Catawampus Uber Alles!: The Rumpus Interview with Peter Mountford

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Peter Mountford is one of those dudes who you want to hang out with, on the page and off, because he’s had crazier experiences than you have, and because he knows how to write novels that arise from these crazy experiences and are full of insight and wisdom and yet never seek to make sense of them entirely—which would be impossible and arrogant and not much fun in the final analysis.

He’s the author of the A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism and the newly released The Dismal Science, which is probably the only comic novel in history to star a depressed middle-aged economist from the World Bank. It’s a very sad book. And also darkly funny.

Mountford grew up, among other locales, in Sri Lanka. He now lives in Seattle, though he takes dictation from fictional characters around the globe.

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The Rumpus: The first thing that fans of your last book are going to realize is this: “Hey, Mountford is again writing about an economist. What gives?” So: what gives?

Peter Mountford: Once upon a time, these two books were one book, but it would have been an ungainly beast. It just wasn’t one book—they’re about very different things, actually. But maybe the question inside your question is how can a writer sustain an interest in this godforsaken material—economics—for the better part of eight years of novel-writing? The truth is, I do have an obsession with money and what it does to us as individuals, as societies. My interest in money is a love/hate thing, I guess. Or just unrequited love. I suppose if I loved it so much, I’d be doing something other than writing dark fiction about economists, right?

Rumpus: One of the many things you nail in The Dismal Science is the quiet desperation of middle age, that point you reach where you realize, Christ, I’m closer to the grave than the cradle and I still have almost no control over my life. I don’t really have a question here. I’m just feeling implicated and pissed off.

The Dismal ScienceMountford: People think the male midlife crisis is just a hilarious and ridiculous outburst by a fading beast, the red Corvette and hairpiece and so on. The narrative has become so stiffly amused, so self-satisfied and scolding. We’re to scoff at the weakness of these men who collapse in the face of their limitations, who puff up like that. We don’t like to dignify hungry and aberrant behavior because we’ve still a very puritan people, but honestly facing the cage of mortality at age twenty-five is a lot different from doing so at fifty-five. That you might feel crushing panic at fifty-five is not just understandable—I’d say that if you’re not seized with panic by then you’re either not a very alive person, or you’re a goddamned saint, in which case, congratulations and fuck off.

Rumpus: Well said, sir. Let’s put that on a t-shirt and make a zillion, shall we? Which brings me to this: one thing your hero Vincenzo does is take a moral stand. But it’s complicated, because he’s also working the angles. Is it possible for humans to perform acts of pure goodness?

Mountford: No, that’s not possible.

Rumpus: Shit. I was worried you’d say that.

Mountford: You give money to a charity anonymously and somewhere in your head you’re thinking about the tax benefits, you’re patting yourself on the back, especially firmly for giving it anonymously. We can’t really get away from our egos—you’d have to be deeply mentally ill to sever ties to the part of you that is assessing your choices in that way, the part of you that is dedicated to figuring out what you think of yourself. People do want to be good. But people are also inescapably self-interested, and that tension is endlessly interesting to me.

I don’t mean that self-interest is something people struggle to overcome; I mean, it’s the condition of the human animal, as much as the nose on our faces. We are, by definition, very interested in what’s happening in our lives. And very often what’s in our best interest is not in the best interest of our fellow man. It’s economics. But it’s definitely not economics—the formulas are catawampus, they’ve got all these emoticons and crazy love letters stashed between the integers.

Rumpus: Listen, I’ll just say this, but you can’t tell anyone else: Stephen Elliott originally wanted to name this website “The Catawampus” but the money people said no. Anyway. You have a wonderful way of ratcheting up the pressure of your heroes. Is that a conscious decision, or just the sick, sadistic way your mind works?

Mountford: Maybe both? I do certainly try to throw my characters under the bus as often as possible, but I also write by instinct a lot. Or if I have a plan, and the crazed imp in my head who produces the writing itself, who actually makes the sentences, if he decides that the plan for this chapter is not of interest to him, that in fact he wants some character to go off script and do something else—if that happens, I defer to the imp nine times out of ten.

Rumpus: You come at fiction from this unusual angle, as someone who spent years immersed in the worlds of macro economics and international relations. What in the hell called you to literature? (It can’t have been the pay scale…)

A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism

Mountford: No, I was always writing—I was a creepy sad kid and I was lost in these colossal, intricate daydreams from a very early age. My mother died when I was eleven. My family had moved to Sri Lanka when I was seven, and two weeks after we arrived, a civil war broke out on the island. The war lasted almost thirty years, but we were just there for the first three years. When we came home, I was ten, and within six months my mom was dying of lung cancer. By that point, I was quite fully an alien among my peers. I had a weird accent, all these weird experiences. No one in my fourth grade class knew what to do with me. I disappeared into an alternate reality for a number of years. I read and wrote and I documented my daydreams, because they were too elaborate to remember.

I always wanted to be a writer, but I was living in DC, and going to this lovely private school where everyone goes on to be The President of the United States of America, but I had orange hair and played in a punk band and read William Burroughs. But still, I was from that community, so I ended up stumbling into this shady think tank, where I was a hack economist for a few years. But I’ve never quite fit in anywhere, truth be told. What’s that Heather McHugh line? “I began to write because I was too shy to talk, and too lonely not to send messages.”

Rumpus: You told me at some point you’d written a screenplay. Or did I just make that up?

Mountford: I wrote at least one screenplay. Wasn’t much fun. Unfortunately, it’s quite lucrative and I’m better at it than I am at other things I could do to make money. Once, I even flew to LA and pitched a movie to an executive at HBO Films. It seemed quite legit. We were offered little bottles of Fiji water. Now I reside in a mansion in Malibu—no, I mean I live in a squalid apartment in Seattle and I can’t afford a dining room table, so I eat on the floor like an animal.

Rumpus: What’s next?

Mountford: I want to make enough money to buy a dining room table. But that’s unlikely, so I’m going to write a novel that’s set in Sri Lanka in 2009, at the peak of their civil war. It’s narrated by a woman, apparently—which is not what I was expecting for the book, but that’s what’s happening. She’s much more interesting than I am, so it’s nice to hang out with her. I’m just sitting here on the floor of my apartment taking dictation. But I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.


Steve Almond's most recent book, Against Football, was a New York Times bestseller for at least three seconds. More from this author →