A recession, a baby, an idea: The inspiration behind MONA AT SEA

I never planned on becoming a writer. What I actually wanted was an entry-level job in corporate finance. But when I graduated from the University of Kansas in December of 2008 with an MBA, the world looked very different than it had 18 months before when I started the program. Lehman Brothers had just collapsed. Countrywide imploded. General Motors needed a bailout to survive. And here I was with a brand new business degree trying to get my first job after graduation.

Dear reader I’ll spare you the suspense: I never got a job. Despite applying for between 300-400 jobs I never got anything more than a follow-up interview.

What I did get was pregnant, however, and I decided that rather than continue my job search, I’d be a stay-at-home mom. And I also thought that since I was going to have some free time on my hands, I’d try out this thing I’d been itching to do for years, but had always pushed off until later: writing. I wrote a few short stories just to see if I could successfully carry something from start to finish. I remember trying to draft an economic parable wherein Milton Friedman’s corpse is dug up and reanimated to save the country from imminent collapse. No shocker that one died somewhere in my hard drive!

And then one day in the shower I had it: the opening lines to a story about a girl named Mona. No. Not a story. A novel! A whole novel about a cutter, and I’d call it Mona the Mutilator. I cannot recall exactly why I knew that Mona was a cutter, but I know that she always was. I’ll chalk that up to me having a dark sense of humor, and perhaps wanting to challenge myself to write something funny but also truthful about a subject that is taboo, often hidden, and deadly serious.

I pushed my daughter in her stroller through the Morcom Rose Garden in Oakland in early 2011 working out a rough outline. And as I was thinking through the story I kept asking myself, Why?

Okay, I know she’s a cutter.


She’s angry.

Why is she angry?

She’s unemployed.

Why is she unemployed?

She lost her job in the Great Recession.

Why did she lose her job?

The investment bank where she’d been hired went bankrupt overnight.

And it was in this way that the book started to unfold. Was it inspired by my experience of unemployment during the Great recession? Absolutely, though Mona and I have also lived very different lives, and our lives going forward will continue to diverge. Write what you know…but also write into what you don’t know.

After some time I decided that Mona the Mutilator was not a great title, and I went for something softer: Mona at Sea. To be “at sea” is when you are confused and unable to decide what to do. I got the phrase from Jamie Cullum in his song, “All at Sea.”


In this song, though the narrator is lost and doesn’t know where to turn, and he’s metaphorically far from shore, he takes it as an occasion to sit back and enjoy being disconnected, adrift, and without anywhere he needs to be. I think it’s a song about allowing yourself the space to drift without plans, without goals. When the time is right you’ll see the shore, the far-off lights beckoning. Then you’ll know which way is home.

I never planned on becoming a writer, but writing found me at a time when I was all at sea, without a job and without definite plans other than taking care of a brand new baby. Unless I’d allowed myself to drift, I never would have found the space to take up writing, and I wouldn’t be here telling you about my forthcoming novel. Painful as it was I am thankful for the time I spent being unemployed during the Recession. It rerouted the course of my life, and gave me space to think about what I really wanted. All of these things and more went into my novel, and it is a far better book for me having first learned the lessons that I then taught my character. I hope that readers who may feel adrift either forgive themselves the experience and find a way to take meaning from the drift, or else take solace in knowing that they will eventually find their way to shore. It is lonely at sea and the ocean is vast, but it doesn’t go on forever.

Author: Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.

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