2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
Interview by Mary Beth Keane
Mary Beth Keane: Congratulations on being named a Fiction Finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. I know this must be a busy time for you, so many thanks in advance for doing this. How’d you learn you’d been named a Finalist and what was your first response?
Ben Fountain: My wonderful editor, Lee Boudreaux, called me from New York. She'd just come up from the subway and her e-gadget pinged her with the news, so she gave me a buzz right then and there on the street. I was at home in Dallas. My response was, well, this is pretty cool for all of us, all the people who had a hand in making this book possible.
MBK: Where did you begin Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk? What was the seed idea?
BF: I began it in Austin, Texas, where I was teaching one semester. I'd carried around the germ of the idea for years, which came from watching a Dallas Cowboys halftime show in the mid-2000's, and being mightily impressed by the utter insanity of it.
MBK: Did the story end up where you thought it would when you began?
BF: I had no idea where the story would go when I started it. I had a fairly clear idea of the first scene with all the Bravos in the limo going to the game. After that, I was going to have to trust that the story would reveal itself in the writing.
MBK: One of the things I was most impressed by when reading this novel was the voice of Billy Lynn and your ability to convey a whole world about a character with a particular turn of phrase. Were the soldiers’ voices something it took a while to get down, or did they come naturally to you?
BF: Both, if that makes any sense (probably not). To some extent, that default mode of obscenity and crudity is right there in me, but to get it right I did have to put my mind to it. It seemed essential that I get the soldiers' language on the page correctly, this amazingly expressive lyrical obscenity that soldiers develop as they're dealing with some of the most miserable situations that a human can be faced with.
MBK: What were some of the challenges of setting a novel over such a short time―a matter of hours?
BF: Well, constraints can be liberating. I knew I had to make everything count—every scene had to pack the maximum punch, there would be no room for filler or drift. Which is the way it should be anyway, but with this kind of structure I was painfully conscious of it; I really had to pay attention and be strict with myself. So in a way, limiting myself to this tight time-frame was liberating.
MBK: If you had a time machine, what advice would you, 2012 National Book Award Finalist, give to the 1988 Ben Fountain on the Monday morning after leaving his law career—your first morning as a full-time fiction writer?
BF: That's painful to think about, because that person had so much to learn. But I would urge him to step away from the lockstep logic of the law. Logic, rationality, these certainly have their place in fiction, but it's equally if not more important—very probably more important—to think emotionally. I needed to learn "emotional logic," if you will. Intuition, instinct, emotion—it took me a long time to start looking to those parts of myself for information.
MBK: How much consideration do you give to audience when you write?
BF: Very little, if any. I'm trying to please myself, or, rather, please this internal voice or signal whose location and origins are a complete mystery to me.
MBK: What, in your opinion, is the fiction writer’s greatest responsibility when writing a novel or short story?
BF: To write the story as accurately as possible, with as broad and deep a notion of "accuracy" as one could imagine. Human experience is complex, confusing, ambiguous, mysterious. Language is the best means we've found so far for capturing and expressing that complexity, and, by extension, hopefully making some sense of it. If you write the story accurately, everything else—the moral sense of it, the "message," the "theme," will be present without the writer having to force it.
MBK: Have any previous National Book Award Winners or Finalists been an influence on your work?
BF: Robert Stone. I think he won it for Dog Soldiers, which is a tremendous book, but just as much as Dog Soldiers I've looked to his other books for guidance and pleasure—A Flag for Sunrise, Outerbridge Reach, and the wonderful short story collections. Madison Smartt Bell's All Souls Rising is a real achievement—it was a Finalist, not a Winner, if I'm remembering correctly. Mark Helprin wasn’t a Finalist for A Soldier of the Great War, but I loved it. Have Joan Didion, Norman Mailer ever been Finalists or Winners? If not, they should have been. Maybe we should have the National Rectification Awards, given on a rolling basis thirty years after publication. So right now we'd be looking at books published in 1982, judging them with the benefit of hindsight. That might be an interesting exercise.
Mary Beth Keane is the author of The Walking People (2009) and the forthcoming novel, Fever, about the life of Typhoid Mary. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. She lives in Pearl River, New York with her husband and their two sons.