Bookforum talks to Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain’s literary breakthrough came at age forty-eight, eighteen years after he quit law to write fiction. His debut short-story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, earned him critical acclaim and a Whiting Writer’s Award in 2007. Five years later, Fountain’s first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, received the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and is a finalist for this year's NBCC award in fiction. The book takes place on one epic day in the life of nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn, a virgin from a small town in Texas who goes off to fight in the Iraq war. After footage of a brutal firefight in the Al-Ansakar Canal goes viral, the eight surviving soldiers of Billy’s unit are transformed into America’s media sweethearts. The heroes, called the Bravo Squad, are rewarded with a trip home from Iraq and a Bush-sponsored victory tour that culminates in an appearance on the Dallas Cowboys’ infamous Thanksgiving Day half-time show. I met up with Ben over Thanksgiving break in our shared hometown of Dallas, Texas. It was a beautiful day, so we ate tacos by his pool and talked about Walter Benjamin, Voodoo, and the American dream.

Bookforum: How do you get any work done here? I could just sit on this porch forever.

Ben Fountain: If you’re going to make art in Dallas, you have to really want to. The culture here is so far away from anything grassroots—from people who actually make art. Once art has been validated by popular culture, then Dallas is more than ready to accept it. But mainstream culture in Dallas is so oriented towards business, commerce, buying, spending—you know, all the clichés—that you aren’t going to be cool posing as a writer here. You would be better off posing as a hedge-fund manager. Or a real estate tycoon.

Bookforum: The thing I like about New York is that it guilts you into producing. At any given moment there are literally thousands of people working harder than you.

Ben Fountain: In a place like New York you have the advantages of a big, like-minded community, but at the same time there’s a lot of self-consciousness and careerism. You walk around with that inside of your head instead of work and that jams you up in a different way. So, the thing it comes down to is whether you have a powerful urge in you. If it’s powerful enough, you’ll follow it no matter where you are.

Bookforum: There’s a point at the end of your novel where Billy is reflecting on his day, which has been haunted by all these empty descriptors of the American dream—freedom, justice, destiny, etc—and he has this epiphany: the traumatic things he’s learned in Iraq, the place where the American dream has sent him, have absolutely no import on the improvement or verification of that dream.

Ben Fountain: Earlier in the book there is a passage about how “the soldiers of Bravo have PhDs in the art and science of duress.” That’s what a soldier does. A soldier doesn’t own his or her body. They’re told what to wear, they’re told what to eat, they’re told what to do with their days, they’re told where to go, and they can even be ordered to kill another human being, or get in the line of fire themselves. When you talk about the American dream sending Billy to war, what you’re saying is Billy was sent to Iraq to establish American values. One American dream is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can find some measure of economic stability for yourself and your family. I think that’s one of the greatest inventions in history. But that American dream is very much under siege because of the way politics and economics have gone in this country since Reagan was elected president. There’s also another American dream that’s centered around billboards, movies, advertisements­­—America as viewed through Walter Benjamin. This was apparent in the '20s and '30s even before we had the media saturation we do today.

Bookforum: Which is kind of mind-blowing . . .

Ben Fountain: And now it’s infinitely more intense. I do think that Americans live in a dream for the most part. For a little while 9/11 shook us out of that dream. It was so big that people started asking questions like, “Why did this happen?” “Why would anybody hate us enough to do this?” But the dream is so powerful that it swallowed up 9/11 and folded it right into the narrative of “Well, the reason they hate us is because of our freedoms. All the great things about America are why they hate us.” So obviously the solution has to be to make them like us. To make them be like us. That American dream is the dream that sent Billy and his buddies over to Iraq. We, in the wake of 9/11—as the result of 9/11—invaded a country that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. That’s living in a dream world.

Bookforum: How do you think our lives are influenced by media culture?

Ben Fountain: Nowadays, you have to live out in the woods somewhere to get away. I mean at one point—I think it was in the early '90s—I read in a magazine that the average American on an average day is exposed to five thousand advertisements, which seems a bit excessive until you think about all the stuff that’s being advertised around us. When a car goes by us, and it has a Chevrolet logo on the back, that’s an ad. And I’ve got to believe that number has only ramped up in the fifteen or twenty years since I’ve read that. It’s a kind of hyperrealism, but in the end it flattens everything out. It makes us numb. It has to get louder and more saturated in order to get our attention, and I think there is a huge danger in that. In a way, I wanted to get at a different kind of sensory overload in Billy Lynn. Because the day is so overwhelming for the soldiers, it felt like the language had to be headlong in your face, with lots going on in every sentence, lots of twisted imagery, like speeding through the funhouse on a roller coaster. The full-frontal interactions in the book, however shallow and glancing they may be, are still face to face and in the flesh.

Bookforum: But you do periodically stop to give us these warm breaks of humanity, these interactions between the soldiers.

Ben Fountain: They are family to one another. If you look at the reviews on Amazon—and I do have an Amazon obsession, I check the rankings and get either instant gratification or the opposite—a lot of people get off on writing one or two star reviews, saying I don’t have anything good to say about America. But I think the main characters are true-blue, red-blooded American boys. There is this core decency in all of them, a very real love that they have for one another, which is expressed in the way they treat one another. I think there’s a really strong sense of decency in Billy, and certainly he and his squad are American, so I think I do say something good about America.

Bookforum: There’s a point when Billy wonders if he was wrong about the halftime show, whether its not meaningless, but God-like, animated by some potent power or agency. Where did you come up with this idea?

Ben Fountain: Billy’s reaction to the halftime show was pretty much my reaction to it. When I started writing the sequence I didn’t know what I made of the show and at a certain point I came to the conclusion that it’s nothing. It’s just sound and light and a bunch of flashy colors. It’s a big bunch of nothing. Fluff. But I kept watching it on YouTube, and as I thought about it, I started thinking about Voodoo. I’ve seen a lot of Voodoo ceremonies over the years in Haiti, and I started thinking about what goes on at those ceremonies . . .

Bookforum: Just to clarify—this is the Haitian religion, not dark magic.

Ben Fountain: Right. We’re talking about Haitian Voodoo, one of the oldest religions in the world, which has a very formal hierarchy of gods and methods of worship. And these Voodoo ceremonies are for the worship of specific gods in the pantheon. So that started leaking into my consciousness, and finally I came to the conclusion that there was something going on in the American halftime show—you can call it spirituality, you can attribute it to chemical reactions in the brain and body, but whatever you want to call it, it’s that thing in us that feels like God. The halftime show may be an extremely clumsy, awkward attempt to tap into it, but there’s also something powerful being aimed at, something powerful being expressed. It’s this inchoate spiritual impulse without a means of formal expression, even though the halftime show itself is very structured—its predominant themes are sex and warfare, sex and death.

Bookforum: You worked on The Texas Itch for five years before you scrapped it and began Billy Lynn. Did you ever think, “I’m just going to give up and become a lawyer again?”

Ben Fountain: I started writing when I was thirty. Before that, I went to law school at twenty-two and practiced law for eight years, during which time I didn’t write at all. I was pretty miserable, but the impulse to write never left me. It was very weird—I wouldn’t call it desire, and I don’t know if I’d call it compulsion either, because that implies something kind of immediate. One day, I just started writing—it was very strange. Actually, it was nuts. It was completely nuts. I suppose there were moments of terror.

Bookforum: Like you’re on the brink of a cliff—

Ben Fountain: Yeah. Like, “What have I done?” Gore Vidal called it the curse. But you’ll never be at peace with yourself if you don’t make a very concerted, sustained effort to do the work you are drawn to do. The idea of going back to anything like a real job—I just couldn’t stomach it.

Bookforum: What’s next?

Ben Fountain: Right now I’m working on short stuff—stories and things for magazines—but I want to set my next novel in Haiti with Haitian and American characters. So next year I’ll be spending a lot of time in Haiti and hopefully launching into that.