Book of the week
Right out of college, Mona Mireles flew from her home in Tucson, Arizona, to New York City thinking she had a job in the financial world.
Bad news interrupted Mona’s plans; the company filed for bankruptcy.
Back in Tucson, the intelligent, artistic Mona is now filled with self-doubt, and a cynicism that distracts her from restarting her job search. She struggles to pull herself out of her funk.
“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,” Mona states.
Those four declarations eventually flip for the better. Along the way, Mona joins a networking seminar, though is reluctant to accept well-meaning help.
Mona is the sympathetic protagonist in “Mona at Sea,” Elizabeth Gonzalez James’ crisply written debut novel that has a coming-of-age sensibility. Yes, Mona is in her early 20s, but she’s still growing up, learning to cope with the potholes of life in the Great Recession, as others around her are doing.
Mona is trying to boost herself up, despite not hitting the top rungs of the business world.
Indeed, Mona’s economic troubles can be easily understood by today’s unemployed and under-employed job seekers as they try to survive the current pandemic.
One of Mona’s tactics in dealing with her emotions is scarring. She thinks of it as body art, with an X-Acto knife, not as mutilation.
James said some of Mona’s attitudes remind her of her own.
“I think her dark sense of humor is definitely based on me and the long experience of being unemployed is taken from my life,” James said in a phone interview from her home in Oakland, California. There’s a passage in which Mona and her younger brother Danny, a college fraternity president, are conversing, revealing their sibling rivalry. It’s also an example of the author serving up a plate of Mona’s trenchant humor: “As a popular kid born to a family of nerds, short of accidentally curing cancer by combining tequila, mint gum and Polo Sport cologne, there’s nothing Danny could do to outshine me.”
Still, James advises readers to keep in mind that Mona is “a fictional character and we diverge in a lot of important ways as well. I hope I’m a lot more mature and factual than Mona is. I think that when you’re in your early 20s, it’s difficult to figure out where you’ll be in 10 years, when you have more things figured out.”
Before James came to a decision about being a writer, she had worked in different fields, as a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, an opera singer, and, like Mona, a telephone fundraiser. James’ first job was at age 16 when she was hired to sing opera arias at a restaurant. She also sang competitively in high school, singing solos in choir concerts.
Singing was a passion for her for a long time, but she didn’t stick with it. “I considered 1,000 career paths. Writing was what I stuck with.
“Why? I’m really not sure. The timing worked out. It was something I could do while taking care of the kids or while they were at preschool,” said James, a mother of two.
Writing helped her preserve her sanity during a long period of unemployment. She spent all of 2009 trying to find a job that never materialized. In 2011 James began writing “Mona at Sea,” finishing it in 2015.
She landed a literary agent who shipped the manuscript to editors at more than 40 publishing houses.
“Though no one picked it up, they said they liked it. The feedback was they didn’t know how to market it,” James recalled.
The next year the agent advised that she write something else. From time to time, James pulled the “Mona at Sea” manuscript out of a drawer and sent it to small presses. Finally, in 2019, she submitted it to the Santa Fe Writers Project’s Literary Awards.
“To my complete shock, they named me a finalist and offered me a contract for publication,” James said. Santa Fe Writers Project published the novel June 2021. She had previously published essays and short stories.
James was raised in Laredo and Corpus Christi in south Texas. She identifies as Latina.
“My advice to Latino/a writers is write the story that you want to read, and write it the way you want to write it. And don’t worry about trying to please other people,” James said.