Brian Finney is an award-winning writer and professor emeritus of English, who has published eight books.
Who is your new novel Money Matters for?
I wanted Money Matters to appeal equally to readers of crime fiction and the suspense genre, and to those who also like engagement with contemporary issues and social concerns. So I tried to give it an exciting sequence of events while having characters who reflect on the significance of how they act. I also employ a lot of dialogue to dramatize the social issues raised in the narrative. That way, those who read primarily for the plot will stay engaged while thematic concerns are being raised.
Readers may be surprised to learn that you wrote seven nonfiction books before switching to fiction. What made you switch from academic writing to novel writing?
Most of my nonfiction books focused on British novelists of the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries. During that time, I was working in the academic field, first as a tutor/organizer in the arts and then as a professor of English. So most of the books were studies of writers and their work. But one of my earliest books was a biography of Christopher Isherwood that won the James Tait Black Memorial Award. Another was an innovative study of a literary genre - literary autograph. My most recent nonfiction work went completely outside my academic competence and looked at the effect of the war on terror on American culture and society. That was my first truly American book which I published 24 years after immigrating to California from England. By then, I was thinking of retiring from full-time university teaching. Once I was freed to write what I liked, I chose to write a novel set in 2010 in Venice, California, where I live.
What drew you to this genre?
I chose an amateur detective framework for Money Matters as I find myself drawn to movies and tv series in that genre. But it is also a late coming-of-age novel, which reflects my desire to write about a character who is completely transformed by the experiences she undergoes in the course of the story. Then the second half of the novel takes it into the realm of romance which is questioned even as it is embraced by the characters involved. Both the main plot and sub-plot involve Mexican American immigrants who run afoul of the law. This introduces a thematic interest in America’s ambiguous attitude to immigrants documented and undocumented. Finally, as the title suggests, the book dramatizes the disparity in our society between the very rich and those barely subsisting. So it’s really a mixture that I hope makes the novel that much more interesting.
Why did you set your novel during the 2010 midterm elections?
The midterm elections in 2010 epitomized a number of characteristics that define our country this century. In fact, they define it up to this day nine years later. Above all else stands the outcome of the election - the country veering right while California bucked the broader trend and moved to the political left. Major characters in the novel reflect this polarization, which, for instance, leads to extreme friction between Jenny, the narrator, and Tricia, her Republican sister. Further, Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee for governor, destroyed any chance of winning the contest with Jerry Brown by employing an undocumented immigrant while running on an anti-immigrant platform, for which she was outed. As immigration is a theme running through the novel, this made the six days surrounding the midterm the perfect container for what I wanted to write.
One of your characters, Miguel, is an undocumented immigrant. Were you inspired by the current news cycle?
Yes, I wanted to give individual life to the endless stories running in the LA Times and elsewhere about immigrant families split and devastated by the paralysis in Washington, a paralysis that perpetuated our country's schizophrenic response to the presence of millions of undocumented immigrants here, especially in California. On the one hand, we depend on immigrants to undertake jobs we cannot get American citizens to apply for. On the other hand, we refuse to offer them any straightforward path to legalizing their status here. In the novel Miguel lives out the consequences of this schizophrenia at a painfully personal level.
Why was it important to you to highlight social issues from a young female protagonist’s point of view?
There were two reasons for making Jenny my principal narrator and protagonist. To create a credible protagonist, you need to project yourself aa a writer into the thoughts and feelings of someone quite different from you and your circumstances. For an older man, nothing could better ensure such a projection into the other than a young woman. Additionally, I have always subscribed to Carl Jung’s idea that all men have an anima or repressed female self. In my own life, I find I enjoy the company of women; a majority of my friends are women. When I reached out for my own anima, I found that I could produce Jenny’s voice without effort. So she became my protagonist.
Were there any characters whose motivations you struggled to understand?
The character whose motivations I had most difficulty understanding was Dan Granger, my fictional stand-in for Meg Whitman. Personally, I have never wanted to enter politics, even though I follow it avidly. So it was especially difficult for me to understand what drives politicians to live their lives in the public eye (usually subordinating their private life to their public one). What impels Dan to tell all those lies to the voters? The usual answers are power, money, and what those can bring a politician. I relied on the assumption that even the worst antihero sees himself as the hero of the story and justifies his actions as making perfect sense—in his world and mind.
What was the hardest part of writing Money Matters?
The hardest part was the re-writing. My developmental editor kept on highlighting passages that didn’t advance the story. She was right most of the time. But some background material is as important as the plot. For instance, I have Jenny walk down Abbot Kinney Boulevard and observe how all the earlier funky stores and workshops have been replaced by trendy boutiques and restaurants too expensive for residents. She suggested omitting this page-long incident, but it was illustrating a disparity in wealth and culture that is integral to the very theme (and title) of Money Matters. I kept that scene, although I sacrificed many others. Each decision was tough to make.
Who was your first reader?
My first reader was my wife. She’s my fiercest critic, and she got me to change many details even though I habitually treat her suggestions with some skepticism. But then she is a woman, like my narrator, and she often knew better than I did how Jenny would respond to a situation. As I lived in England for the first portion of my life and she is American she also was able to identify moments when Jenny used an English rather than an American way of expressing herself.
What’s next for you as a writer?
I don’t know what I will write next, though I am sure I will be writing a book of some kind. It could be a fictionalized biography, since I had an unusual upbringing as a child at a boarding school for children whose parents had been sent to concentration camps in Europe and which was run by German Jewish educators in the heart of wartime England. But you never know what you will end up writing until you are already into it. I had no idea I would write Money Matters until I found myself halfway through an outline that came from nowhere. That’s the joy of writing: once you start, you have to follow the laws of the fictional universe you’ve created.
At once a painful coming-of-age novel, an exciting amateur sleuth tale and an intriguing narrative involving social issues (immigration and wealth disparity), Money Matters has mystery at its core. This emotionally charged debut novel is firmly embedded in Los Angeles culture over the 2010 mid-term election. Jenny, the 27-year-old inexperienced protagonist, faced with the tragic disappearance of a friend, is forced to take on financial tycoons, corrupt politicians and the treacherous Baja drug cartel in her search to uncover the truth.
Jenny’s investigation takes her into the twilight world of undocumented immigrants, which leads her to seek the help of the handsome director of an immigrant rights organization to whom she is strongly attracted. But will the deadly enmity of the rich and powerful thwart her search and end her budding romance?