Novel views of credit card debt
Two writers use card debt as central plot themes in their stories
By Heather Larson
If you have problems handling your finances, you might enjoy sharing your misery with fictitious characters who get into debt and the paths they take to try and get out.
Two fiction writers have chosen credit card debt as their major plot theme. Whether these authors began their stories before the recession hit full force or after, their publishers were smart enough to hurry their books through production and get them on the shelves.
CreditCards.com talked to Gabrielle Zevin, who wrote "The Hole We're In," and Jess Walter, author of "The Financial Lives of Poets," to gain insight into why credit card debt was used as a central plot point.
In Zevin's novel, the Pomeroy family makes misguided choices concerning both spirituality and their finances. Roger, the father, has gone back to school without a valid reason for doing so. Georgia, his wife, doesn't open the bills for months because she doesn't know how she's going to pay them, and their daughter Patsy signs up to fight the war in Iraq because her parents won't let her go to the college she wants. The parents' over-reliance on credit leads to some catastrophic consequences, and Patsy comes home from war to a husband who is also in debt over his head.
In Walter's story, Matthew Prior quits his journalism job a few years back to host a financial poetry website. His wife, Lisa, decides to make money reselling figurines on eBay. Both ventures fail. Before Matthew knows what happened, they are six days away from losing their home -- a problem he keeps secret from Lisa. Then a series of bad choices propel the couple into bankruptcy.
CreditCards.com: Why did you choose credit card debt as a theme in your book?
Gabrielle Zevin: When I started writing "The Hole We're In," the recession hadn't begun, but it was obvious that it was coming. My original idea was to see what happens to a girl who had gone to war and came home to debt. Then I added her parents having debt. Putting a character into debt affects all other aspects of that person's life, so that's what my story is about.
Jess Walter: I had been working on the story that became "The Financial Lives of Poets" off and on for six months. When the economy started to dip in August 2008, I knew exactly what I would write. Then I wrote it fast, faster than any of my other books. It was like sticking my head out the window and describing what I saw. My main character, Matthew, was financially in over his head and realized he was partly to blame for it because he had built the house of cards that was collapsing all around him.
CreditCards.com: What are some of the reasons your characters fall into debt?
Zevin: The mother wants average things, like her daughter to have a nice wedding and to buy Christmas presents. Georgia doesn't have a way to pay for them, but as a mother she has the expectations that she should have them.
Walter: Culturally, Matt and his wife, Lisa, believed that the world would just keep on giving to them. They thought their home was their wealth as did most Americans in 2008. That "wealth" in "The Financial Lives of Poets" was about to disappear. And Lisa ran up their credit card debt believing she could buy collectibles online and sell them at a profit, but it didn't work.
CreditCards.com: Why did you choose keeping the debt secret from a spouse as an underlying theme?
Zevin: The need to conceal debt turns out to be more of a disaster than the debt itself. I had some debts myself after college, and I didn't want anyone to know about them. It's embarrassing and you feel like a failure.
Walter: In my book it's not a total secret. Lisa knows they are in debt, but doesn't realize how bad it really is and that they are about to lose their home. Matt thinks his value as a husband and provider is in question, and he wants to keep his wife from finding out about the foreclosure until he can cover his losses.
CreditCards.com: How do your characters climb out of debt, or do they?
Zevin: The mother manages to pay off her financial debts. The father inherits money that allows him to get out of debt financially, but he's still estranged from two of his children permanently. Patsy gets out of debt because she can do better than her parents.
Walter: I didn't want to give my characters an easy way out of debt because many Americans were facing this same challenge, so Matt and Lisa declared bankruptcy. I chose to reconcile the American dream with the realities. My characters ended up having to scale back until they were better off.
CreditCards.com: What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?
Zevin: I hope readers will have a greater understanding that those in debt have stories to accompany those debts. It's not just greed or gluttony that has brought it on.
Walter: I want readers to recognize that we were all to blame for our economic crisis. We were all spending our future money like our 401(k)s and our home mortgages by charging things on credit cards.
CreditCards.com: What kind of fan mail have you received about your book?
Zevin: People say they related to the story and got the message that living with secrets is no way to live.
Walter: I get e-mails and phone calls from people saying they are in this same situation and spending money they don't have yet so my readers identified with my characters.
CreditCards.com: How has writing this book impacted your financial behavior?
Zevin: Immediately after I finished the book, I can honestly say I didn't feel like buying anything.
Walter: Although parts of the book were semi-autobiographical, I've never had any credit card debt and am pretty conservative financially so it didn't impact me. Writing the book did give me a better understanding of why people get into debt.
See related: How to cope when spouse's secret debts come to light, 8 novels show how credit cards appear in fiction, Pay off balances or close accounts to boost credit score?, How to pay off $11,000 in card debt in three years, Extreme ways to tackle debt, Tales from the credit crypt: Counselors' crazy debt client stories
Published: December 20, 2010
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