|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Vanessa Hua interviews Peter Mountford
A Reader's Guide to Peter Mountford: An Interview
June 1st, 2011
PETER MOUNTFORD IS A SEATTLE WRITER whose debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, was published in April. As a child, Mountford witnessed the outbreak of civil war in Sri Lanka and spent holidays in Scotland with his father’s family; later on, he worked at a think tank in Ecuador and lived in Paris and Mexico. His time abroad helped shape his writer’s sensibility: always observing, always questioning. Mountford has turned that penetrating gaze onto Bolivia, where his protagonist Gabe, on assignment for a hedge fund, must dig up insider information about the financial plans of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president. The novel takes place in late 2005, and the epilogue skips ahead to 2009, deep into the U.S. recession after the collapse of investment firms such as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. Along the way, Gabe faces off against formidable female characters: Lenka, the president’s press secretary and Gabe’s love interest; his mother, an anthropology professor at Pomona College; Fiona, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal; and Priya, his boss at the hedge fund. Half-Chilean, half-Russian, with an upbringing in the well-to-do college enclave of Claremont, California, Gabe has looks that can “pass” depending on the situation, on the angle he’s working, and on the eye of the beholder. He’s an anti-hero born of the West Coast and the new millennium.
— Vanessa Hua
PETER MOUNTFORD: My protagonist Gabe is in a complicated situation — white and not white, Latin and Caucasian, child of communism and of capitalism, quite California and also fully New York. He’s kind of a multi-tasker in that way, and wants his identity to remain as open-ended as possible.
He grew up highly attuned to these systemic power structures as a biracial, bilingual son of a single mother who was wealthier and more educated than the parents of many of his friends. For Gabe, identity is necessarily malleable. If it’s fixed, he’s screwed, because he needs to be very different people in different instances. He grew up in Claremont, which — because of its location and demographics — exists in a very complicated place, in terms of class. It’s wealthy and academic and rather white, but it’s surrounded by the sea of the Inland Empire, which tends to be poor and Chicano.
PETER MOUNTFORD: Gabe is “amphibious,” as he puts it. He adopts personae consciously and deliberately as part of a strategy to manipulate people, even those he truly loves. For him, all aspects of his identity are tools to be used in different circumstances. He confesses to playing up his whiteness at one job interview while playing up his non-whiteness at others, and does the same with the women he meets. Even his name, Gabriel, can sound Anglophone or Spanish, depending on how you pronounce it.
In Bolivia, he wants to be one of the gang of white journalists, but he also wants to fit in with his Bolivian girlfriend’s family. Finally, it’s hard to do either. Instead of being a person multiplied, he’s bisected, divided.
Finance and economics clearly play an important role in contemporary history, but for some reason there’s very little “literary” fiction about the people who inhabit that milieu. You get a lot of satire and other kinds of finger-wagging from atop soap boxes. And you get some thrillers. But if you’re aiming to write “serious” literature there’s a tendency to write about neurotic suburbanites or upper-middle-class dilettantes. That stuff doesn’t interest me at all.
After graduating from college in 1999, I spent a couple years as a hack economist for a right wing think tank based in Arlington, Virginia. I was their token liberal. I lived in Ecuador for much of that time and wrote about the country’s monetary policy. In 2001, the whole experience soured for me. I just never really pictured myself an economist for a shady think tank. But there I was. I quit, and that’s when I started writing fiction in earnest.
Money in general, how it operates in our lives, has been an abiding fascination of mine for a long time. In fact, I wrote most of the first draft of the novel before the financial crisis struck. In the initial draft, I had to define for my reader what a hedge fund was, but then history intervened on my behalf and hedge funds were in the news every night.
I like that the book is set just before the shit made contact with the fan, so that the reader — with the benefit of hindsight — can feel that impending doom crackling in the air, even if the characters can’t. The characters are just traipsing along through the story, enjoying their time on this spiffy new ship called the Titanic.
Evo Morales, the current President of Bolivia, is a character in the novel. Writing about historical figures who are still alive, that’s a habit of mine. I recently wrote a story for The Seattle Review about Robert McNamara’s Vietnamese dry cleaner. A couple years ago I wrote a story in which Russell Crowe has a central role; his hashish-smoking Irish driver is sleeping with the narrator’s girlfriend. Paul Wolfowitz plays a pretty big part in my second novel. I like that tension between the fictive and actual. I want to make my reader wonder what’s fiction and what’s not. I feel like being seriously bothered by that ambivalence can be very instructive.
I went to Bolivia twice while writing the book. I’d lived in Ecuador for a couple years, and the two countries are socially and geographically not dissimilar. So I drew on that. In terms of pulling it off, the book is told from an outsider’s perspective — it’s not about the everyday life of Bolivian taxi drivers, or anything — so I just needed to know what it’s like to be an outsider living in Bolivia. And I wanted to know the history of the country so I could draw on it. I picked Bolivia because it’s a geographically outrageous place, more moon than earth, and its history is rife with unbelievable tragicomedy.
The real-life Evo is as easy to vilify as he is to valorize, a complexity I love. He’s reckless as all get out: there’s a recent video of Evo playing soccer against some political rivals in which he kicks an opponent in the balls. Imagine Obama on the White House basketball court suddenly kneeing Boehner in the balls, in front of the press corps, and you’re starting to see it. Evo was a farmer before he became president, and he’s not very educated, but he’s no dummy. And thanks to his wacky cocktail of policies, Bolivia is doing better than it has in a hundred years. It’s very unclear whether he’s bad news or good.
All those domineering female characters emerged unconsciously, at first; it was not something I did on purpose. Dr. Freud, I’m sure, would want to talk to me about that, but it’s true. Once it dawned on me what was going on, that these four women were far and away the most capable and self-possessed characters in the book, I realized this was one of the most important aspects of the novel. Gabriel is assailed with uncertainty about the shape his identity should take, because he’s young in that particular way, and as a result he’s always under the sway of one or another of these women. He looks to them for cues, for affection, for lashings, and they either give or don’t give what he seeks, because they’re very different people. Ultimately, it’s a surprisingly matriarchal novel, especially given the title. The men, young and not so young, are for the most part buffoons.
When I was seven we moved to Sri Lanka so that my father could be the IMF’s man on the ground there for a few years. We’d been in Colombo for a couple weeks when a civil war broke out. We were there for what’s became known as “Black July,” which was a protracted nightmare of horrific ethnic violence. We left early that July to spend a couple months in Scotland and as we drove to the airport the city was ablaze, maimed bodies in the streets. In September, we were back in Colombo for the start of school. And we stayed there for the next three years. I fell in love with Sri Lanka and, in general, with the sometimes painful alien life of being an expat in a country very unlike one’s own. There’s a lot of tension in Sri Lanka between nationalist pride and the long history of subjugation by colonial powers. It’s very palpable.
Throughout my childhood we generally travelled a lot, and as an adult I kept it up: I’ve lived in Scotland, Ecuador, southern Mexico, France, and elsewhere. I’ve spent a lot of time alone in so-called Third World countries, and that’s always an interesting situation to be in as a tall white guy. The way your privilege warps people’s perceptions of you, how your luckiness bumps up against your loneliness — that’s been an abiding obsession of mine. I like the issues of belonging and not belonging; money and no money; exotic versus plain. How people navigate these issues reveals a lot about them. t;
Clearly, the expat is often in the position of observing, judging. And you take those keen eyes with you back home when you return, and you put your old life under the same microscope, which can be at least as challenging as moving to a foreign hemisphere. Returning to DC from Sri Lanka at ten was just as formative for me as moving there at age seven.
Happenstance drew me to Pitzer, where I went to college. There was no plan there for me other than a desire to be far away from Washington, DC, which is an unpleasant place to spend your rebellious teens. DC is segregated enough that it’s almost antebellum. Among the mostly white upper middle class population that dominates the Northwest quadrant, where I lived, it’s you plus a lot of guys in suits who were the president of their class.
The entire LA area is rife with complex class issues, which are also tied up with race; it’s almost as bad as DC, but at least it’s not so brutally dour. And the Inland Empire is LA squared, minus Hollywood. The uneasy mixture of pride and toughness in the Inland Empire reminds me a little of Bolivia, actually, which is also beautiful and ugly at the same time, also troubled by entrenched racism and stark class issues, also a bit of the stepchild to its more renowned neighbors.
In terms of studying creative writing, I didn’t take a single workshop until I enrolled at the University of Washington’s MFA program in 2006. As an undergrad at Pitzer, I was reading books about the balance of trade effects of Eastern Europe’s expansionary monetary policy and so on. I hung out with filmmakers and writers, but I wasn’t in classes with them. I was playing with the dark arts. Pitzer was and is a very staunchly liberal school, and I wanted a non-biased perspective, so I took a lot of classes at the far more conservative Claremont McKenna College, and at the more strictly academic Pomona. I think my fiction reflects my distaste for simplified answers to complex problems. With economics, if the answer appears straightforward, you’re not thinking about it hard enough. Everything is a tradeoff. So it is in life, too, as it happens.
I love writing short stories, but I find them increasingly difficult to pull off. For better or worse, I’m becoming a novelist. Novels are hard, too, but that wild magic trick of creativity that the best short stories depend on doesn’t really make or break a novel. You read Salinger’s “For Esme, With Love and Squalor” or Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” or a dozen other immaculate short stories and you see this perfection at the most minute level, and the end result is just breathtaking.
In reading great novels, I adore the moments in the latter half when the author has laid so much groundwork that each scene carries this tremendous backlog of subtext and innuendo. I think of that moment in the middle of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, when the protagonist and his daughter are brutally attacked and the book, which had so far seemed like it was about the minor disgrace of a pervy professor explodes outward to mirror the nation’s disgrace. What Coetzee does is less of a creative magic trick than say, the final lines of Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” Still, that moment is one of the most amazing things you’ll find in literature, and it could never be achieved in a short story.
It’s analogous to the difference between a feature film and long-form TV drama like The Wire or Mad Men. Sort of like The Sopranos versus The Godfather. They definitely each have their place. I happen to be more captivated by the long form than the short, at present.
Lorrie Moore got it right when she wrote: “First, try to be something, anything else.” First, I tried to be an economist, but I was waylaid by my obsession with writing fiction.I really wanted to quit writing fiction because it’s a terrible way to make a living, among other things, but I found myself incapable of stopping. If you don’t feel compelled to write when you don’t have to write: good for you, you’re not a writer. Consider yourself lucky.