To Write Her Debut Novel, Molly McGhee Had to Leave Publishing


On March 11, 2022, Molly McGhee shared a resignation letter on Twitter. She was quitting her job as an assistant editor at Tor, despite the fact that her first acquisition, The Atlas Six, had debuted at number three on the New York Times Bestseller List. She cited “systemwide prejudice against junior employees, rooted in the invisibility of junior employees’ workload” among her reasons for leaving. McGhee wasn’t alone. That week, she joined a rash of junior and midlevel publishing employees making an exodus from their underpaid posts and the industry writ large. The Times responded to the #publishingburnout phenomenon with an article titled “When Will Publishing Stop Starving Its Young?”

In retrospect, these were among the first rumblings of a labor movement that has come to define 2023. As I write this, from Los Angeles, at the epicenter of Hot Labor Summer, multiple strikes have seized the public’s attention. Biden is moving forward with plans to cancel student loan debt. Executives who were, until recently, heralded as visionaries and geniuses—like Iger and Musk—are being recast as villains. Workers are having a moment.

Re-enter Molly McGhee. She’s back, this time as the author of the hotly anticipated Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind. The novel’s eponymous protagonist is barely getting by until a loan forgiveness program offers him an unusual job editing the dreams of middle-class workers to improve their corporate productivity. A surrealist look at the twin burdens of crushing debt and exploitative work, Jonathan Abernathy is at times dark and even terrifying. Still, the book contains humor, heart, and maybe even hope for the future of the American workplace.

I sat down with McGhee on Zoom where she shared the influence of horror novels and bad jobs on her work as well as her thoughts on our debtor system and the current state of the publishing industry.

Kate Brody: Let’s start with your Paris Review essay. In it, you wrote about the experience of handling your late mother’s estate. Did dealing with her medical debt influence the character of Abernathy, who is also saddled with inherited debt?

Molly McGhee: I’m going to say something melodramatic: writing nonfiction feels like carving out my soul and trying to live with it outside of my body. I’m a very slow writer when it comes to telling the truth. The truth is a hard thing to capture. It’s much easier to pin down in fiction. My mom passed away unexpectedly at the outset of COVID. I spent a year debilitatingly depressed, but I still had to worry about handling her estate and going to work the next day. For me, dealing with those two elements in parallel illuminated the way American bureaucracies work and the lack of humanity that we have built into our systems. I was the person in my family who handled all the details of my mom’s passing. Every person that I talked to on the bureaucratic side, including the hospital administrators, were so jaded. The entire experience felt Sisyphean and hopeless. I found a lot of reprieve writing Jonathan. It allowed me to explore that hopelessness without it overwhelming me.

KB: Your novel was the first time that I’d seen the question of inherited debt in fiction. My sister and I dealt with something similar last year and found ourselves frantically Googling all the time, trying to figure out—what’s the law here? Could somebody come for us and collect on our parent’s unpaid hospital bills? And it does feel very dehumanizing to be forced into a mindset, during a personal tragedy, of: am I going to have to pay for this?

MM: The entire debtor system in America is dependent on keeping the lower classes ignorant. So, when you get a call from a debtor who is trying to collect on the debt of the deceased, you might not realize that what they’re doing (contacting you) is actually illegal.

Cory Doctorow just did a really interesting essay about how there are no effective legal limits on debt collection. I felt deeply taken advantage of as a 25-year-old woman grieving the loss of my mother, getting 10 to 20 calls from these people who were avidly trying to convince me that I owed to them and threatening to sue me if I didn’t pay. It seems deeply, deeply inhumane—and it is— but the reality is that those people on the other line have to get a paycheck or they’re going to be on my end of it. I don’t think people who have a substantial financial safety net have to worry about these things in the same way. They just hire other people, like lawyers, to deal with it.

KB: There’s a lot in the book about work, as well as certain cultural narratives around capitalism. Abernathy, for being a victim of this system, has internalized a lot of these narratives. For example, although he has a system of positive affirmations, he obviously believes he’s a loser who is at least partially to blame for his own predicament. Relatedly, the minute he gets a taste of “success,” he’s “pulling himself up by his bootstraps” and recasting the menial work of strangers as virtuous and good. This felt really true and also sad. Why do you think these narratives are so hard to step away from?

MM: It is a huge truth to grapple with that our entire nation is built on the exploitation of others. Because if that is true and you experience success, then you have to deal with fact that you are now part of that system, participating in the exploitation of others. And that is hard to hold, especially if you come from a place where your loved ones were exploited, because it’s not invisible to you in the way that it’s invisible to a lot of people. I understood Jonathan’s arc, because a lot of the folks that I grew up with—I would describe them as having a lower income. But their pride would never allow them to think that way about themselves. They would say they were “having a hard time” or “down on their luck.” When you’re broke, you just think you’re one move away from it all working out. The relief that I feel now that I have a little bit of money is astronomical. I can see how for some people, in order to tamp down the tragedy of leaving other people behind, they convince themselves that their own success or talent has brought them good fortune. But it’s all luck. It doesn’t have anything to do with how good of a person or how bad of a person you are. It is comforting to think that if you are just good enough things will work out. But it never really works that way. Even if you luck out, you can’t bring everybody in the lifeboat with you. That’s something I struggle with a lot.

KB: I wanted to bring up Jennifer Wilson’s piece in The New York Times, “Student Debt Killed the Plot.” I know you’re quoted in that piece. She says, “If plots a sequence of events, then the student loan crisis is upending the scale at which storylines real and fictional can progress.” And one fascinating thing about the book is that it does kind of break this rule of fiction that characters have to want things because Abernathy doesn’t—and can’t—really want anything. Because of his debt, he’s pure survival.

MM: I’m a huge nerd for plot, which might be an unpopular thing to confess. Event sequencing imitates life in that it keeps going. There’s no such thing as opting out of the progress of time. Many of the characters in this book might not have wants that traditional readers of fiction will recognize, because their wants on the page are technically needs. In a situation where you can only meet your needs, waking up the next day is all that matters. Psychological pain is very similar neurologically to physical pain. When we’re in pain, we want the pain to stop, and we would do just about anything to make it stop. The characters populating this novel are incapable of thinking weekly or monthly. They are in so much pain they can only focuses on a day at a time.

KB: I’m glad you brought up time because I wanted to talk to you about the way you use time in the novel. Jonathan—and, by extension the reader—often becomes disoriented when he’s performing this job. So as much as he might be thinking day to day, he loses big chunks—sometimes days or weeks—working double shifts.

[After my mother passed unexpectedly,] I spent a year debilitatingly depressed, but I still had to worry about handling her estate and going to work the next day.

MM: I knew when I started the book that one of the key themes I wanted to explore was the subjectivity of time. Intense focus on the day to day can warp our understanding of how our actions are impacting other people. I am personally very interested in time, consciousness, death, love. And I’m often embarrassed by those interests. I’m pretty sure they’ve been done a million times at this point, and I’m not sure what I can add to the conversation. But I have a lovely editor at Fourth Estate, Kishani Widyaratna, and she encouraged me to not shy away from those topics. She felt that time was really central to the story and encouraged me to bring that to the forefront in edits.

KB: There is another oft-cited rule of writing from workshops that is basically: you shouldn’t write dreams. And obviously, the whole book is filled with these gorgeous, terrifying dream sequences. So I was wondering how you approached writing those scenes. They’re like little horror novels within the larger story.

MM: You just picked up on one of my pet interests. I was helping launch a horror imprint when I was writing this novel, so I was reading a lot of horror novels and thinking a lot about what horror could look like in the future. How do I want to put this? Sometimes rules don’t make any sense. Art imitates life. For me, dreams are a big part of my life. I have severe insomnia, and all of my ideas come to me in dreams. A lot of “rules” exist because teachers are tired of reading badly done tropes. What I tell my students is: if it’s important to you, and it’s been done a million times, you’re welcome to try, but figuring out how to make an over-done trope interesting for the one millionth and first time seems harder than doing something new.

KB: Your novel is doing something different in the sense that the dreams are not purely operating on a symbolic level. Abernathy is literally inside people’s dreams, manipulating them, so the dreams become another setting.

MM: It’s never fun to read about a character who is not facing any consequences or whose behavior isn’t actually impacting their life. Like when people write at the end, “and he woke up,” the reason people are mad at those writers isn’t because dreams aren’t interesting, it’s because that choice negates everything that happened before it, emotionally and physically. So readers feel robbed. I really hate that in fiction, when I’ve invested so much, only to have the catharsis ripped away from me at the end.

KB: You have these short chapters peppered throughout the book, and taken together, they outline almost a philosophy. I highlighted chapter 30: “What does it mean to be successful? People ask themselves this question to the point of obsession. They believe it’s their mission in life to “succeed,” as if life is something to be climbed on top of and bested. Abernathy is one such a person. Though, of course, like most people who are afflicted by preoccupation with success, he remains oblivious to the true pleasures in life. As such, he is willing to sacrifice them.” And then we get a chapter and section break.

Psychological pain is similar neurologically to physical pain. When we’re in pain, we want the pain to stop, and we would do anything to make it stop.

MM: I came to writing as a poet when I was younger, which is embarrassing to admit. I had no success as a poet whatsoever, and I switched mediums because my lack of ability kept breaking my heart. In my fiction, you can still tell. I like to leave gaps for the reader to think and feel alongside the text. Sometimes contemporary fiction can be really claustrophobic with its insistence on continual temporal, action-oriented narration.

KB: Your book announcement came on the heels of your viral tweet about leaving the publishing industry. I wonder about how your own work experience affected or didn’t affect the writing of this book.

MM: I have always been interested in systems. Publishing was a system that I was very interested in as soon as I knew that I wanted to write. I was one of those misguided writers who thought: if I go into publishing, everything will become clear to me. This is a common misconception. I found it very depressing, as an artist, to learn how the meat is made. If you have ever thought of yourself as an artist, don’t go into the business of your art. Business and art are not compatible.

What I will say is that I loved the ability to meet, promote, and teach new authors. I also learned a lot while I was at my former company about how art is commodified. And I find comfort in that, because I feel very protective of my work. I now know enough about the process that I can tell when something is bullshit.

KB: Is it strange, with the book coming out, for you to be interacting with the publishing industry as an author who has publicly critiqued the industry?

MM: What I have in my favor is that I’m very southern. My personality when you first meet me is exactly the same as it is always, so I don’t think a lot of people who knew me were surprised. I seem to be pathologically incapable of ignoring an elephant in the room. Molly has thoughts and feelings once again, etc. I am not coming from a malicious place. I don’t want to see the whole industry burn down. I love books. I love the art of making books. I love reading books. I love writing books. To me it’s about problem solving: what can we realistically do? How can we face hard truths without being made helpless by them? The weirdest part of being an author now is that people actually care what I have to say.

KB: The timing of this book’s release is really interesting given all the conversation around student loan forgiveness and the labor strikes. I’m in LA, so all we talk about all day is the dual strike. Do you feel any hope that we might see some change when it comes to debt or working conditions?

You have to be able to pay your rent and feed your family. There’s a limit on how much labor can be stolen from you.

MM: A lot of our language around these conversations are strangely religious. Even student loan forgiveness. We could just as easily call that market correction, but there’s something about the word forgiveness that implies judgment. And humans love judging other people in relation to themselves. I don’t know whether things will work out or not. I feel a lot of anxiety about it every day. What I do know is that the methods of exploitation that we relied upon in the late 20th century are no longer going to work for us in the 21st century. The world is changing. I am hoping that the ownership class—the wealthy class who are charge of our economics—realize that they are not better than anyone else and that it is very important to treat the people working for you with dignity, because those people do not have to work for you. It’s their choice to work for you. Yes, you’ve made it really hard to choose something else. But—and you see this with the writers’ strike—eventually people are not going to suffer anymore. You have to be able to pay your rent and feed your family. There’s a limit on how much labor can be stolen from you.

KB: The book is realistic about the burdens of work and debt, about the inescapability of some of these systems. But there is a kind of hopefulness that appears in a character like Timmy, who is quite young. Maybe I’m projecting, but I felt like, she’s so bright and precocious, she’s not going to accept this system that trapped Abernathy and her mother.

MM: And time exists. Our perspective of things changes depending on when we come into the narrative. There are a lot of folks coming into the narrative of America who were not alive in the 1980s. They feel no responsibility or alliance to the economics of the 1980s. I think there’s going to be a lot of individual suffering as those people try to convince their elders that things have changed, especially considering we live in a gerontocracy, where a majority of our leaders and representatives are so far removed from what it’s like to be a citizen coming of age in the world they’ve built.

We’re seeing with COVID, everyone’s saying: “there’s a worker shortage. We don’t know why, but we can’t hire anyone.” And it’s like—yeah, that makes sense, because they all died! Yes, your service is going to be interrupted. You can ignore the consequences of your actions for as long as you would like, and maybe you will be protected for a while. But eventually your life will be made worse because of your own cruelty. Individual sufferings compile, and enough individuals becomes a collective.

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