Something Has to Move: An Interview With Peter Mountford
Peter Mountford and I work together at Hugo House in Seattle. He’s a wildly popular teacher (except sometimes; read on for more) and former writer-in-residence. He’s now the events curator, and you can most often find him in the same fuzzy green chair in our main office–his makeshift desk–tossing back coffees, spilling said coffees, wearing funny pants, and muttering to himself as he bangs away on his somewhat ancient-looking Dell laptop. My favorite memory with Peter is when he told me, in gesturing detail, about his recent spinal tap: the terrifying needle, the kind doctor with a South African accent coaxing him through.
Peter’s first novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, (Mariner Books) follows a young (obviously) hedge-fund employee as he heads to Bolivia to “to ferret out insider information about the plans of the controversial president-elect.” His most recent novel, The Dismal Science, (Tin House) is about Vincenzo, an aging World Bank vice president who makes a rash decision that sets a whole series of mishaps in motion. Both of these novels take cues from Peter’s early life, growing up in Washington, D.C., the son of an International Monetary Fund economist. Here we talk about that novel, real life in fiction, Ricola, pants, eating sparrows, and more.
FANZINE: Hi, Peter. Did you get soup? Cough drops?
PETER MOUNTFORD: Foolishly, I got udon noodles, miso/ginger broth, and mushrooms—the idea being that I would make soup. No chance. I made tea, though. Now I’m in pajamas on couch with several bags of Ricola nearby.
FZ: No one wants to make soup when they’re sick! Your kids are old enough, right? Like five? Go grab one of them to make it. I’m glad you got the Ricola, though.
PM: Kids are not properly trained for such things, unfortunately. When I lost my voice on the flight home a few days ago, from Heathrow to Seattle. It was a ten-hour flight, and I was alone with this four-year-old and a two-year-old. And my voice was gone. So I had to deputize the four-year-old with parental powers. She handled it pretty well. Ordered extra cake for herself, extra whisky for me.
FZ: I’m thinking of the Ben Marcus book where kids’ voices start slowly killing all the parents. Sleep with one eye open.
PM: That’s billed as a novel, but it’s nonfiction. Marcus made the couple’s kid quite old, though, as I recall. Two or three seems like prime flame-alphabet age.
FZ: I think instant messaging is a good format for this interview, not only because we’re fumbling writers, but also because Vincenzo, the main character in your most recent novel, The Dismal Science, is often thrown into conflict and drama via emails—from people telling him he’s made headlines to his daughter maligning him for various fatherly missteps. What role do you think these methods of communication play in contemporary lit? Do you think writers have become less squeamish about making frequent use of them? I think a lot of people see it as unromantic.
PM: I was on a panel at a book festival a while ago and one of the other authors said he goes to great lengths to get his characters away from cell phones and email. This makes no sense to me whatsoever. To begin with, it’s part of how we live now—novels are so retrograde, as is, must the characters also revert to horse and buggy to get around? And it’s interesting—I like how alienating virtual living is. You’re more often alone, but you’re never alone, which is a good state for a character. Also, just dramatically, it’s nice that characters can track each other down across big distances. The conflict chases you across continents.
Text messages are beautiful for dialogue, too, because tone is so oblique. It’s often very hard to tell what the intended inflection is, which makes things problematic in a good way.
FZ: Right! And it’s great for Vincenzo, because he is so often either alone or lonely. Speaking of which—does Vincenzo know “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? I know your epigraph is [T. S.] Eliot, so I’d like to think he does, and it’s referenced a few times—”lonely men in shirtsleeves” on 113, “would it have been worth it, after all” on 161. That poem to me is the essence of him.
PM: Yes, Vincenzo knows Prufrock. He’s modeled a bit after my father, who is in his seventies, a bookish Scottish man. The loneliness is a funny thing. I don’t know if it’s particular to my characters, but my characters do often seem to be very lonely. I wouldn’t know how to write a person with a bustling social life—too much to keep track of.
FZ: How do you go about navigating that often-terrifying emotional landscape that is writing (not always flatteringly) about those you love (or don’t love)? Did considering your father’s future reactions affect the writing process?
PM: No, I did not consider my father’s reactions. Or, I did briefly, but I put it out of mind as much as possible. I wrote him a note about it at some point in the middle of the first draft, but never gave it to him. From my experience, writing is hard enough as is. You try to write the best thing you can, and then once it’s done, once it’s on its way to publication, you start to think about whom you need to write a note to. And people are often offended, I’ve found. Even if it’s a favorable portrait. It’s difficult. I’ve lost a few friends that way. My father, fortunately, was very happy with the book. I showed it to him a few months before it was published, and he was very excited about it. I had dedicated the book to him.
FZ: So some parts were based on your father, some took cues from your own life. Vincenzo wears “mustard corduroy slacks” and “embarrassing yellow trousers.” Did you or Vincenzo get those first?
PM: Ha! Those are awesome trousers, my yellow cords. I don’t know why I called them “embarrassing.” He got them first, but I’d been coveting them for a long time already. Tom Wolff refers to “go-to-hell pants.” Often bright pink or yellow with little sailboats on them, or whatever. The idea is that rich guys wear them around the club, and there’s a kind of flagrant attitude required; only someone who truly doesn’t give a fuck would wear those pants. My yellow cords are just such an item. I have to steel myself before I put them on, though.
FZ: I always wondered why I feel so intimidated when you have those on. Now I know.
Do you share anything else with Vincenzo? Would you have done what he did, in that situation? Or, better question, what do you envision for your personal midlife crisis?
PM: I can’t imagine myself being in his situation. And I certainly wouldn’t have behaved that way if I were—or I don’t think so. Nor would my father. Making up people for fiction is a funny business. Often so-called literary fiction is very close to memoir, even if it’s supernatural, there’s often a heavy component of self-exposure. It also happens that memoir is often more or less fiction. The difference is one of marketing, frankly. But when making these characters, I find it easy to start with some fundamental traits and life components I know well, whether they’re mine or someone close to me. Then things happen, the weird alchemy of things. Vincenzo is much more vain and reckless than my father or I would be. He’s great, too, I think, but he’s a very rash dude.
Personal essays are fun to write, but mortifying to publish. There’s always a crazy person or ten crazy people who will reach out to shit upon your day. Even the positive reactions are weird, people pouring their hearts out in these very long emails. The whole thing is startling. It’s related to social media, I think, you can feel the eyes on you. Then it all passes very quickly. A week later, no one remembers.
FZ: Oh yeah, it’s terrifying. Social media and comments. That’s why I loved the part in Dismal Science when Vincenzo reads all the comments about his big betrayal.
PM: Yes, that was fun to write. The comment trolls. That was my experience, of course. Very horrifying. I wrote an op-ed at some point and people in the comment section were threatening to behead me, they were saying I worked for the CIA. It was my first experience with that sort of thing. The newspaper had to shut down the comment section on that piece—it was about Sri Lanka. It struck me as an interesting part of being a digital citizen, contending with this. And Vincenzo is very newsworthy, himself, for about a week. His story goes viral for a bit, this scandal. It’s not an uncommon experience, these days, to feel the heat of all internet trolls.
FZ: Jessica [Mountford’s girlfriend]—she’s a writer, too. How would you describe the dating scene among writers? The pleasures and hardships? I’ve heard most of my juicy writer gossip from you.
PM: Jessica is a writer, yes. She’s at work on a novel, which sounds amazing. I haven’t read much of it, don’t want to mess up her process. I’ve read a few remarkable stories of hers, one of which was published last year in The Rumpus. And she had a personal essay on Salon last year. The writing community in Seattle is insular, but there’s not much intrigue. At writers’ conferences like Bread Loaf, aka Bed Loaf, it’s quite a different thing. It’s most likely apocryphal, but I heard of a writer’s wife who had a small plane fly over Bread Loaf’s campus, dropping thousands of sheets of paper telling everyone that her husband had herpes. And at Yaddo there are all these stories of Cheever and others humping each other in the shadows. I believe it’s where Plath met Hughes. They were certainly there together. And Carson McCullers tried to bed down Katherine Anne Porter, but Porter was much more interested in the man flesh. McCullers would lie in front of her door, naked, and Porter would just step over her on the way downstairs for breakfast.
FZ: Do you and J ever give feedback on each other’s work? Or is that a line too precarious to cross? I took a class from her on sex writing once. We read some awful stuff.
PM: We do read each other, but sparingly, so far. You can only read a piece so many times before you burn out on it, so I think we’re both trying to pace ourselves. We do write together a lot. Sitting opposite each other at a cafe or bar for a number of hours.
FZ: Lots of writers need to be alone, but I do better when someone is there to make sure I don’t nap. I always turn to naps when I’m frustrated.
PM: It’s a big problem with writing alone. I think that’s the appeal of writing in public. Less napping.
FZ: And it’s nice to have someone who understands that spending hours writing is actually what you do, not just some fun hobby you’re choosing over your significant other.
PM: Absolutely. It takes a lot of time, and it swallows a lot of attention, so it’s nice if you can at least sit near each other while it’s happening. Even if in a way you’re very far away from one another, in a way.
FZ: Definitely. On another note tangentially related to dating, I was thinking about your “sad orgasm” scene from the book that I’ve heard you read a few times. Do you think it’s harder to write a scene of really bad/awkward sex or really good sex?
PM: Good sex is harder to write, no doubt, because it’s much more likely to sound cheesy, or silly. It’s incredibly hard to write characters falling in love for the same reason. The reader thinks, “Well, that’s nice for you…” Fiction obviously thrives in a space of dissonance, or complexity, and when people are falling in love mostly they just sit around saying nice things to each other. Or they’re having great sex. Often I see these books that are these rather embarrassing male fantasies, I’m thinking of late Updike, and Roth, others of that ilk. Old white guy with a lot of smarts has this amazing libido and totally wows this hot young woman with his virility. It can be excruciating to read. I’ve only read one female version, Binnie Kirshenbaum’s novel, Hester Among The Ruins, which is a fine book, but it’s got a bit of that quality.
FZ: With bad sex, you can describe Vincenzo’s partner’s “breasts spilling over her rib cage, sloshing like half-filled sacks of water.” What an excellently horrifying line.
PM: Ah yes. The human body is a beautiful thing.
FZ: Your current class at Hugo House is titled Rule #1: Never Be Boring. (There are no other rules.) Did you find yourself, in The Dismal Science and your first book (A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism), fighting against being boring, especially considering the subject matter? (Good job, by the way.)
PM: Yeah, economics is widely perceived as a boring subject. Economists are understood to be dull. But history shows again and again that the subject isn’t boring. And anyway it’s the world we swim in, for better or worse. So much fiction is about characters who seem to barely have jobs, they’re away somewhere in the suburbs, freaking out about infidelity, and religion, and death. That’s important stuff, of course. But as material for fiction, it does seem a bit antique. Speaking of Cheever! It’s like these authors who want to pretend that the world hasn’t changed much in the last sixty years—no cell phones, and no one has a complex relationship to money. But the contortions of the global economy are one of the main ways that the world has changed. And the effects of those contortions are immensely personal. They’re as personal as war and sex and death. We all live and die by money, in the end. It’s inescapable. So why not write about it? It’s very taboo, of course.
But to get back to boring . . . You have to entertain in some way. It might be a fascinating train of thought or a speedy plot or dramatic tension or a fun character. Something has to move. You have to respect your reader’s time and intelligence, I guess. A lot of student fiction seems to fail that way, the writer is expecting that the reader will find a way to care. Again and again in class, I’m trying to say, “What can you do to make your reader stay with this text, even though they have something else interesting that they would like to be doing?”
FZ: As a student, I’ve found it’s very hard to be both subtle and not-boring. A lot of the people I know try so hard to capture the irony of the generation that the narrative falls flat. Hey, maybe I’ll take your class. It’s so close to me.
PM: Yes, the question is when to be subtle and when to be very blunt. Bluntness is gorgeous, often. Explain exactly why the reader should care. And leave other things in subtext.
Peter Mountford is the author of A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism (Mariner Books). His most second and most recent novel, The Dismal Science, is now available from Tin House.
Kristen Steenbeeke is a fiction writer and a poet. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Tin House Flash Fiction Fridays, among other places; and one of her stories was adapted into a radio play for NPR’s Snap Judgment.