Ben Fountain is the bestselling author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, named a finalist for the National Book Award, and selected for Austin’s 2013 Mayor’s Book Club. Ben’s previous work, the short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, is similarly acclaimed. For these works, Ben has received a Pen/Hemingway award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, and a Whiting Writers’ Award, among many honors.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Ben practiced law at a large firm in Dallas, where he lives today with his family. Ben’s unique and impressive ascent to the highest levels of American literature is documented in several interviews, such as those published here and here.
In October 2013, at an event sponsored by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, Ben signed copies of, and read from, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to a capacity crowd at Austin’s Faulk Library. It was at this event The Austin Review met Ben and learned firsthand of his generosity, enthusiasm, and support for literary journals.
While Ben was working briefly in Austin on his next project, he gave the interview presented below to The Austin Review. We are honored to have his name grace our publication.
The Austin Review: If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe its style or point of view?
Ben Fountain: Overtly political, in the sense that it deals with individuals trying to carve out space for a measure of decency and autonomy. As part of that, they're trying to figure out why the world is the way it is, or at least their own little part of it.
TAR: What contemporary authors excite you the most?
BF: Robert Stone, Joan Didion, Tom Bissell, Madison Smartt Bell. Those are the people I'm thinking about today; tomorrow it might be a different list.
TAR: Do you think the appreciation of literature is in decline?
BF: It probably is in decline, given that contemporary life throws so much at us in the way of distractions and obligations. We have less time for reading and contemplation in general; or rather, if we want to carve out the time, it takes a conscious effort. On the other hand, there's still a hardcore segment of the population for whom good books—literature, if you want to call it that—are a necessity.
TAR: What can be changed to better identify talented writers early and get their work in front of the public?
BF: It would be great if there were more mainstream venues for, say, short stories, the way there were in the forties and fifties. Kurt Vonnegut quit his job in the public relations office of General Electric because he could make more money writing and selling short stories. This was when The New Yorker was publishing four or five short stories each issue, and there was also Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, and a lot of other magazines that ran short fiction on a regular basis. Mainstream American culture was ravenous for short fiction, and that appetite gave writers a real shot at broad exposure and decent money. Of course that's gone away—you could probably correlate the diminishing mainstream venues for short fiction with the rise of television, if you could figure out the appropriate metric.
Now more than ever, it takes tremendous persistence and endurance for most writers to break through. The current “system” for identifying talent—the trial by fire of getting published in small magazines, then bigger magazines, then getting an agent and eventually a book contract—is, for most of us, on the order of a life-sized game of Snakes and Ladders. You make some progress, you slide back, and maybe next time around you get a little farther. It's a “system” that's definitely not constructed for the casual writer. Maybe in the long run that's okay.
TAR: Walk us through one of your typical weekdays when you are at work writing.
BF: I’m at the desk by around 8 a.m., write till noon, read The New Yorker or New York Review of Books while eating lunch, lie down on the floor by my desk for 20–30 minutes after lunch, and then get up and write for another 2–2.5 hours. By then my brain is usually pretty fried. Once I've hit that point in the day, I need to get outside and sweat, either by working out or working in the yard.
TAR: How extensively do you edit or rewrite?
BF: Extensively is a polite way to put it. How about massively, absurdly, insanely.
TAR: What qualities do you believe make for the best editor?
BF: Someone who is willing to take the work on its own terms, instead of trying to shoehorn it into a particular notion of how fiction should be done. So, open-mindedness on the one hand, but the most rigorous critical and aesthetic standards on the other. And this person should also know better than to inject any consideration of “the market” into the conversation. For me, that kills a piece of work faster than anything, in addition to being tedious as hell.
TAR: What role do you think literary magazines play today?
BF: They have an extremely vital role to play, as much or more now than ever. That's where the trial by fire happens for writers who are in the earlier stages. Is my work good enough? Am I thinking hard enough, writing well enough? You start putting your stuff out there; the responses that come back are information we can all use. Any one particular response might not mean a great deal, but over time the general drift of the responses offers some kind of measurement of what you need to be doing to get better.
TAR: What are you reading at the moment? Are you a one-book-at-a-time person?
BF: I used to be a one-book person. It seems like my life is more disorganized now, so I bounce around various books. Or I'll read a piece of this one, a piece of that one, looking for something real. Right now I'm reading a lot of stuff on Haiti.
TAR: What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
BF: A Guide to Perfumes by Luca Turin.
TAR: What book have you always meant to read and never gotten around to yet? Or, what do you feel embarrassed never to have read?
BF: That's easy, War and Peace.
TAR: Did your law practice help your writing career?
BF: It gave me a fairly deep experience in a world that maybe not so many writers experience first-hand—the world of business, finance, and “deals.” But I think the lock-step kind of thinking you learn in law school and use in the practice of law really held me back in terms of trying to figure out how to write fiction. It was a real struggle for me to learn how to write from “emotional logic,” as opposed to legal logic.
TAR: Any regrets in leaving the practice of law?
BF: None whatsoever. In fact, sometimes I have nightmares where I find myself back practicing law.
TAR: Any advice to others who, like you, were successful in a respected career, but who long to write full time?
BF: Everybody's got to decide for themselves. It's such a radical step to take in this culture, stepping away from a mainstream job, with all the risks, financial and psychological, such a thing entails. I think each one of us has to gauge how powerful this thing is in us, the compulsion or wish to do serious writing. I guess for me it was a powerful thing because I made the switch and stuck with it. But it was definitely the hardest decision I've ever made in my life.
TAR: When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?
BF: Creeks, trees, and hills. It's a wonderful town, but it looks like the money guys are well on their way to making it look like Dallas. Maybe Denton or San Marcos is going to be the next few decades' version of Austin.