Today I received a heavy box in the mail, and I wondered what my kids had ordered without asking. To my surprise, the box contained Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) of An Elegant Woman—such a beautiful cover and so many copies. I hadn’t felt that thrilling sensation of seeing a work of mine so composed, so ready to be read, in years. Ten years to be exact. In January of 2010 I received a similar box containing Dear Money, my last novel. My daughter was ten and my son was six; I was younger, too. My mother didn’t yet have dementia. Dear Money was my third book in a decade. I didn’t yet have teenagers. I hold An Elegant Woman in my hand, and the past ten years come rushing in—the challenge to write the novel, the fight for time while taking care of teens and a sick mother, the slow pace of the words making their way from my brain to the page, the false start, the long revision, the clobbering self-doubt. I had a professor who described that kind of self-doubt as “your shit bird.” “Swat it away,” he’d say. Swat and swat and swat, but the little shit bird kept landing again on my shoulder, a little bop-bag doll. Finally, somewhere along the way, with the encouragement of a patient, trusting, and believing editor, the characters took over. The book has a lot to do with stories my grandmother used to tell me about her life, her childhood, our ancestors, the way she made it from poverty in Montana to a bourgeois life in New Jersey. Across the years, I’d scribbled notes, first while she was alive and then after she was dead. I followed those notes like bread crumbs, followed them from Ohio to Montana to New York, Maine, to New Jersey—her life against the backdrop of the American landscape and the 20th century. Word by word, I followed her lead, and now I have a book. That’s how it is done, bushwhacking, swatting away at the bird. But the view from here now is very beautiful.
What a lot of fun. I love Telluride. I loved meeting Maribeth Clemente. She was the ski instructor of some friends’ children. They invited my son to join the instruction — lucky son, then lucky me. Maribeth and I discovered we were both writers. Over the summer she read Dear Money and interviewed me for her show. Great questions and lovely insight. A bonus: she’s helping arrange my return to Telluride, to The Wilkinson Public Library next March.
eMUSIC Q&A: MARTHA MCPHEE
The fair citizens of New York City are obsessed with many things: art, music, books, food, movies, fashion, sports and extremely tall buildings. But hovering at the top of that list, perhaps because, for better or worse, it makes all of the other things go round, is money. And with that obsession comes a whole mess of emotions — and we’ll spare you that list, because it’s not just New Yorkers that lay claim to that funny illness; it is a universal disease, the money sickness.
Which is why novelist Martha McPhee’s fourth novel, Dear Money, manages to be so relevant to such a vast readership — even though it is set in New York, with its novelists and mortgage traders and Met parties and artist lofts in Williamsburg. Let us not forget also the quaint Maine summer home, which the book’s narrator, the mid-list novelist India Palmer, covets from the very beginning of the book, just before she meets Win Johns, the Wall Street trader, who offers her a chance to join his firm and change her life forever. Which, to everyone’s great surprise, she does.
THANK YOU, JAMI ATTENBERG
Martha McPhee’s new novel is not what it appears to be.
According to the jacket copy, Dear Money (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $25) is a “Pygmalion tale of a novelist turned bond trader …. a raucous ride to the top of the income chain.” True enough, except that when a real-life bond trader came along and “propositioned” Martha McPhee in 2004 (“If you give me 18 months, I’ll turn you into a star trader.”), she behaved like a real-life writer. She saw a story in that proposition, explored the idea, researched it, and wrote a book that in its most inspired and accomplished pages has more to do with the joy of making literary art than it does with the art of making money….
June 2010, a magnificent month.
June 3: Dear Money was published — two very generous, wonderful friends came together to host a beautiful party for me and my novel, following a successful reading and Q&A at Barnes & Nobel. The friends are the talented editor Elisabeth Schmitz and the dazzling Maura McCormack. The bond trader who helped me so enormously in the writing of this novel came to the party and helped close it down.
June 8: I went to Italy for ten days to start work on a new book of nonfiction (I’m letting the fiction field lie fallow for a spell). The trip was made possible by my employer, Hofstra University. They have supported me from the day I started working there, helping to fund excursions for L’America, Dear Money and now the new book.
June 20: just home from Italy I turned around and got on a plane to San Francisco, all the air travel making me feel like a character in Walter Kirn’s novel, Up In The Air. Another great friend, Debbie Stier (read this post to find out more about how brilliant she is), accompanied me along with her darling daughter Daisy. We rode bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and lunched in Sausalito.
June 22: At The Booksmith on Haight Street: I discussed Dear Money with Janis Newman, the author of Mary, an historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln. She asked brilliant questions and chose a series of passages for me to read — all of it making me think about Dear Money in a new way. The audience, however, was slim and comprised mainly of Debbie’s wonderful colleagues and a friend of my grandmother’s. I didn’t sell many books that evening and felt badly for putting out the bookstore when they arranged such a spectacular event. I wrote to the owner of the bookstore, Praveen Madan, to thank him and apologize for the small turnout. He wrote back:
Thanks for your message and for giving us an opportunity to host you.
I don’t think you should feel bad about the turn out. All of us did our best to promote the event. And the value of the event has to take into account not just the people who showed and books sold that evening, but also the broad amount of publicity generated, word of mouth, and ongoing sales at the store before and after the event. Our email newsletter alone reaches over 6,000 people and many of them would not have found out about your book if we hadn’t done this event together. Plus we got a chance to meet and learn about your fascinating book and this knowledge will enable us to continue selling Dear Money in the store.”
All writers take note of his wisdom. And Booksmith, owned together with his wife, Christin, is an intelligently curated store.
June 23: I flew to LA to be interviewed by Michael Silverblatt of KCRW’s Bookworm. I have been listening to his show for a while on the internet. He is truly brilliant, extraordinarily perceptive. I felt, listening to him speak about Dear Money, that he knew it better than I did. The interview will air some time in August. He was fun too with a terrific, wicked sense of humor. That night I read at Book Soup which was very well attended because my baby sister, Deputy Mayor of Education for the City of Los Angeles, brought out her friends and wife’s family. My brother drove up from San Diego and two friends from middle school (I haven’t seen them in at least 25 years) came long distances too. At the end of the reading Deputy Mayor made certain everyone bought a copy of the book.
June 26: More generosity from the author of Devotion, Dani Shapiro, whose work I admire beyond measure. With her husband Michael Marin, she hosted a party at her lovely home in Connecticut. The guest list included the who’s who of the Connecticut literati. And she did all this simply because she admired Dear Money. Before the party, I gave a reading at another lovely, smart independent bookstore, The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, owned by the gracious Fran Kielty. My friend Elisabeth Schmitz came to the reading with me, bless her (she’s already heard me read and hosted a party for me). Our husbands stayed home to watch Ghana defeat the US. The reading was painfully small. But as I said to Fran, I have seen everything. Well, except, a massive audience. As it happened, a good friend from NYC stumbled into the bookstore just before I was to read. She was with her 9 year old and a friend. She was surprised to see me, asked what I was doing, hunted for her books, bought them and left as I read to Fran. She’d already been to my NYC reading.
Such is the life of the mid-list writer. Across June, a flurry of reviews — exhilarating, one disappointing: the roller coaster. But always I try to remember (when someone says something superficial or someone says something perceptive; when I read to 2 or 30) I am on a ride; I am fortunate; I am blessed with a career I love that takes me extraordinary places; I am blessed with friends and family who believe in me and who support me with their exquisite generosity. For this reason I am able to live a creative life.
Now for July: the 8th at 6pm Labyrinth Bookstore in Princeton and on July 24 at 10.30AM I’m on a panel at The Berkshire Wordfest at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, MA. My horoscope says that July will be a thrilling month for me professionally, though not without complication.
Hint: this picture is a metaphor!
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?
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:
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!
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….
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.
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.
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.
DEAR MONEY. Today’s my publication day! I’ll be on the Lenny Lopate show (AM 820 and FM 93.9) at noon and am reading at Barnes and Noble tonight at 7pm (82nd and Broadway).