Bad Mouth Interview with Mark Sundeen by Jennifer Schaller
The next installment of the Bad Mouth Reading Series features a superb line-up of writers and music, featuring Joan Ryan, Leslie Ullman, Mark Sundeen, and music by the enchanting Anna Mall. To gear up for this reading, friend of Bad Mouth, Jennifer Jordán Schaller interviewed the talented, humble, and funny Mark Sundeen to talk more in depth about his writing and creative process. Sundeen is the current Russo chair in Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico.
Jennifer Jordán Schaller—You taught at UNM back in 2007 as a visiting writer, and now you are back as the Russo Chair in Creative Writing. Now that you have been in New Mexico for a while, perhaps you have heard some local expressions NM Desert Dwellers cling to, for example, New Mexico is sometimes described as The Land of Entrapment. The nickname describes the experience of people who have never left this state, left and came back, and those of us who have stayed here because it is home: On behalf of NM, tell me something good. “Why come back?”
Mark Sundeen—I’ve noticed that some people who live here, especially the undergrads I teach, have a bit of a complex, like Abq sux, but I’ve always loved it here. I’m also a desert dweller, having spent most of my years in Southern California and Southern Utah, and I’m still thrilled by the evening light, the Bosque in yellow, snow on the Sandias, the people without pretensions. Also with Trump elected it made me sick to live in a white enclave; Abq isn’t that. Mostly I try to avoid publically saying too many good things about this city because it will cause people to move here and drive up the rents!
JJS—I loved reading The Man Who Quit Money (in part because money is icky, and turns people into goblins). The book tells the story of Daniel Suelo, a man who learned how to live without earning, spending, or receiving money. For those readers who have not read the book, Suelo lives in caves in Utah, and he forages for food and other necessary items. What is a significant lesson you gleaned from that research and writing experience? Do you integrate any of Suelo’s philosophies into your own life now?
MS—What I took from Suelo was the importance of following your own heart. For him that meant living without money. For me that means being a writer, among other things. Knowing him didn’t make me want to quit money but it did make me want to be more intentional about where my money comes from and where it goes. I’ve been lucky enough not to have to do jobs that I find unethical. And in some ways I am happier to spend money now than I was before, if I think that the money is doing good. So we spend lots at the farmers market on good food supporting local farmers because I want there to be local farms and giving them money is actually the best way to insure that they stay viable. But it’s never simple or straightforward knowing what to do. When I got the job at UNM I didn’t want to commute in a car and spend money on gas, so that meant paying more in rent to live a few blocks from UNM. And then the grief of losing our son exploded so many of our good intentions, and now we find ourselves watching two hours of Game of Thrones every night. I quit social media and I replaced the obsession with managing my budget on Quicken. I find something soothing in counting and recounting my savings, which may be a response to stress and uncertainty brought on by grief, or may be just a wierd quirk that really isn’t more healthy or ethical than blowing it all on shiny objects I want.
JJS—I also enjoyed reading The Unsettlers, a book that chronicles the lives of different Americans living off the grid. I’m wondering, out of all the books you have written, do you have a favorite? Why? If they are all your favorite, can you explain why you don’t play favorites with your art?
MS—I actually like my first two books Car Camping and The Making of Toro the most, even though I recognize they are not as good as the more recent ones, I guess because back then I really didn’t give a fuck if anyone published them, or at least I wasn’t willing to change them to suit a publisher. I just wrote the way I wanted to, totally unaware how uncommercial and un-platformy they were. I wrote for about four friends who I could entertain. I had so much fun writing them. Now that I know more about the book industry it’s a miracle those books got published at all. I like my more recent books of journalism but don’t think they are as distincively odd as the first ones.
JJS—I’m wondering about the button or synaptic bridge inside your brain that tells you when you have happened upon a good story. You are an author, but you are also a journalist who has written feature articles for publications like Outside and The Believer. How do you know when you have a story? 1) Is it a feeling you get? 2) Is it conscious craft knowledge, likemotivation + compelling problem = plot. 3) Or does something else tell you when a story is good?
MS—I do a lot of research and travel and interviews for an assignment but the story itself, the emotional drive and the aesthetic shape of it, comes to me the way a dream does, like when you’re lucid-dreaming just after waking, and you have partial control over the dream. I may have dozens of pages of transcripts and notes but suddenly I know exactly which lines matter, which scenes will make the story. I’m not that musical but I imagine it’s like when a melody enters the head of a songwriter. I know how the story goes. I know what the reader will feel at each moment, I often know the exact cadence and rhythm of the final lines, even if I don’t know the actual words will be. That’s the most exciting part of an assignment. Usually it occurs when I’m driving or maybe trying to sleep in a motel and it just arrives and I have to dream it for an hour or so and then rush to write it down before I forget.
JJS—Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the past, it seemed like you wrote more journalistic pieces where you were removed from the story. Your most recent publication in Virginia Quarterly Review was a lot more personal and described grief and loss. Are you shifting more toward writing personally? Or do the topics you write about depend on other factors? What are you working on now?
MS—Having a real job at UNM prevents me from doing longform assignments just because I can’t travel like I used to. And the death of our son was just something I had to write about not out of choice but to stay sane and to put words to these waves of love and sorrow that rip through me.
JJS—Lastly, this is fluffy, but you are a very stylish guy. I always love your boots and hats. Describe your style as it pertains to your overall writing/authorial persona. Or are you just you? And if so, who are you?
MS—Once I knew an editor at GQ so I subscribed thinking I’d be able to get a feel for the mag and then pitch him some stories. I pitched a thousand or more ideas and never landed a single assignment. But I studiously read the fashion columns each month. There I learned the “Italian technique” for rolling up the sleeves on a dress shirt, which makes it look more snug, less messy. I use this technique to this day. Let this be a lesson.
Mark Sundeen is the author of five books, including The Unsettlers (Riverhead, 2017), The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead, 2012),and The Making of Toro (Simon & Schuster, 2003). His work has been translated into seven languages. He holds the Russo Chair in Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.