100 Dallas Creatives: No. 8 Ben Fountain, Man of Letters
Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Ben Fountain is one of the most successful writers to call Dallas home. His 2007 collection of short stories, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and his first novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, was published in 2012 to similar critical acclaim, becoming a finalist for the National Book Award. But it's well documented -- see this 2008 New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell -- that Fountain's path to success was not a direct one. He moved to Dallas in the '80s to practice law but quit in 1988 to write full time; although a few short stories received some recognition, it took 18 years of consistent writing before he had a major work published.
Dallas hasn't been regarded for a vibrant literary scene in the past, but that seems to be changing slowly. We now have an independent bookstore in Oak Cliff, The Wild Detectives; we've got Wordspace, a nonprofit literary arts group that programs events year-round; and last year another local writer, Merritt Tierce, earned effusive praise from everyone from The New York Times Book Review to Carrie Brownstein for her debut novel, Love Me Back (Fountain was also a big champion of hers).
I spoke with Fountain about the effect, if any, that these developments have had on the life of a writer in Dallas, the long road from lawyer to acclaimed writer, his writing habits and what he's working on now.
Do you think Dallas is a good place to live as a writer? It's not a particularly congenial place for a writer or anyone who's trying to do real art. The mainstream culture here is definitely about commerce, business, making money, spending money. Having said that, I think it's a good place for a writer or an artist to live. You're right in the thick of contemporary American life. It's not an artist colony or cocoon where you can squirrel yourself away and think deep thoughts. You're living in the belly of the beast. It may not be the most comfortable place. But maybe writers and artists do their best work when they're not comfortable. When they're always having their assumptions and worldview confronted.
If it weren't for your wife's job and kids' schools tethering you here, would your family have considered relocating? Yeah, I would have considered moving somewhere else. I'm still conflicted about that -- for the reasons I just stated. Dallas keeps challenging me. In ways that hopefully keep me alert, and constantly questioning my own assumptions. From time to time we live down in Austin, so we can teach. It's very nice living down there. The environment feels more congenial to somebody who's doing the kind of work I'm trying to do. But I also feel like I might fall asleep down there.
You moved here after law school, right? Had you already met your wife at that point? Why Dallas initially? She was a year ahead of me at Duke. By the time we started dating she had already accepted a job in Dallas. She had spent part of her childhood here and wanted to come back. I had worked in Raleigh and New York City, but eventually I followed her out to Dallas. You can say I came for love, not money.
When you gave up practicing law to write, what was it that made you confident that was the choice for you? That you needed to write? Had you written in your spare time growing up? I can't say I felt confident about it. I made that choice with a lot of uncertainty and foreboding. I wrote a tiny bit in high school. In college I took two fiction-writing courses. I had a bit of a knack, but I wouldn't call it talent. I was an English major, but I focused on the academic side of things. This notion of trying to write fiction just stayed with me all those years through practicing law. I barely wrote anything. But at a certain point in my late 20s I realized I'm never going to have any peace with myself if I don't do it.
When it came to developing a writing practice, what determined how you went about it? There's a lot of figuring out how your own head works. The only thing I knew I was going to do when that first Monday came around is I would sit down at the kitchen table and I had the idea for a story. I had the first line and I sat down as I would sit down at my desk at the law firm and go to work. With time you figure it out. You figure out what works best for you. Writing every day, binge writing, writing morning, night or afternoon.
Do your writing habits change over time? Everybody goes through phases and stages. Part of it is a function of necessity. I was a househusband for 20 years. I was the point guy for kids. I needed to get my work done by 3:30 p.m. Now if I want to work till 4:30 or 5 or 6, I can.
Did your kids have a pretty good grasp of what you were doing when you switched from law to writing full time? They knew dad has his office out there in the garage, and that's what dad does. Who knows what he's actually doing out there. We always had a nanny come in for six hours. For a long time they're kids. They don't really think about it or question it that much. Eventually they began to have a better sense of my lack of success.
Do they share your interest in writing now? I certainly didn't try to pass it on. I wanted them to become readers and they have. My wife and I wanted books to be a big part of their lives. Doing this kind of work writing is such a fundamentally different way of life from mainstream American culture that you really don't want to wish it on anyone. You might want to wish that kind of satisfaction when you do something worthwhile. Our son, he's got his day job but he's interested in writing for movies and TV. And our daughter is in the fashion business in New York and she doesn't have any desire.
Where do you find inspiration for your writing? Is there one source that tends to trigger ideas? Over the years I've come to realize that in a broad sense I'm interested in power and politics. I'm interested in how individuals try to eke out some wiggle room within these large institutions. Within the larger machinery of society how they eke out some measure of freedom and personal space and integrity. A man or a woman inside the machine trying to negotiate their way toward some sort of, if not happiness, then at least accommodation or peace with themselves.
I know your collection of short stories, Brief Encounters With Che Guevera, took you to Haiti a bunch of times. Do you still travel frequently? Does most of your writing happen in Dallas? I rarely do the hard writing when I'm on the road. It's too distracting. I take a lot of notes. The novel I'm working on right now is set in Haiti. I was there two weeks ago. I'll fill up a lot of notebooks. You're immersing yourself, you're soaking things up. The actual writing takes too much concentration and focus except to do in a very controlled environment. Some people can write anywhere.
Is it hard not to look at other writers and compare your process to theirs? Everybody has to figure out their own way. There's no right way or wrong way. I wish I was faster. I'm 56 years old and I only have two books out, which is kind of pathetic. I've written more books than that and they haven't been published or they didn't deserve to be published.
When you're writing a book that's about an experience you don't share -- like being a veteran in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk -- how do you know when you've done adequate research to represent that perspective? I don't think you can ever know it for sure. You certainly don't know it until you start to write it. That's where you find all of the gaps. That's where you find all of the shortfalls. Research is a necessary first step. Then you've gotta take that imaginative step into life. In a way, you have to immerse yourself so much in the research that you can forget it.
A number of people have a problem with me writing about soldiers and veterans when I haven't had the experience. I have a lot more sympathy with their point of view than you might expect. It was a powerful thing in me to try to write that book. I did it for better or worse. It's not something to be taken lightly. It's an important thing and a necessary thing as a writer to always be reaching outside of yourself. They say write what you know. But what you know is rarely enough. You need to know more. But you've got to approach it with a lot of respect and humility. You owe it to the people and experience you're trying to understand. It's not a casual thing.
You've written both short stories and novels. Which do you prefer? I like writing both. I would be disappointed if I had to choose between one or the other. They're different experiences. There's more pressure writing a novel. You invest a lot more time or effort in it. If it doesn't work, in a sense you've blown however many years. But there's also a great deal of satisfaction.
Is there one achievement that would mean most to you as a writer? Whether a story you want to tell or a form of recognition? I suppose the main thing would be that I kept going. After 10 years of writing I was turning 40 and I really had very little to show for it. A handful of stories published in small, obscure magazines. That's when I had to decide why am I doing this. All of the illusions and fantasies of success had been stripped away. Not to be too fancy about it, but I decided I wanted to create a piece of art. Something that was true and that had a certain amount of beauty in it. I thought, well, that's enough. My wife was still willing to put up with this writing. I'm not hurting anybody, I'm not dropping bombs on anyone. If nothing in the way of worldly success comes, that's fine.
Do you have other hobbies? Is there anything that you do after a long day of writing to relieve stress? Sweating is my hobby. I do a lot of my own yard work. I run, I ride the bike. I like to be outside when I stop working.
What are you working on right now? I'm working on a novel set in Haiti in 1991. It's set at the time of the first Aristide coup. There are two Haitian and two American characters. It's exploring a world of politics, power, the CIA, scuba diving, family, love, sex, death and the intersection of voodoo and quantum physics.
Ben Fountain will guide a discussion with author and UNT artist-in-residence Aleksandar Hemon at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture (2719 Routh St.) on March 5 at 7 p.m. The Wild Detectives will be on hand selling books, and the event is free; visit dallasinstitute.org to RSVP and for more info.
100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson 35. Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot 34. Music Innovator Stefan Gonzalez 33. Triple Threat Giovanni Valderas 32. Cultural Connector Lauren Cross 31. Critical Artist Thor Johnson 30. Delicate Touch Margaret Meehan 29. Fashion Forward Charles Smith II 28. Dedicated Artist Carolyn Sortor 27. Political Cyber Banksy Wylie H Dallas 26. Dance Preserver Lisa Mesa Rogers 25. Rob 'Ain't No Creative Like A Bow-Tie-Wearing Creative' Shearer 24. Scholar of the Stage Susan Sargeant 23. Photographer of Record Justin Terveen 22. Music Man Jeffrey Liles 21. Keeper of the Safe Room Lauren Gray 20. Playwright Jonathan Norton, Man of Many Words 19. Filmmaker and Funniest Comic in Texas Linda Stogner 18. Gallerist Jordan Roth, the Art Scene Cheerleader 17. Artful Advocate Vicki Meek 16. Ballet Queen Katie Puder 15. Carlos Alejandro Guajardo-Molina, the Book Guy 14. Janeil Engelstad, an Artist with Purpose 13. Will Power, Playwright and Mentor 12. Gallerists Gina & Dustin Orlando, Boundary Pushers 11. Moody Fuqua, Music Community Organizer 10. Joshua Peugh, Choreographer to Watch 9. Allison Davidson, Advocate for Art Accessibility
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.