Conversations about Literature

On the eve of local appearances, Ben Fountain talks Iraq War, high-achieving hipsters and Austin v. Dallas

A chat with writer Ben Fountain on Iraq War, high-achieving hipsters

Author Ben Fountain
Author Ben Fountain is making two appearances in Austin this weekend. Photo by Ben Fountain/ Facebook

For this year's Mayor’s Book Club, an annual citywide reading campaign sponsored by the Austin Public Library Foundation, Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell selected two National Book Award Finalists: Kevin Power’s The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, two novels which explore the Iraq War’s impact on soldiers, families and America at large. Last spring, Power’s spent time reading and discussing his novel with the city, but this weekend it’s Fountain’s turn.

Fountain, 55, began his writing career at 30-years-old after quitting his job in real estate law. His first book, Brief Encounters With Che Guevera, a collection of short stories, was published in 2006 and won a PEN/Hemingway Award. Last year, after decades of writing and honing his craft, Fountain published his first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Fountain was inspired to write Billy Lynn watching the 2004 Thanksgiving Day Cowboys game. He was intrigued not by the football, but by the surreal scene of the halftime show, which included hip thrusting by Destiny’s Child, drill teams, dazed American soldiers and glitzy, high-flying American flags.

 With writing my mantra is “Keep it simple, stupid.” 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk examines this bizarreness by following a company of soldiers ending their two-week victory tour at the old Texas Stadium. Fountain asks, "What would that do to your head?"

In the book, we are led through the soldiers’ experience at the stadium through the mind of Billy, the novel’s 19-year old protagonist, a deeply layered and pensive character who daydreams about spending a few weeks vacationing on a deserted island with Beyonce, getting to know her (and of course having lots of sex).

Fountain has lived in Dallas with his family since in 1983, but he’s currently staying at the Dobie Pasiano Ranch, a writer’s retreat off of 290 funded by the Graduate School at UT and the Texas Institute of Letters. 

Fountain will be reading at the Faulk Central Library this Saturday, October 19 at 2 pm, and leading a writer's workshop that morning at the Twin Oaks Branch Library at 10:30 am. A few days before his weekend appearances in Austin, CultureMap drove to the ranch to chat with Fountain and  discussed why it’s maybe a golden age for American fiction, high-achieving hipsters and the real difference between Dallas and Austin.

In the back room of the house, over tea and Topo Chico, Fountain dished on what makes him a better writer (spoiler alert: it's reading poetry), high-achieving hipsters, and what makes Dallas the “most American city."

CultureMap: I want to talk about your process of writing a novel. You had great success with your first book (Brief Encounters with Che Guevera), but did the idea of a novel seem more intimidating?

Well, I have two and a half failed novels in a drawer.  I think my downfall in the past was I trying to do too much. With Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk the mantra was “Keep it simple, stupid.” That’s one reason it ended up taking course over the place of one day and it’s just a pretty straightforward narrative without a whole lot of plot, which I don’t give a damn about.  Whatever works. I’ve read a lot of brilliant novels that were very tightly plotted and intricate and I’ve read novels where it was just kind of you get on the raft and you float down the river. 

CM: In many ways, Billy is a commentary on modern culture and the juxtaposition of American consumerism versus the war overseas. Why is Dallas the perfect setting for that?

I’ve lived in Dallas for 30 years. I feel like in some ways it’s the most American city. You get the purest strains of certain aspects of American culture. Commerce rules there and the free market is basically a third religion, along with Christianity and football. I mean, there are a lot of good things about Dallas, and we’ve had a good life there, and raised our kids there, and in some respects I feel a lot of affection for it. I just feel like, man, if you want to get a pure shot of America, go to Dallas and hang out for awhile.

 I just feel like, man, if you want to get a pure shot of America, go to Dallas and hang out for awhile. 

CM: There are parts of Billy—when he’s listening to others congratulate or thank him or talk about the war—that breaks form, and suddenly the reader is presented with one word per line stanzas, almost like poetry.  What were you trying to achieve with that, and how did that decision come abut?

I call them word clouds and it came out of this sense that by 2007, toward the end of the Bush years, that those words had been used up. Words like "sacrifice, supreme sacrifice...we honor, we respect, we are so grateful”—they became substitutes for thinking and seeing.  You trotted out those words and people’s minds would shut off.  So when Billy hears them they don’t even impact anymore, they just kind of float by him, because he has lived the reality that those words are meant to depict. They’re just like insect sounds floating around.

CM: Do you feel that literary devices like the ‘word clouds’ and, more broadly, writing fiction in general gives you a unique medium for presenting perspective?

Without analyzing it a whole lot, yes. I think language is still the most elastic and malleable and subtle medium we’ve come up with for depicting human experience. The novel can be whatever it wants to be or whatever you want it to be. A couple of times a year I’ll see an article where [it says] ‘the novel is dead’ and I don’t know what they’re talking about, I don’t know what they mean —what do you mean the novel is dead? 

CM: Right, and what novel? How are we defining novel these days anyways?

I think this is really a golden age for fiction... and for nonfiction, and for poetry.  If you think about poetry, there’s a lot of really talented poets working and there’s all these little presses out there and they’re doing a beautiful job of publishing these books and concentrating on design and artistry and the paper and nobodies making any money at it.  They’re doing it for the love of the art. 

The poets I know they publish their book with their little publisher and then they go out on the underground railroad of the poetry tour. They sleep on couches and in every town there are 30 or 40 people that come out and hear their reading at somebody’s house, and buy the book, and you have all these copies of the book in their trunk and they’ll get their little stash of money and they’ll go on to the next town. It’s fucking great.

CM: Do you read a lot of poetry?

I try to keep a book going. It’s something I came to about 7 or 8 years ago, I mean when I was in law school and practicing law I didn’t read any poetry, but since I started to try and become a man of letters I’m gradually working my way back to it. It’s just good discipline. Discipline for the mind. 

CM: Billy Lynn has been called one of the best—or the best—novels about the Iraq war.  Have a lot of soldiers read it?

It seems like a lot of soldiers and ex-soldiers have read it.  And without exception everybody who’s approached me or sought me out has said, "you got it right. Thank you for writing it. " You know, variations on those. I’m sure there are plenty of soldiers and ex-soldiers who you know would be or are extremely offended by a book like this. It’s a self-selecting group that seeks you out.

 "[In Austin} I have never seen such high-achieving hipsters in my life. I mean everybody’s got tattoos all over the place and piercings and their clothes are just note perfect and I’m just like, “Guys, relax. It doesn’t have to be that hard.” 

CM: What about people living in Dallas? You don’t necessarily paint Dallas in the prettiest light, even though it’s where you’ve spent so much of your life.  How has the Dallas community reacted to the book?

It’s been stunning how supportive and thoughtful the reaction has been in Dallas. I had this “town hall” meeting at the Dallas arboretum, it’s this big auditorium full of 300 some people and they were so thoughtful and engaged.

CM: I feel like being a writer in Texas has a unique legacy and its own sense of identity. do you feel that at all?

Well let me put it this way: living in Dallas—this sounds a little bit harsh—but it’s like you’re living in the belly of the beast. I inhaled a lot of vapors from the sixties flower power stuff. I tend to just be more low key and humble, and leave a small footprint. So there’s a lot to challenge me in Dallas, and make me question my assumptions all the time. You can’t really relax there, and that’s probably a good way for a writer to be.

CM: So what about Austin? How do you feel when you’re here?

When we lived here, I thought, "I wonder if it’s going to be too easy?  Is it going to be this kind of mushy brained, lefty, hippie-dippie touchy-feely stuff?" I found Austin to be amazingly grounded with lots of great people here. Writers, musicians...  They’re serious about the work, but don’t take themselves so seriously. Although, now coming back I’ll tell you—I had never seen such high-achieving hipsters in my life.  I mean everybody’s got tattoos all over the place and piercings and their clothes are just note perfect and I’m just like, “Guys, relax. It doesn’t have to be that hard.”

But there is this wonderful confluence of things in Austin. This kind of free-wheeling, open-minded, willingness to try new stuff and this outlier aspect. You don’t have to conform to get somewhere. I think Austin’s a great American city.

In a different way than Dallas?

I didn’t call Dallas a great American city.  I said it was the most American city.

Fountain will be in Austin for the Mayor's Book Club events happening this weekend, including a reading and conversation with Sarah Bird at the Faulk Central Library on Saturday the 19th at 2 PM, and a writer's workshop at 10:30 AM at the Twin Oaks Branch Library.  Space is limited for the writer's workshop; reserve a spot by calling 512.542.0076.  More information about Mayor's Book Club events can be found here.  And if you miss Fountain this weekend, he'll be back in Austin again next weekend for the Texas Book Festival.