Interview: Peter Mountford, Author of The Dismal Science
I first encountered Peter Mountford’s writing in an article he wrote for Salon about selling furniture to celebrities in Los Angeles. The piece wasn’t too-cool-for school, but it also wasn’t sycophantic, the two modes most common in writing about celebs. Instead, it was witty, honest, and filled with the kinds of details that those of us who live in Los Angeles love to trade over drinks or sandwiches at Greenblatt’s.
Intrigued, I sought out Mountford’s first novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism (Mariner, 2011), which tells the story of (you guessed it) a young man posing as a journalist in Bolivia, but actually working for a hedge fund looking to cash in on the country’s natural resources. The election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia, which complicates this endeavor, is the political event also at the heart of Mountford’s latest book, The Dismal Science (Tin House). Here we see this same moment in history not through the eyes of a young man, but an aging one, an executive at the World Bank who unexpectedly (even to himself) walks away from his job when pressured to undermine the Morales government by the Bush administration. Both novels refuse to go easy on their protagonists, who see themselves as “good guys,” in spite of some of the less than admirable decisions they make, or their refusal to follow through on things they know to be right.
Peter Mountford lives in Seattle, where he teaches and curates events at Hugo House. Our interview was conducted over email, and we at LAR thank him for his generous answers.
-Dan Pecchenino, Assistant Book Review Editor
The election of Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, is central to both of your novels. However, most Americans, even educated ones, probably don’t give Morales or Bolivia much thought. Why has Morales’s election been so important to you, and what about it has been such a generative source of fiction?
Morales gathers a lot of metaphoric power, whether or not he wants to—Bolivia itself does that, too. He was the first indigenous president of a country that is two-thirds indigenous, the poorest country in South America, and he was a farmer with an eighth grade education. For decades, Bolivians were electing these pale-skinned men with PhDs in economics from Harvard—these were the leaders of many Latin American countries, in fact, and now they’re not. Bolivian history is a kind of perfect encapsulation of how post-colonial sacking and colonial sacking are really just the same activity—the ongoing trauma of colonization. That sounds melodramatic, I suppose, but it’s real.
Evo’s election was a crucial hinge moment in global history—he didn’t cause the hinge, but his election was evidence. Basically, we went from a world where the power structure was very rigid: the United States, Europe, and their ancillaries, were absolutely in the driver’s seat, and then everything changed. Now, power is much less clearly defined.
Morales kicked out the US ambassador to Bolivia. Venezuela cut off ties to the World Bank. The EU went from being a snooty clique of hyper-rich countries, to a larger and less stable hodgepodge of neighbors. You see this change in a lot of places. I’m interested in how power and our relationship to money have changed during this period.
Ecuador had nearly annual revolutions for more than a century, and then it just stopped. Bolivia, too. Now, China is the second largest economy in the world and is the fastest growing economy. Mexico elected a string of cronies from the same political party, year after year, for a century, and then that just stopped—also at around the same time. It’s not that everything is great, obviously not. I’m not sure people even realize how much the world has changed. In any case, things are different, and the difference is important.
When did you know that there was going to be a direct connection between A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism and The Dismal Science? Was this always a part of your plan, or did it come to you later in the writing process?
Well, I was writing them simultaneously, so the connection was the whole point. It was going to be one of those multi-narrative weaves that everyone’s crazy about these days. But then I got about a third of the way through, and it became clear that, although that was a fun game for me, for the writer, these strands were not actually part of the same book, at all. So I amputated one strand, and that stump was what would later grow into The Dismal Science.
The character of Lenka serves as the bridge between the two novels. Could you describe her to our readers and talk about why you chose to make her a central actor in these two stories? The ways in which she contrasts with your protagonists are striking.
Lenka is an ambitious political operative, the press liaison for candidate Evo Morales, and then his press secretary once he’s elected. She’s got a kid, but is divorced, and due to economic constraints and the weird path of life, she lives in this enormous house with her ex-husband, his new girlfriend, some of her family and some of his family. I’ve seen arrangements like that in Latin America, not usually ex-spouses, but definitely the whole extended family under one ostensibly middle-class roof.
She has a love affair with Gabriel, the protagonist of the first novel. He’s very attractive and smart, but horribly manipulative and simplistic in his view. He’s desperate, I’d say, in a way that is altogether too common among young men on the make. In certain ways they’re very well matched, but he’s fundamentally immature, and not ready for a serious relationship with a woman who has a kid and has reorganized her priorities accordingly.
Her relationship with Vincenzo [in The Dismal Science] is, of course, quite different. She invites him to Bolivia to be a kind of anti-capitalist, ex-World Bank mascot during Evo’s inauguration festivities. Clearly, she over-estimates his pliability. Meanwhile, he’s lurching around, wants to be in love with her, or something like that, even though he knows she’s dating a foreigner (he never meets Gabriel). Still, Vincenzo admires her energy, her sexiness, her intelligence, still he’s critically encumbered by his vanity and his self-loathing. In some ways, I think he’s terrified of being the creepy old letch, and of course he’s absolutely a creepy old letch, but if he just chilled out a little, stopped trying so hard, maybe he’d have a chance with Lenka. Both men completely misread her, and she misreads both of them. There’s too much distance between them—they can’t understand the signals across all that space.
Speaking of your protagonists, your first novel focuses (per the title) on a young man as he first encounters the costs and benefits of success, while The Dismal Science follows an aging man who throws away a professional life that many people would kill for. What are the connections between your two protagonists? Are Gabriel and Vincenzo meant to be versions of the same person? Are you using them to explore an idea?
I wasn’t consciously thinking that they were versions of a kind of single person, but that does make sense. I was initially drawn to the idea of writing about two people whose fates are interwoven, and one works for an investment bank, and one works in global aid. It was initially quite innocent, I suppose, but now I see how they’re on opposing sides of the seesaw—this one guy thrilled by his ascent, the other rather exhausted, eager to touch ground again. Both books are filled with these images of high and low—literally and figuratively. People are often on upper floors of buildings, or lower down, close to the ground. There are benefits and costs to being close to the ground or high up—but it’s an organizing metaphor for both books. Proximity and distance. Obviously, La Paz, at 12,000 feet above sea level, is up there. And in this book, as the cover art suggests, there’s a lot of talk of Dante’s Purgatorio, which is literally a mountain, and the peak of the mountain is heaven.
Vincenzo experiences a lot of personal tragedy in The Dismal Science. Why was it important for you to explore these kinds of painful personal losses in this novel that is very much about politics?
I never thought of the book as particularly tragic or political, truth be told. When I was writing it I was just writing life as I’ve seen it. I grew up in DC, and I grew up aswim in tragedy. In many ways, I think he gets off easy, actually. Fate tends to be pretty unforgiving—the natural outcome of life, after all, is death. Vincenzo’s daughter loses her leg in a boating accident. I witnessed a boating accident exactly like that when I was a kid, and many years later my friend lost his leg in the exact same kind of accident. Terrible things happen to people all the time, and people who are executives at large multinational organizations are not spared, at all.
Reading both of your books, I found myself thinking about Graham Greene’s novels about wounded men living far from home. Do you see your novels as part of a larger tradition of works engaging with colonialism and its legacy? What opportunities does writing about people who are away from home afford you as a novelist?
I like characters who are engaged in voluntary displacement. Expats are always fertile ground for literature, because when you’re outside of your culture, you look at things more closely, and you understand them less. There’s mysteriousness everywhere—confusion everywhere, and it’s intensely alienating. The protagonists of both books control the flow of large sums of money, and are wealthy, and they are both professionally interested in Bolivia, which happens to be the poorest country in South America.
Building off of the previous question, who are some of your literary influences and heroes, and what have you tried to steal from them?
I steal liberally from certain books by Milan Kundera, and J.M. Coetzee. But read all sorts of things, and everything I like influences me—things I don’t like probably influence me, too. I love Amelia Grey’s writing, Sarah Manguso, Geoff Dyer, Josh Weil, Tiphanie Yannique, and I love fantastic short stories. Not many writers can produce more than two or three immaculate stories in a lifetime—I can’t really think of anyone who did more than four. But there is at least one immaculate story by Michael Cunningham (“White Angel”), Jill McCorkle, (“Intervention”), A.M. Homes (“Intervention”), Wells Tower (“Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”), and then there’s Antonya Nelson, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Deborah Eisenberg, and the rest of the usual suspects. A lot of truly incredible short fiction happening in the United States in the last thirty years, I’d say. One of the few palpable benefits of the rise of the MFA system.
Finally, in the Book Review section here at The Los Angeles Review, we try to bring attention to independent presses that are publishing edgy, high-quality writing. You’ve had the experience of publishing novels with both a major imprint (Mariner) and an indie press (Tin House). Could you describe the differences, if any, between your two publishing experiences?
I have a very polite answer to this question that will not ruffle anyone’s feathers, but life is pretty short.
Tin House put more energy and money into marketing and publicity, which is the reverse of how it’s supposed to go. But it’s actually not uncommon. Large presses, when faced with dark and weird literary fiction, are not likely to flex their considerable marketing muscle. They do have that muscle, but they have to believe that the book is likely to be a bestseller before they unleash that particular beast. You see a full-page ad for a debut novel in the Times Book Review, that’s an author whose books is the lead title on someone’s list that season. That author is getting flown all over the place, will be appearing with Salman Rushdie, and so on. It does not mean that the publisher thinks that the book is a work of genius, it means that they think it’s going to make a lot of money.
At Tin House, publicity was simpler and easier, although I had an amazing publicist at Houghton Mifflin, too. End of the day, however, Tin House was just really passionate about the book in a way that isn’t likely to happen with a large press. At Houghton, I was in the same season as this other author of theirs named Philip Roth. A few weeks after my book came out, my publicist shifted her attention to her next author Steve Earle, who immediately appeared on Letterman. So she went from trying and failing to score a reading for me at a tiny bookstore in Boston, to hanging out backstage at Letterman with this new guy, who was a guitar-playing badass.
After my book failed to go into a second printing within a few weeks of publication, I think Houghton forgot that I existed. That’s normal—happens to 95% of so-called “mid-list” authors. Within a few weeks, you’re either getting excited phone calls from your editor’s boss, or you’re dead to them. A year later, the book won the Washington State Book award, and they literally didn’t mention it on Twitter—around then, I ended up talking about the book on “All Things Considered,” which is book-publicity gold, and there wasn’t a peep about it on their social media. I’m not complaining, I consider myself lucky to be published at all, and I think Houghton treated me rather well, actually, but this is the truth.
One thing that large presses really do have on their side, however, is distribution power. Tin House is distributed by Publishers Group West, which is a fine company that handles distribution for scores of small presses. Downside is that PGW has gazillions of books on their list in a given month, so it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Also, because they have fewer blockbusters, they have less clout than, say, Houghton Mifflin. My novel that came out with Houghton Mifflin was in all the airports, it was everywhere. Not so with The Dismal Science. Again, I count myself lucky, and I adore Tin House, they’re my favorite publisher on the planet, no kidding, but I don’t have time for blandishments.