything by then, it would be time to find something else to do with my life.
By 2015, I did have a completed draft of Mona at Sea. I sent it out to agents and got an agent really quickly. The book went on submission. Unfortunately, it didn’t get published, but I did accomplish a lot by that five year mark so I never went back to business.
So when it wasn’t published then, where do you pivot to then?
The feedback my agent passed along to me from editors was they loved it, it was hilarious, but they didn’t know how to market it. They wanted to be sent another book when I had one. I started working on another, which is totally different, it’s historical fiction. I put Mona in a drawer and send it out every now and again to small presses and enter it into contests.
In 2019, Santa Fe Writers Project was having their yearly awards and I submitted it. I figured it would be cool to get an honorable mention but it ended up on the shortlist and the press offered me a contract for publication. It was a total surprise. I basically was fine if the book didn’t get published. I accepted that. It’s all a bonus. I wasn’t expecting this at all.
You mentioned other places loved it but didn’t know how to market it. Did Santa Fe want you to make it more marketable or did you lean into the weirdness?
When they first reached out, I thought it was a joke. I thought it was spam. I didn’t believe they wanted to publish the book. Because I had moved on and didn’t think the book would ever be published, I had to talk myself into signing the contract.
I read my Tarot cards every week and I read them to see what I should do. I pulled a card that means, “the work we do lacks meaning if it does not serve the community.”
I thought about that and thought about how the book was about unemployment, about self-harm, about female anger, and about repressed memories. I felt it could serve the community.