Shelf Lives: An Interview with Peter Mountford

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Peter Mountford and his partner, fiction writer Jessica Mooney, recently moved. Their building, an old telephone switching station converted to artist lofts in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, is home to a number of artists. Their apartment rests above a glassworks studio; the rising heat keeps their floors warm. Mountford, author of A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism and The Dismal Science invited TriQuarterly to their loft to talk about writing and the books spread throughout their unique space.

TQ: This is an amazing space; how does one come to live here? 

PM: Jessica’s friend Dayle Conners, who’s also a writer and who has lived in the building awhile, invited us around for dinner. The owners of the building were there, too, and in the course of talking, it turned out they were looking to add a novelist to the building’s roster. They curate—I know that word is exhaustingly overused, but what else can you call it? They curate the tenants. It’s like an artist’s colony, but you never have to go back to the real world.

TQ: Are your books organized in any particular way?

PM: No, not yet. That’s somewhere on the to-do list. There’s a section of travel books there, but we’re planning on organizing by type of book—poetry shelves, an anthology shelf, short story collections. We spend a lot of time scanning the shelves looking for some particular book and never finding it. There are some books that defy categorization, you know.

TQ: What comes to mind?

PM: This one, Little Casino by Gilbert Sorrentino, it’s a novel—or a bunch of prose poems. Short stories? They call it a novel [points to book’s cover], but I don’t know who they think they’re kidding. [Flipping pages.] Here’s a little interview in the middle, see all these different types of font . . . It was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner some years ago.

TQ: Do you try to defy categorization in your own work?

PM: My novels contain characters who are actual people—I don’t change their names. No lawsuits, yet. But the Bolivian Central Bank just tweeted a link to my first novel, in which the Bolivian finance minister has a role. It’s not him in the book—the character has the name, I imagine they’re very different people since I’ve never met the finance minister. All books have a degree of realness in them. and they are not reality, they are sentences on paper. Life isn’t sentences on paper, it’s this thing that’s happening in this room right now. You’re always lying somehow, embellishing or failing to replicate something. It’s intrinsic to writing itself. I write something that feels alive and urgent to me, and then I start to think about to what extent I could say, with a straight face, that it’s nonfiction or fiction. Nothing I’ve ever written has been a hundred percent in one camp. But I like the feeling of verisimilitude, so I play with signifiers that blur the line.

TQ: What are you reading right now?

PM: Openings of novels, so I’m not actually reading the full length of anything right now. I’ve been trying to remember how to write a novel. [Walks over to nightstand.] Let’s see what’s here: Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens; Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost; Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio; Esther Stories and Love and Shame and Love, both by Peter Orner. Bunch of guys, apparently. But I’m looking at the openings, asking how they demand a reader’s attention.

I’ve also been listening to a lot of short stories on the New Yorker fiction podcast. It can be hit or miss, but it’s often really great. After the story there’s a conversation with Deborah Treisman, the editor. The stories are everything from the canonical, like “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson read by A. M. Homes, but then Homes has a lovely way of talking about the story, too, and Treisman has done a lot of research, so the conversation is great.

[Looking at bookshelves.] What else? Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey, and D’Ambrosio, Loitering. I’ve bought the D’Ambrosio three times, I keep giving it away. And Joy Williams, but no book in particular. A lot of her great stories and essays are available online.

TQ: When you’re working with two different genres, a novel and essays, when you sit down to read—are you thinking about both things?

PM: For a while I was really struggling with the novel, and I looked at Anthony Doerr’s new book, All the Light We Cannot See, and I was asking, “How does he create so much velocity? Why do I not see a hint of bullshit here?” There’s just no bullshit, and it’s very engaging. I also looked at Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica for the same reason. Now, I feel like I am actually moving through the book I’m writing more, not in the beginning of it anymore. With reading essays, I’m just looking for really incredible stuff, writing that I want to aspire to.

TQ: What about Ruefle’s writing affects you?

She’s very aggressively moving away from the received modes. I guess the book is ostensibly a series of craft talks, but only in the most oblique sense. She goes straight for the bone, for the most difficult components of writing, rather than, oh, this is how you write a nice line break. She’s got no interest in that whatsoever. It’s remarkable how urgent she makes her musings on the art of writing. The sentences are on fire with the stuff of life, which is hopefully the case with the writing itself, and so the talk about the writing should also be that way.

TQ: What can you tell us about your novel? It’s set in Sri Lanka?

Yes, it mostly takes place in Sri Lanka. It’s quite different from my first two. There’s a lot more brutality in it—though I think it’s funnier, too. The main character is a woman. Not sure I should say any more than that. Don’t want to spend the currency yet—I’ll keep it for the page.

TQ: What’s your writing process like?

I write in longhand often. Longhand when I am stuck, because it forces a slowing down, and you can’t be so neurotic. It forces focus. Recently, I went through about a year when I really didn’t write much. It was hard. Then, last summer, I was teaching—I gave my students all these prompts and felt obligated to write alongside them, and I was writing all these odd fragments, and that sort of broke the dam. Since then I’ve been writing a lot, quickly; I’ve written hundreds of pages in the last six months.

TQ: What do you think happened before that? What was the reason for not writing for a year?

I’d written these two novels, and now I was a “writer.” And it all became horribly careerist. The writing itself began to feel dutiful. I wasn’t doing a lot of reading aside from student work. And there was just this thing of feeling like a task-master to my students, to myself. All very officious. And also, starting a novel is really hard, it’s an absurd act of hubris. What a thing to do!

TQ: Can you talk a little bit more about being “horribly careerist”?

PM: I was trying to make money, to be blunt, and I was also trying to help puff up the publicity balloon, and I was generally trying to get the next flag in this long capture-the-flag race, and it was—it wasn’t at all about the joy of writing itself. I finally remembered that the point of this is to write more. I like the experience of actually sitting down and writing. That’s what I want. Publication and so on, all of that is a means to an end. The end is more time to write. It’s often perceived as the other way around—you write because you want a readership, you want to be heard—and if that’s what you’re doing, you’re probably going to be very unhappy. You will always have some reason to feel envious or small. You’re always being overlooked by someone, or something. I’m sure Salman Rushdie has cause to feel slighted all the time. Whereas, if you are simply trying to get more time to write, if that’s the goal, then you have some control. The source of joy is attainable, and it will sustain you. Then the defeat or victory of publication and awards and so on—all those tiny ways to feel big or small that bombard you as a working writer—they all mean far less.