In 2008, when Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker essay called “Late Bloomers,” author Ben Fountain served as exhibit A. The story outlined how Fountain had given up a solid legal career to pursue writing. After 18 years — during which Fountain's wife, Sharon, supported their family with her own legal career — Fountain “took the literary world by storm,” as Gladwell put it, with his short story collection, “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara.” The book won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and sold well. At the time, Fountain was 48. The core question Gladwell's essay sought to answer was “Why do we equate genius with precocity?”
But even for a man branded a genius by the New Yorker, the path between his critically acclaimed short story collection and his latest book, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," was anything but direct. "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," the Printers Row Book of the Month, has been well reviewed since it was published in May by Ecco. The novel follows Silver Star-winner Spc. William Lynn and members of Bravo squad as they spend Thanksgiving Day at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. The squad is on the last day of a victory tour inspired by Fox News footage showing the Bravos in heroic combat. And yet, the war continues: The day after the Cowboys game, the Bravo squad is scheduled to head back to Iraq.
We caught up by phone with Fountain, who was visiting his parents in North Carolina, to talk about "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" and how he handled the glare of the New Yorker's spotlight. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Let's get the Gladwell story out of the way: How did it affect your ability to write?
A: It really didn't affect me at all. Frankly, I'd gotten to the point long before "Brief Encounters with Che Guevara" was out where I'd gotten pretty zen about success and failure in writing, because I had failed for a long time and had to decide why I was persisting in doing this kind of work. It got to the point where I was just focusing on the work. If things got published, great. If they didn't, I was taking satisfaction in the work and my own development. Having a little bit of success didn't affect me a huge amount, nor did failure. That article was really nice and it gave my wife her due. She was really the real hero in the article — and in reality. Any article, good or bad, it doesn't help you get the words on the page. That's as hard as ever.
Q: Back when the Gladwell piece was published, it mentioned you were working on a novel. What happened to it?
A: I was working on a novel called "The Texas Itch" and I'd been working on it off and on for years. It was set in Dallas and about politics and money and power. My editor and I had gone through several rounds of revisions, and I thought it was getting there. About six weeks after the Malcolm Gladwell article came out, she said, "Look, I just don't think this novel is going to make it. I think you should put it away and work on something else — and in any case we don't want to publish it."
Two months after Malcolm Gladwell has that nice article about what an alleged genius I am, my publisher tells me "We're not going to publish your novel." To be brought down in that dramatic fashion, I just had to laugh.
Q: Really, you laughed?
A: I was devastated, but there was also this sense of the cosmos having a great sense of humor.
Q: Did any of "The Texas Itch" wind up in "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"?
A: Not a single bit.
Q: What sparked the idea for "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk?"
A: The initial impulse for the story came in 2004 Dallas Cowboy game on Thanksgiving Day. We had the game on in the background and had a bunch of people over. I just happened to start watching the halftime show. It was much as I wrote it in the book. It was this insane mash-up of triumphal militarism, pop culture and soft-core porn all mashed into this stew. It was the nuttiest thing I'd ever seen in my life and it was also very American. What struck me was everyone just considered it to be this normal thing. There were all these things being mashed together that didn't go together, and I thought, "There's a story there."
Q: Tell me more about the halftime show.
A:Destiny's Childwas the headliner. They were kind of slinking around on the stage, doing their bumping and grinding moves. There were lots of dancers on the stage and down on the field, but then there were all these American soldiers. There was a drill team right in front of the stage; American flags all over the place. But right in the middle of all this, the camera cut to five or six or seven or eight soldiers. They were in desert camo and they were just stumbling around and laughing. Everyone else was in lock step, and it was hilarious to them. They'd just come back from combat and they looked drunk. How else could you endure that ultimate reality of combat and then come back and be dropped into this very artificial surreal situation. What would that do to your head? It seems to me, of course they'd be drunk. It's natural.
Q: How did you research the book?
A: I talked to every soldier and vet who was willing to talk. I developed a relationship with a man who'd done three tours. I read all the books, magazine articles I could get hands on. Basically, I tried to immerse myself in military life and culture — and in the Iraq conflict, in particular. I felt like I had to earn the right to write a book about this. I've never been in the military myself, so if I was going to undertake a book like this, I was under an obligation to do every thing I could to try to understand it.
Q: Many reviews — and a blurb from "Matterhorn" author Karl Marlantes on the book jacket — compared the book to "Catch-22." Was Joseph Heller's classic in your mind when you wrote it?
A: Frankly, no. It crossed my mind every once in a while. Heller was pointing out the absurdity of war through the bureaucracy of war. His novel takes place entirely in the theater of operations. I was much more interested, I realized as I was writing the book, in exploring how the war was marketed and sold to the public. Really, I was thinking a lot more of (movie director) Robert Altman than any particular author. Altman made big ensemble pieces with a big cast of characters, and the characters all have competing agendas. They're all trying to get something from one another, always interacting with one another, but they never really connect because they're so focused on what they want. These are people who are not really focusing on the reality of a situation because they're so focused on what they want.