Art, Money, & Character: Literary Agent, Cullen Stanley, Challenges Martha McPhee About Dear Money

Cullen Stanley, Literary Agent: Janklow Nesbit

CS: I’ve heard you describe India Palmer’s transformation from writer to trader as a Pygmalion story. Could you elaborate on that and why you selected this kind of transformation for your protagonist?

MM: I was propositioned by a Wall Street trader and he said if you give me 18 months I can turn you into a trader. This struck a chord. It was 2004. He’d been explaining the mortgage-backed securities market, and I thought it tapped into a very American concern. The idea of real estate and the American dream of home ownership, that it had become available to so many more people. I was curious about mortgage-backed securities and felt it was rife with metaphor. People all across America were buying real estate they couldn’t afford believing that it would appreciate in value and tomorrow the value of the house would increase and they’d be rich. One of those something-for-nothing, get-rich-quick schemes that was being sold as an opportunity available to everyone without much understanding that values can also plummet. I was particularly interested in this American desire that places a bet on the belief that tomorrow will be a better day. This irrepressible optimism became a right that was played out in real estate.

Simultaneously I was interested in the idea of the artist chucking it all for money, and through this taking a look at the intersection of art and commerce. In this world of ours that cares so much about money, where does the artist stand when worth is based on the sum of your income? Additionally, we seem to want our art to make us feel good, to pacify.  I wanted to look at the ugly truth behind these two conflicting desires, exploring all this with a Pygmalion trope.

CS: Is India Palmer representative of you? The book is written in first person and like IP, you’ve written several books. Would you say DEAR MONEY is autobiographical?

MM: Certainly it is in some regards. I believe all novels are autobiographical in one way or another. I chose to make IP a novelist because I wanted to look at things that concern me as an artist, as a writer, as a mother, as a person living in the world, primarily the issue of money and what you give up to be an artist.  I wanted to use myself (and all of my desires) as a foil, make fun of that part of me that I also see in many others.  Also, I wanted to capture what it can feel like to be in a world of wealth while creating something ephemeral that doesn’t seem to be valued. The first question I’m asked by many is “how are your book sales?”  That, of course, is a stand-in for “are you making money?”  I wanted to look honestly at that feeling of longing — for the dress in the window, of wanting to partake of the dessert tray — as it collides with the desire to make art.  But then, what I wanted to do with equal urgency was to put on a different mask, a very different mask. The photographer Cindy Sherman comes to mind – the way she photographs herself in many different disguises.  I wanted to assume the role/mask/disguise of the bond trader to look at the other side, to look at the life not lived, and to explore the pursuit of that longing IP has, follow it to the dark end of the road with a bit of wickedness thrown in for good measure.

CS: IP could be considered an unlikeable character, the way she trades art for filthy lucre. What is your attraction to IP as a character?

MM: My first attraction to her is that she’s somebody who is driven, determined. She’s scrappy, she’s game. As I was writing her character, she made me think of women characters in literature I enjoy a lot: Lily Bart, Becky Sharpe, Undine Spragg, and Scarlet O’Hara. Who would those women be today? I don’t find these characters unlikeable. I find them interesting and I find they describe an historic period.

Additionally, I would never have thought this at the start of the novel, but it seemed to wind up that India became a metaphor for the endgame of capitalism. I don’t think you can begin a novel with that kind of premise – it was an accident – but it turned out that way.

But I would also like to add that I do not judge India. I think we have gotten to this place in society, in our world as a collective whole. We are cogs in a system and many of us to some degree play a part. India as a writer contributes her part alongside the banker. This is not to say that you can’t lay blame at the feet of bankers, brokers. I just think that is a little too easy and I enjoy complexity. I appreciate the bigger picture and we’ve all bought into it – or most of us – in one way and another.

CS: Do you ever find yourself judging other characters in literature? Are there characters that you dislike?

MM: I want to be entertained and provoked to thought by character. I don’t judge them. I watch them, though I confess I thought Emma Bovary was a complete brat and I struggled to relate to her predicament but I was very young when I read that novel and idealistic. So perhaps this is because I couldn’t see her in her historical context or understand yet what time can make of us.  Funny enough when interviewed by Michael Silverblatt for KCRW’s Bookworm (a terrific interviewer, one of the smartest book people I have ever met) he likened attributes of IP to Emma Bovary.  I’m about to re-read Madame Bovary and look forward to thinking about her again. She’s a product of her time and he, Flaubert, was ahead of his time. Becky Sharpe isn’t admirable in a classic sense like Dorothea in Middlemarch or Melanie in Gone With The Wind, but I love to watch her as she tries to get what she wants, her skill at manipulation. Thackeray draws her very well and at the end he punishes her. She gets her comeuppance. I can be more critical of the author and the judgment an author makes of his characters, especially when she or he doesn’t have sympathy for human foible. I want the author to show some sympathy with the character’s limitation. This elicits recognition from me as a reader. The range and scope of humanity is what appeals to me about character and the author’s engagement with character.

CS: Emma in DEAR MONEY accepts her husband’s risky career change. She seems to be the antithesis of India, someone who accepts what life gives her.

MM: Well, CS, I must stop you first to point out that you describe Will’s career change as “risky.” He’s a man who gives up a secure position earning money to become an artist; yet India, who gives up an insecure position as an artist for a secure position earning money, can be characterized as “unlikeable” for her pursuit of “filthy lucre.” There’s something sexist there. This also raises another point: we ask our artists to be pure and above material desire. Is that realistic? Is that fair? Historically, there are so many artists that desired money. Twain (“Lack of money is the root of all evil.” or “We have the best government money can buy” and Melville — famously come to mind.  It is that exact perception that I’m engaging.

Consider, too, the countless novels that are all about the artist needing and desiring more. Look at New Grub Street by George Gissing, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, The Masterpiece by Zola. I really could go on and on. The Way We Live Now by Trollope. So money and the arts, it’s delightful to have fun with this theme.

Back to Emma: Emma couldn’t sustain a whole novel as a main character. She’s someone I’d love to be because she is completely grateful and content with what life hands her, like Melanie. But watching characters pursue what they want, whether they get it or not, is the momentum behind most fiction. Just think for a moment of Clyde (such a great name for him) in An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser or again of Lily Bart, who I don’t believe would commit suicide today. As it happens both of them want money and we watch them as they pursue getting it.

CS: Yes, but wouldn’t you say that both of those characters get their comeuppance in the end? Clyde is condemned for murder and LB kills herself.

MM: Clyde committed murder, he should be punished. Lily Bart, as I said, I don’t believe she’d commit suicide today. In writing DM, I was not interested in punishing, in making a tidy, moral ending. In DM, I wanted to step inside this other world, but also a world filled with wanting, the ugly truth, our America, one of hubris, explode it, open it up, toss it into the air, and leave it suspended there like fireworks to be observed.

CS: Is this why the reader of DM doesn’t know what IP chooses to do at the end of the novel: write a book or tear down a house?

I’m not sure I’d agree that the reader doesn’t know – that’s up to each reader. Sure, I leave it open – but I believe the clues are there. As I said, I didn’t want to give answers and a neat, tidy conclusion. I know what she does. Or I have an idea of what I think she does, but my ambition was to leave it to the imagination of the reader and hopefully in that provoke thought about where we are as a culture. Has she missed it all, or is she going to sit back and watch the fireworks, as Theodor says she will, and then turn around and write a book of this story, a memoir of sorts of her time on Wall Street at the height of the housing bubble?

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Readers Review Dear Money: Amazon Vine

I have always loved what regular readers say about my work.  The last time I published a novel, 2006, the world was different.  If the Amazon Vine Program existed, I didn’t know about it.  I had no direct sense of what readers were saying unless they sent a fan letter.  The internet was not where it is today in terms of social media and book programs for readers.  I am grateful to the insightful, careful, thoughtful readers who participate in Amazon’s Vine Program and cared enough about Dear Money to write thoughtful reviews.  Below I excerpt a few passages:

1)  Jill Shtulman: The Literary Lottery Where Art Meets Commerce

Martha McPhee is the real deal. Her novel is engrossing, intelligent, playful, and timely. And it would be a shame if it did not get the high readership it deserves. ….  Can writers or traders afford to compromise? What would compromise “feel” like? Ms. McPhee writes, “To leave now, to scale back, to compromise would be to live within a shadow of regret, of second-guessing, of exile.” This timely American story of our culture on the brink kept me reading way into the night and in a strange way, cheering for India Palmer. Read it and enjoy!

2) Mr. August Literature Lover: “Bleed Green”

If you have ever agonized over money, if you have tried to sleep and thought of which bills you could pay, if you have awakened in the morning and the bills, the mortgage, tuition, co-pays, deductibles and property taxes are your first thoughts as you face the day, Dear Money will share your angst.

Needing money can control your self-esteem and your ability to function. Needing money inhibits you from enjoying a play, a good dinner, art, and a child’s accomplishment to name a few lost pleasures. This economy has foisted egregious problems upon us, creating an obsession with freedom from wanting.

Martha McPhee has written an original masterpiece, which responds to our dreams of being able to have what we want without worry….

3) Holly Kinkaid “Book addict:” Hope This Finds The Acclaim It Deserves

I was incredibly interested in the premise of this story. Can a published, but not financially successful author become a mega-wealthy bond trader and would she even want to? …. Well written, fantastic character development, intriguing story – a winner on all fronts. I’ll be seeking out Martha McPhee’s other books from this point forward.

4) Janet Perry: An “out of the clear blue sky” sets the stage for a delightful novel.

Dear Money is, quite simply, delightful.  ….   McPhee is a gifted writer with an observant eye. Her characters and settings really come to life. I can see the house in Maine, the apartment in New York, the publisher’s office, and the trading floor. Even better she is able to explain clearly the arcane world of mortgages, mortgage bonds, and that market in words a regular person would understand.  It’s a delightful book, one you’ll enjoy.

5) Switterbug: The Art of Money

This is a rich stew of a story, a character-driven, prose-rich and savory marinade that simmers slowly, tastefully, and, in the end, leaves you full and satisfied. It is the story of two people (and their spouses) that do a bit of a role reversal in order to acquire their personal definition of fortune.

India Palmer, a critically acclaimed, award-winning, but cash-poor novelist, struggles to balance the budget and keep up with “The Joneses.” Her husband, Theodor, a sculptor, is content with their bohemian lifestyle, (which is not too shabby, more like chic shabby.) They have a rent-controlled apartment in New York and two beautiful daughters. But India wants, she desires, she hails–money. She craves the material pleasures and lifestyle that her investment-banker friend, Will Chapman, and his wife, Emma, already possess. Interestingly, Will wants to walk away from his Wall Street job and write novels.

Every summer, Theo and India visit with the Chapmans in Pond Point, Maine, where Will and Emma rent a house for the summer, a house they are poised to buy. It is old, damp, drafty, but it has charm, a turret, and a million-dollar view. When their cravenly wealthy, securities-trader friend, Win, swoops down to visit in his canary yellow plane, the die is cast for India. Win makes an offer to mentor India on Wall Street and turn her into a brilliant bond trader.

McPhee develops her story and characters gradually, fully, and with a page-turning brio. She utilizes some conventions in her broad strokes but she shakes it up and out of the box enough to leave her own thumbprint. Her narrative crackles with colorful imagery and megawatt metaphors, and she strikes a supple balance between the inner and outer lives of her characters. Her exploration of the human desire for transformation and the tug of war between art and commerce is acerbically keen. The final scene is ironically triumphant and sublime.

Thank you Vine Program.  Thank you to the generous readers who took time and careful thought to share their opinions of my Dear Money.  Please visit the Amazon page for Dear Money to see all of the reviews.  There are more.  Thank you.

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The Captain And Me: Italian Joy

Cullen and I set the alarm but slept right through it.  A knock on the door woke us up, the taxi driver.  He’d come to take us to the boat, ferrying us back to Naples.  We were asleep.  Woke fast.  Threw everything in our suitcases.  (There is only one boat a day.)  He zipped us to the port, we ran to the dock.  The bridge to the boat was being lifted.  The captain smiled and put the bridge back down.  We ran on board and the boat took off at high speed, across the sea.  Out in the middle of nowhere, he invited us up to the cockpit.  Schools of dolphins jumped in front of the window — dozens upon dozens.  “It’s your lucky day,” the captain said.  The skipper drove the boat.  Another skipper came up with a plate of “dolci,” Sicilian cannolli and other things, as an offering.  “Let’s have a picture, the girls and me,” said the Captain.  The girls.  Yes, I felt sixteen again — in Italy for the first time, in love with enthusiasm and joy.

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Hundred Dollar Days and Gateau au Chocolat: Le Diablo

Ever since I was little girl I have enjoyed cooking. I started because I liked brownies and wanted to get to the bottom of how they were made.  I would only make them from scratch and failed repeatedly.  They were so hard my stepbrothers called them “rockies” and used them as ammunition for their slingshots. My determination (and failures) impressed my father.  Deciding that I needed to feel success, he gave me a case of Duncan Hines brownie mixes. I rejected them because they were too easy, inauthentic. But I liked the batter and made the mix just so I could spread it between two pieces of white bread to create a chocolate sandwich — a recipe I learned from a little Indian girl, the daughter of a scholar at The Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. I can’t remember the little girl’s name but I can still taste the chocolate sandwiches her mother gave us as snacks after school.

At a French restaurant with my father, I tried a flourless chocolate cake.  I liked it better than any  brownie I had ever eaten and became determined to learn how to make it.  For our birthdays, my father gave my sisters and me “hundred dollar days,” that was a day in which we could do anything we pleased with the money.  (One sister went to the race tracks to bet on horses.)  For my eighth birthday, I asked my father to help me figure out the recipe to that flourless cake.  We ended up at Dean and Deluca’s in NYC, combing through cookbooks until we found a recipe in Simca’s Kitchen by Simone Beck — Julia Child’s partner.  With my $100 my father bought me the book, chocolate, all the equipment and we drove home to Princeton and started making the cake.  I’ve been making it ever since, have even transformed the small little thing into a massive wedding cake, big enough to feed 200.

 Gateau au Chocolat: Le Diablo

A note: I altered the recipe.  Beck uses German sweet chocolate.  In the icing she adds coffee.


6 ounces of semi sweet chocolate

3/4 cup of butter

3/4 cup of sugar

4 eggs, separated

4 tablespoons ground almond

2 tablespoons of flour

9″ spring form pan

In the top of a double boiler melt chocolate and butter.  Set aside.  In a mixing bowl, beat egg yolks and sugar until pale.

Beat egg whites until stiff.  Set aside.  Fold the chocolate into the yolks.  Add the ground almonds and flour.  Fold in the chocolate very gently.

Butter and flour the spring form pan.  Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until the center is almost set.  Don’t overcook.  You want it very moist in the center, almost molten.

For icing: 1/2 stick of butter and 4 ounces of chocolate.  Melt and then spread over the cake.

1986: Jenny helping me assemble the wedding cake.  After icing with chocolate I covered the whole thing in whipped cream.  As it happened, our Saint Bernard took an enormous bite out of the cake, a good fourth of one of the bottom layers.  I started crying.  Sarah turned the bitten section to the center of the cloverleaf, covered with loads of whipped cream and told me to cheer up.  No one would ever know.

More food stories in MORE

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Empress Livia In Her Backyard

In the backyard of Augustus’s house in the Foro Romano.  Yes, that’s the Coliseum in the background.  She really does believe she was Livia, Augustus’s wife, in a previous life.  This trip to Rome has been a pilgrimage to sites from that world of hers.

Photo credit: Cullen Stanley, godmother of the empress.

With Livia In Rome

Livia in the fountains outside of Augustus’ tomb.  Augustus ruled the world and Livia ruled Augustus.

Still in the fountain with her godmother, Cullen, behind.

Livia signing a statue of Augustus left as an offering, along with others, on the wall in front of the excavation site.  Livia looked up and said, “I once poisoned many men.”