Novel Views of Credit Card Debt

If you have problems handling your finances, you might enjoysharing your misery with fictitious characters who get into debt and the pathsthey take to try and get out.

Two fiction writers have chosen credit card debt as their majorplot theme. Whether these authors began their stories before the recession hitfull force or after, their publishers were smart enough to hurry their booksthrough production and get them on the shelves. talked to Gabrielle Zevin, who wrote "TheHole We're In," and Jess Walter, author of "The Financial Lives of Poets," to gaininsight into why credit card debt was used as a central plot point.

In Zevin's novel, the Pomeroy family makes misguided choicesconcerning both spirituality and their finances. Roger, the father, has goneback to school without a valid reason for doing so. Georgia, his wife, doesn'topen 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 parentswon't let her go to the college she wants. The parents' over-reliance on creditleads to some catastrophic consequences, and Patsy comes home from war to ahusband who is also in debt over his head.

In Walter's story, Matthew Prior quits his journalism job afew years back to host a financial poetry website. His wife, Lisa, decides tomake money reselling figurines on eBay. Both ventures fail. Before Matthew knowswhat happened, they are six days away from losing their home -- a problem hekeeps secret from Lisa. Then a series of bad choices propel the couple intobankruptcy. Whydid 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 originalidea was to see what happens to a girl who had gone to war and came home todebt. Then I added her parents having debt. Putting a character into debtaffects all other aspects of that person's life, so that's what my story isabout.

Jess Walter: I had been working on the story that became "The Financial Lives of Poets" off and onfor six months. When the economy started to dip in August 2008, I knew exactlywhat I would write. Then I wrote it fast, faster than any of my other books. Itwas like sticking my head out the window and describing what I saw. My main character, Matthew, was financially in over his headand realized he was partly to blame for it because he had built the house ofcards that was collapsing all around him. Whatare some of the reasons your characters fall into debt?

Zevin: The mother wants average things, like herdaughter to have a nice wedding and to buy Christmas presents. Georgiadoesn't have a way to pay for them, but as a mother she has the expectationsthat she should have them.

Walter: Culturally, Matt and his wife, Lisa,believed that the world would just keep on giving to them. They thought theirhome was their wealth as did most Americans in 2008. That "wealth" in "TheFinancial Lives of Poets" was aboutto disappear. And Lisa ran up their credit card debt believing she could buycollectibles online and sell them at a profit, but it didn't work. Whydid you choose keeping the debt secret from a spouse as an underlying theme?

Zevin: The need to conceal debt turns out to bemore 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 feellike a failure.

Walter: In my book it's not a total secret. Lisaknows they are in debt, but doesn't realize how bad it really is and that theyare about to lose their home. Matt thinks his value as a husband and provideris in question, and he wants to keep his wife from finding out about the foreclosureuntil he can cover his losses. Howdo your characters climb out of debt, or do they?

Zevin: The mother manages to pay off herfinancial debts. The father inherits money that allows him to get out of debtfinancially, 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 aneasy way out of debt because many Americans were facing this same challenge, soMatt and Lisa declared bankruptcy. I chose to reconcile the American dream withthe realities. My characters ended up having to scale back until they werebetter off. Whatdo you hope readers will gain from reading your book?

Zevin: I hopereaders will have a greater understanding that those in debt have stories toaccompany those debts. It's not just greed or gluttony that has brought it on.

Walter: I want readers to recognize that we wereall to blame for our economic crisis. We were all spending our future moneylike our 401(k)'s and our home mortgages by charging things on credit cards. Whatkind of fan mail have you received about your book?

Zevin: People say they related to the story andgot the message that living with secrets is no way to live.

Walter: I get e-mails and phone calls from peoplesaying they are in this same situation and spending money they don't have yetso my readers identified with my characters.  How has writing this book impacted yourfinancial behavior?

Zevin:  Immediately after I finished the book, Ican honestly say I didn't feel like buying anything.

Walter:  Although parts of the book weresemi-autobiographical, I've never had any credit card debt and am prettyconservative financially so it didn't impact me. Writing the book did give me abetter understanding of why people get into debt.

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