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
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.