I met Ben Fountain in the fall of 2009, when we were both residents at Ucross, an artists’ retreat and absurdly beautiful deer-filled paradise in northeastern Wyoming. Our offices were a few feet away from one another, and we would often cross paths in the kitchen as we retrieved more coffee or hot water for tea. We talked about Joan Didion, about Haiti, about literary journals, about running, about Annie Proulx, about snakes, about rejection. I had just been dumped by my agent, and Ben was starting a new novel after his previous one had died on the table. To this day, I believe Ben’s presence at Ucross helped me write as much as I did. All day we worked, and at night, after dinner, we played ping pong and gave each other updates on our books. I knew in my bones that the novel Ben was writing was it, that it was brilliant. I was right. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a 19-year-old soldier home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game, is extraordinary. Here is a novel that is deeply engaged with our contemporary world, timely and timeless at once. Plus, it’s such fun to read.
Ben Fountain is also the author of the short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. I still can’t believe he answers my emails.
The Millions: The prose of this novel knocked me out: it’s beautiful, exuberant, funny, dirty, sweet — equal parts slang and poetry. I’m curious how you crafted sentences like, “They could be the congregation of the richest church in town, Our Anorexic Lady of the Upscale Honky Bling,” and, “Day perches on his seat back surveying the field like an African king high on his throne, looking down on all his little subject bitches,” and, “Maybe it’s age, he thought, leaning back on his blanket, watching the sun do its stately pinwheel through the trees.” Is a lot of this first draft brilliance, just listening to the characters in your mind, or do you work the language over and over to get this kind of shine? I suppose this is just a boring old craft question, but I must know: How do you do this?
Ben Fountain: From the start — beginning with the first impulse for the story — it seemed that the book needed to have a particular attitude in the language, a hopefully headlong, borderline reckless mashup of high and low, ineffable and vulgar, etc. If it was going to happen, it had to happen at the level of the sentence and build from there. There was a sound, as much as anything, that the book needed to have, and that’s what I went after in the writing, trying to home in on the sound of it and find the words for it on the page. Usually I had to work it over and over to get it right, but that’s true of pretty much everything I do. Even the “simple” sentences seem to come hard.
TM: I know, from being your writing camp buddy, that you wrote the first draft of this novel by hand, on various legal pads, and that you then transcribed the longhand work to the laptop. Was this how you worked on the book from start to finish? How did the labor of this novel inform the finished product?
BF: I always do it that way — write the first draft out on legal pads, then enter it into the computer, print it out, mark up the hard copy with pen or pencil, feed those into the computer, print out another hard copy, and so on. I don’t particularly like composing on the computer because, well, I just don’t. Having that damn cursor always blinking, like it’s saying come on, come on, think of something. I like pens and pencils and papers, and writing it out longhand seems to match the pace of my thinking, which, as you might infer, is none too swift.
TM: I was interested in the times that Billy — and the novel’s slightly elevated, yet intimate, third person narrator — makes pronouncements about America; for instance: “Americans are incredibly polite as long as they get what they want,” and, “Somewhere along the way, America became a giant mall with a country attached.” Where did you get the cojones to make such grand, true, wise, angry pronouncements about our country?
BF: Well, Billy turned out to be a clarifying lens through which to view America. He’s seeing it all with fresh eyes, as one sees a foreign country for the first time, where you don’t take anything for granted, and where everything seems to be such a mystery. A lot of these pronouncements about America simply came from trying to put myself in his skin, and seeing as he sees things. And maybe Billy, as a poorly educated, relatively unsophisticated 19-year-old kid from a small town in Texas, isn’t having these thoughts per se, not in so many words, but the narrative voice is conveying the substance of what Billy is thinking and feeling. If we could sit Billy down at any one moment and have him articulate precisely what he was experiencing — walking him through the experience, patiently, taking as much time as was needed — this, or something much like it, is what we’d end up with.
TM: Do you see yourself as a political novelist?
BF: Everything is political, if we’re living among other human beings. Certainly everything in a society is political, right down to what we do in bed with other people. If it’s not political– i.e., the Texas sodomy law was finally declared unconstitutional a few years ago — it’s because a political choice was made. And war is perhaps the ultimate political sphere. Some presentations of the Iraq war — Hollywood movies, especially — have tried to be neutral, to simply present the soldiers’ experience on the ground without political commentary. Well, what you get then is a video game. To me, the question of “why” follows close on the heels of “what” — why are these people trying to kill each other? Why are these violent things happening? Any realistic exploration of the war is going to have to include the political element, otherwise it’s just not worth the time.
TM: I was intrigued by this notion of Billy, All-American Hero, existing outside of the American way. He views his fellow citizens at a remove; they seem to him a familiar-yet-strange species, constantly grabbing his biceps, thanking him for his service, asking him how it feels to be in battle, to lose his comrade, and so on. He plays a role for them, and he’s painfully aware of that role. This is so rich and complicated; Billy as a character is perhaps my favorite aspect of the novel. Can you talk a little bit about what went into the making of Billy Lynn, and how you navigated his identity: as a young man, as a Texan, as a grunt, and so on?
BF: I touch on this some in my answer to your earlier question, how I tried to negotiate the territory between Billy’s relative youth and inexperience, on the one hand, and his acute visceral reactions to what’s going on around him. Billy may be poorly educated, but he’s no dummy; on the contrary. He wants to see things for what they are and is largely succeeding, and that puts him way ahead of most of us, educated or not. And there’s his basic decency, maybe an implicit morality in his insistence on seeing things for what they are even as he tries not to make waves or inconvenience anyone, if he can help it. As for trying to get myself into his skin, well, I was a 19-year-old male, once, about six centuries ago, and I tried to tap into my memories of that, where so much of your existence centers around sex and booze — physical gratification — as well as anxiety about who you are and what you’re going to do with your life, and even what it means to live a good life. That whipsaw between intense physicality and existential confusion, back and forth, back and forth, from one moment to the next. Being young is an impossible, crazy-making experience, much of the time.
TM: How much research went into this novel? And, tell me, honestly: How much time did you spend thinking about Beyonce, who performs with Destiny’s Child in the novel’s halftime show?
BF: Lots of research on military life, war, the Iraq war in particular. I’ve never been in the military myself, so I was starting from a standpoint of profound ignorance. It’s not a casual thing, undertaking to write a book like this when you’ve never been in combat or even in the military; I’ve been shot at, in Haiti, but that’s something different from combat. So I read everything I could get my hands on — memoirs, reportage, all the magazine articles; watched the documentaries; talked to the soldiers who were generous enough to talk to me. I felt like I had to earn the right to write this book, and the only way I could do that was by working very hard to imagine myself into the soldier’s experience, and hopefully write it correctly.
Beyonce? Ha ha. She’s a very pretty woman, no doubt. But I didn’t spend too much time thinking about her, and probably won’t, unless I decide to try a novel about a pop music star.
TM: Speaking of Destiny’s Child, was it a challenge to balance the real-life, pop cultural references of the book with what’s fictionalized?
BF: It didn’t feel like any more of a challenge than any other part of the book. For one thing, the action of the book, at least in the “now” sense, is set at a pro football game at Texas Stadium, so the entire setting is in the context of a pop-culture entertainment event. Placing the action in that context basically teed up everything else for me. And, by the way, very little had to be fictionalized; pop culture in this day and age is so surreal, so over-the-top and borderline insane, that all I had to do was take samples from life, for the most part.
TM: And because this is The Millions, I must ask you, What are you reading now?
BF: I recently read an extraordinarily fine novel in galleys called The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, due to be published in September. It’s set in the Iraq war. I also read another very fine book in galleys called Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee. I recently re-read Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, in a new translation by Benjamin Moser — a tremendous book, and New Directions has just put out four new translations of Lispector’s novels that I’m looking forward to getting into. Presently, I’m into Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours, which is a great delight and ongoing revelation. I have never read a boring sentence by Tom Bissell.