As a part of the annual Author Series, author Ben Fountain visited Hockaday on Jan. 7.
There are a lot of things about Ben Fountain that might surprise you.
On the surface, he seems like a pretty laid-back guy: he’s friendly, funny and speaks in a slow Carolina drawl.
But once he gets talking about art, society and the state of American culture, out from behind that placid exterior emerged a startling intensity—and anxiety—about the world we live in.
In his writing, he’s drawn to the big stuff—power, politics, media, race, money—and how it all affects the everyday lives of ordinary people. “The intersection between internal and external,” he called it, the effect of macro forces on our thoughts and emotions.
He worries a lot about those big forces, especially when it comes to modern society. “So much of mainstream culture in America is worthless,” he said, then added, “And worse than worthless: it’s deliberately misleading, distracting.” Almost everything, he explained, is designed either to sell you something or to sell you to something, and none of it has any real meaning.
But that, according to Fountain, is why what he does matters. “There are so few places that anyone can turn to for something genuine, authentic, and I think literature is one of those places,” he said. His definition of literature, however, is not what you’d hear in your average English class: literature is not, in his words, “people sitting around in ascots saying ‘au contraire.’”
Au contraire, Fountain thinks that good literature should “get down into the blood and guts, the real stuff of life, where the real questions are grappled with.” In other words, it should serve as a slap in the face, a kind of antidote to the meaningless commercial fluff that makes up so much of American culture.
The biggest obstacle to that kind of real literature is another one of those macro forces: money. “The American dream is in danger,” Fountain said. He worries that the world has changed, that America has become less egalitarian and that more and more opportunities are vanishing—especially the opportunity to create art.
“It used to be a lot cheaper to live in this country,” he said. “It was possible to live a bohemian, artistic life and still have some measure of security.” Nowadays? Not so much. “These days, for young people who aspire to do some kind of serious art, the choices they have to make are much more drastic.
Fountain knows a lot about those kinds of choices. Although he knew by the age of 14 that he wanted to write fiction, he went to law school as a “way to try to avoid it.” He told himself that he needed a safe, lucrative career that would give him security, make his parents proud and afford him a place in society.
It was only when he turned 30 that he realized that he would never have any peace unless he wrote. So he quit his safe, lucrative job, became a house husband and started writing.
“It was a pretty insane thing for me to do,” he said, and it was frequently difficult. Although he never suffered from writer’s block, he was often surrounded by distractions: sick kids, chores, holidays and all the other outside forces of everyday life. But after over 10 years of hard work, he published a collection of short stories, the critically acclaimed “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara.”
After that, he said, everything got much easier. For many writers with highly successful first books, the pressure to produce an even better second one can be overwhelming (think Harper Lee). But not so for Fountain.
“Pressure is when you’ve been writing for 10 years and have nothing to show for it,” he said. “Second book pressure is a chip shot for me.” His second book, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” didn’t take him nearly as long as his first, but it caused just as much of a stir. Published in May 2012, it was a finalist for the National Book Award and is being adapted into a screenplay by the screenwriter of “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Despite his current success, Fountain is very aware that many young writers have to struggle with the same problems that he did, and he has plenty of advice. For those aspiring writers out there, he said, “the great challenge of your writing life will be carving out a life where you can get your three or four hours a day of writing in and then figure out how to make a living.” Aside from figuring out how to overcome the challenges of everyday life, he recommended that aspiring writers read everything that they can get their hands on. “Read promiscuously,” he said, and learn how good writers do what they do.
And for those who don’t like to write? “Well, I feel your pain,” he said with a laugh. “Writing is hard.” He certainly understands that fact better than anyone, but it’s also pretty clear that he knows that, in the end, it’s worth the effort.