Ben Fountain’s debut short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, was published in America eighteen years after he left his job at a Dallas real estate law firm to become a writer. It would appear that it was well worth the wait, as it immediately met with praise, awarded both the PEN/Hemingway and Whiting Award. This success continued when his first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was published five years later. In the last six months alone, it has won two awards in America, including the prestigious National Book Critics Circle award, and nominated for a further two here in the UK.
His short story collection explores America’s perennial mission to rectify global strife, scrutinising corruption, fiscal greed and the Realpolitik of diplomacy through the figure of ‘the American abroad’. Amongst the eight stories, there is a graduate student who is taken hostage by guerrilla rebels in Columbia, an observer from the Organization of American who plays chess in Haiti and an aid-worker who establishes a co-operative in Sierra Leone. All question the ideals and actions of America abroad today.
The novel has a slightly more domestic setting, Dallas, where the North Carolina native Fountain now resides. Eponymous nineteen year old Billy is one of eight soldiers who make up Bravo company, heroes of a vicious fire fight with the ‘haajjis’ in Iraq. The entire battle was momentously captured by Fox News and subsequently became an internet sensation. This results in the company being rewarded leave and paraded on a Bush-sponsored media tour, feting their celebrity with a final appearance at the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day half-time show. The story takes place on this last day before their return to Iraq, as both media interest and Fountain’s critique of the recent past of the Bush administration reach their climax.
You recently called George W. Bush ‘the worst president in American history.’ Is there anything redeeming which you can elucidate from his time in office?
Bush’s Presidential Library was recently dedicated in Dallas, which meant that all his fellow Dallasites, including me, were treated to an entire week of praise and associated PR verbiage extolling the virtues of the Bush presidency. Pretty much the only thing that elicited praise from anything other than a hard-right perspective was his funding of anti-AIDS programs in Africa, and I would certainly agree with that. I would also add his nomination of Harriet Meiers to the Supreme Court. Ms. Meiers strikes me as a fine lawyer and a fine person. Unfortunately, she met with significant opposition from within Bush’s own administration, with the result that her nomination never even made it to the Senate.
And what would you say were the most permeable legacies of that period?
By “permeable,” do you mean leaky? Sieve-like? As in, God almighty help us, the ship is going down? If that’s the gist of your question, then the overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows that the Bush administration punched gaping, Titanic-sized holes in the stability of the U.S. financial system, the U.S. government budget, U.S. credibility abroad, and the morale and robustness of U.S. military forces.
You are also equally critical of the shortcomings of Leftist politics in your collection of short stories. Do you think that you will write in a similar way about the Barack Obama presidency as you have with Bush?
Who knows. But I think it’s useful to bear in mind I.F. Stone’s famous statement, ‘All governments lie, and nothing they say should be believed.’ The recent revelations about U.S. government data-gathering from phone and internet networks are a fresh demonstration of the accuracy of Stone’s observation. Lies should be a particular affront to writers, given that lying consists of the abuse and corruption of language.
Considering how frank some of your writing is, for example you write that ‘Americans are incredibly polite as long as they get what they want’, how has your work been received there outside of the literary world?
As far as I can tell, it’s been largely ignored outside the literary world, which is to be expected. A number of veterans and active-duty soldiers have offered praise for Billy Lynn, but, perhaps by definition – because they would read a non-commercial book like Billy Lynn – they are every much as part of the literary world as the critic at the New Yorker who hangs around the snack room saying things like ‘Au contraire.’
Did you find it difficult to balance creating Billy as a fully-fleshed credible character and one through which you could critique politics and society?
It was difficult to write this novel, and one of the difficulties was making each and every character a flesh-and-blood human, including Billy. Given the political aspects of the book, yes, that was definitely one of the challenges, making it a novel as opposed to a polemic. I approached it with the hope that if I wrote the story authentically, with living, breathing characters moving through a suitably fraught situation, that the politics would come from the inside-out, as opposed to me plastering on the political content from the outside.
In the book the Bravo Squad have ‘the high ground of experience’ when back at home. Did this disparity between the soldiers’ experience and domestic expectations make the novel more difficult to write as you don’t have such military experience yourself?
Yes. In fact, I’d say even before you get to questions of accuracy and authenticity, there’s a moral question: do I, as a person who’s never been in the military, even have the right to attempt to write a book like this? That’s something I wrestled with a lot. In the end, it was the book I needed to try to write, so I wrote it; I suppose that’s proof that it was a powerful thing in me. But I can certainly understand, and in many ways am sympathetic to, a soldier or veteran objecting to a rank civilian writing a book like Billy Lynn.
And which research did you carry out when writing about the military and in particular the soldiers’ ways of speaking?
Talked to all the soldiers and vets who were willing to talk to me. Read everything I could get my hands on about the Iraq and Afghan wars – memoirs, reportage, analysis, magazine features, and on and on. Watched all the documentaries. I felt that I had to earn, as much as such a thing is possible, the right to write a book like this.
You grew up in North Carolina and live in Dallas, do you feel that your writing is influenced by the South in the same way as William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams?
No, not in the same way, because they lived in a much different world than the one in which I came of age, and live in now. I was born in 1958; that old, largely rural south of Faulkner and Williams still existed, but it was changing fast. You still had the close presence of the natural world, but media – TV, radio – were beginning to overwhelm the culture. I came in on the tail end of the world that Faulkner lived in and wrote about, but my world has been much more urban and transient and transnational. Which maybe explains why I’m not interested in writing about tobacco road, even though I grew up there.
To what extent do you agree with the comparisons made between your novel and Catch 22? Did the book play an active influence during writing?
Comparing Billy Lynn to Catch 22 might be a useful way of telegraphing the general tone or subject of Billy Lynn, but I think they’re very different books. I have to say, I wasn’t thinking very much at all about Catch 22 when writing Billy Lynn. There were a few people whose work was very much on my mind – Robert Altman, Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, among others.
You’ve indicated that your next novel will be in Haiti, with Haitian and American characters. Can you foresee a point at which you don’t write about Americans in the contemporary world?
To this point in my life, I suppose it’s fair to say that I’m interested in power, politics, race, history -why the world works the way it does, maybe that’s one way to sum it up. But I have no idea where those interests are going to take me next, and that’s fine.
Finally, the film rights of your novel have been purchased by Film4 and Ink Factory. Which role, if any, will you have in the film adaptation?
I don’t know anything about making movies, so I see my role as standing well back out of the way, and letting the movie people do their jobs.