Discover more from Men Yell at Me
The American dream is a nightmare
A conversation with Molly McGhee
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Molly McGhee’s novel Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind was born of a fevered anxiety dream in the days after her mother’s death. Saddled with her own $120,000 in school loans, Molly found herself now struggling under the weight of the financial hole left by her mother.
In the days and months that followed, she dreamed about Jonathan Abernathy, a simple, well-meaning man, himself drowning in debt and desperate to dig his way out. Abernathy is conscripted to join a secret force of people who clean up the dreams of other Americans, wiping away their anxieties in order to make them better workers. He’s told that if he does this, all his debts will be erased.
The resulting story is a beautiful black hole of the weight of money, the hope of love, and the things we do to redeem ourselves. I was breathless reading it. Unable to put it down. Molly has created a world that plays on the edge of reality and dreams, asking us to ponder what is made up and what isn’t. What we can actually control and what is beyond our reach.
I spoke with Molly about debt, dreams, how money isn’t real, and how we need to rebuild our society.
Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind publishes on October 17 and you should order it now. Also, Bookshop.org has free shipping on books today! So you can order it from there.
“A text is co-created between the writer and the reader. It is a collaborative process. So, putting out a book to me is an invitation for people to collaborate, to think about this with me. Every time someone tells me they read my book, it just feels really special. I feel so honored that they would spend a part of their life on this earth thinking about some of the things that I think about every day.”
Lyz: How did this book come about?
Molly: My mom passed away in 2020, and I only had a few days of bereavement leave. I was working as an editor, and it was made clear to me that if I didn't cut short my time dealing with the logistics of my mother's death, I might not have a job to come back to. So that was very stressful to navigate in COVID when, obviously, everything in the world was going wrong.
I actually ended up missing my mom's funeral because I just had to have a job. I had to pay rent. And this experience has been one of the biggest regrets of my life and has informed a lot of the decisions that I've been making for the past three years since it happened.
I am very pro-unionizing the publishing industry. And that was why it is such a personal cause for me and one that I dedicated months and months of my time to. I probably looked like a crazy woman from the outside, but I never wanted anyone else to go through what I had gone through. It was just horrible.
During this time when I was trying to grapple with all of this, I was working on Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind. And grappling with the problem of, what does our culture of overwork mean? And can the individual be morally complicit in systemic failures? What ways does that impact all of us? How does that impact our community? How does it impact the way we interact with our neighbors, the way we interact with people we love? How do our jobs change our experience in this world?
And at the same time, I was having recurring dreams of what I guess other people might call the plot of the novel. I was having those dreams every night when I went to sleep. So it felt very natural to me to think about those two things together and use one to explore the other.
Lyz: I was reading this book The Farm by Joanne Ramos, and people kept describing it as a dystopia. And I was like, "This isn't dystopia. This is just what happens if somebody just takes an idea that’s out there and does it." This is your book as well.
Molly: Yeah, that's exactly how I feel it. It's like, "I'm so sorry, but I don't think this is dystopia." This is just like, what if reality were 10 percent different? Yes. It's just like our world with a parable.
A bunch of people keep referring to the book as a dystopian or near-reality fiction, and I'm like, "Okay. Yeah, sure, but it could be happening right now."
Lyz: Are we sure it's not happening?
Molly: Somebody tagged me on Twitter the other day. There was a viral post where someone was like, "What's your biggest conspiracy theory that you believe in?"
And someone retweeted it and was like, "The CIA actually are in our dreams." And I was like, "Hmm, close." But I already wrote about that and it's fiction.
Lyz: How did you sustain that level of intense narrative voice? Was that something that was refined through the editing process or were you just in this fevered writing state that you were just able to sustain it so well?
Molly: I had a full-time job while I was writing it. I was waking up at 6:00 AM every day and then writing until 9:00 a.m. And then working all day, and then writing from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. I was obsessed and I had really horrible insomnia.
When I was awake in the evenings, I was writing this book. Like, if I couldn't sleep. We could talk about the craft and we could examine some techniques that other writers have used that have maybe informed my work. But to me, it just came. It just felt... I love reading. You know what I mean? And I just really wanted it to be a good read while also still being a literary novel. I wanted the reader to have that feeling of I actually am just stuck here in this world with him. And what's going to happen? So all of my decisions around this book were very much about what is the reading experience?
Lyz: You were thinking about your audience.
Molly: I get so annoyed when I'm reading a book and it feels like the author is not thinking of anybody except for themselves. To buy a hardback book, that's like $30. You know what I mean? That's a lot of money.
Who am I to ask someone to buy something I made for $30 that will not be enjoyable in some way for them? I just can't comprehend writing something that was not entertaining.
Lyz: I say this all the time, too. "If I’m bored, the reader is bored.” And why would I do that to the reader?
Molly: I think of myself as a reader first. I was always a reader. And when people are like, "What do you do?," I still have to work really hard not to say I'm a reader because that makes no sense. When I'm writing, it's just because I love reading so much.
Lyz: This is the thing that always fascinates me, and I've been thinking a lot about it with newsletter writing too. Why would you want to participate in a genre of writing that you don't respect and enjoy?
Molly: I went through the writing school process, all the stuff you're “supposed” to do. My MFA experience often really confused me because it was very hard for me to understand some of the things that my classmates took as a given.
Once I realized I am writing because I’m just very passionate about reading, and that's not why everybody else is writing — a lot of people are writing because they want to be seen as writers, and that's totally valid. But that's never been my intention, so, all of the “rules” that made no sense to me, I realized, "Oh, those rules aren't for me. Those are for people who just want to be capital-W Writers." I just want to read books. You know what I mean? I just want to read cool books.
Lyz: This gets to something that I love about your writing and your approach to your writing — that you are very much just like, "This book is in response to this situation in my life." And not a lot of writers do that. They like to say, "Everything is pretend. Nothing touches my life." And there's part of me that understands that, especially I think for female writers…
Molly: Yeah. We always get started with autofiction, et cetera.
Lyz: And people do it to me in a different way. But I'm always like, "Sure, I'll answer these questions, but ask some men, too." I don't think the solution is for me to stop answering these questions. The solution is to ask men too, because they're fascinating questions.
Molly: Totally. I think the idea of male genius is just that they cannot communicate their inspiration process. Their communication skills aren't very good. You know what I mean?
[Editor's note: At this point, both Lyz and Molly cackled like witches.]
So it's like, "How did you come up with this idea?"
And they're like, "It's not related to my life at all."
It's like, "Babe, I'm so sorry to tell you, but everything you ever do is going to be related to your life." There is no such thing as a lack of bias. All of us have bias because all of us are living in a different reality. We are living in a world that is shaped completely by our personal experiences. And when our personal experiences overlap with other people, that's where we find community and create meaning.
That's what art is, though. Art is taking something and making something out of it. I completely understand wanting to be private about the thing that you're taking. You are under no obligation to anyone to ever tell them about the emotional reality that inspired your art piece. But I'm a teacher, so I like to teach. For me, being transparent about the fact that making art is a very emotional, cathartic, obsessive process is something that's important because when I was coming up through my MFA, that's not how anyone around me was talking about it.
And so, I felt very much like I shouldn't be in the room.
Lyz: You said something in an interview to the effect of, "We believe that if we can do the right thing, follow the right steps, go to college, get a job, that our lives will be okay. But they aren’t.”
Molly. Girl, what you are talking about is spiritual health. The thing is we're surrounded by religions but the religions actually aren't about your spiritual health at all.
Philosophies and religions at this point have been politicized to the point that most of them today are used as weapons of destruction.
When you think about the question like spiritual health, do I have the capacity to wake up the next day or am I in such intense despair that I cannot live like this anymore? When the choice gets down to either changing your life or dying, that's when you're like, "Oh my God, these rules don't matter."
Lyz: The rules were never made for our freedom, our happiness, or our liberation.
Molly: Life is always changing; the world is always changing. And we have to ask ourselves, "What does it mean?" Not necessarily to be happy, but what does it mean to be at peace? What does it mean to be content with the life that surrounds us and to not feel like it's crushing us? How do we get through life without being crushed? I think that is a really important question. I think probably the most important question that any individual can face is, how can I do my best to live on this planet and not make it worse?
“There is no such thing as a lack of bias. All of us have bias because all of us are living in a different reality. We are living in a world that is shaped completely by our personal experiences. And when our personal experiences overlap with other people, that's where we find community and create meaning.”
Lyz: Your book is so deeply weird and fun, but it is also an issues book like Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. But it made me think that there are so many ways to talk about these issues — why a novel instead of nonfiction?
Molly: When I was growing up, I was at church like a lot, Lyz. I was at church a lot. I went on Wednesdays, I went Sundays. I went for more than four hours each time. I read my Bible every day. I was obsessed with God when I was a teenager and preteen. One of the things I loved about the Bible was that it's just a collection of stories and ideas that, when you contemplate them deeply, can be used to create a personal philosophy of what it means to live a moral life.
What I hated, though, was going to church and listening to preachers tell me shit like, "God can only speak to you through the man in your household." To me, it's just such a corruption of the philosophy of the text. And I realized, that is what literature is for, and that what I loved was actually the literary experience. Because the literary experience is the opposite of preaching. It is giving you the privacy to sit with a very big idea and to spiritually and emotionally comprehend it. You do not have to have an answer.
Literature is never asking you to have an answer. Literature is just asking you to sit in it and observe it. And to me, that is so powerful because none of us have answers ever. We just have things that are like attempts. We just try to fix things to the best of our ability.
And I just think reading and writing are so special because they’re a way of communicating with someone that honors their personhood, their lives, their experience. A text is co-created between the writer and the reader. It is a collaborative process. So, putting out a book to me is an invitation for people to collaborate, to think about this with me. Every time someone tells me they read my book, it just feels really special. I feel so honored that they would spend a part of their life on this earth thinking about some of the things that I think about every day.
Lyz: Our generation was conceived as Reagan-era conservatism and Evangelicalism began their political march across the country. That's what influenced our parents to become these Evangelicals and that's what I'm born out of. And there's so much literature now being written by these children of conservatism, and you cannot condescend to us because we fucking know. We know the Bible better than you do. I was in Awana until I was 15. I got the biggest goddamn trophy they hand out, which means that I have quite literally memorized one-quarter of the Bible.
Molly: We were true believers. And when you are a true believer, you can tell when people do not grasp the concept. And the thing about all of these very, very loud, usually male church wardens, is that they just fundamentally are not Christian. They're not Christian but they have ascended to these power-holding positions where they shape all of our understandings of what it means to be Christian. So when conversations erupt on that side of the thing, I'm just like, "You can call yourself any name you want but I know the difference between a rose and a piece of shit." I'm not an idiot. You can hold up a rose to me and tell me it's shit, and I would still know what it is.
The people who end up leaving the church are the people who tried every single fucking thing they could possibly think of.
Lyz: So much of your book has to do with things that feel real but are also made up — dreams, debt, money. And the richer you are, the less real it is for you. And the poorer you are, the more real it is for you.
Molly: That is the truth. The poorer you are, the more real it is because you have no power whatsoever to dictate the rules of the system you are participating in.
The people who dictate the rules do not give a fuck about you. They do not care. So, it's sad. It's so depressing. It's so upsetting and it's truly madness-inducing. It will make you not angry-mad but insanity-mad. Because you realize everything around our society is contrived at one point or another by someone, and it's just a thing that we have internalized and adopted. I love David Graeber's work and I'm a huge fan of his. I'm really sad that he's no longer on this planet. But he has this quote that says, "The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently."
We have the power to change it, but we're stuck in a sort of catch-22 because we have the power to change it, but change is also the thing that humans fear the most, right?
So it's this constant battle between having the courage and bravery to try to say, "Hey, this isn't working anymore. We need to come up with something together." Or not succumbing to that fear where it's just like, "This is inevitable. We can't escape this. This is just the way it is, and we're fucked." It's hard to navigate that and I don't always succeed.
We have made some really big realizations in the last 100 years. Namely, that it turns out that no matter what you look like on the outside, you're still a person. This is a major development in terms of human history. For all human history, people have been like, "That is not true. Some people are animals. Some people don't have thoughts."
Now that we've realized this, we've got to fix some shit because it turns out what we've been doing, that's not okay. We have this new information. Now let's make our world better with it.
Lyz: We built all our systems on the belief that some people were less than others. Now we know, whether we admit it or not, that everybody is a person. But it's blowing our minds because they're like, "Why can't we just admit that everybody's a person and keep doing things the same?" Because you literally built a system of policing, of money, of governance, of roads. Your roads are biased, your marriages are biased, and your homes are biased. You built it—
Molly: Thousands of years you built this thing just for the white dude.
Lyz: And everybody's like, "We'll do anything but change."
Molly: Yeah. Because they're scared of it. Because they're like, "What if we fail?" And it's a valid fear because we are humans, and a lot of times, we do fail. We fail a lot. And our failures have consequences and that is really scary. One of my favorite books that I've read recently is this book called Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica.
And it's about a world where it's gone meatless because of a pandemic that killed all the livestock. So in order to replace the protein that meat was giving, they begin to clone people and they use those clones as their sources.
It's a really intense exploration of that concept. And there's so many parts throughout the book where you as the reader are grappling with the narrator and the main character's complicity in the system and the decisions they make. And that feels really real to me. That is what being alive is like. We treat some people like they are just clones, and they're not. So, it's just a lot. And then it makes you sad. It just is overwhelming sometimes to try to hold all of this in your brain.
Lyz: Why are writers and publishers so bad about talking about class?
Molly: So really, that comes out of a place of ignorance. And we have this narrative that sexism, classism, racism, it's malicious. Now, 50 percent of the time, yes, it is. Fifty percent, it comes out of ignorance, and that ignorance is embarrassing. And the only way to fix it is to educate yourself. Now, what does it mean to publish more working-class writers? What would that look like? Now, there are some logistical things that you would have to consider. First of all, most working-class writers I don't think are going to come up through traditional structures. I think of Bud Smith, his book Teenager is one of my favorite books. I love that book. And when you look at his CV and his publication history, it's really untraditional. An author who I really, really love is Scott McClanahan. He wrote a book called The Sarah Book, which is one of my favorite books of all time. And it was published so nontraditionally. Now he, in my opinion, is one of the great writers of working-class experience working today, but he's not necessarily publishing his work through traditional publication methods.
So, how can publishers find these people? They're going to have to get creative with how they connect to them. With writers of color, something I noticed when I was an editor was that agents were a huge barrier of accessibility. I would meet a writer of color at an event and I would talk to them or I would read their work, and I as an editor would want to buy it but I could not find an agent to represent them. That's crazy.
Everybody working in Big Five Publishing is working themselves to the brink of collapse. So it makes sense that they cannot implement major changes right now because so many of them are concerned with survival. So, the dedication has to come from the top down. It has to be a decision from the CEOs where it's like, "Hi, we are going to actually fund this. We are going to put resources, time, and people to this." And trying to get this done. I really like Nadxieli Nieto's catalog of books. She's at Flatiron, which is a publishing house of McMillan. She was brought on during all the tumult around American Dirt.
That is an example of a publishing company hearing what the fucking problem was, creating a paid position and dedicating time and resources and energy toward actually connecting with the reader base they harmed. Should they pay Nadxieli more? Probably. I don't know what her salary is.
This is an area where for the first time, really in all of our history, we are giving print space to people who are not the predominant class, the predominant sex, the predominant sexuality. The predominant race. It's going to take some innovation and we're not going to be able to find and connect with those people through traditional methods because traditional methods were not built for them.
Molly wrote an essay about debt and class and generational wealth for The Guardian. She also wrote about one of my favorite novels, Dead Souls, for the Paris Review.