An economic recession, if nothing else, allows, or even forces, many of us to reexamine our lives, to reconsider our goals and needs, and, sometimes, to reassess our values, beliefs and behaviors. And while, at times, this examination may seem more like a trial or a test, this process, if properly and carefully managed, can sometimes result in a whole new perspective — a positive and powerful outlook that can truly benefit us in the future.
This process is the subject of The Net Present Value of Life, the thought-provoking debut novel by Michael Di Lauro that couldn’t be more timely.
In the book we meet Charles, a successful financial analyst in his early forties, who, after twenty years on the job, reaches the unsettling conclusion that his life has no real purpose or meaning. Each day is exactly the same as the last, a ridiculous routine of all of the same meetings with all of the same people having all of the same conversations. In fact, the only highlight of Charles’ routine is sitting alone at the park, eating his lunch and listening to his favorite music on his iPod.
What’s interesting is that this is not simply a mid-life crisis for Charles. It’s much bigger than that. Even Charles, despite his anger and restlessness, knows that it’s something more. After all, he should be happy. Not only is he very good at his job, he’s very well- compensated for doing it. Rumor has it he’s even up for a major promotion, which would put him exactly where he needs to be on the timeline of his own plan for living the kind of prosperous life he’s always wanted.
But Charles isn’t happy. And it’s not until a chance encounter at the park with a woman named Fay, a brilliant and mysterious British senior citizen, that Charles is suddenly inspired to figure out why. Over the course of several weeks, we’re flies on the wall of this odd couple’s daily dialogues, listening in on a new perspective about life that could help Charles reach all of his goals or could end up costing him everything he’s worked his entire life to achieve.
What I liked most about The Net Present Value of Life is the writing itself. The book is basically a series of dialogues between Charles and Fay from their favorite bench at the park. It’s not a plot-driven or character-driven work. This is a tricky idea-driven structure that is difficult to pull off, especially for a first-time writer. I think that, for the most part, Di Lauro succeeds thanks to a detached first-person narrative that sounds authentic — that is, it reads as if it was an actual journal written by an actual financial professional and not some plucky or poetic English professor poorly disguised as a broker. This quality allows for a much faster pace than books of this ilk generally enjoy and, because of this, makes for a much more enjoyable read.
The Net Present Value of Life by Michael Di Lauro is available for purchase here. You can learn more about Michael Di Lauro at his website.
I recently had the chance to interview Di Lauro about his book and his life. Please take a few more minutes to read the revealing interview below.
Q. The Net Present Value of Life is not a typical plot-driven novel. What inspired you to write this idea-driven book, who do you see as your audience, and what do you hope to accomplish with this work?
A. Just like a kid who likes cherry cola, and assumes everyone likes cherry cola too, I never thought about plot vs. idea-driven. And I never considered that anyone else would either. To me, it was simply a story about two people sitting on a bench, talking about life. What led me to write it were these small-business workshops I was conducting. I decided that my workshop attendees needed a training manual, or a textbook or sorts. It was only once I started writing that it quickly morphed into a novel. Funnily enough, my perceived audience shifted over time too. At first I envisioned small business owners as the target, then I thought it might be males in their forties, and now I think it appeals to anyone looking for a different point of view.
Q. The philosophical principles debated in your book are made up of some original ideas as well as some established concepts. Why did you chose this combination of ideas and what do they mean to you?
A. The principles, whether my own or borrowed from other sources, speak of hope, empowerment, and making our dreams come true. I think there are many people who, for whatever reason, simply give up on their dreams. My intent with this book is to provide readers with, not only an entertaining story, but also a framework of effective solutions for living a complete and meaningful life.
Q. Charles’ quest for a new perspective (or what some people might call a mid-life crisis), is something with which a lot of people struggle. Was this journey completely fictional or were there some autobiographical elements to his story?
A. Yeah, some parts of the book are based on personal experience, except that they’re all very much exaggerated. That’s what I find fun about writing fiction, I can be playful, excessive, moody. It is quite enjoyable to get creative with the characters.
Q. Music is important not only to Charles but is vital to the book itself. How much of a role does music play in your life and your writing process?
A. Like Charles, I adore music. Unlike him, though, I play an instrument–the guitar. It’s not only a gratifying pastime, but one that’s therapeutic too. It allows me to shut out the world, enter my own private void, and play for no one but myself. Having said that, I simply cannot listen to music when I’m writing. I find it too distracting.
Q. Art versus commerce seems to be a major theme in your book. As a writer, how do you reconcile the two? What does a successful writer mean to you?
A. A challenging concept, that. And one that so many of us have difficulty reconciling. But you know, I often ask myself whether anything is, in fact, mutually exclusive. By that I mean, does it have to be a choice? Does it have to be art or commercial success? And I then realize that it can be both. It might be hard work to make it both, but if we pull if off, then that’s definitely my idea of a successful writer.
Q. Your book challenges certain Behaviors, Values, and Attitudes that some people might find difficult to discuss, let alone question. Were you worried at all about potentially upsetting people? Should a writer even worry about upsetting people?
A. I think a writer should always strive for a response or a reaction. Whether that reaction is anger, joy, envy, or anything else, all depends on the reader. In that sense, a reaction, I believe, is crucial. I can’t imagine a worse fate than readers having no feeling or emotion about what they’ve just read.
Q. If the government passed a law that said you could only own three books for the rest of your life. Which books would you choose?
A. Ouch, that would be cruel, wouldn’t it? If that were to happen, we’d have to organize an underground “book-freedom” movement. However, should I find myself in the difficult position of having to choose just three books, I’d go with Thoreau’s Walden, J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, and David Adams Richards’ The Friends of Meager Fortune. I could probably read those three, over and over, forever.
Q. Besides the LA Books Examiner, which writers do you feel deserve more attention than they currently receive?
A. Well, two come to mind. David Adams Richards (who I already mentioned) doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves. He truly is an incredible writer. Then there’s Miguel Syjuco. I think he’s someone to keep an eye on. I just read Ilustrado, and there’s no denying that Miguel is a major talent.
Q. What’s next for Michael Di Lauro?
A. I’m playing with ideas for another novel–definitely more plot-driven this time. I’m also being asked to speak, at various events, about the principles from The Net Present Value of Life, all of which pretty much means I’ve come full circle–back to the genesis for the book.
The Net Present Value of Life by Michael Di Lauro. GSPH. $19.95. 260 pages.
For more great author interviews, check out the Author Interview Series from Frank Mundo, the LA Books Examiner.
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