Early Genius vs. the Late Bloomer

I had to lose all the “success” fantasies and focus on the work itself, and take pleasure and satisfaction in whatever improvement I detected in my work.


Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (Ecco Press, 2006; Harper Perennial 2007) and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco Press, 2012), has received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers Award, an O. Henry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and two Texas Institute of Letters Short Story Awards, among other honors and awards. His fiction has been published in Harper's, The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Stories from the South: The Year's Best. He lives in Dallas.


In putting together our ten all-time favorite Texas football titles, we came across one book that we all agreed had to be on the list—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. However, to call this novel a book about football would be like describing Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place as only about politics or Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show as solely about dwindling small towns.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a mirror that reflects the Iraq War era, and when we looked into it, we didn’t always like what we saw. Like all defining works, this biting satire stopped readers in their tracks and caused them to reevaluate all the memes about war, patriotism, commercialism, and yes, football.


Fountain’s personal story is as compelling as his novel. In 1988 he quit his day job as a lawyer to become a writer and stay-at-home dad. When the writing started to pay off he was going to renovate his garage and turn it into a writing space. Day after day, he wrote. Short stories. Articles. Manuscripts. Twenty-four years later his first novel was published, and it became a National Book Award finalist for fiction. We understand that the garage has now been renovated.


Fountain shared his story with Lone Star Listens via a series of emailed questions.


LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: In 1988, when you were thirty, you quit practicing law and devoted yourself to being a writer and a stay-at-home father when your wife made partner with her law firm. How long had you had the longing to spend your life as a writer?


BEN FOUNTAIN: Well, I’m not sure I was “longing” to be a writer; it was more a sense of, I’ll never have any peace in myself unless I make a serious effort to do this kind of work. Gore Vidal called it “the curse,’ this compulsion or need to write fiction. In a sense you don’t really have a choice, if it’s powerful in you. Or I suppose you do have a choice; you can go off and try to live that mainstream, respectable, nine-to-five life, but you’ll probably go crazy doing it. I certainly was.


Your first book, Brief Encounters with Che Guevera, a collection of short stories, was not published until 2006. Critics praised it as masterful, and then Malcolm Gladwell documented you as a genius in a 2008 New Yorker article, “Late Bloomers.” How did Gladwell become aware of your work and decide that you epitomized a “late bloomer?”


Gladwell knew a friend of mine named Katherine Taylor, whom I had the pleasure of publishing in Southwest Review when I was fiction editor there (that was one of her first published stories; she’s since gone on to publish two very fine novels with Farrar, Straus & Giroux). She gave him Brief Encounters, and once he found out how ridiculously old I was, he decided he had his contemporary half of the “late-bloomer” equation. For a long time he’d been wanting to write about early genius vs. late bloomer, and had his classic paradigm with Picasso vs. Cezanne. Then I came along to serve as the latter-day match for Jonathan Safran Foer.


Your first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was published in 2012—twenty-four years after you devoted your life to being a writer. Did you ever feel like buying voodoo dolls of the twenty-something whiz kids right out of MFA programs who get great book deals? How did you keep yourself motivated through all the years of rejection and revision?


The first few years I think my motivation mainly consisted of fantasy and delusion — that is, if I worked hard, then after a certain number of years I would break through and get published in the New Yorker, get a big book contract, be a big success and all that. Over the course of all the years of that NOT happening, I had to realign my focus in a more realistic — dare I say more mature? — way. I had to lose all the “success” fantasies and focus on the work itself, and take pleasure and satisfaction in whatever improvement I detected in my work. At a certain point I suppose I got pretty zen about it all. I concentrated on the work, and just didn't think about being a "success" anymore. This was zen by necessity, I guess; I had to get that way, otherwise I would have quit writing and gone off to business school or something.


As for the tyros from the MFA programs who get big deals out of the gate, more power to them, if they're doing good work. I wouldn't wish my stumbling career path on anybody.


Who gave you your first break, and how did it change your life?


A very fine man and writer named Mark Danner. He took an interest in a short story I wrote set in Haiti, and connected me to some former colleagues of his at Harper’s Magazine. A longtime editor there named Charis Conn decided to publish it. That was my first story in a national magazine, and because of it I got the agent I’ve had for the past fifteen years, Heather Schroder, who’s the best in the business.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was a finalist for the National Book Award. When did you feel that you were going to be able to have the kind of career that you had always wanted as a writer?


At this point it’s probably too late for me to have the career I always wanted. I’m too slow, it takes me too long to figure things out, to the extent I ever figure them out. I’d love to be the kind of writer who comes out with a good novel or story collection every two or three years. By now I would have a whole shelf of books out there, if I had the kind of career I wanted. So I’m making do with the career I’ve got, such as it is.


There are some who would say that you helped put Dallas on the literary map. Now there seems to be a burgeoning Dallas literary scene with you, Merritt Tierce, Kathleen Kent, Harry Hunsicker, among others, and the Dallas Noir anthology that literary agent David Hale Smith edited. What makes Dallas fertile literary ground, and how would you describe the Dallas literary scene?


I think it's mostly coincidence when these things happen, at least in this case: a certain cohort of good writers happened to come along at the same time in this general area, for no particular reason that I can see. It’s not like SMU or some other writing program has developed a pipeline that’s cranking out good writers here. But it’s a lot more fun this way, having other writers around, people who take the work seriously, but themselves not so much. And in a city like Dallas, where money and commerce are supreme, you aren’t going to hold yourself out as a writer unless you really mean it. Unlike a place like, say, Brooklyn, where you might get some street cred for saying you’re a writer; in Dallas it just doesn't compute. Not much place for poser writers here.


A big part of your writing experience were your numerous trips to Haiti. What drew you to Haiti, and how did your experiences there change you as a writer?


I can’t really give a rational explanation for why I started going to Haiti, except to say I think it came out of some vague instinct that there was something in that place I needed to engage with and try to understand. A different reality, maybe — a reality much different from that of a white, middle-class, middle-aged husband and father of two living in suburban North Dallas. I suppose I was testing myself, on one level; on another level, I was embarking on this project of trying to understand how the world works in terms of power, politics, race, money — all the big systems that control so much of our lives. It seemed to me Haiti was the paradigm and boiling point for a lot of that; still is. In terms of writing, whatever understanding of life I bring to the work, Haiti’s probably made me much more attuned to the complexity of experience. Things are rarely what they seem. You have to think, ponder, explore, take risks. You have to put in the time to understand something.


Why do you think there has been such growth in creative writing MFA programs? You’ve taught writing, how much do you think is inherent in aspiring writers, and how much can be learned?


I think the growth of MFA programs is a great thing. We have schools for everything else — for business, law, medicine, hair implants, etc. Why not schools whose purpose is to teach clear seeing and clear expression? Because that’s what good writing is, seeing things for what they are, and finding the language that accurately captures the experience. I think certain basic things can be taught, in the sense that maybe a good teacher, or good peers, can save you some time by pointing out obvious errors. In my case, for so many years I skimmed along the surface in my own writing, was too lazy or dim to engage in the real emotional heart of whatever story I was writing. A good teacher would have called me out on that pretty quickly. On the other hand, I think 93% of what you learn about this kind of work, you have to learn on your own. The main thing is sitting your butt down in the chair and making the words.


What’s your creative process like now? What’s your writing routine like?


I write five days a week, six if I can steal some hours on Saturday. I’m slow. Doing it most days is the only way I get anywhere.


Who are some are your favorite Texas authors now and in the past?


Larry McMurtry is the grandaddy of us all. The wonderful body of work he’s created, both in fiction and nonfiction, is a real legacy for all Texas writers, something we should study, be proud of, and aspire to ourselves. I think Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place is a wonderful novel, and should be better known. Bud Shrake was a writer who produced much fine work across a broad range of genres and material. Then there’s my friend David Searcy who lives down the street from me in Dallas. He published two excellent novels with Viking in the early 2000s, and now his career is set up for a strong second act with the publication of his essay collection Shame and Wonder by Random House this coming January. He writes as beautifully and truly about life, and Texas, as any writer I know of, past or present.


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Praise for Ben Fountain's work


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not merely good; it’s Pulitzer Prize–quality good . . . A bracing, fearless and uproarious satire of how contemporary war is waged and sold to the American public.” —San Francisco Chronicle


“Brilliantly done . . . grand, intimate, and joyous.” —New York Times Book Review


“[An] inspired, blistering war novel…Though it covers only a few hours, the book is a gripping, eloquent provocation. Class, privilege, power, politics, sex, commerce and the life-or-death dynamics of battle all figure in Billy Lynn’s surreal game day experience.” —New York Times


“A masterful echo of ‘Catch-22,’ with war in Iraq at the center. …a gut-punch of a debut novel…There’s hardly a false note, or even a slightly off-pitch one, in Fountain’s sympathetic, damning and structurally ambitious novel.” —Washington Post


“Fountain’s excellent first novel follows a group of soldiers at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day…Through the eyes of the titular soldier, Fountain creates a minutely observed portrait of a society with woefully misplaced priorities. [Fountain has] a pitch-perfect ear for American talk.” —The New Yorker


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a big one. This is the brush-clearing Bush book we’ve been waiting for.” —Harper's Magazine


“Seething, brutally funny…[Fountain] leaves readers with a fully realized band of brothers…Fountain’s readers will never look at an NFL Sunday, or at America, in quite the same way.” —Sports Illustrated


“It’s a darkly humorous satire about the war at home, absurd and believable at the same time.” —Esquire


“Darkly comic…Rarely does such a ruminative novel close with such momentum.”  —Los Angeles Times


“[T]he shell-shocked humor will likely conjure comparisons with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five…War is hell in this novel of inspired absurdity.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Ben Fountain was born in Chapel Hill and grew up in the tobacco country of eastern North Carolina. A former practicing attorney, he is the author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, and the novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, winner of the National Book Critics' Circle Award and a finalist for the National Book Award. Billy Lynn was adapted into a feature film directed by three-time Oscar winner Ang Lee, and his work has been translated into over twenty languages. His series of essays published in The Guardian on the 2016 U.S. presidential election was subsequently nominated by the editors of The Guardian for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary. He lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife of 32 years, Sharon Fountain.