Ben Fountain is the author of Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, which won the 2007 PEN/Hemingway Award, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a National Book Award finalist that has shown up on numerous Best Novels of 2012 lists. Raised in North Carolina, he graduated from Chapel Hill and Duke Law before quitting his job as a lawyer to devote himself to writing full-time. Malcom Gladwell found Fountain’s career arc interesting enough to write about in a New Yorker piece titled “Late Bloomers.” He quotes Fountain:
“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me—my dad was so proud of me…It was crazy.”
Ben Fountain has lived in Dallas since 1983, despite his antipathy to that city: “You are living in the belly of the beast. It’s in your face every day… I think it’s the most American city. You get the purest strain of certain aspects of America—like capitalism, free market evangelicalism.” In the conversation that follows, which took place in Boston nine days after Billy Lynn was published, Ben and I talk about living in Dallas, growing up in the midcentury South, his fascination with Haiti and desire to visit Central America, John Sayles, Mark Twain, talking to Iraq war veterans, Catch-22, the Chicago Bears’ Thanksgiving Day games, Robert Stone, and other stuff. He is busy at work on his next novel and expects to leave Dallas in the next few years.
Robert Birnbaum: The only problem I had with your book was that it has the Cowboys playing the Bears on Thanksgiving Day. I grew up in Chicago and the Bears always played the Lions on that day. But someone confirmed to me that the Bears did indeed play the Cowboys on Thanksgiving in 2004—you looked worried for an instant.
Ben Fountain: Well, I had actually looked at that and I thought I satisfied myself that yes, they had played. But then you start second-guessing yourself.
RB: But it’s a novel.
BF: Yes, who cares, but still.
RB: It’s a tricky business. So, has anything interesting happened to you this week?
BF: (long pause) A lot of traveling. The book came out nine days ago. It came out on a Tuesday and I started traveling on a Wednesday. But what is going on is just going from place to place—
RB: Any contact with a reality outside the insulated word of the book tour?
BF: You know what, what I really miss is being outside.
RB: Because you go from airplane to car to hotel to bookstore—
BF: Exactly. And for me, I need to be outside. If I am not inside reading or working I want to be outside. But this is a temporary condition, this traveling, and book people tend to be good people. So I don’t look at it as a chore, but I’ll be ready to get back to my desk and be able to go outside in the afternoons and evenings.
RB: You live in Texas?
RB: Do you like living there?
BF: Uh, no.
RB: (laughs) Somehow I had a feeling that growing up in North Carolina, you would enjoy living in Texas. Why do you live there?
BF: I followed my wife out to Texas. She’s the reason I went. At the time I thought, well, Dallas feels similar to North Carolina. There is this veneer of Southern-ness about it, but with a big city, so I thought I’d get the best of both worlds. But after a couple of years I realized that no, it’s very different. My wife has had a really good career practicing law there. She’s happy doing what she is doing. We raised our kids there and it was a decent place to raise kids. But I have to say my wife and I have agreed we don’t want to die in Dallas.
RB: (laughs) If you can help it.
BF: Right. So in a few years maybe we’ll be moving on.
RB: Are you a sports fan?
BF: Not so much any more. When I was a kid I lived and breathed Carolina basketball, but as sports get more and more corporate, I am less and less interested. What I really enjoyed was when my kids were in high school. They were runners, cross country and track. It was pure joy to watch them run. It’s such a simple, pure sport. It’s simple—alls [sic] you need is a pair of shorts, a pair of shoes, and a tank top and off you go. The rules are starting line, finish line, don’t cut corners. Whereas in the mainstream sports of American life—football, baseball, basketball—there are huge amounts of equipment involved. Lots and lots of rules, and they are run by the referees and umpires. Our sports are so obedience-oriented and infrastructure-oriented. I realized just being around my kids’ track teams, I just like this better. It’s much simpler and not ruled by the referees.
RB: I know what you mean. My son has played baseball almost year-round for the past five or six years, and I’d much rather watch the kids than Major League baseball. I just came across a book that speaks to this—The Most Expensive Game in Town by Mark Hyman. The fact that 50 million kids play sports means big money. Hasn’t the cost of running shoes gone up exponentially?
BF: Right, I won’t tell you that. In a way it’s like the ritzification of American life. We didn’t have all that crap. I don’t want to sound like an old fart, but we got by with much less.
RB: And kids are far more supervised. Kids where I live don’t have pickup baseball games—they are all organized. Pickup baseball is a thing of the past.
RB: So are you saying nothing interesting happened to you this week (chuckles)? Nothing that took you outside the humdrum of the tour?
BF: I wouldn’t call it humdrum. I like being in bookstores. And our daughter lives in New York now, so while I was in New York for three days I got to see her every night. Last night I had a reading in Brooklyn, and I hadn’t been over to Brooklyn since 1982. So that was like uncharted territory for me. It was really beautiful. We were in the Fort Greene area, and the residential areas over there are really pretty. Being on planes and trains you get to read—which is wonderful. But it’s been pretty hectic.
RB: How long do you have to do it?
BF: Through the first week in June (about a month or so).
RB: If you are so inclined, tell me some of your favorite books.
BF: The last five or six years I have been reading a lot of Norman Mailer. It came out of 2003, 2004, like what the hell is happening to America. I just felt like the country was being hijacked in a lot of ways. There are always people trying to do that, but why were they getting away with it this time? So I started seeking out writers who had directly engaged with this question of “What is America?” Joan Didion is a great one for that.
RB: Dwight Macdonald?
BF: You know, I’ve got to read him. Masscult and Midcult has just been reissued. He’s somebody I need to read. I started gravitating toward Mailer. Not so much the fiction—Miami and the Siege of Chicago. I probably read that book three or four times.
RB: That was recently reissued too. I started the second part about Chicago and he begins by talking about the city’s architecture. It was so good.
BF: When he starts writing about Chicago, I don’t know if it’s the first sentence but in one of the first sentences, he goes on a roll and it lasts for two or three pages. Here’s a guy who is trying to get all of a big part of America, he’s trying to swallow it all. And his portrait of Nixon in the Miami part of the book. Most of us know what a stinker Nixon was. He was just a bastard. A very smart man with some good impulses, but Mailer goes into the Miami convention with an open mind. He’s thinking, “Is America so miraculous that a man like Nixon could have wandered in the wilderness for four or six years and actually come out changed for the better? Is this really a new Nixon?” And so he is really looking at Nixon. Really thinking about it and trying to figure it out—not just dismissing it.
RB: I read Thomas Mallon’s Watergate, and it was really helpful in looking at Nixon and that era with a fresh eye. I found the same thing with Richard Reeves’ book on Reagan—I found that my sense of those presidents became more measured. I didn’t like their politics and thus I vilified both men. Mallon wisely observes that Nixon was in the wrong business—he was a solitary person who by virtue of being a politician was compelled to be public. Did you start out as a disaffected American citizen?
The first five years I hated everything I wrote because it was so bad. So there was very little pleasure to be had.
BF: I was born in 1958 and I grew up in eastern North Carolina, tobacco country.
RB: What town?
BF: Well, Elizabeth City, up in the northeast part of the state which is right in the heart of eastern North Carolina and a tobacco town. And then we moved to Raleigh when I was 13—Cary, right outside of Raleigh. My parents still live there. Growing up in the ’60s, my parents were classic southern progressives. Both were educators and they both believed in the power of education. And they recognized that segregation was wrong and that it was a situation that couldn’t be sustained. Like a lot of progressives, they were advocates of the gradualist approach—yes, we are going to have to integrate, but let’s do it slowly. I am not sure you can do something like that slowly. So I grew up in a pretty politically aware house. Now, thinking back on it, there was a lot of stress in that part of the country in those years.
RB: North Carolina has an east-west political divide, doesn’t it?
BF: Well, the western part of the state didn’t want to secede from the Union and the eastern did. All the farms were in the east. Also in the western part you had the unassimilated Scotch-Irish, and they weren’t going take orders from anybody. They were their own country up there. There was a lot of race tension in the ’60s—one day my older sister came down to the breakfast table and said, “I had the most terrible nightmare last night that the blacks were rioting and they were working their way down our street, breaking into houses. They were breaking in the windows downstairs, and that’s when I woke up.” At the time I was a 10-year-old kid. I was like, “Yeah, whatever.” Looking back on it, I think we were all absorbing a lot of that stuff. But the assumption was that over the long haul, the culture would keep opening up, becoming more inclusive, more aware, more thoughtful, looser in a good way. And we were on the cusp of something new. And, you know, exactly the opposite happened.
RB: Well, yeah. The war. I don’t know. I don’t feel like the race problem is ever going to be solved. And the misapprehension that the election of a black president has created a post-racial America is truly a pipe dream.
BF: I think it’s a huge milestone and it’s great reason to hope for this country. But this is a very racist society still.
RB: It’s possible that it’s fundamental that everyone needs to hate someone. The Italians hate the Irish, the Peruvians hate the Bolivians, and everybody hates the Jews. Who knows? At least in big cities where everyone lives in proximity, they are forced to deal with each other through the mechanism of politics.
BF: In the South black people and white people live together. In the towns I lived in, there was a black part of town and a white part, but everybody was all mixed in together. Certain towns like Durham are very integrated. My wife, who went to high school in Buffalo, went to law school at Duke, and it took her a few weeks to realize that just because there were a lot of black people around didn’t mean she was in a bad part of town.
BF: Whereas in Buffalo you would get nervous.
RB: Chicago was like that—extremely segregated with some of the worst (as in dangerous and unhealthy) housing projects in the world. You were trained as a lawyer—when did you have the first inkling that you wanted to be a writer?
BF: At the age of 15. I’d always read a lot.
RB: How did that happen?
BF: I grew up in a house with books. My dad really encouraged me. He would sit down with me with the Dan Frontier books—they were first grade-level readers. We would read together, he would read some and I would read some. He made a concerted effort to make sure I was launched. Pretty soon I was reading his books. I can remember the autobiography of Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I flying ace. Around the age of 15 or 16 I discovered Hemingway, and all of a sudden things snapped into focus. Until then I had a kind of canine awareness of myself in the world, a blundering, fuzzy sense of life. I read “Big Two-Hearted River,” a story where nothing happens and everything happens, and it was like a switch flipped. All of a sudden I started seeing my life in different way, with a certain amount of detachment and context.
RB: So in addition to sparking an interest in writing it changed the way you looked at the world?
BF: It seemed like a powerful thing, and I guess it was an intensely pleasurable thing too. Because I wanted more of that. And maybe there was this sense that if I did that kind of work, there would be even more pleasure in it. So I developed this idea that maybe I’d want to do that kind of work.
RB: Did it turn out that way? When you are writing, do you get that intense pleasure?
BF: I have to say, the last five, six, seven, eight years, yes.
RB: Every day?
BF: Um, almost everyday. The first five years I hated everything I wrote because it was so bad. So there was very little pleasure to be had.
RB: Are you the best judge of your own work?
BF: Most of the time, yes. But now I really look forward to walking to the table and sitting down. I am glad that I don’t know what’s going to happen. I look forward to the prospect of maybe learning something that I didn’t already know. Or realizing I knew something. So yeah, the last seven or eight years I have gotten a lot of pleasure out of it.
RB: You collected a bunch of stories, won an award—did that put you in a much different place as a writer?
BF: I started writing in ’88. I got a book contract in 2005.
RB: An overnight sensation.
BF: Right. So don’t follow my career path, anybody who is thinking about doing this kind of work.
RB: Were you, uh, energetic in pursuing a path to publication?
BF: I was as energetic as most people. I was a lot more interested in the work itself. I hoped eventually the world would seek me out if I got enough stuff out there. It took so long because I wasn’t doing work that was good enough. Every once in a while I would come up with something decent, but it just took me a long time get to the point where I was writing work that was at a certain level, that deserved to be published at a certain level.
There is something to be said for living in a city like Dallas and trying to write. You are living in the belly of the beast. It’s in your face every day—you’re living it. It’s not like a research trip somewhere. Your assumptions are always going to be challenged, your point of view challenged.
RB: What if you had gone to a MFA program?
BF: I think about that. I wonder. It could have saved me some years, because I spent years going down a lot of wrong paths and false trails.
RB: No group of friends that were writers?
BF: No. A couple of times I had writing partners and we’d share stuff. But you have to have the right person. I wasn’t finding the right person. And you know Dallas is not a mecca for writing—serious writing anyway.
RB: Houston University has a good program.
BF: It does. Houston has a much stronger writing culture. There is also Rice.
RB: Where is Southern Methodist University?
BF: In Dallas.
RB: Wasn’t the highly-regarded SMU Press defunded?
BF: It was a great press and that whole situation was bullshit. To save $400,000 a year.
RB: Which is probably the cost of cheerleader outfits.
BF: They built an $18 million practice facility for the basketball team. SMU took a big step backwards.
RB: Did someone buy the backlist or something?
BF: They have some kind of arrangement with I-don’t-know-who. They have appointed a committee to restart the press as an online thing. But I think the prospects are extremely remote that anything will come of that. They don’t want it—they aren’t interested.
RB: So how long will it take you to get out of Texas?
BF: Two or three years and then we’ll see.
RB: For a writer, other than Vermont, I can’t think of a more congenial place than Carolina. Writing seems to be in the drinking water there. Would that make a difference to you?
BF: Well, it would make a difference after I am done working for the day. There is something to be said for living in a city like Dallas and trying to write.
RB: (laughs) What would that be?
BF: You are living in the belly of the beast. It’s in your face every day—you’re living it. It’s not like a research trip somewhere. Your assumptions are always going to be challenged, your point of view challenged.
RB: Your feelings about Dallas and the lack of authenticity in various aspects of the culture seem amplified in Billy Lynn’s story. Isn’t that America’s America?
BF: You’re exactly right. I think it’s the most American city. You get the purest strain of certain aspects of America—like capitalism, free market evangelicalism—
BF: Yeah, consumerism, materialism, conspicuous consumption. You justify your existence in economic terms by what you do and how much money you make. It’s more complicated than that, but often not very much more complicated. It’s a pretty crude way of looking at the world, the mainstream Dallas culture. Not only is it the way mainstream culture in Dallas looks at the world, but there is very little awareness that there may be a different way.
I’m 54 years old and I am a debut novelist.
RB: I understand that you are fascinated by Haiti. Any other Caribbean spots? Why not Cuba, for instance? What is it about Haiti?
BF: Well, first of all there was just this visceral interest. Over the years I would read things about it and see things on the news. The question would arise, and I expect it arises in the minds of most people who pay a little bit of attention to it, that how can a place get so bad? Why is it so bad? And so there’s that intellectual aspect.
RB: The U.S. helped—U.S. policies help, among other things with the support of the Duvaliers.
BF: We were a tremendous help. Also, it just drew me in. Part of it was voodoo—what’s that about? The tangled history of it. The seeming inability of it to crawl out of this political and economic morass that Haiti is always stuck in. It’s a very hard place too. I had been writing for a couple of years and conceived of a story placed there that then started feeling like a novel. So I thought, I’ve got to go. And so I started going.
RB: I’ve been told that the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is so obvious—on one side lush and green, while the Haiti side is arid and scrubby.
BF: There used to be a really big distinction, but not so much anymore.
RB: Because the Dominican has gone downward?
BF: Yeah. And it depends on where you are. I started going and meeting people and making friends, and that novel I wrote never got published. But I kept going and I was there this past December.
RB: Have you read Madison Smartt Bell’s trilogy?
BF: Yes—those are wonderful books.
RB: And you’ve seen the movie of Graham Greene’s The Comedians?
BF: I’ve never seen it, but was Richard Burton in it?
RB: Yes, and Liz Taylor and Alec Guinness. Those movies are rarely shown—Our Man in Havana, another Graham Greene-based film, is never shown.
BF: I’ve never seen either one.
RB: And connected to Our Man in Havana is Le Carré’s spoof, The Tailor of Panama, that displays the awful footprints of U.S. policy in the Caribbean Basin.
BF: The history is not hidden. If you go to the books, it’s there.
RB: Well, I didn’t learn about it in school. It’s not hidden, but it’s also not reported on.
BF: Right, it’s certainly not taught in the public schools. And in the ’50s there was a very low level of awareness of what was going on. Starting in the ’60s, scholarship, reporters and historians became much more aggressive. I have two shelves of books on Iran-Contra. But then the issue is a scandal of tremendous and truly obscene proportions. And very little came of it. Very few consequences. Very little changed, if anything.
RB: Americans really, really liked Ronald Reagan. It was so hard for me to understand—but was forgiven a lot. Deal drugs to buy weapons to give to a bunch of murdering thugs? No problem.
BF: It was a scandal—more than a scandal. It was the most serious kind of subversion of the law. It’s like, who gets to determine when a country makes war? The United States was making war down there. And it hadn’t been sanctioned by the law. You can’t get much more serious than that. The Sandinistas turned out to be pretty bad too. But in that case, just back off.
Over and over, it seems like people go into the military and do what they do. Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to get over it.
RB: We helped decimate Nicaragua. I think the one decent film that Oliver Stone made was—
BF: Salvador. That was a hell of a movie.
RB: There’s a scene where the U.S. Ambassador acknowledges that the Salvadoran government is awful and corrupt, but is uncomfortable with what the rebels might represent—who they were.
BF: The Sandinistas were a disaster too. Maybe not quite the disaster that Somoza and that crowd were, but they were pretty bad. There was a lot of popular support for the contras among the Nicaraguans. Anyway, you mentioned John Sayles. I love that guy. I never met him but I love his work.
RB: Talk about dedication and talent. It’s amazing that he can still get his movies made.
BF: I don’t see how anybody gets a movie made these days. But Los Gusanos, his novel about Cuba—I’m sitting there reading it and I’m thinking, “OK, John Sayles, white guy from New Jersey, how did he get all this stuff? Is he married to a Cuban lady?”
RB: He spent time in Miami and he has Cuban friends. Which doesn’t make it any less amazing.
BF: He’s a smart guy and he knows how to do it. The body of work he produced in film and writing, that’s quite something.
RB: In addition to it being harder to get films made, it’s also difficult to get screens to exhibit them.
BF: He used to get reasonably wide distribution, but it just shows the culture is closing stuff like that out.
RB: Right, apparently the movie business is focused on blockbusters. I live quite close to a so-called art film house and the Sayles film didn’t play there.
BF: You saw Amigo?
RB: Sayles sent me a screener.
BF: That’s a piece of hidden history—the whole of the U.S. involvement in the Philippines. Maybe 15 years ago somebody discovered an essay that Mark Twain wrote that was contemporaneous with the U.S. involvement there. It felt so contemporary—his approach and his excoriation of American policy and how self-serving it was. And all the sanctimonious bullshit that surrounded it.
RB: That was about the time he wrote his War Prayer. You know that one?
BF: Two and a half years.
RB: What moved you to write it?
BF: Confusion and depression. The immediate impulse for the story came from a Dallas Cowboys halftime show.
RB: With overhead jets and marching bands and all that?
BF: It’s pretty much the way I wrote it. This was around 2004. Bush had just been reelected. The war was really going badly. If you peeled back the headlines, and it didn’t take much, you could see it was really going badly. But watching the halftime show, there was a small group of American soldiers in desert camos on the field. And they were tan and lean—they’d just come back from [Iraq]. And I just wondered what would it do to your head to have been over there and then be brought here and dropped into this surreal situation. That was the initial impulse—it was like, there’s probably a story there. But I didn’t do anything with it until 2009. That’s when I started writing it.
RB: Did you talk to veterans? How bad was that?
BF: The two people I spent the most time with are doing OK. This one fellow did three tours and got out in the past 18 months. He’s like a best-case scenario. He is a smart kid. He’s back in college now. He has a loving wife. His parents are supportive, they live close by, and his wife is going to law school. And even then so it’s hard. He takes his meds. He sees a therapist. Just from talking to veterans from all wars—over and over, it seems like people go into the military and do what they do. Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to get over it.
I wanted the reader to feel, by the end of the book, that if we lose Billy Lynn we lose something wonderful and precious. A 19-year-old kid from a small town in Texas—nothing special about him, and yet everything special.
RB: How is it that the platitude “Support our troops” doesn’t seem to extend to the ones who come back?
BF: It’s immoral. This war was completely immoral. And it’s just been compounded ever since.
RB: And you can’t really have a conversation about war criminality here. But I notice Kissinger is very careful about where he travels outside the U.S.
BF: He doesn’t leave unless he gets assurances from the host government that he won’t be seized. He’s very careful that way. I’m sure Bush is too. And Cheney and all that crowd.
RB: You just need a couple of those fearless Spanish magistrates—they got Pinochet.
BF: Yes they did.
RB: How much did talking with various war vets take out of you?
BF: It’s not about my pain. The pain I might feel. To me, it’s part of my job. It’s my work.
RB: But did it affect you?
BF: I feel a lot of anger, actually. Like, what a waste. Part of what I tried to get across in this book—I wanted the reader to feel, by the end of the book, that if we lose Billy Lynn we lose something wonderful and precious. A 19-year-old kid from a small town in Texas—nothing special about him, and yet everything special.
RB: Yeah, he was a good kid.
BF: He has everything to live for and so I just wanted the reader to be devastated—to think, “No, don’t go—it’s not worth it.” Because it’s not.
RB: Did you see any of Catch-22 in your novel?
BF: I can’t say I thought about that book very much when I was writing this one. They seem to me to be two very different books. And in Catch 22—I haven’t read it in years and years—Heller is taking aim more at the insane bureaucracy of war.
RB: In your book, one doesn’t lose sight of the horrors of war.
BF: And Heller’s novel takes place all in theater. This one takes place at home. So maybe it’s a bit more of a confrontational book. I can’t say I was thinking of Heller’s book at all. Karl Marlantes gave us that blurb [referencing Catch-22] and he’s a combat veteran.
RB: I loved his novel Matterhorn. I’ve read a few Vietnam novels and I can’t think of many that seemed that accurate.
BF: I agree—it’s a tremendous book.
RB: Do you have a long view of your writing career?
BF: I’m 54 years old and I am a debut novelist.
BF: And, you know, that’s kind of silly. I mean it is what it is. If I was 30 years old I might think I was hot shit but it took me a long time to learn.
RB: Are you happy with this book?
BF: I am. Yeah. I feel real peaceful about it. That moment when I thought, “this is what it could be,” and what it has turned out to be are pretty close. As far as—well, I hope I am working until the day I die.
RB: Not exactly work.
BF: Well, like we talked about I get tremendous pleasure from it. You know, it’s a struggle and everything, but it’s what I want to be doing.
RB: Have you started something new?
BF: Yeah. I’m about 80 pages into it. It’s set in the 1980s, starting in Nicaragua and ending in Haiti.
RB: Have you been to Nicaragua?
BF: No, but I’ve got to go.
RB: A wonderful country. The nicest people—I bet your experience in Haiti was similar. People who have nothing can be really wonderful.
BF: Right, they understand. A friend of mine got badly sick last year—an artist who works with big stuff—a brawny guy. He was in the hospital for six weeks and so when he comes out he is in a wheelchair. He said, “The first time I went to the grocery store in a wheelchair, I couldn’t help noticing that every single Latino and Latina in that grocery store, smiled and nodded at me and would step out of the way or hold the door. They saw me.”
RB: Yeah, it’s a fine place—we really screwed it up.
BF: I want to go to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—I need to go.
RB: I have always wanted to get back to Nicaragua. Well, Nicaragua could use someone telling its story. Besides Alex Cox’s film Walker.
BF: Do you read much Robert Stone?
RB: I do.
BF: I think he shows up in that movie Under Fire.
BF: He was hanging around the country around the time the movie was being made and there’s a scene where they are on the roof of the InterContinental Hotel—Joanna Cassidy is doing standup and downtown Managua is at her back and she keeps starting and stopping. At one point it’s just a flash, it’s just so random, the camera cuts over to this guy standing on the roof watching things going on. And it’s him—it’s Stone.
RB: I don’t know how I missed that. I have seen that movie three or four times and I’ve spoken with Stone three or four times. I love his writing.
BF: I think he’s the master. That last half of the 20th century, if he’s not the guy he’s one of the top two or three.
RB: I wish someone would collect and publish his nonfiction.
BF: That’s a good project for an enterprising young editor. He did a piece for Harper’s on Cuba—somebody should do that.
RB: Well, thank you very much.
BF: Thank you.