Peter Mountford

After graduating from college, Peter Mountford lived in South America working as a “hack economist” (his words) for a right wing think tank.  Since then, he’s been writing fiction. A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, his debut novel, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this month. David Shields, usually no fan of fiction, said that the book “is, quite simply, one of the most compelling and thought-provoking novels I’ve read in years.” Jess Walters compared it to Graham Greene, writing, “A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism is a terrific debut novel—smart, moving, beautifully written.” Set in Bolivia in 2005, following Evo Morales’ election as president, the novel charts the journey of a young American, Gabriel Francisco de Boya in his mission to turn a profit for a notoriously unscruplous hedge fund.  Peter and I, friends since we were both waiters at the summer literary conference, Bread Loaf, talked over Skype, drinks, and email.


INTERVIEWER

You were born in Washington D.C., your dad is Scottish, but you grew up in Sri Lanka.  Can you talk about that? What kind of childhood did you have?  Do you think it has informed your fiction?

PETER MOUNTFORD

Four siblings; a lot of travel. It was sort of crazy.  We used to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the QE2, which sounds very grand, but we were a pack of barbarians.  I wore the same ratty pair of tennis wrist bands for a couple years, ate only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. At age seven, I liked to wear this black riding cap, one of those felt helmets that horse people wear to competitions.

INTERVIEWER

So it definitely informed your fiction?

PETER MOUNTFORD

Damn straight.  As much as I might like to, I’m pretty much incapable of writing that sort of classic American short story, you know, about a willful woman tending to her roses while she tries to come to terms with her husband’s Alzheimer’s, or whatever. I’d much rather write about a posse of Russian heiresses stranded in rural Vietnam.

INTERVIEWER

Have any photos of the black felt riding cap, circa 1983?

PETER MOUNTFORD

Believe it or not, I do. I’ll look for it.

INTERVIEWER

In another interview while describing traveling you said, “your luckiness bumps up against your loneliness.”  Can you explain what you meant by that?

PETER MOUNTFORD

Oh, I just meant that as a tall white dude in, say, Bolivia, people look at you a certain way. After college, I spent a couple years as a hack economist for a shady right wing think tank based in Arlington. I was their token liberal. I lived in Ecuador for much of that time and wrote about the country’s monetary policy.

It was an especially grim time for their economy, and at the time I often felt like this human billboard for escape, for wealth, for freedom from this economic disaster. The truth obviously was less straightforward—my previous job had been flipping burgers in Southern California.

Traveling is, almost by definition, very lonely, and all the more so when you go somewhere where you don’t have friends, and where there’s a different culture, language, and so on. So these things come together, and you’re really confronted by both your loneliness and your privilege.

INTERVIEWER

What were the dangers in writing a novel set in country other than your own?

PETER MOUNTFORD

A lack of authenticity, for sure. Romanticizing and/or condescending to the country and its people. There is, I think, a danger of the book feeling detached—like if you’re not writing about a place you care about, one way or another, the sense of place might not come through or it might just be a colorful backdrop. That’s death, right there. So you have to have a deep connection to the place, for one reason or another.

INTERVIEWER

For me, at least, there is an immediate and strong connection to place.  It’s not a book exclusively about Bolivia, but at the same time you couldn’t set it in some unnamed mountainous developing country and still have the same book.  Bolivia is essential.

PETER MOUNTFORD

I’ve been thinking about that recently, because I was reading Tea Obreht’s book, which is set in a fictitious Balkan country, and I wondered about the pros and cons of such a choice. It works for her book for the place to be invented, but you’re right that A Young Man’s Guide couldn’t be set in an anonymous country. Bolivia is a major character in the book.

Still, I once got a note from a reader about a story I’d written, which was set in Ecuador, and the reader pointed out that such-and-such restaurant wasn’t actually on such-and-such street. So, there’s always that danger.  No matter how well you think you know a place, someone always knows it better.

There’s also the danger of failing to include some wonderfully unique and interesting detail. A Bolivian friend read my book and pointed out that shoe-shiners are called lustrabotas, which is a fabulous word, and I very nearly didn’t include it in the book.

INTERVIEWER

The backdrop of the novel is Bolivia.  But also the world of finance.  To my knowledge not much contemporary fiction tackles the subject of international economics.  Were you consciously addressing a lack in American fiction?  Did you worry that you would bore some readers?

PETER MOUNTFORD

Well, as someone who studied economics in college and used to write about economics for a think tank, but was also very obsessed with literature, I was extremely surprised to find that there was so little literature about finance or economics. For a while there you couldn’t turn on the news without hearing about the ludicrous lives of investment bankers, about how their decisions were wreaking havoc on the lives of more or less everyone on the planet. Yet people seem to have this idea that finance isn’t dramatic, as if the last few years, maybe decades, of human history, which have been dominated by issues of finance, have been a monumental snooze-fest. It’s a bizarre blind-spot to have—something so obviously important and complicated and interesting.

INTERVIEWER

A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism.  Why “late” capitalism? You don’t seem especially like a neo-Marxist.

PETER MOUNTFORD

You know, I’ve always felt a little ambivalent about having “late capitalism” in the title, as I think that capitalism is, in fact, alive and well, and in no danger whatsoever of dying. But I liked the sense of foreboding that’s implied by it. I like how it implies temporal movement and history, and that it hints at how the entire structure upon which the novel is taking place is profoundly unsteady. Because the novel takes place at a very specific and very precarious time in the life of the global pool of money. Wait, is “pool” is too passive, even? Maybe it’s better to say that the book takes place at what was the highest crest of a huge wave of capitalist fervor, it takes place just before that wave broke with spectacularly catastrophic consequences.

INTERVIEWER

Gabriel is a fascinating character.  Particularly because he makes some questionable moral decisions throughout the novel, yet, his dilemma seems incredibly recognizable.  His choices make me question some of my more idealistic notions.  How do you feel about Gabriel?

PETER MOUNTFORD

I feel sorry for him and I’m jealous of him and I find him maddeningly foolish, at times. I have a lot of affection for Gabriel, but if I knew him in the real world, I’m pretty sure we’d be frienemies.

In any case, I’m delighted to hear his decisions made you question some of your more idealistic notions, because I think that’s a big part of the inner intellectual machinery of the book: that ostensibly straightforward issues are constantly twisting into more complicated problems.  The book certainly doesn’t trade in tidy moral absolutes. No one is totally morally clean and no one is totally corrupt. They’re doing their best to achieve goals they’ve set for themselves.

Human beings have to make an incredible number of decisions with very limited or flawed information about the potential outcomes. I gather this is sort of what the new David Brooks book is about—how people must improvise and let emotions guide them through their decisions, because logic just isn’t enough. You know, we like to think we know we’re making the right decision when we marry someone or buy a house or take a job or whatever. But there’s a lot of guesswork. Gabriel is just naïve enough to believe that he can overcome the guesswork portion, outwit it, and strategize his way safely through the obstacle course of life.

INTERVIEWER

This is your first published novel, but it’s not the first novel you’ve written.  Can you talk about your earlier efforts?

PETER MOUNTFORD

I wrote one astonishingly bad so-called practice novel when I was in my early twenties. It was from the point of view of a dead woman. I showed it to friends and they said, “Show this to NO ONE else.” While earning my MFA at the University of Washington, I wrote a novel-ish book, very episodic and close to being a novel-through-stories, but it had an arc. It moved in reverse chronological order. I really loved that book, and I still do, actually.

INTERVIEWER

What were they about?

PETER MOUNTFORD

The first was also about gringos in South America, in a way, but the protagonist was a woman who had sex with people for money.

INTERVIEWER

The dead woman?

PETER MOUNTFORD

Indeed. She was narrating it from beyond the grave, about the end of her life, much like “The Lovely Bones.” But I was actually writing it before “The Lovely Bones” was published. I glanced at it the other day and it was intensely bad.

The second was also about a gringo in South America, but the protagonist of that book was an eccentric, HIV-positive, middle-aged Scottish painter of considerable renown, so that’s also quite different, you know. Those books were also pretty autobiographical, actually.

INTERVIEWER

What happened with them?

PETER MOUNTFORD

The second one, despite being kind of bizarre, I really liked.  But when I showed it to some agents, they said, “The writing’s great, but this doesn’t have a plot. We can’t sell something without some kind of plot.”

So I went home and wrote a book that had a plot. And here we are.

INTERVIEWER

A Young Man’s Guide definitely has a plot.  It also has a rather dark ending, which I love.  Was there resistance to that, either from yourself as you wrote it, or from your editors?

PETER MOUNTFORD

I didn’t resist the end at all. Nor fortunately did my incredible editor, Adrienne Brodeur, who loved it.  Frankly, I didn’t really see it as that dark, but maybe that says more about me than it does the book. Gabriel, you know, he more or less starts off the book incapable of doing the very exciting job that he’s just been hired for, but by the end he’s got it down. So, good for him!

No, I’m sort of joking. Actually, initially, I’d tried for the more redemptive Hollywood ending. But it felt totally dishonest. I mean, I tried to picture myself in Gabriel’s position at his age. He’s got this amazing opportunity, not just to make a boatload of money — like retire early money — but he’ll get to travel the world and stay in nice hotels and the work itself sounds actually pretty interesting, writing these short reports on what he discovers. You know, I tried to imagine myself when I was in my mid-twenties, living alone in New York and working at AOL, and what if I had been handed the opportunity to do Gabriel’s job. Would I sacrifice the opportunity because it seemed ethically dubious, and hurry eagerly back to my mountains of debt and my miserable temp job at AOL? I wish I could say that I was that noble a person.


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