A Conversation with Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of Breaking the Bank
Q. Where did the inspiration for a magical ATM come from? What sort of research process did you undergo for this novel?
A. I was having a conversation with my brother and he asked why whenever the bank made an error, it was always in their favor. I agreed, but was then reminded of an incident that happened years earlier (before the advent of ATMs) when a young teller gave me four hundred dollars more than I was supposed to get. I admit I got a little rush when I saw all that “found” money; it was thrilling and I had a few seconds of imagining what I might do with it. But I knew I couldn’t keep it and so I returned to the window and pointed out the mistake to her. She was enormously grateful; it turned out she had only been on the job for a week or so, and her error would have gotten her fired. I told all this to my brother and it prompted me to think about what might have happened if the “giver” had not been a person but instead one of the by-now ubiquitous ATMs. Would that have changed my feelings? Those musings were the first stirrings of this story.
In order to research certain aspects of the novel, I consulted with the community outreach office at my local police precinct; they were able to show me around the building (my first time seeing an actual jail cell and a holding pen) and outline certain aspects of police procedure. I also did some research into U.S. paper currencies, and the ten-thousand-dollar bill, to find out if such a large denomination had ever existed, and if so, when.
Q. When beginning a new novel, do you have a set outline that you follow, or do you go where the narrative takes you?
A. In writing fiction, I never work from an outline. Instead, I work from a voice that starts whispering, with varying degrees of intensity and urgency, in my ear. I wait to hear that voice and when I do, I am led by it. I feel like the writing, when it is going well, is less about invention and more about faithful transcription.
Q. In your earlier works, such as In Dahlia’s Name and The Four Temperaments, and also in Breaking the Bank, a central theme seems to be a strong sense of family. How important is family to you? How much inspiration do you draw from your real life?
A. I think family is the primal narrative; it’s the first cast of characters for every single person on earth. When I was younger and writing only short stories, my work was more concretely autobiographical, but in my novels, this has been less true. Instead, I’ve attempted to weave bits and pieces of my own experience into a larger fictional context. Sometimes the connections between the work and the life are apparent to me at the outset; other times, those connections are forged in a less conscious way and I become aware of them only after the fact.
Q. You’ve written adult novels and a great many children’s titles. How is writing for an adult reader different from writing for a young one? What made you decide to write in both genres?
A. I wrote my first children’s book because my mother, a painter and illustrator, came to me with a contract in hand. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write for children or if I even could. Now I find that I enjoy it very much; it offers an interesting and useful balance to the other work I do. The books that are most satisfying to me are the chapter books (I’ve written three), which are in effect novels for children.
Q. Mia is a modern woman faced with all the agonies and ecstasies that go along with that. Did you set out to address the struggles that single working mothers face today?
A. Not in any deliberate way, but once the character took hold, I realized that I could articulate the concerns, frustrations, and hopes of so many women who find themselves in this position.
Q. You were the editor and a contributor to The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty. How did you come to be involved in this project?
A. In 1998, I wrote an essay about how much I continued to love Barbie despite the backlash against her; the essay appeared in the Lives section of The New York Times Magazine and it generated sufficient interest for me to put together a book.
Q. You wrote an article about thrift stores for The New York Times (December 5, 2008). Is thrift-store shopping a passion of yours?
A. A deep and abiding passion. I’ve always been drawn to the lure of the old. The more worn, used, discarded, and abandoned it is, the better I love it. The smell of mildew gets my heart racing. I feel like I am rescuing these objects, finding meaning and value in what has been left behind.
Q. What are you working on next?
A. A novel about a fortyish former ballet dancer, somewhat bitter, somewhat dissatisfied, living in New York City. At the outset of the book, her younger sister dies suddenly, and the protagonist moves in with her brother-in-law to help out with her three young nieces and nephews.
Q. If you were to find a magical ATM like Mia, what would you do with the money?
A. Aha! The 64,000-dollar question! I think I’d splurge a little (redoing the kitchen, taking my daughter to Paris) and then make sure I had money tucked away for my children’s education, my retirement, etc. And I hope I’d follow Mia’s example and give a good bit of it away.