2013 Spotlight Award Winner: Peter Mountford
Writer Peter Mountford has a bone to pick with American literature. The Ballard-based father of two young girls, whose debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, won the 2012 Washington State Book Award, is baffled by the fact that one subject remains taboo in fiction writing: money. Sitting in his wedge of an office at the Richard Hugo House, where he is writer-in-residence, he embarks on a bit of a rant, peppered with the dry humor that enlivens his book. “In real life, everyone is obsessed with money. It ruins relationships and lives,” Mountford says. “But our fiction is about neurotic suburbanites, substance abuse and infidelity. The characters visit their therapists, but never their financial advisers.”
When we do see novels focused on money, he says, they tend to be satires—such as The Bonfire of the Vanities or American Psycho—filled with “monstrous preppies.” In such black-and-white portrayals, people who care about money are evil. “I just don’t believe the world is that simple,” he says.
Mountford, 37, has a history with money. His father worked for the International Monetary Fund, and when he was a kid his family lived in Sri Lanka during troubled economic times. “Having lived in poor countries makes you acutely aware of class position and issues of money,” Mountford says. This feeling was amplified when his family lived in Washington, D.C., where he attended a private school catering to kids whose parents were diplomats or worked at the World Bank. “The dominant paradigm was 16-year-olds with BMWs,” he says.
He had wanted to be a writer from an early age, and played in a punk rock band in high school, but Mountford’s education made clear that the arts were not a “viable option.” He earned his undergraduate degree at Pitzer College, in international relations with a focus in economics. “I thought that’s what you did,” he says. After a stint working as the “token liberal” at a conservative think tank, during which he lived in Ecuador and reported on the country’s failing economy, he decided he wanted to be a full-time writer. So began what he calls “a relentless stream of rejection.”
Through his 20s, while his peers were “founding NGOs,” he wrote like mad, penning two novels and dozens of short stories. The result? One thousand consecutive rejection letters. In 2004, he came to Seattle for the University of Washington’s M.F.A. program in writing and finally had a breakthrough. He attributes part of the dramatic change to finding his own voice (as opposed to mimicking). He also finally acknowledged how difficult writing actually is. “The reader is inclined to be bored,” he says, “so you really have to put on a performance.”
In A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, Gabriel, a 20-something hedge fund analyst with his sights set on raking in the dough, makes questionable choices in his efforts to work the systems—both economic and romantic. Whereas Gabriel is young and ambitious about money, Vincenzo, the main character in Mountford’s forthcoming novel, The Dismal Science (the title is a common term for economics), is late-middle-aged and less obsessed with climbing the ladder. A vice president at the World Bank, Vincenzo’s most important relationship is with his daughter. “I’m cognizant of the fact that readers read for entertainment and to consider human problems,” Mountford says, “but my characters have fundamental problems with money.”
A writing teacher, freelance essayist and regularly featured writer at local readings, Mountford is talking with his agent and editor about a potential memoir centered on his fascination with money. He says subjects will include “weird jobs I’ve had, why money is a taboo topic and what it’s like to live in impoverished countries while surrounded by rich people.” Aware that, personally, he’s never made an effort to earn a lot of money, he admits, “I have a love/hate relationship with money,” then quickly corrects himself: “It’s unrequited love.”
UP NEXT: Mountford will appear at the Mazama Festival of Books (9/7–9/8), the Write on the Sound Writers’ Conference (in Edmonds; 10/6), Lit Crawl (10/24) and the Whidbey Island Writers Conference (10/25–10/27). Watch for his new book, The Dismal Science, and related readings in February, 2014.