A Fiendish Conversation with Peter Mountford
Likes: Hugo House, Ben Fountain, and blankets. Dislikes: MFA programs, think tanks, and spiders.
Novels about modern global economics aren’t typically wry page-turners packed with deeply personal characters. But that's what Peter Mountford accomplished with his 2012 debut, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, winner of the 2012 Washington State Book Award. Mountford currently serves as writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House, and he’s staying busy writing essays for The Atlantic, Slate, The Guardian, and more. Details about his second novel, The Dismal Science, have just been released, and it looks like another journey to the dark side of geopolitical economics. On July 18, Mountford plans to present a humorous essay as part of a free Hugo House reading that also spotlights Jodi Angel and Jennine Capó Crucet.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Mountford about Hugo House's role in the community, arachnids, and his near brush with being a D.C. "bozo."
What does being the Hugo House writer-in-residence entail?
I meet with anyone who wants to meet. I met people as young as 14 and 15, people in their 90s, and everywhere in between: people who are pretty established writers, people who’ve written several books, people who’ve never written a single word in their entire life and are just trying to get started. It’s been an amazing experience. A lot of people are writing memoirs.
Any reason why you think that is?
I think there are a lot of people who feel like they have a story. Sometimes it’s people who have lost somebody and they want to kind of revisit that person through their writing.
Has the residency had an impact on your own writing?
I also teach a lot there too, and it’s sort of a similar thing, reading and commenting on people’s work. It really has honed my critical eye with my own work. I’m much better. That’s why I encourage people to take workshop classes, because it really refines your reading of your own work if you’re constantly trying to critique someone else’s work. You look at what’s working, what’s not working. ... How is it shaking out for them? By asking those questions about another's writing, you just get used to asking those questions about your own writing in a way that, perhaps, when you’re starting out, you’re a little bit more afraid of hurting your own feelings. Now I don’t worry about that.
Is there a specific example?
Just yesterday I was editing part of my novel and there was a classic mistake that I see my students doing at the Hugo House all the time. At the opening of the book, there were just too many characters, and the author was clearly trying to push too much information onto the page too quickly. You gotta break it up and slow it down, otherwise it's too overwhelming for the reader. ... That was something I think I learned through teaching. That’s my third novel I’m now working on.
How far along is your novel?
Pretty early. I have a couple chapters of an outline, and the outline is subject to change, but I’m guessing it’ll take me a year or two to finish it.
What's the value of a place like Hugo House to the local literary community?
I think it’s essential to the literary community here in Seattle. It’s literally a physical hub. ... I love, in particular, the classes—how they often span levels of experience. You’ll have some really accomplished writers with people who are just starting out in the same room. The workshops, as a result, and the conversations are free of a lot of the b.s. you get at, say, an MFA program, where everyone sort of envisions themselves as being super fancy, but none of them are. In Hugo House, you get a mixture of truly accomplished people and people who have never done it, and you get much more pragmatic conversations—direct and simple and clear about what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it. I find it amazing. I love the place.
Which up-and-coming local writers should people check out?
Urban Waite is crucial. He’s a really great writer and it’s really exciting that we have him in town. It’s a tough one… I teach a lot of people at the Hugo House. Elissa Washuta for sure. She’s an important one. She’s got a book coming out soon, and it’s really exciting. It’s a great collection of personal essays. Those two are ones that come to mind.
What are your favorite books you’ve read over the past year?
I just read that Ben Fountain book, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award a year ago, and it was fucking amazing. Incredible. Just mind-boggling. I really, really admired that. And Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins, and Maria Semple’s one [Where'd You Go, Bernadette]. It’s been a really good year for sort of smart literary fiction, but they’re also very, very compulsive reading. There’s a lot of velocity inside those books.
If you weren’t a writer, what other line of work might you have pursued?
I was briefly working for a think tank, writing about economics. I guess I might have done that, been a kind of opinion-generator in D.C., one of those those awful people who works at, like, the Brookings Institute or something and writes white papers on economic policy in Sub-Saharan Africa or whatever. I could’ve been one of those bozos. I probably would’ve had a nice car. I can picture the life pretty easily: a lot of air miles, a lot of air miles, a couple nice suits. It would have been a very different life.
What’s your writing routine?
I tend to write longhand in early drafts and early phases. A lot of my generative work is longhand, and then I switch to computers later. I’ve gotten better on a computer than I used to be. I have an office in the basement of my house and I go there and I do—like an old man—put a blanket over my lap, like this sad old man blanket. I sit at this nice, old antique desk and I turn the light on, even when there’s plenty of light in the room. There are weird things like that: my old man blanket, even when it’s hot out, and the light on, even when it’s light out. The desk is kind of a mess. I sit in there with the spiders and write. There’s a lot of spiders. They’re terrible. There’re all these damn spiders in my basement; they sneak into my office. It’s awful. I recently had an enormous black spider in my office, hiding in my little blue blanket. I had to kill him on the blanket and then wash it. It was a mess. It was terrible. It was huge.
Jodi Angel, Jennine Capó Crucet, Peter Mountford
July 18 at 7, Richard Hugo House, free