Today I had the pleasure to meet Ben Fountain, who came to lunch at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. Ben’s first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, debuted this month. His short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, won a PEN/Hemingway award, a Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers Award, an O. Henry Prize, and two Pushcart prizes. His fiction has been published in the Paris Review, Harper’s, and Zoetrope: All-Story, and his nonfiction has appeared in he New York Times and elsewhere. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
Ben will be reading at Book Passage in Corte Madera at 7 p.m. tonight night (Tuesday, May 15). In his quiet, self-deprecating manner, Ben calls himself a 54-year-old debut novelist.
MW: Can you tell us about your new book?
BF: It is generally speaking about football, cheerleaders, the Iraq war, capitalism, family, sex, death, and the general insanity of American life. Specifically, it’s about a group of eight American soldiers who are in the United States for two weeks doing a public relations tour to boost support for the Iraq war. The book takes place on the very last day of their tour. They’re guests of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game. And after that they go right back to Iraq, back into combat.
MW: Were you in the Iraq war?
MW: How did you research the book?
BF: I read lots of soldier memoirs, lots of reportage. Every magazine article that I came across I would put in the file, and after three or four years or research I had four or five big, thick files. I got to know a couple of vets of this war and had conversations with others. But there were two main relationships.
MW: Is your protagonist based on one of those relationships?
BF: No. Bits and pieces, but the main character, Billy Lynn, is really someone from my own head.
MW: So you spent three to four years researching before you began writing?
BF: Yeah, I was writing other things. So when I would read at night or on vacation, I would read something about the war. I was working on a novel called The Texas Itch at the time, which crashed and burned.
BF: It wasn’t good enough.
MW: What wasn’t good enough about it?
BF: It took too long to get going, and the plot relied too heavily on arcane matters of law, at least according to my editor.
MW: And before that you wrote a collection of short stories?
BF: Correct. It’s called Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, the stories that I wrote between 1999 and 2004. I started writing in 1988, and I wrote for a good ten years before I started writing work that really pleased me. So all the stories in that book came after I’d been doing this for ten years.
MW: Who are your favorite authors?
BF: Robert Stone, Joan Didion, Walker Percy, Norman Mailer. I think Mailer went as far as any writer I’ve come across in trying to figure out the American Psyche—along with Joan Didion and Robert Stone. I think Fitzgerald wrote the Great American Novel.
MW: The Great Gatsby.
BF: Yes, which I didn’t like for many years. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I really appreciated it. And now I read it every few years, and I’m more and more ravished by it.
MW: What is it about it that ravishes you?
BF: He got it all. In one sense, the essence of American life in that love and identity are so bound up in money and also the idea of reinventing the self on the basis of money. And it’s a heartbreaking love story and a wonderful love story.
MW: What is your writing routine?
BF: Five days a week I’m at my desk by 8 and I work until lunch, say noon, and I read The New Yorker while I’m eating lunch, then I’ll lie down on the floor by my desk for 20 minutes, then I’ll get up and write for a couple more hours—so between 5 and 6 hours. And then I’m done. So I’ll go out and try to sweat at that point—run or ride the bike or work in the yard. I also like to work on Saturdays, but I’m not real hard on myself on Saturdays. I’ll work for half a day and make notes.
MW: Do you have goals during the week for how much you want to get done in those 5-6 hours?
BF: No, not as far as words or pages, no.
MW: You mentioned at lunch that you’d written one other novel.
BF: There were two. I worked on the Haiti novel from ’91-’96 and then there was The Texas Itch that we talked about.
MW: What happened to the Haiti novel?
BF: I got an agent for it, and we got respectful responses from the big publishers and the small publishers, but nobody would take it. It just wasn’t good enough. It was a very labored piece of work. It was very much an apprentice piece of work.
MW: How so?
BF: I didn’t know how to skip steps back then. I thought everything had to be spelled out, and everything had to be in its own dedicated scene. I hadn’t figured out how to go straight to the heart of it when that was called for. There was lots of bloat in that book.
MW: Was it long?
BF: Yes, it was about 600 manuscript pages.
MW: What did you do differently in your new novel?
BF: I’ve gotten better at knowing what to leave out and maybe become a bit more skillful at leaving it out. But the words that are in there carry all that weight. I suppose something I’ve gotten better at is compression and concentration, getting as much bang as I can out of each page.
MW: How did you develop that skill?
BF: By writing. That’s the only way to do it.
MW: You mentioned at lunch “keeping it simple?”
BF: Yes, it helps if you aren’t very smart to keep it simple, and that’s where I’ve come out.
MW: What are you working on now?
BF: I turned in the final version of this book in mid-January. That was on a Friday, and on Monday I started this new thing. I didn’t know if it would be a long short story or a novella or something in between. It was just something I wanted to write, and I thought it doesn’t have to be anything because I just finished a book, but it seems to be developing into a novel. It starts in Nicaragua and ends in Haiti.
MW: Are you using any of the research you did for your first Haiti novel?
BF: Well, I continue to go to Haiti. I started going in 1991 specifically for that novel, but I’ve been going there twice a year since then. So I’m drawing on all of my experiences there—twenty years’ worth.
MW: Why do you go to Haiti twice a year?
BF: I’m connected now. I’ve got two godchildren there. I’ve got a lot of friends there.
MW: How much time did you spend in Haiti when you were researching your first novel?
BF: I was going two to three times a year for two to three weeks at a time. But then I would have a specific agenda. Now it’s much looser. I get to see my friends and just see where things take me.
MW: How important is it for writers to read?
BF: I think it’s really important. Maybe there are certain times when you step back from reading anything serious. I’m sure there are writers who don’t read much of anything, but for most of us, if nothing else, it’s a great pleasure. It’s one of the pleasures of living, so why not.
MW: How much do you read?
BF: I read The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and I’ll skip around in Harper’s. Lately I subscribe to The Paris Review. I think really interesting things are happening in there. And books. I try to keep a French book going and a poetry book going.
MW: Do you speak French?
BF: I read it, but my speaking is pretty bad.
MW: What is your last favorite book that you read?
BF: This will sound kind of snobby, but René Depestra is a wonderful Haitian writer. I think he should get the Nobel Prize. He wrote this wonderful book of short stories called Eros dans un train chinois. It’s hysterical and wonderful and tender and full of humanity. At the back of it, he has a glossary of slang terms for the male sex and the female sex, and it’s hysterical. That’s worth the price of the book.
MW: Is it translated?
BF: No, it’s in French. My last favorite thing in English is Of A Fire On the Moon by Normal Mailer. It’s his reportage on the Apollo 11 moon shot.
MW: What do you think of the changes going on in the publishing industry?
BF: I think everyone’s running around looking for their ass. Nobody really knows what’s coming. Borders is gone, that was a huge part of the bookseller market. B&N seems to be hanging in there. I think the e-book revolution is really turning things upside down.
MW: Do you have an e-reader?
BF: No. I’m not really a gadget person. I like books. I like the way they feel and I like the way they sell. E-books, as far as I can tell, have no smell.
MW: You don’t have a website.
MW: Why not?
BF: It would be another thing to take care of. I try not to look at e-mail until the afternoons. It’s hard enough to do this work without having a million distractions coming at you. And plus I’m just not that interested. Instead of doing a website, I’d much rather be reading.
MW: Is it possible to make a living as a full-time fiction writer?
BF: For me, for the first fifteen years I would have starved a thousand times over if not for my wife. Now I’m making enough that I could pay rent, pay for groceries. Paying for health insurance would probably be beyond reach.
MW: But you’re not interested in teaching?
BF: I like teaching, but for me it takes a lot of time and energy, and I’m very wary of any kind of path that would have me teaching full time.
MW: Because it would take away from your writing time?
BF: Yeah. Writing time and energy. It’s what you walk around with in your head. Are you walking around with your story in your head or sixteen students’ stories that you’re trying to do justice to?
MW: Do you think it’s important to write every day?
BF: Everybody’s got to figure out their own way. For me it’s important to write five or six days a week. I’m pretty slow, so that’s the only way I’d get anywhere.