Elizabeth Ogle | Authors: Stories Behind the Books, Peter Mountford

Authors: Stories Behind the Books, Peter Mountford

November 17, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Peter Mountford is the author of The Dismal Science, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism and numerous short essays and short stories. His work has been praised by New York Times as having a "fierce imagination" and the Seattle Times has described his debut novel, A Dismal Science, very savy and entertaining. Peter is very much involved in the local writing community and I am very happy to add Peter Mountford to my Author project.

When you decided to work as a full-time writer, were there any specific risks/sacrifices you were taking to reach that goal?

The possibility of financial ruin and long-term humiliation were the main risks, I think. The sacrifices were related, like a feeling of security. That said, it's an enormously privileged choice, or the fact that I was able to make the choice, that it even occurred to me as an option, underscores the fact that I grew up within a community and culture of tremendous privilege. I'm definitely a white man who is very well-educated, went to a fancy private school, and so on. I didn't grow up rich, and I've never been rich, per se, I've never made more than $100,000 in a year, but privilege isn't that simple, of course.

It probably goes without saying that every writer knows the pain of a rejection letters. Do you think those rejection letters helped shaped your writing for the future or was it noise that you blocked out? Is there any specific remark that you remember or have that kept you going?

It's not attractive to say, but the truth is that the rejection made me angry, and that anger was in part what gave me the fuel to put all that energy into writing. The "I'll show them" thing was, for better or worse, quite a useful propellant. I remember an editor that jotted a hand-written note on a form rejection pointing out that there were one or two spelling errors in the first page of the story I'd sent. Oops! I remember the many encouraging rejections I got from the Paris Review. All carefully written personal letters, which was amazing -- I kept getting them for 10 years, or so. But they've still never accepted anything. 
Peter Mountford, author of A Dismal Science
In 2012 you won the Washington State Book Award in fiction for your first novel, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism. How did you feel after receiving that award?
I saw this email from the Seattle Public Library, and I thought it was spam. The award was announced long after the book was published, like a year and a half later. I opened the message, I was tired after a long day of teaching, and I thought it was an announcement about the award, like I was part of a mass mailing. And then it occurred to me that no, it was actually for me, and it was saying that I had won. Although I was exhausted, I got up and went for a long walk.
In an interview you talked about needing to "put on a performance" for your readers. What do you mean by that? Do you have a "test audience" for your work or do you trust your gut most of the time?
I do have a test audience, in a sense. I tend not to do a great deal of research before I start writing, because storytelling is hard enough for me without having to contend with all these facts, but once I have a draft I spend a lot of time talking to experts who know about my subject. It's big undertaking. And then I re-write. So that's one audience, and then there are friends who are writers or editors, and I'm trying to include some booksellers in that group, too, but it's a lot to ask. So, although my gut has certainly become a more reliable gauge, I do definitely get numerous people's feedback before I send it out. In terms of performance, I think what I meant was that people show up hoping to be moved, or delighted, or heartbroken. As a writer, you need to aim high, in terms of what you hope to do to your reader. Or else why would they care? It's a big undertaking, reading a novel. You spend $15-25 on this object, and then you stare at it for 15 hours or more. That object needs to be pretty special.
You are a staff member at the Hugo House in Seattle, a place where writers of all ages and backgrounds can come and work with other new and established writers to help them with their voice. Is there any other place like Hugo House?

Other cities have similar organizations, namely Grub Street in Boston, The Loft in Minneapolis, Lighthouse in Denver.

What is next on your agenda?

I'm excited to be on faculty at Sierra Nevada College's low-res MFA. People can learn about it here:
And I'm also honored to have an essay in this new anthology called "Extraordinary Rendition," which you can learn about here: http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/extraordinary-rendition/
You can learn more Peter Mountford and his work, listen and read countless interviews and reviews at his website:
Also, check out the Hugo House for upcoming writer events and classes. https://hugohouse.org/