Careers, Success, and Self-Discovery With Debut Author Elizabeth Gonzalez James

An Interview With the Author of Mona at Sea
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Careers, Success, and Self-Discovery With Debut Author Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Careers, Success, and Self-Discovery With Debut Author Elizabeth Gonzalez James

It’s not often that you stumble upon a debut author whose book speaks to you in such a meaningful and profound way that you finish it in two days and then you contact her to tell her how much you loved the book. But that’s exactly what happened when I discovered Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James. 

I first learned about Elizabeth through her interview with Split Lip magazine, in which she detailed her 10-year journey towards the publication of her debut novel, Mona at Sea, in June and I was immediately enamored with her story. Here was an author who’s managed to capture the essence of the Great Recession and its effect on millennials so perfectly, in a way that I’ve never seen done in fiction. Mona at Sea spoke so deeply to me, allowing me to embrace the feelings and experiences that are so similar to Elizabeth and Mona’s journey (and my own) during the Great Recession. 

What I loved most about the book is that Elizabeth has managed to create such incredibly memorable characters, coupled with prose that is exciting, funny, and relatable. You feel what they feel as you go along the book. Mona at Sea is about Mona Mireles, a millennial who graduated during the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and, unable to find a job, ends up living at her parents’ house while trying to (unsuccessfully) find a job in finance, all the while navigating the drama that occurs at home between her parents and her younger brother, and her own friendships. It’s perfect for those who are still trying to figure themselves out and their place in the world. Most importantly, it speaks to the heart of the story: who are we if we don’t have work to define us? After all, our jobs encompass a large part of our day, and many of us dream of obtaining certain professions, much like Mona does in the book. So what happens when these dreams don’t come true? 

The journey that Mona goes on is filled with ups and downs and is full of nuance, so I was very excited when Elizabeth agreed to give us a candid look into her own author journey, how she overcame personal challenges, her dream brunch date, and what she’s currently up to. (Hint: it’s magical and exciting.) We can’t wait to see what Elizabeth has in store next year!

Here’s what she had to share:

Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming an author. Was this the career you always knew you wanted to pursue?

I came to writing from that well-trodden path so common to my contemporaries: I got an MBA during the Great Recession, failed to get a job in finance, got pregnant while living in my in-laws’ basement, and started writing to maintain my sanity. Like I said, your classic künstlerroman. [A German-derived word to mean ‘artist’s novel’ denoting an artist’s growth to maturity.]  

Ha, so no, it was not the career I always knew I wanted. It was the thing I’d flirted with on and off for many years and never had the opportunity to pursue until I found myself at home with a newborn. I was also really angry about the last 18 months I’d just spent being unemployed, and I wanted to make sense of everything I was feeling. Thus my first novel, Mona at Sea, was born. My character, Mona Mireles, finds herself unemployed and adrift in life and love during the Great Recession, and after she’s able to get over feeling like the most screwed member of her generation, she’s able to figure out what she wants to do with the rest of her life.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given, with regards to careers and success?

I wasn’t given this advice, but it is a quote that really resonated when I heard it, and I’ve carried it with me ever since (and don’t judge me because this is coming from Ross Perot of all people, but whatever).

“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one-yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot from a winning touchdown.”

I love this because I’m a Texan and I love my football metaphors. But I also really think it’s true. Mona at Sea failed to find a publisher when it went on submission in 2015, and my agent eventually had to give me the terrible news that she ran out of places to submit it. I could have quit writing. It really looked like I’d tried my best and failed. But I had this quote running through my brain at that time and I just wouldn’t let myself quit. I knew I’d gotten so close, that if I could just keep going I’d eventually get a book published. A few years later Mona at Sea did find a home with a small press, and has gotten great reviews and was even an Amazon Bestseller, all thanks to me not giving up on the one-yard line. 

What books are on your reading list right now?

I am an avid reader, obviously, and I also write critical essays for Ploughshares Blog, AND I’m the brand-new Interviews Editor at The Rumpus, so I’m constantly reading new books for both of those jobs—which is honestly the best job perk of my life, even better than when I used to get free food when I worked at Macaroni Grill.

Right now I’m excited to dive into Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen Kirby, and Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You by Ariel Delgado Dixon, both of which come out in early 2022. I’m reading The Changeling by Victor LaValle for fun, and I’m finally going to start reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau, just because I never have. 

When you’re writing, where do you write? What is the setting?

In an ideal world, I would try to treat writing like my job—I would sit down at my desk the same time every day and get some words on the page no matter what. The last two years have been insane however, obviously, and in addition to my kids being in and out of school because of the pandemic, we also moved from California to Massachusetts a few months ago, and our lives have been absolutely topsy turvy. But we’re finally settled into our new home, my kids are in school full-time, and I now have a desk and a chair (!!) and I’m sort of getting back into a rhythm. I like to write alone, in total quiet, so getting that during the pandemic has been a challenge to put it lightly.

How have you been staying connected to your friends/family/community during COVID-19?

It’s funny—I actually spoke to my two best friends from college on Zoom more during the pandemic than we had in years and years. I think the pandemic really made it clear who was important in your life and who you could sort of let go of. We didn’t travel at all in 2020, but then we more than made up for that in the summer of 2021 where we visited friends and family in Massachusetts, Virginia, Colorado, and Texas. All this during my book launch! I would not recommend launching a book, moving cross-country, and maintaining a very complicated travel schedule all at once. Nope. But I survived and my liver is mostly intact.

Do you have exciting projects coming up? If so, please tell us.

Yes! I am finalizing edits on my second novel, The Bullet Swallower, which is a magical realism western based on my great-grandfather, who was a bandido. My agent hopes to go on submission with it in the new year. So fingers crossed!

What is your dream brunch date? Where and with whom?

Oh, this is a fantastic question. I love brunch, and of course when I say brunch I mean I love endless mimosas. If you want me to be completely fantastical, I would love to have a long, boozy brunch with some choice people from writing Twitter. I haven’t really made writing friends yet in my new town, and I’ve been leaning on Twitter a lot to give me some connection and welcome levity during the pandemic and book launch and move and the general nightmare of global events over the last five years. So I would love to spend the late morning gossiping and trash talking and getting weird and philosophical with other writers. I want to hear how they think beyond the space of 280 characters, who they turn to in difficult times, and what they want next.

What is your ideal comfort food?

I am Mexican-American, so I always go back to tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, pozole, and those sorts of foods for comfort. In 2018 I was lucky enough to eat a plate of Pilipino tot-chos (nachos made with tater tots) that I still think about on a weekly basis, so that too.

Which authors inspire your work the most?

I am hugely influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and George Saunders, who I think are two very common responses to this question, haha. I wish I could say, Oh, my work is most influenced by this anonymous French madman from the 19th century who only wrote one book and it was composed entirely on a roll of toilet paper. But no, I have the same answer as a lot of people. I have loved Vonnegut since high school. He’s so delightfully weird and quintessentially American. And George Saunders is also a truly American writer in my opinion, and what I love about him is that his work rings with such intense empathy for his characters. Vonnegut’s does too, honestly. I would love for people to say that my writing is weird and intensely empathic. That would be a good compliment, I think.  

Want to grab a copy of Mona at Sea and learn more about Elizabeth? Check out her website.

Finally, let us know what you think about Elizabeth’s book here or check out our other exclusive author profiles here.

Hoang Samuelson
Hoang Samuelson is a writer, editor, and lover of British dramas, including Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey and The Great British Baking Show. When she’s not reading or baking or watching one of the shows above, she enjoys outdoor activities including running and hiking. She also works as an accountant by day. Currently, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and to children, ages five and eight.
Favorite book: Too many to count, but a recent one is The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Favorite brunch item: chicken and waffles! with a side of coffee

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