Daniel Suelo fields questions at the University of Montana last week for radio interviews with Colorado Public Radio’s show “Colorado Matters” and Canadian Broadcasting Company show “Ideas.”
Courtesy photo Mark Sundeen
When Daniel Suelo stepped out of a Utah phone booth, leaving behind the last $30 of his life's savings, he did something that likely happens in many machinations across the globe before one vanishes forever. But Suelo had no intention of dropping out, nor did he plan to limit statements about his philosophy of simplicity to conversations with the setting sun as it lowered outside the cave that became his home. Though he would spend the next 12 years foraging for food, bartering work for fresh fruit, getting around the desert on his rickety bicycle, Suelo would regularly blog about his self-imposed condition during trips to town, volunteered for various causes and maintained family ties.
Writer Mark Sundeen came upon Suelo and, fascinated by his story, entered into a relationship that gave the sage a broader platform and the writer a bit of revenue and exposure only checked by the format they are using to market the tale.
On Friday, May 4, Suelo and Sundeen will stop by the Community Library in Ketchum as part of their Northwest leg of "The Man Who Quit Money" tour at independent and underdog bookstores. No chain stores—for now. But considering that a recent BBC mini-doc on Suelo got 250,000 views in 12 hours, it's unlikely that either man or the message will retire to the shadows any time soon.
Sundeen has spent a lot of time in Idaho's whitewater and will be teaching a floating nonfiction writing workshop on the Main Salmon in August, which he will indeed take money for.
There was no charge for this email interview with Sundeen last week.
Is there any conflict for you in making money on a story about decidedly not making money?
I've spent most of my adult life looking for great nonfiction stories to write, and I feel honored and humbled that this one arrived. I do feel it's pretty ironic to ask people to buy a book about spending nothing. That said, I haven't quit money and don't intend to, and although I live pretty frugally, I don't see how I could have committed two years to the research and travel of writing this book without getting an advance from the publisher. I still had to keep my "day job" as a part-time college teacher and magazine freelancer.
Where do you see these concepts going once the initial interest dies down?
I think the concepts are going around without the book, so I think they won't die down. Look at three hot-button movements of the day—tea party, Occupy and climate change. They might not agree on much except that the financial system is a big problem, a Frankenstein monster of our own creation that now seems to control us. The tea party says that the Fed is making fake money, leading us down the road to serfdom. Occupy says that Wall Street owns the government, and has therefore put itself out of reach from law enforcement, no matter how bad its crimes. Climate change [activists say] that our insistence on the legal supremacy of the free market will destroy our planet, and yet we're unwilling to change it. And although we agree the money system is a problem, we feel powerless to fight it.
How can I complain about the Fed when I use money? How can I complain about Wall Street when I've got my life savings invested in the stock market? How can I complain about Big Oil when I drive a car? Suelo is not the one coming up with these concepts—however, I've found that he is inspiring many people to realize that we do have power, and we aren't absolutely dependent on these industries that steal from us and from the planet. He's shown he can live without them. So even if we don't go live in a cave, we can find ways to make our own lives less wasteful and more meaningful.
Is more spending habitual or need-based?
Probably both. But I think it's deeper than that. I sometimes spend money for totally irrational reasons. Buying things I definitely don't need, on a binge.
If we all stopped spending across the globe for one day, would the earth deflate?
No. But if we stopped spending for a weeks or month, we'd certainly see a different sort of civilization emerge rather quickly.
How are you handling the notoriety?
I spend about six hours a day online planning the tour, promoting the book, checking the sales rankings. I wish it weren't so.
How is Suelo handling the notoriety?
I think Daniel spent so many years doing spiritual work both in a monastery and then in solitude that he's pretty grounded and strong, and as of yet I haven't seen him showing it "going to his head" or being deluded into thinking a bit of notoriety means anything. After all, one of his central philosophical ideas is that everything in life is ephemeral, and certainly media attention is the most fleeting of all.
Are you worried about exploiting him or exposing him to conflict he could have otherwise avoided?
Exploiting? No. He has entered into this willingly, and he thinks it's fun. I suppose if it got to the point where I was making six figures on book royalties I might think differently, but I'll cross that bridge in the unlikely event that I come to it. Conflict: Now that I've become friends with Suelo I feel protective when people attack him online, but I know, also, that Suelo isn't interested in isolation. He wants to pose these difficult questions to the public. And I can also relate to the attackers, because my own reaction, many years ago, to hearing that he stopped using money was anger and irritation. It felt like, through his very existence, he was judging me.
You invited Facebook friends to attempt a Quit Money Day on April 18. How did it go?
I thought it went great. Almost 1,000 people signed up on Facebook, and they invited another 8,000 or so friends. Not bad considering that we spent nothing promoting it. It was all word of mouth. I spent most of the day working at home, walking on the river (saw two bald eagles) then riding my bike into the Missoula Library for a panel discussion on sustainable, alternative economy that I'd put together. I made it through the day without spending any money, but after the discussion I let someone buy me a beer, and then another, in a bar (I had left my wallet at home). So although I succeeded in the letter of it, not so much in the spirit. But ultimately the purpose was not to shut down the economy, but to be aware of how often we buy things, and to contemplate whether or not those things really matter. Seeing the bald eagles was not just amazing, but also free.
Who do you think had the hardest time pulling such a day off?
Hmm, I guess people who eat all their meals in restaurants.
Meet the man becoming a legend
Who: Daniel Suelo and Mark Sundeen with book signing with Iconoclast after.
When: Friday, May 4, at 5 p.m.
Where: Community Library in Ketchum