Q&A with Mark Sundeen, Author of “The Man Who Quit Money”

Nearly two decades ago, Mark Sundeen and Daniel Suelo worked together as cooks at a diner in Moab, Utah. The two young men, drawn to the desert like so many nonconformist seekers, had much in common; they traveled in the same circle and squatted on public lands in lieu of paying rent. Since then, their paths have diverged considerably. Sundeen, while continuing to wrestle with questions relating to material and spiritual wealth, developed a stable career as a magazine adventure writer, book author, and teacher of literary nonfiction, acquiring savings and a retirement account along the way. Meanwhile, twelve years ago his old coworker Suelo left his own last thirty dollars in a phone booth and walked away, as Sundeen writes on the opening page of The Man Who Quit Money,” an immersive, genre-spanning book published earlier this year.

"[A]s the Dow Jones skyrocketed to its all-time high, Daniel Suelo has not earned, received, or spent a single dollar," Sundeen continues. "In an era when anyone who could sign his name qualified for a mortgage, Suelo did not apply for loans or write IOUs. He didn’t even barter. As the public debt soared to eight, ten, finally thirteen trillion dollars, he did not pay taxes, or accept food stamps, welfare, or any other form of government handout.”

Since his decision to quit money, Suelo has lived in a cave, has found nourishment through dumpster diving and scavenging for roadkill, has traveled spontaneously and widely, has updated his very thorough website for free at the public library, and created a surprisingly abundant lifestyle. Amid brushes with death and moments of spiritual renewal, he continues a great adventure that began with an evangelical upbringing and led him to the Peace Corps, the Alaskan wilderness, and monasteries of Thailand and India. Throughout his struggle to fit into modern life, marked by periods of depression and feeling utterly lost, Suelo has found guidance and inspiration in the teachings of Thoreau, the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Buddha, and Lame Deer, among others who have informed his worldview.

When an editor at Riverhead learned of the connection between Sundeen and Suelo and suggested the idea of a book, Sundeen decided to write what he would want to read: a nonfiction novel about a journey toward enlightenment. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he knew that Suelo’s story had wide implications for a general audience. And when the two reunited with Suelo leading him to an abandoned melon patch (discovered through everyday roaming and foraging) for a juicy feast, it became even clearer that his story could remind us all to live more freely, in every sense of the word. We caught up with Sundeen from his home just outside Missoula, Montana, for a conversation about the craft of writing and finding the structure for his story in the same book that inspired Star Wars -- Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces.”

Have people made assumptions about your own financial life based on your association with Suelo?

The most common misperception is that people think because I've published a book, I'm incredibly wealthy [laughs]. People ask questions like “How do you feel about getting rich writing about a man without money?” and “What are you going to do with all the money you're making from this book?” Anyone who knows publishing knows that when you publish a work of literature that’s released as a paperback original, you’re not making very much money at all.

How did you begin your research and writing of the book?

I went down to Moab in the fall of 2009 and spent a lot of time interviewing Suelo and then came back and read a lot of the books that have been important to him. That lasted four or five months. I went back to Moab and did another major round of interviews either that fall or the following spring, and at the end of it, I had 111 pages of single-spaced transcript. I couldn't afford to hire a typist, so I had to do all the transcribing myself. The good news was that I knew the material so well by the time I finished typing it -- I’m slow, so I had to keep rewinding and listening to it over and over again -- that when I was writing, I was able to just search for relevant words or phrases and find them in the transcript. I was really familiar with everything he had said.

Did those pages include conversations with his friends and relatives?

No, that was just him. Then I probably interviewed another thirty people. He was really helpful putting me in touch with his friends and family. Two of his friends had maybe 100 pages each of handwritten letters that he had mailed from his days in the Peace Corps and up in Alaska. Both checked with him and agreed to give me copies. One of them scanned his and put them on a server where I could read them. The other sent originals, which scared me -- I was afraid I’d lose thirty or forty handwritten letters, so I made copies of those and marked them with Post-its.

The book reads like an extended, very insightful magazine profile. Did your experience with feature writing prepare you to do this?

It did, and I knew I’d have to incorporate four different genres. The first was basically a feature, like something you'd read in the Sunday paper: “Oh, wow … interesting. This guy lives without money.” The story had a built-in curiosity: How does he do it? Where does he get his food? How does he bathe, or stay warm? The second genre was biography. The more I learned about him, the more I realized he had this incredibly interesting life. His suicide attempt, the Peace Corps, his coming out, the fundamentalist religious background -- I didn't know any of that until I started interviewing him. The third genre, I would say, is essay. My editor, Becky Saletan at Riverhead, said, “We have to remember this is not just a biography of this guy. It's an essay that illuminates these questions that are universal through examining this one guy's life.” A lot of the chapters begin with a philosophical question or observation often stated by Suelo, like, “This is a Christian country, yet it's illegal to live according to the teachings of Jesus." Those kinds of ideas frame the structure of the book as much as the biographical points. The fourth genre was memoir. I included my own story partly because I'm interested in innovation and doing something different than my previous books, but also in putting my own stamp on it. The questions the book raises are ones that I've struggled with and contemplated my whole life. I think it would have been kind of boring for me just to write a memoir about struggling with these ideas without really doing anything drastic, as Suelo has done.

How and when did you develop the Hero’s Journey structure for the book?

That came pretty far into the process. I had already done a lot of research and writing and was almost finished with the first draft. I felt like everything I was saying wasn't quite capturing all the mystical or magical things that happen when you hang out with Suelo. The more I learned about his brushes with death and the visions he had while hallucinating, I thought … this sounds like mythology. I had heard of Joseph Campbell, but I had never read his books. I went out and got a copy of “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” and it really brought everything into focus. So many of the themes and the narrative arc of Daniel's life seemed to occur in all of these myths that Campbell was talking about.

Do you know if he has read Joseph Campbell?

I don't think so … it wasn't on the list of books he gave me.

Did you consider that list to be a kind of syllabus? 

I read most of them. There were a lot of books I felt familiar with, like [Thoreau's] “Walden,” but I actually hadn't read them before. So I read that and most of the Bible for the first time, and also the “Tao Te Ching” and the autobiography of Gandhi.

Wow. Sounds like you gave yourself the best project ever.

I know … that was how I spent the whole first winter, just reading.

I know that your publisher came to you and suggested the idea for “The Man Who Quit Money.” Is it a subject you would have pursued on your own?

I don't know if it would have occurred to me that it was interesting enough for a book. I had read a magazine profile of him and thought it was great and wished I had written it. Not knowing about his biography, it seemed like the profile had said it all. But the more I learned, the more I realized this could really be a book. Basically the rule of my career has been that I'm not allowed to touch the steering wheel [laughs]. Almost any magazine I've written for has first contacted me. Four out of the five books I've written, including the one I'm just about to start, have come out of someone else's idea. The first, “Car Camping,” I came up with on my own. My second book happened because my agent went out to lunch with an editor, and they cooked up the idea of “The Making of Toro.” The third I ghostwrote, so I was hired to do that. Riverhead came up with the idea about Suelo, and I have a new book lining up with the same editor and publisher. It's going to be similar to “The Man Who Quit Money” -- about the radical simplicity movement, people who live off the grid or back to the land.

When you first heard that Suelo was living without money, you wondered if he had experienced a mental breakdown. How do you think his story relates to our culture’s tendency to associate convention with mental health?

There's such a stigma that we want to discount anyone who's ever had any kind of mental problems. Of course, Suelo did -- he had a nervous breakdown at twenty-nine and was suicidal. The question is whether we should discount people who have that reaction to our civilization. If you look through history, so many of the greatest thinkers and artists were considered mentally ill or experienced breakdowns because they thought our society was sick and couldn't understand how everyone went along with it.

Is Suelo living the way you might like to?

I do feel like he's living out a lot of the ideals that I'm interested in but am not actually willing to make the sacrifices to live out. And that worked well for the book because he's a walking, talking allegory for the choices that a lot of people think about but hardly anyone makes. I represent the world more traveled. The fact that we knew each other twenty years ago and were very similar then diverged so widely … I thought that gave the story a nice structure.