Writer Interview: Meet Mark Sundeen

For two years Mark Sundeen read every draft of what ultimately became my memoir. Which means he read every lousy piece of writing I put out and knew every detail of every bit of my life. A lot of it wasn't that pretty, and he still seemed to respect me. For that he earned my lifelong respect. I also happen to admire his writing a great deal, so it only made sense to introduce you to him here. 

Mark is most recently known for his award winning book, The Man Who Quit Money, a book about Daniel Suelo: "In the autumn of 2000, Daniel Suelo deposited his life savings—all thirty dollars of itin a phone booth. He has lived without money ever since. And he has never felt so free, or so much at peace. “My wealth never leaves me,” he says. “Worrying about what could or should happen is a worse illness than what could or should happen." It is a Los Angeles Times Bestseller, a San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller, and an Amazon Top 100 Seller. His full bio is below, but for now, meet Mark:


wsforicon When did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

In high school. It was the thing I was best at.


wsforicon Did you always believe it was possible to be a writer?

Yes, because I began by self-publishing (a magazine called Great God Pan.) My friend and I did that for 5 years or so, so I knew I could get in print. I didn't think I could get paid for it. That has been a pleasant surprise.


Can you describe your writing process?
RIght now I'm doing lots of research--interviews, travel, reading--so I'm not actually writing. When I do write, I'm pretty disciplined about doing it first thing in the morning. I work fewer than four hours a day, unless something magical happens. I canceled internet at my office because I was unable to resist the urge to look up stupid things, check facebook, etc. The most important thing, I think, is to allow some dream time, rather actually laying in bed, or walking, or driving on an open road, where the best ideas and feelings appear. Those things don't arrive when I'm sitting at my desk.
You're often called an outdoor writer, and yet from our conversations I know that you have some clear opinions about outdoor and nature writing. What do you think is missing from much outdoor writing? What truly makes it compelling and interesting?
What's missing from outdoor writing is generally a person who wants something and can't get it. That longing is central to all literature in my opinion. Mere descriptions of flowers and plants and animals are flat to me because the author comes across as too satisfied. That's what makes Ed Abbey great, I think, is that even his most lyrical writing about nature is fueled by a moral outrage, a desire to save places, and to overthrow power. Also missing, generally: a sense of humor.
wsforiconThe process of writing The Man Who Quit Money seemed to change how you viewed the world and lived you own life. Can you tell us about that process?
Spending so much time with Suelo forced me to examine how much I was actually living according to beliefs I thought I held, about materialism, spirituality, and sacrifice. I found him pretty inspiring. It also made me realize how blessed I am to have found a way to make a living doing what I love: that is, I can pursue my dream and not feel like I'm selling myself for money.

Do you find that writing and life typically play off each other like that--being a writer and writing change how you see the world and vice versa--or is the truly exceptional stories and projects that have that kind of influence?

As Travis LaFrance once said, "My art is my life, and versa-vice." Early on I fancied myself a novelist, and thought nonfiction was just a stepping stone, but after writing a novel, I was satisfied that I'd given it the effort, and dissatisfied with the product. I never published it. So I find nonfiction writing allows me to delve into some topic more fully, and get in the world of the people I'm writing about. My current project is about simple living: back to the land, ecovillages, urban farming, permaculture. So I'm fully obsessed with it now, and find myself in the garden more and more often.

wsforiconDo you have any advice for writers just starting out on finding their stories?
I spent five years or so self-publishing, reading mostly classic literature and then odd non-literary memoirs and travel books. That is to say I read almost no popular contemporary novels, no New Yorker, no literary magazines. So I had no idea what was popular, and no desire to get published, or make my work fit into any editor's idea of what works. So I came through that with zero commercial success, but with my own voice, which didn't sound like any one else, which actually led to some commercial success in that my books got published and I started getting magazine assignments. That's all a way of saying: learn how to write in a way that will entertain yourself and your friends, and postpone as long as possible the frustration and conformity that comes with the pressure to get published.
“One of America’s most innovative writers of literary nonfiction*,” Mark Sundeen was born in Harbor City, California, in 1970. He is the award-winning author of The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead, 2012) whose nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, the Believer, and elsewhere. His other books are Car Camping (HarperCollins, 2000) and The Making of Toro (Simon & Schuster, 2003), and he co-authored North By Northwestern (St. Martin’s, 2010), which was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. He has taught fiction and nonfiction at the MFA creative writing programs at the University of New Mexico and Southern New Hampshire University. He lives in Montana and Utah. *Austin Statesman