An Interview with Peter Mountford
I'm lucky to know Peter Mountford personally. Because if I didn't I'm not sure that I would have picked up his novels -- A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism and, now, The Dismal Science. International economics and the nuanced moral issues implicit in them was a field I left behind in college (where I knew Mountford first).
Both of his novels are page-turners because they take the world of international economics and force these monstrous concepts through the hearts and minds of wholly human -- and humanly small -- protagonists. Mountford infuses his characters with the dramas and dilemmas of the world, taking on issues that, writ-large, cause many of us to glaze over. He makes them palatable and important and complicated and intriguing by way of his mastery of prose and, in particular, of character. Try to hate someone purely in Mountford’s book. Try to love someone unconditionally. As in life, you will probably fail. He succeeds.
You grew up as the son of an IMF executive and you worked yourself as “the token liberal” at a think tank in Ecuador. Your novels have protagonists that are roughly your and your father’s age, both struggling deeply with the morality of what they do. Can you talk about how your life has inspired your fiction?
I told my shrink that he could just read the two novels and he’d know everything important about me. It’s not remotely true, of course. But in a way, it is -- fiction often springs from very deep spaces within an author’s psyche. A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism is about this guy reeling with thwarted ambition, he’s scarily determined, and at the time of writing it I had thrown away two novels, dozens of stories, I’d collected a thousand rejections. So although he’s working for a hedge fund, and I absolutely was not, I was writing him from a place of desperate ambition. Vincenzo detonates his life in The Dismal Science -- his relationships are all coming undone. Months before the book was published, I got divorced. Both books are death-obsessed in a way, and I am, too. Both books reveal my very unattractive adoration of money, my hatred for money, too, my terror of insignificance. There are a lot of ways that the characters in no way resemble myself or my father, but the similarities are strange and scarily revealing.
How did your intercultural/international experiences as a child influenced you as you grew into a writer and thinker?
The experience of transitioning between cultures at an early age had a big impact on me. Returning to the U.S. after living in Sri Lanka as a kid -- I felt like an outsider. I wasn’t able to participate in group activities properly. I was super tan, my mother had just died, I had a weird accent. I’d spent three years in a country torn apart by civil war, and now I was at a birthday party in the suburbs, trying to talk about He-Man. My classmates went: “This guy is super odd.” But I was also an extrovert, so it was a strange confluence.
Barack Obama is what they call a “3rd Culture Kid” because he lived in different cultures growing up, and you get used to not knowing how to be part of the group you have just entered, you get used to watching the group and trying to learn their ways. Whereas George Bush is “affable” -- you want to have a beer with him -- Bill Clinton is affable, Obama is sort of inaccessible, always outside of things. I wonder if I got some of that. As a writer, it’s a benefit to be amazed by the weirdness of what you see, even if what you’re looking at is ostensibly not weird at all.
Trauma plays a central role in TDS -- D’Orsi’s daughter loses her leg and his wife is brutally killed. What caused you to include this element in the book? What purpose does violent trauma serve in D’Orsi’s story?
Same in the first book: Gabriel ends up with fragments of a human hand embedded in his face. I guess the world has always seemed deeply, unsettlingly arbitrary to me. Accidents of splendor and horror, violence and wonder -- it’s all lurking in the shadows of an ordinary day, waiting to leap out at us. I believe in a world that is deeply disordered. I believe in a kind of anti-conspiracy theory, a world where you almost wish there was a conspiracy, because the reality is so terrifyingly arbitrary and disorganized.
Because of the effects of imperialism, poverty and state oppression, it is often the case that people in the developing world are exposed to violent trauma more often middle class Americans are.
As a kid in Sri Lanka I was alarmed by the mayhem I witnessed. Kids getting their heads cracked open on the playground, a woman who was run over by a speedboat, which I put into The Dismal Science. I remember as a little kid standing on the shores of this lake as she was dragged to the shore. We were there during what was called “Black July” and I remember seeing bodies strewn in the road -- houses and cars burning. The world revealed itself to be a very, very frightening place. Throughout human history, life has been short and brutal. In the United States and in other wealthy countries, we have built this illusion of order, this comforting -- but totally false -- sense that death is not lying in wait. We have copious rules about child safety seats and everyone’s taking their vitamins. The fragility of this system is not obvious until you travel around the world a little. Then it becomes clear that anarchy is never really far away.
I sometimes think the ambiguity of real life is unsatisfying to people. In your book, D’Orsi never finds the moral high ground. Were you concerned about this danger of “dissatisfaction” as you wrote it?
No, but some of the wise people in the publishing business seemed to take umbrage with that aspect of the book. Really, I think life is majestic, ravishing. It’s gorgeous, hilarious, heartbreaking, even in its banality. But it’s always ambiguous. I want to love it how it is, let it be ridiculously ambiguous and loveable.
I have to remain true to the character. The book is wedded to his perspective. I disagree with the narrator on a lot of things that he says, because the narrator is aligned with the character. But I like that the character is confused about these issues as a person at a pretty senior level in an international organization. People in those positions do not contemplate morality a lot, which is a kind of moral statement itself, of course. But with these people in DC, these bigwigs, you’ll find that every opinion is tempered by dozens of mitigating factors and an awareness of how the reality of the world interacts with the ideal. They don’t even talk about what the ideal is because of how depressing that would be for them.
What was your research process like for TDS?
I don’t do research during the writing process. For me, research quickly becomes a procrastination tool and hinders my ability to immerse myself in the story. So I do it afterwards. I did a fair amount. I had to talk to people at Lehman Brothers to get the interior of the building, logistical things like that. The book was read by various people in and around the World Bank. They had corrections.
Have you had any response from figures on one side or the other of the ideological spectrum -- for example, from Occupy activists or World Bank execs?
No, thank God. I heard that Paul Wolfowitz may be reading it. I also heard it’s for sale at the World Bank’s bookstore, which mainly specializes in glossy pamphlets and World Bank propaganda. My previous book seemed to annoy people on the left and the right in about equal measure, which I took as a good sign.
After two novels about international economics with a strong autobiographical element, where do you go from here? What’s next?
I might be writing memoir. It really seems that I might. I was also writing a novel that went the other way, far away from the self. The narrator was a Swiss woman. It was set in Sri Lanka. Not sure what’s happening.
Having been part of that world to some extent, do you ever regret leaving behind the likelihood if not promise of big money for the writing and teaching life?
You’re not supposed to say things like this, but yes, sometimes I do. For a while I regretted it a lot. Still, I know people over there, in that life, and they go into art galleries, purchase paintings. Not often, but they do. I can’t do that. But I’m tired of writing about economists. I want to get to something else fiction-wise, something completely different.
You and I attended a small liberal arts college that was very much leftward leaning. How did you end up there and how do you think your experience there affected your own philosophy about international economics, neoliberalism, etc.?
That’s a good question. I arrived feeling rather like a hippie, I liked the Grateful Dead. I liked Fugazi and Bad Brains and The Clash more, but I did like the Dead, and I owned at least one tie-dyed shirt. But I was also raised in DC, so my politics were actually a lot weirder and more muddied than I realized. When I talked to my classmates at Pitzer, I’d be alarmed by how black and white certain things seemed to them.
It’s like that $15 an hour minimum wage argument underway now in Seattle. At first, you think: Yes, more money for the workers! Then you hear that all the indie bookstores are saying they think they’ll have to close, and it’ll be a boon for Amazon. Then the restaurants say they’ll have to fire people. Then the people arguing for $15 an hour say that the restaurants are distorting the numbers to make their case easier, and there’s some evidence to suggest that they are. So now what? Who’s right? What if it results in a surge in unemployment at the lower rungs of the income scale? What if by saying no to $15 an hour, we’re just further marginalizing the poorest among us? The question is not simple. If it looks simple, you have not done your homework.
That’s life, for me. “Cancer is horrible” does not do anything for me as an idea. It’s a slogan, which is bad for literature. “After my husband, who I loved a lot, died of cancer, I found that I enjoyed my newfound freedom -- and I didn’t miss him that much. I felt ashamed, like a monster, but I also felt elated, and sometimes I weep uncontrollably at my loneliness, I can’t look at pictures of him because I come undone, but I still don’t miss him that much when I don’t see him.” That is a statement that interests me. At Pitzer, I felt like I was hearing a lot of “Cancer is horrible.”
I’m a reader generally prone to thrillers, fast paced darkness, action. One of the things that is so impressive to me about your writing is that you can create suspense and keep me hooked into a plot without physical violence, wild drug abuse or (much) sex. Do you intentionally avoid such “action” in your work? If so, why?
No, I long for such action. What the fuck is wrong with me? My first agent was sort of tapping his foot, crossing his arms, and squinting at me. “No gunplay?” he’d ask. The fact is, from my experiences, violence is not organized well. It’s not one guy deciding to hurt another for a reason. It’s chaos -- chaos of the environment, of the spirit. Chaos is the only god I know.
Eli Hastings (www.elihastings.com) is the author of “Clearly Now, The Rain: A Memoir of Love and Other Trips.”