Must America “burn”? If we are to transform and improve as a nation, Dallas author Ben Fountain’s answer is, “yeah, probably … it may turn out really badly.”
Ben Fountain spoke to a small audience over the weekend at Texas’ Monthly sponsored Edge of Texas event.
It was depressing and inspiring. Like Fountain himself (the head-to-toe-beige clad, unassumingly humorous author whose living room is bedecked in wild, kaleidoscopic Haitian art), the ideals in his new book, “Beautiful Country Born Again,” are a paradox.
Much of the book consists of a series of articles recounting the 2016 campaign that he wrote for The Guardian. Interspersed are deep, rational examinations of historical figures and events.
Ultimately he hypothesizes we will evolve—socially, economically—but, first, some “existential crisis” must knock us into that better place. Said crisis could mean that of which we currently are in the midst, existing political unrest, the upheaval of both major political parties. But Fountain hints at the idea that too few Americans feel enough pain to motivate change. “It may turn out badly,” he told Texas Monthly, whose editor Eric Benson conducted Saturday’s session.
“By and large, people have been able to go on with their everyday lives, or at least a critical mass of people have been able to … I thought there was a real chance that the wheels could come off in 2008 [threatened worldwide financial collapse]—and they were coming off, but the center did hold.”
Our previous historical reckonings were the Civil War and Great Depression. So will the streets run with more blood before we see change in our political system and society at large? “Not necessarily,” Fountain said Saturday. But he believes “widespread desperation” or a “burning” (literal or metaphorical, he’s not sure) of America historically precedes positive transformation.
And as he’s describing these terrifying thoughts, the subtle smile remains on Fountain’s face. After the lecture I ask hime how he can dwell on such matters all day, all the time and not be cripplingly depressed. “How do you know I’m not [cripplingly depressed]?” he quips.
More about Ben …
Here’s a one-on-one I did with Ben back in April, prior to knowing much about his new book. We talked mostly about “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” his award-winning, wonderful work of fiction, which became a movie, and his excruciatingly slow rise to literary renown …
Author Ben Fountain lives a stone’s throw from 43rd U.S. President George W. Bush and Laura Bush in Preston Hollow, but in a ranch-style house featuring a low-key façade of neutral color and pale blue shutters. Inside, however, is an unambiguous outpouring of color in the form of Naive Haitian art. The abode is an expression of Fountain himself. Quiet and composed exteriorly, the “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” writer’s deadpan wit and nonconformity surface the minute you shake his hand, like he’s just any other dude with a pleasant smile and practical sneakers, rather than a guy who wrote a story taken to the big screen by one of the world’s winningest directors. His other mainstream-famous writing project is “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara.” Fountain’s journey, like Fountain, is unconventional.
For a while you sacrificed what I assume was a passion for literature for a law practice. Why?
Yes, assumption is correct. I read everything when I was young. My parents were big readers. I read stuff over my head for sure. Kids then were half feral, outside all day, or inside reading if you were me. First I was really into making film. Maybe it was “The Graduate” but all the good filmmakers or movie lovers have that one first movie where it clicks for them. That movie popped for me. And in college I discovered a knack for writing. Both those worlds — filmmaking and publishing — involved a lot of bullshit. Films needed money and so much more; the publishing world, I was not fond of. Sick of it, I decided on something hard, challenging with no room for the BS … I drifted into law school at Duke. Also, writing scared me.
And how was law?
I didn’t like it. I found it a little dull. Like a glorified trade school. I wasn’t too mature, you see. But the knowledge I received did make it, in the long run, a little — just a little, mind you, harder for people to screw you over. I did it for five years. I tried writing at night while practicing law, and we had children. And then with the mental and financial support of my wife, Sharon, also a lawyer, I quit. I quit law, I mean. It made no sense. I just had a powerful, compulsive need to write. I realized I’d never have peace until I did this. She understood I was serious. I made a routine of sitting down to write at 7:30 each morning. For each sold and published story during those early years, I got 30 rejections. The book I wrote over a period of five years went into a drawer.
Is this a good time to ask about all the Haitian art in the house?
Every piece has a story. I went to Haiti for a change of scenery, you might say, but more to be in a totally different type of world. I loved it there, made good friends there, including some of these artists, and have returned more than 30 times. It is like a home away from home. (Fountain’s reporting on post-earthquake Haiti was nationally broadcast on the radio show This American Life.)
You had successes during those years, but you have said it is embarrassing to say how long it took you to actually publish a book.
Yes. And Malcolm Gladwell even noticed. He wrote a “late bloomer” piece for the New York Times, wherein he noted that my “breakthrough with ‘Brief Encounters with Che Guavera’ came in 2006, 18 years after first sitting down’ to write at the kitchen table.” And, quite humorously, he added that I “the ‘young’ writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of 48.”
At what point did you think about giving up, or did you?
There was a point when I was about 40, you know, when I started to feel like a failure. I mean, had I made the biggest mistake imaginable and wasted all these years? I even considered going to business school — I loved school. But then I realized no, this is what I want to do. Thanks to Sharon, I could. And she was great and patient. And at some point I became zen. I became comfortable with failure to an extent. But it was nice to be validated finally in the eyes of society. I was happy my kids could say, “My dad’s not a failure.”
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” was, to understate it, a hit, with critics and readers alike. When, how, why did you come up with this story?
I started thinking about it in the early 2000s, while at a Texas Stadium Cowboys game. In 2009, I started teaching some, and that is when I began writing it. I wanted to write about things that made me mad — the war was BS, and for years, our troops have been used as props. Our culture trots them around in the most obscene ways. The idea of combat vets finding themselves in the middle of an absurd, artificial halftime show at a Cowboys Thanksgiving game, a day before they were to return to combat, grabbed a hold of me and then I saw where the story was going. The story of 19-year-old Billy Lynn and his single day at a Cowboys game, I think, captures the vast disconnect between war and soldiers and how the rest of us view it. There is a lot of feeling like: “What the hell is this?” It also touches on growing up, sexuality. But basically, to accept mainstream versions of what we are told can mean life or death. A narrative we are told could bring us to unnecessary war. My message is, “Don’t be dumb. Don’t be numb.”
And then it became a movie — how does that feel?
Oh, there was a lot of excitement, a lot of attention. Especially when we found out who would direct the movie — Ang Lee, three-time Best Director winner? Does it get better? After all these years. The red carpet. My family proud. It was surreal. Lee’s use of new technology, perhaps, or whatever it was, brought the critics down hard on the movie. But it has its moments. It was a very honorable attempt in my summation.
What are you working on now?
I am about to publish a book about the 2016 presidential campaign. It derives from a series of articles I wrote for The Guardian in real time, though 80 percent of the book is new material. It is due out in September.
The above Q&A first was published in the Preston Hollow Advocate magazine in April 2018.