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Ben Fountain's Long, Long Walk

A prize-winning first novel. Now a film by director Ang Lee. And it took him until his fifties to write it.

by Jerome Weeks 3 Nov 2016
Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain may be the most nationally recognized and awarded Texas author since Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. He's won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award, he was a National Book Award finalist. His debut novel, 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' was a 'New York Times' bestseller. But none of it came easy for the Dallas writer: "I wouldn't wish my career path on anybody."

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Dallas author Ben Fountain wasn’t even directly involved with the film adaptation of his bestselling novel, ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.’ Didn’t write the screenplay. Wasn’t hired as a consultant.

But there he was on the red carpet at the splashy New York Film Festival premiere in October – trailing such Hollywood luminaries as Steve Martin, Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker and director Ang Lee.

‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ opens in North Texas November 18th.

“Sony was great,” says Fountain. “They trotted me out, and I did the whole Justin Bieber thing where you stand there and have your picture taken a million times — which typically doesn’t happen in my universe.”

Or almost any author’s universe. Generally, authors are not invited to film openings unless they helped with the screenplay. Or executive produced the film.

But perhaps Sony Features, which is distributing ‘Billy Lynn,’ feels it’s going to need the promotional help. That’s because this is the first movie shot in a new 3D, super high-def format using 120 frames per second. For eons, the typical film has rolled past your eyes at 24 frames per second, the fewest possible frames before we begin to see image stutter. This new format — with its many more frames, its much larger resolution, all its 3D immersion — is meant to mimic more closely how the human eye actually sees things.

The result, reportedly, is a hyper-real look that may well be the future of film-making.

Or not. At the premiere, many critics complained it looked fake. Or just not like a movie. They even called it “soap opera-looking” and, simply, a disaster. Others defended the film, calling it everything from an “evolutionary leap” to stunning. Ang Lee — who has pushed technical boundaries before with such movies as ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ — ended up asking people just to give the new format a chance.

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Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn in ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.’

One possible reason for the jumble of responses that night, Fountain says, is that ‘Billy Lynn’ was never focus-grouped, never test-screened. Normally, by the time of a premiere, most people involved with a movie, especially the studio and distributor, have already seen the possible public responses. That’s why at so many openings, the actors and the entire creative team have their answers pre-cooked for journalists. They know what the questions are going to be about. They’ve seen the film before and picked it apart — most likely several times.

But with ‘Billy Lynn,’ almost no one in the cast or production crew had even seen the completed film. They walked into the premiere with little idea of what to expect: Lee had been tinkering with the final print until a few days before.

The next day, at a press briefing, after Lee had explained and defended his entire approach, Fountain was asked the standard novelist-with-a-movie-adaptation question: What did he feel seeing his novel, his literary baby, transferred to the big 3D screen like this?

But Fountain didn’t deliver a standard response. What he said was immediately dubbed a ‘drop-the-mic’ moment.

To understand it, you need to know that ‘Billy Lynn’ follows a bewildered but sensitive young Army hero from small-town Texas. He and the rest of Bravo Squad have been sent on a ‘Victory Tour’ to a Dallas Cowboys’ half-time show to promote the war in Iraq. They’ve become public heroes, the face of Battlefield America. A Fox News video clip of a firefight they were in went viral, although in keeping with the novel’s whole disjunction between war and the homefront, when Billy finally sees the video, he doesn’t recognize the battle he was in. There’s even a Hollywood producer, Albert, who’s tagging along, trying to put together a film deal for Bravo Squad.

But now, today, all of these flashy dreams and harsh realities are crashing together because the U.S. Army is sending Billy and Bravo Squad straight back to Iraq after the game. To sharpen the emotional whipsaw even more: Billy knows that the most heroic day of his life — the day everyone is cheering him for, the day people want to make a movie out of — was also the worst day of his life.

So for Fountain, Ang Lee’s so-real-it-looks-strange approach to the film suited his novel just fine.

“What does it mean when only the fake looks real and the real looks fake?” he demanded of the journalists. “I think we start to lose our way. So it pleases me that not only did Ang capture the spirit of the book, his movie busts open all those questions. And does American film criticism have the intellectual chops to start dealing with this?”

On the video clip above, Ben starts talking around 4:20 and you can see him fold his arms and smile at the response, a brief, stunned moment followed by whoops and laughter and applause at 6:15.

But the upshot: Only two US theaters will screen the 3D version — one in New York, one in LA. That’s partly because of the cost of the new projection equipment required. In North Texas, we’ll see it in standard 2D.

As for dropping the mic on film critics like that, Fountain says, well, he was also just a little bored: “A friend of mine said, you know, anytime you get bored, just tell the truth and things will get interesting really fast. And I have a lot of respect for Ang Lee, and I was just getting tired of hearing everybody whine about how it just didn’t look like – a movie.”

To get to this looking-glass world of red carpets, 3D movies and press conferences, Fountain trudged a long, long way. In Dallas, he quit practicing real estate law after five years with Akin, Gump – and then spent more than a decade barely getting published in literary journals. His short-story collection, ‘Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,’ came out when he was 48.

Those were years of embarrassment — calling himself a writer with nothing to show friends or relatives.

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“They want the best for you,” he says. “They love you. But after a while, they start treating you like you’ve been in a motorcycle accident and you’re brain-damaged: ‘OK, there’s Ben over there, he had a great career as a lawyer, he walked away from it, and now he’s kind of – you know, just don’t ask him too many questions.’”

And the frustrations continued — even after “Brief Encounters” won two Pushcart Awards and the PEN/Hemingway Award. Fountain shelved two attempts at a first novel before giving his publisher his third try in 2008. That same year Malcolm Gladwell, author of ‘The Tipping Point,’ argued in ‘The New Yorker’ that our fascination with young, Mozart-like hotshots has caused us to overlook another type of creative genius: the late bloomer. And Fountain was Gladwell’s Example A.

A few months later, his first would-be novel, ‘The Texas Itch,’ got rejected. “I hate to say it,” Fountain recalls, “but I actually said [to his editor] something like, ‘But Malcolm Gladwell just called me a genius!'”

Fountain jokes these days, “Late bloomer is just another term for ‘slow learner.’ I went down a lot of false trails and made a lot of mistakes, mistakes that cost me years. I wouldn’t wish my career path on anybody.”

“He was really kind of in despair,” says essayist David Searcy. He’s been friends with Fountain for 15 years; they live only blocks apart. “He just couldn’t make ‘The Texas Itch’ work — and boy, he tried.”

In despair, Fountain started his fourth attempt at a novel  — with an idea he’d been mulling ever since he saw the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game back in the old Texas Stadium in 2004. The half-time, drill-team, color-guard, fireworks spectacular with Destiny’s Child included marching bands — and real, live American soldiers (see video below). In the crowds, Fountain had spotted a small group of them, tan and lean, clearly just returned from Iraq. And they were stumbling and laughing — acting drunk.

“And I thought, weird. And then I thought, no, not weird. Perfectly logical. This is a normal human reaction to the absolute insanity of the situation” — going from fighting a war to participating in the kind of brief but grand, strobe-lit, celebratory extravaganza only we Americans creates at this level. “It was wild, it was absurd,” Fountain says. “On the other hand, it was just another day in America.”

Needless to say, Fountain himself was also feeling out of touch with ‘the insanity of the situation.’

“To me,” he says, “it seemed so patently obvious that the war was undertaken under false pretenses, and the execution of the war had been a disaster.”

Yet only weeks earlier, President Bush had been re-elected.

“So I realized I didn’t understand my country. And to have any peace with myself, I really had to ask some questions — and if I didn’t find answers, perhaps learn to ask better questions.”

That’s why in the novel, we see everything through Billy’s naive but intelligent eyes. (The name Billy, by the way, can’t help but conjure up that other military-innocent-caught-up-in-an-anti-war novel: Billy Pilgrim in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.’) He watches everyone around him, trying to figure out what’s real, who’s authentic, what is worth going AWOL for? He’s mostly met by a swarm of Dallas stereotypes: the conservative oil billionaire, the rabid football fans, the sharp-eyed team owner, the loud would-be patriots, even an earnest young Christian cheerleader. Remarkably, Fountain takes on the cliches that make some Dallasites cringe — and makes them human. Admittedly, at times, these characters may be awful or silly but none of them is a joke Texan.

Even Albert, the Hollywood producer, may be a hustler, but he’s also honestly doing his best for Bravo Squad. And Hollywood producers aren’t typically portrayed this way in American literature. Or even in Hollywood movies.

“Ben,” says Searcy, “is an immensely skeptical and immensely compassionate man, and those things gear together in that he knows the complexity of things. He’s not going to be shooting fish in a barrel — and that would have been easy with ‘Billy Lynn.'”

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Mark Busby has taught ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ in his literature courses at Texas State University. He recalls the time Fountain visited one class, “and the students were all asking him about the satiric nature of the novel. And Ben just said, ‘I didn’t write a satire.'”

For Busby, one of the novel’s most telling scenes is when Billy visits his family. “And I was expecting, OK, after seeing glitzy Dallas, we were now going to get this bucolic scene. You know, small-town Texas, the ‘real’ Texas, the family embrace.”

Instead, Thanksgiving with Billy’s family goes just like many people’s do. They argue, they don’t talk, mom cries and dad, in his motorized wheelchair, smokes and sits, mute and bitter.

However many tickets the film version of ‘Billy Lynn’ might sell, the movie and novel have earned Fountain some serious attention. He’s written op-ed pieces for ‘The New York Times,’ while London’s ‘Guardian’ newspaper hired him to write a series of eight columns about our presidential election. A TV series Fountain proposed is moving forward. He’s writing a favorite project, a novel about Haiti.

Fountain is 58 now, four years since ‘Billy Lynn’ started him down this path.

“Now you know, when I read from it, out in public, and I look at certain passages, I think, ‘Yeah, that’s all right. That’s all right.’

And those awkward conversations with relatives? They’re not so awkward anymore.

How has living in North Texas affected you, affected your writing?

In the long run, living in North Texas and North Dallas in particular has been good for me — in the sense that I’ve been challenged a lot. I’m pretty liberal in my political leanings and my social leanings, while North Dallas tends to be a pretty conservative place. That’s not a newsflash for anybody. I live in the same voting precinct as George and Laura Bush.

So my assumptions are constantly being challenged. If not directly to my face, then just by the culture around me. Dallas is very money-oriented, very business-oriented. In some ways, you get the purest strain of a certain slice of America in North Dallas.

So I’m always having to think about my assumptions, and I think that’s good for a writer, to be tested constantly. It may not be the most comfortable way to live, but it’s probably a good way for a writer to live.

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Joe Alwyn and Vin Diesel in ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.’

Do you follow any rituals when you write?

It’s hard getting started. It’s always been hard getting started. It’s less hard now, but you do develop these little rituals and habits and tricks to get you going, and mine is: I eat a little bit of breakfast, have a look at the ‘Dallas Morning News’ and read my horoscope—which is meaningless—and then I make my tea. I walk out to my office, which used to be our garage, and I sit down, and I start writing.

I’ve discovered over the years that basically what I need is a reasonable amount of quiet, a chair, a desk, a light, a pen and some paper. And if I have that, and a cup of tea helps, then I can get going.

What did you give up to be an author?

Let’s see. Well, when I quit practicing law, I gave up regular paydays and happy hours. And I found those to be tremendous hardships.

But I was able to give up sliding a tie up my neck every day to go to work. The commute now is really easy. I walk from the kitchen out to the office, and I’m at work. I mean, I did have to give up that external validation that’s so much a part of identity in mainstream America. You know, you have this job, you’re associated with this institution or this firm, and so immediately you have an identity. And I had to give up that when I became a writer. I became this person who says he’s trying to figure out how to write, but he doesn’t have anything to show for it. And I can’t say that was easy.

In fact, I understand when you quit your legal job with Akim, Gump and started calling yourself a writer, after a while, family members started to tease you. It was almost a joke.

[Laughs.] Well, it wasn’t a joke to me. I mean, I was a lawyer for five years, and I had a respectable, successful career going. The kind of career where your parents are proud, your in-laws are proud, you have this mainstream validation of ‘Yes, I’m a lawyer; I’m with this firm.”

But when I left that, I detached from this external validation that a lot of us rely on; it’s kind of like being a crustacean without a shell. Whatever identity you’re gonna have, you’re gonna have to build it from the inside out. And that takes a long time, especially for most writers to start doing the kind of decent work that might actually get published. It’s a slow timeline for most of us.

So you go home at Christmas, and your relatives say, ‘Oh, how’s the writing going?’ And ‘I keep looking for your book; when are you going to have a story in ‘The New Yorker’?’ They want the best for you; they love you. And you wish you had something really good to report, but you don’t, and after a while, everybody is kind of embarrassed about it.

So then it gets to the point where nobody brings it up anymore, and actually it’s a relief. But then they start treating you like you’ve been in a motorcycle accident, and you’re brain-damaged, and it’s like, ‘OK, there’s Ben over there. He had a great career going as a lawyer, he walked away from it, and now, you know, just be nice to him. [Laughs.] He’s really quite well-behaved, just don’t ask him too many questions.’

So you become this ghost in the family. And it hurts, but if you’re gonna do this kind of work, you learn to deal with it.

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Ben Fountain and Ang Lee.

What did you learn from the failures of your previous attempts at writing a novel — like ‘The Texas Itch’?

I learned, ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’ The previous novels I attempted, there was a lot of plot, a lot of machinery. They seemed to collapse or bog down under their own weight. But you may have noticed there’s not much plot in ‘Billy Lynn’ — it takes place over the course of one day with a few flashbacks. In terms of structure, it’s really a pretty simple, straightforward book.

There were various possibilities I initially considered — I thought I could start in Iraq, start with the ‘Victory Tour,’ go back to Iraq. But I started writing with the scene with them in the limo. And when I looked at that, I thought, no, maybe I could do this all in one day.

That simplicity, that compression, helped. It was very liberating.

 

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