Fictionalizing economics: An interview with novelist Peter Mountford

An up-and-coming writer with a growing collection of accolades, Seattle-based Peter Mountford writes fiction that artfully blends insight, humor, and elegance with hard-nosed realism. He will be visiting Lehigh University to meet with students and give a public reading from his latest novel at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 10 in the Global Union lounge of Coxe Hall. He recently discussed his work, his sources of inspiration, and his longstanding fascination with economics during a conversation with Lehigh faculty member Bruce Whitehouse.

Peter Mountford - Photo Courtesy of Sarah Samudre

Peter Mountford – Photo Courtesy of Sarah Samudre

Bruce Whitehouse: Your new book The Dismal Science is the story of Vincenzo d’Orsi, a middle-aged World Bank official. You gave him a bit part in your first novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. Did you ever consider giving d’Orsi a more prominent role when you were writing that book? Why did you decide to make him the subject of your next novel?

Peter Mountford: Initially, the two books were one book—I wrote portions of what became the second book well before I wrote the majority of the first book. But they didn’t work as one book. It was trying too hard. They’re just about different things, so I cleaved them apart. The new book is so deeply informed by aging and grief, whereas the first book is so much about ambition and living for the future. So there was always going to be the two books, it was just a question which I’d write first. I have more in common with Gabriel, the protagonist of the first book, so that seemed more approachable, which is why I wrote it first.

Your fiction deals with people and places that many mainstream U.S. readers might consider unusual: you’ve written one novel about a hedge fund analyst in Bolivia, another about a globe-trotting economist, and I read that you’ve been working on a third set during the Sri Lankan civil war. You’ve said that you’re not interested in writing about “neurotic suburbanites or upper-middle-class dilettantes.” What kind of story captures your imagination and makes you want to write about it?

I got a BA in international affairs and economics, and I grew up in DC, and spent a few years in Sri Lanka at the start of their civil war. So I’ve seen the levers of power up close, how that all operates, and I’ve seen spectacular wealth and spectacular poverty, although I’ve mostly been awkwardly in the middle. After college, I took a job at a shady right-wing think tank. I was a token liberal: they paid me almost nothing, but gave me a nice title—adjunct fellow—and that title made it possible for me to publish op-eds in nice newspapers. They let me write whatever I wanted, more or less, as I was only there to give the illusion of balance. It was exhilarating, in a way. I went to Ecuador for almost two years and wrote about their devastated economy.

But I was just a kid, of course. My previous job had been flipping burgers at an on-campus diner, yet here I was meeting with the Ecuadorian finance minister asking him to let me see one of three copies of a highly classified report analyzing the Ecuadorian economy. Surreal. But after a couple years, I felt too much a fraud and had to quit the job—the whole business. I’d always loved reading and writing literature, that was by far my favorite thing in life, but here I was acting the part of this suit-wearing economist.

Finally, I realized that I had this unusual information about the world, something most writers don’t have access to, and that I should write about that. Artfully, carefully, not to sensationalize the issues, but to stare at them from the inside of a complex character wrestling with the kinds of questions that people in the real world wrestle with.DS-BookImage_01-shrunk.jpg

Do you feel common cause with journalists, social scientists or others who write non-fiction about contemporary issues? Why do you think you chose to examine those issues using the genre of fiction? 

People often remark that fiction allows a writer to be more real, more honest, than nonfiction. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true. You write a long article about the World Bank, and at best it’s very much the perspective of a journalist who did some interviews and is firmly on the outside of the experience. As a fiction writer, you get under the skin of the people, their monotonous and exciting and bizarre daily experiences. Through story you can access emotional truths that are almost impossible to come by if you, the narrator or author, are an outsider with little emotional vested interest.

Journalists make for fun characters because they’re outsiders, they’re often alone, in a way, and their job is to engage with dramatic and complex questions. Economists make fun characters because their work is very often a kind of pre-made metaphor for life. What’s the exchange rate here in this argument with my ex-wife? There’s laws of diminishing returns—isn’t that called growing up? Cost benefit analysis is, I’m quite sure, a major part of courtship, even if you’re madly in love with someone, you’re crunching the numbers in some way.

A writer I know is writing about a conflict archeologist. That’s another one of those jobs that, as a novelist, it’s just a dream: your work is done. The job title itself conveys a huge amount of character information. Economists have that quality, I’d say.

Economics and money have been consistent themes in your fiction, and are at the root of many of your characters’ actions. Is it challenging, as a fiction writer, to give the material factors underlying human behavior their due? Do you think you could ever write a novel that is not, in some deep sense, about money?

I’m obsessed with how people adore and abhor money, how we’re ashamed of money if we have too much, too little, or even just the right amount. Everyone’s quietly or not so quietly freaking out about money, and yet very few people write ambitious character-driven fiction about people whose inner-lives are animated by their relationship to money. It’s odd, considering what a powerful force capital—or its absence—is in the world. It’s not hard to write about, but I think it’s hard—ironically—to market a book where money is central. Books about finance are kryptonite to book clubs, who want desperately to escape from such concerns when they dive into a book. So I have to explain to my readers that the books are actually fun, if you just give them a chance, but it’s an uphill battle.

Movies and TV about people’s relationship to money are so ubiquitous as to be sort of cliché, but the literature of this era and culture still seems quite wary. The novel I’m working on now isn’t quite as overtly about people and their relationship to money, although it is certainly a powerful force in the book. But the big questions in the one I’m writing now concern the nature of truth, violence-contagion, and the secret pathways that information travels on. It’s quite a brutal book, I suppose, but also funny. I’m having fun writing it, as always. If you’re not having fun as a writer, you’re never going to make it—it’s just too hard, otherwise.

[Click here to read a review of Mountford’s 2014 novel The Dismal Science.]