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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4 thoughts on “Art, Money, & Character: Literary Agent, Cullen Stanley, Challenges Martha McPhee About Dear Money

  1. I really enjoyed this exchange. Terrific questions; great answers. Makes me want to go back and reread DM.

  2. Great questions Cullen and great answers Martha. I really loved reading this–very thought provoking. When they do the paperback of Dear Money, they should publish this in the back for reading groups. Brave!

  3. I loved this exchange. The phrase “But watching characters pursue what they want, whether they get it or not, is the momentum behind most fiction” particularly marked me. With this in mind, I feel renewed vigor toward a work I’m tweaking. Thanks Martha!

    1. I am so glad. It took me a while to figure that out, that momentum behind a character’s desire. It was in reading An American Tragedy that I finally understood it. Clyde’s first girlfriend, I forget her name, wanted a coat and she would stop at nothing until she got that coat. I found myself reading at a gripping pace, page after page after page. Would she get the coat? All her schemes and bribes and considerations, would she get the coat? A coat? Why did I care if she got the coat or not? I cared because Dreiser made me care. He caught me up in her pursuit, her character and that which motivated and drove it. Thanks for writing.

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