Talking About Talking and Writing About Money, With Benjamin Anastas

by Michael McGrath

The novelist Benjamin Anastas’s new memoir Too Good to Be True is an unflinching account of a lean period in the writer’s life. Marked by financial and romantic uncertainty, his challenges and frustrations will be familiar to anyone who has ever dodged a debt collector, borrowed money from friends, or felt they were falling irreversibly behind. Mr. Anastas also reveals the bleak fiscal realities behind a seemingly enviable literary career. He was kind enough to answer a few questions over email.

Michael McGrath: In Too Good To Be True you lay out your financial situation in pretty stark terms. Bills, credit card statements, student loans, etc. I don’t even like to look at my account balance at the ATM. How cathartic was the writing of this book? Why do you think money is so hard to talk about?

Benjamin Anastas: Money is hard for people to talk about because we associate it with so much more than spending power. That bank balance you don’t want to check at the ATM? It’s a measure of your value. I mean, who wants to see their life laid bare on a slip from the ATM? I sure don’t. I did find it cathartic to write about being broke in the memoir, though, if only because once I put it down on the page, I could laugh about it instead of just feeling crushed and demoralized. Taking your son to buy groceries with a baggie of change is a humiliation you won’t soon forget. But when you can write about it from the inside and put it in a book, the experience is easier to swallow.

MM: The Coinstar scene, in which you scrounge for change to buy your son Pirate’s Booty, is emotionally complex and highly relatable. It also seems to prompt some memories of your father. Did the writing process reveal anything new about your family’s history with money and surrounding issues?

BA: It did help me see for the first time how I had inherited some of my family’s hang-ups about money. This isn’t necessarily true for my brother and my sister, who have been much smarter about their financial lives than I have, and I don’t want to place too much of the blame on my parents — I’m the one who celebrated my first two book deals by quitting decent jobs. The book poses a fundamental question: how much of our lives do we get to write, and how much of them are written for us? Using Coinstar to buy groceries with my son opened up a wormhole to my earliest experiences of money, when we never had enough.

MM: You talk a little bit about banking while poor and your growing disillusionment with your bank in particular. Are you still getting slammed with fees? Have you switched banks or are you still getting the dog treatment?

BA: I switched to a different bank after finishing the book and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t “play the zero line” this time and keep racking up the $35 overdraft fees. Easier said than done, though. All banks are the same when it comes to gouging the consumer who’s struggling. It’s a fool’s errand to try and outsmart the personal banking combine.

MM: Were/are you prepared for people/readers to scrutinize your spending habits? It seems to me that the hardest part of being poor while living in the financial capital of the world is fighting that urge to spend what otherwise might be considered meager sums on everyday expenses.

BA: Sure, there’s plenty of opportunity to scrutinize my choices. I know enough about financial planning to realize that some of my priorities were way out of whack. Did I really need an iPhone? Couldn’t I have fielded the collection calls on a cheaper device? When I was taking home $192.63 a week in unemployment, did it make any sense for me to keep getting an $85 haircut? That’s where living in New York really encouraged my natural tendency to always act like everything is fine, to pretend that I’m “Too Good to Be True.” New York is a city that runs on appearances, and opting out isn’t really an option.

MM: Would you talk a little about the financial realities of the adjunct teaching game, especially in the face of $60,000 tuitions and annual increases?

BA: Here’s the adjuncting dilemma in a nutshell: a prestigious school tells you that you can join its faculty, teach its students and puts its hallowed name on your resume. The only rub is they’re going to pay you less for the semester than you’d get for writing a magazine article. That is, if you can actually score an assignment. So between the teaching itself, which can be incredibly rewarding, and the promise of a regular (if meager) paycheck, it’s hard to say “no.” Students don’t really pay attention to whether your adjunct or full-time faculty; to them, even if you’re making less for the semester than they get in allowance every month, you’re still the prof.

MM: The climax of the memoir involves you showing your live-in girlfriend Eliza a hidden cache of bills. I have nightmares about that very scenario. It’s a very naked moment. But a lot of the book is about the impact of money issues on relationships. How difficult was this scene to write? How did you decide it was time to push through the shame and share these troubles, with her and ultimately with us?

BA: It was an incredibly important step in learning how to stop being “Too Good to Be True” and just be true instead. So I knew that showing Eliza the cache of bills would have to play a climactic role once I started thinking about how to structure the memoir. As hard as it was at the time, there were even more cringe-inducing events involving money that I ended up leaving out of the book — I’m thinking of one birthday in particular when I made a big deal of taking Eliza out to the River Cafe, and the night before a couple of checks cleared and I didn’t have any money. You can’t just chalk it all up to recklessness and stupidity; I really was trying to sustain an image of myself that I couldn’t afford any longer.

MM: You take a job as a fact-checker at the end of the memoir and you seem to take comfort in the more banal office details: the building, the elevator, the lights. I know when you are un- or underemployed there is often a sort of fog of bemusement. Who works in all these huge buildings? How did they get these jobs? How much of a relief was this job and are you still fact-checking?

BA: I was fact-checking right up to the end of August, when I started an appointment as a visiting faculty member at Bennington College. It did seem like a sort of dream to be in that office tower, after struggling for so long and sending out so many resumes; I had a photo ID, a cubicle of my own, colleagues I really liked, favorite cashiers in the company cafeteria. Other than all of the sitting, which really made me miserable, I loved the fact-checking job. I wrote from 5AM most mornings until 8 or 8:30, then I donned my office garb and waded into the daily warfare of the subway platform at rush hour. I felt connected to the other commuters, no matter how bipolar they were or toxic. The consolations of an office job are real and profound.

Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels An Underachiever’s Diary and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (FSG), which was a New York Times notable book. Other work has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Bookforum, Men’s Vogue, The Yale Review and The Best American Essays 2012. He is a visiting faculty member at Bennington College and also teaches creative writing at Columbia University.

Michael McGrath tweets as @marcomcgrath.

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