Ben Fountain's fiction has appeared in Harper's magazine, The Paris Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story, and he has been awarded an O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and other honors. He is the fiction editor of Southwest Review and lives with his wife and their two children in Dallas, Texas.
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Fountain:
"The smartest thing I did in law school: asking my future wife to go out dancing with me. The smartest thing I did when practicing law: quitting. The smartest thing I've done in writing: following my own head and writing what I wanted to write, and nothing but."
"I think I was lucky to come of age in a place and time -- the American South in the 1960s and '70s -- when the machine hadn't completely taken over life. The natural world was still the world, and machines -- TV, telephone, cars -- were still more or less ancillary, and computers were unheard of in everyday life. I suppose I'm as much a drudge to technology as most anybody these days, but my sensibility was formed outside of the realm of the machine, and I don't think it will ever have quite the grip on me that it has on people who came of age later. So hopefully it will never run me quite as efficiently as it would had I been born 12 or 15 years later, and to the extent that's true maybe it means I have a few more options open to me. One hopes, anyway."
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In the winter of 2007, Ben Fountain took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound. This book came into my hands during my sophomore year in college. I was taking Doris Betts's fiction writing class at Chapel Hill, and she'd put about 20 books on the reserved list for us to go in and have a look. Somehow, I ended up with ABC of Reading one day, and it was a revelation, I suppose in the same way that a slap in the face can be a revelation.
The man took the functions of reading and writing down to their basic elements -- what is language, why is language, what makes the good writing good and the bad bad. Connecting it to lived experience, then working through the implications of that for both the interior and exterior life. And there was more revelation for me -- I was very raw, please understand -- in the notion of fiction or poetry as a lifelong discipline, with models to study, different levels of artistry and achievement, challenges to set for yourself and so on. The world opened up for me with that book.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy -- Again, another book that came into my hands during my sophomore year of college. I must have read it ten times in the several years that followed, and I still dip into it from time to time for the sheer pleasure of experiencing what Percy achieved here. That wonderful, multi-layered tone, the way he presents the direst situations with a leavening of humor, and the way the book speaks to Southerners in particular. Percy hit on a language, an oblique, askance perspective that gave him a lot of different tools for handling contemporary life. He knew the Faulkner idiom wouldn't work for the times and what he had in mind, and he was forced to come up with something new. The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins are equally fine.
The White Album by Joan Didion -- Or any of her other nonfiction books, and several of the novels as well. Her unflinching examinations of American life -- her own and others', the life of the culture, the whole package -- make her not only a model of honesty and craftsmanship but one of the chief reading pleasures in this writer's life.
Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- No one else can write like him, and no one should try, but we can certainly strive to be as elastic and generous and all-encompassing in our vision. He cites Faulkner as a major influence on his own development as a writer; I never read what I felt to be my required share of Faulkner, having felt, however inaccurately, that I'd lived a fair amount of it, but I didn't feel so guilty about this once I learned how closely García Márquez went to school on Faulkner. I've been telling myself ever since that I've received sufficient Faulkner second-hand, through García Márquez and the other Latin American writers who looked to him as a primary model.
A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone -- Maybe "hallucinatory realism" is one way to describe this very fine novel, a book that distills big-picture questions of politics and power through the lives of three North Americans in the fictional Latin American country of Tecan.
Little Big Man by Thomas Berger -- One of the great American novels, and an unending pleasure to read. He subsumes the myth of the "taming" of the West within his own overwhelming vision and creates an extraordinarily powerful narrative. Some of the best action writing you'll ever read -- the sequence of the battle at Little Big Horn is virtually flawless -- and Jack Crabb's voice is as powerful and true as anything Twain ever produced.
Dispatches by Michael Herr and Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer -- Or anything else by Mailer, for that matter, but I happen to be reading Armies right now, and I keep thinking of Dispatches in the midst of it, and how unflinching both these books are in their depiction of Americans at war. The American century? Maybe we should call it the American Predicament instead, and I can think of no finer rendering than these two books.
Lincoln by Gore Vidal -- A monumental novel about the best president the country has had. Lincoln's assassination is probably the main tragedy in American history, and Vidal's novel has the scope, the psychological insight, and the historical and political depth to drive that home to the reader in the most visceral way. The final 30-40 pages affected me as few books have.
What are some of your favorite films?The Graduate
The Last Picture Show
The Big Lebowski
The Wild Bunch
The 25th Hour
At least fifty more, it just depends on what's going through my head on a particular day.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
What I'm listening to depends on the mood. ‘70s funk, blues, rhythm and blues, some hip hop, rock, Cuban, Brazilian, Haitian, and what they call "Beach Music" in the preppie subculture of the South. Some classical, mostly Baroque, and nothing written between 1850 and 1900. Names -- Dylan. Dylan again. Counting Crows, John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison, Stones, Jackie Wilson, Al Green, Bob Marley, Sly and the Family Stone. My son plays some good stuff, but I don't know who it's by. I never listen to music when I'm writing.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Everything good. Borges conceived of heaven as a kind of library, and that would suit me just fine, having eternity to work through the stacks of books that deserve reading. I have some pretty good starter stacks right here in the house -- the one closest to me at the moment includes Dylan's Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks, Richard Hofstadter by David Brown, The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea, Into the Sound Country by Bland Simpson, Loyal Soldiers in the Cocaine Kingdom by Alfredo Molano, Grass Roof, Tin Roof by Dao Strom, and Fifty Years of The Texas Observer by Char Miller. I could go on, but you get the drift.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
It depends on the person. I try to figure out what they like, and as long as it doesn't revolt me I give it to them.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I get up in the morning, see the kids off to school, and then sit down at the desk and work. It's been that way every day for the last 18 years. One does have small things to get you through the resistance that always comes with starting -- you get yourself a cup of coffee or tea, you adjust the blinds so the sun comes in, you have your papers and pens and reference books arranged about you and so forth. These things help, but the main ritual is that regular act of will that sits you down in the chair and gets your head into the work.
What are you working on now?
A novel set in Dallas titled The Texas Itch.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It's embarrassing, but I'll go ahead and say it in the hopes that it will help keep some people going who should keep going -- I wrote for 17 years before getting a book contract. During that time I spent the better part of five years writing a novel about Haiti that never sold, and got enough rejections from magazines to fill a mid-size car. Had an agent who dropped me in the classic way, by not returning phone calls, never answering mail. It took about ten years of getting beat down for me to decide why I was writing, which was: I wanted to write. I wanted to get better, to write something that pleased me -- that struck me as authentic and real and artful. And it seems as if I had to burn through all expectations of worldly success before I could start doing that kind of work.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
One of the best writers in America lives right down the street from me in Dallas. His name is David Searcy -- Viking published two novels of his a few years ago, Ordinary Horror and Last Things, and they are both extraordinary books. I don't think "masterpiece" is too strong a term to apply to both of them. But they're difficult books in the sense that they writing is extremely dense, subtle, and understated -- they demand a lot of the reader. With Ordinary Horror, I found it was best if I limited myself to reading five or six pages a night, otherwise I'd start to rush and miss things. Last Things is a bit more accessible, but no less rich, and more ambitious. In these books David is going after big things, ultimate things, and I think he succeeds to a degree that few writers could hope for. This is a hardworking and extremely gifted writer who deserves much more recognition than he's gotten to this point.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
The main thing about writing is...writing. Sitting your butt down in the chair and doing the work. You will get many rejections; you will be disappointed often. What keeps you going is taking pleasure in your own development, detaching from time to time and seeing yourself becoming a better writer.
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