Brief Encounters with Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain photo by Liliana Castilloby Shin Yu Pai

Ben Fountain’s first collection of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, was published by Ecco in August 2006. The book was tapped by the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Program, the Borders Original Voices Program, and was the Number One Book Sense Pick for August 2006. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story. He has been the recipient of an O. Henry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and other honors. He is the former fiction editor of The Southwest Review and lives with his wife and their two children in Dallas, Texas.

Shin Yu Pai: Tell me about your background. You’ve gone from a profession in law to literature. How did you make that transition? Are you still a practicing lawyer?

Ben Fountain: I practiced law for five years at a large corporate firm in Dallas. My specialty was banking and real estate finance—some of it was mildly interesting, most of it was dull as hell, though it got me entrée into a world that not many writers experience. From about the age of 15 or 16 I’d had the notion that I wanted to write fiction, and I’d done enough in college to satisfy myself that I had a knack for it—I wouldn’t call it “talent”—though I wondered if I’d ever have the guts to actually commit to it. But I realized I was never going to have any peace with myself unless I made an honest stab at trying to write, so I made the break.

SYP: What was the process of putting together the book and the path to publication?

BF: I quit law in 1988 to start writing, and it took me 17 years from that point to get a book contract. I guess you can say I was on the slow train. I thought when I started writing that I’d have a book out in four or five years, and as it became apparent that that wasn't going to happen, I became increasingly frustrated and unsure of myself. I started publishing stories in small magazines early on, but after seven or eight or nine years you feel like you need a little more than that to show for your efforts.

After a couple of years, an agent in New York picked me up, but I wasn’t developing fast enough for him, and after a couple of years he dropped me by the classic method—didn’t return calls, didn’t respond to letters or manuscripts, just froze me out. Another agent took on my first novel—set in Haiti, it took me the better part of five years to write—and sent that around; we got respectful, interested responses from a number of editors, but no one would bite, so after a while we pulled that in. By the end of that first decade of writing, I considered myself a confirmed failure in the eyes of the world.

At that point, I really had to decide why I was writing. I had no interest in going back to law; I very briefly—for about six hours—considered going to get my MBA, but in the end, I realized that the only work I really wanted to do was write. And my wife was fine with me continuing, so I figured, why not keep on? If you want to write, then write; if you don’t want to write, then don’t write. I fell into the former category, and I just made the decision that I’d keep on because I liked it and might someday do something decent.

The funny thing is, about the time I let go of any aspiration toward worldly success, that’s about the time I started writing decent work. It took me 10 years to write a story that pleased me—that I could look at after it was published and not cringe. After a couple more years, my current agent picked me up after she read a story of mine in Harper’s. I told her up front that it would probably be a while longer before I had enough material to make a good book, and could she hang in with me for the long term? She said she could, and she’s been true to her word.

SYP: Can you tell me a bit about your long-standing relationship with Haiti, which is the setting for several stories in the book?

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

BF: I’ve made at least 30 trips to Haiti since 1991. I’d been following the situation for a couple of years, with no real project in mind, but it gradually dawned on me that things were happening there that I needed to explore, things having to do with power and money and history and race and the most brutal sort of blood-politics. I decided I’d try to write a novel about all that, and after a couple of months of telling myself that I could do this novel without actually having to go there—the place scared me, to put it bluntly—I finally admitted to myself that if I wanted to do the kind of book I had in mind, I really had to go. So I went. It’s amazing what happens when you stick yourself in a place and let things take their more or less natural course. I kept going back while I was writing the novel—which never sold, may it rest in peace—and by the time it was finished I had too many connections to Haiti to walk away.

So that’s the rational, speakable explanation. On another level, I think I was half-consciously looking for a shock to my system, and Haiti seemed to offer plenty of opportunities for that. But ultimately, I don’t think I’ve ever really satisfied myself as to how or why all this got going. Maybe these kinds of things pick you more than you pick them; in retrospect there seems to be a certain kind of inevitability to it.

When I conceived the stories set in Colombia and Burma, I very much wanted to go to these places, but my wife drew the line at that point. Can’t say that I blame her; nobody was paying me to do this traveling, and we had two small kids at home, and there was the issue of whether I’d get myself in a situation that would, in retrospect, look incredibly careless and stupid. I didn’t even bother mentioning to her that I wanted to go to Sierra Leone. So to write these stories I did what any writer would do—read a lot, mind-tripped a lot, and relied on imagination.

SYP: “Rêve Haitien” tells the story of a young Haitian intellectual who brokers the sale of stolen paintings by famous Haitian artists, both to help preserve his culture and to fund the purchase of arms to support an uprising. The in-depth detail and knowledge of Haitian art in that story is comprehensive. Can you tell me a bit about the artists you collect and admire, and what attracted you to their work?

BF: Lately, I’m wondering if in buying Haitian art I’m gathering bits and pieces of a culture, a way of seeing and being in the world, that’s fast on its way to obliteration. Because if you look at the way things have gone in Haiti, the environmental devastation along with the anarchy, the near-total breakdown of civil society, you have to wonder what the prospects are for the country. And by anything I’d measure it against, Haiti is unique—the first successful slave revolt in history, the first black republic, etc., and then when you get into the culture, the voodoo, and that wonderful synchretism of Christian and African belief and symbology, it’s like nothing the world has ever seen. “Içi la renaissance,” that was the name of the roadside bar where DeWitt Peters discovered Hyppolite in 1944. It’s the kind of loaded coincidence that’s always happening when you’re dealing with Haiti, and I’ve found myself thinking about this particular one quite a bit over the years, “içi la renaissance.” Something happened in Haiti; something is happening, but we might well lose it. And if we lose Haiti, that unique expression of spirituality and consciousness that’s developed there, I think we will have lost something really crucial and precious.

As for the art in my house, I’m not sure I’d call it a “collection”—I’ve got some pictures that I like a lot, and that freaked out my kids’ friends when they were small and would come over to play. Voodoo and politics seem to be the recurrent themes. I like Roi David a lot, Andre Pierre, Lafortune Felix, Prefete Duffaut, the Saint Soleils. Frantz Zephirin is a phenomenon; he has tremendous power, such a clear and relentless vision and the technical skills to match. Eruptions of talent continue to happen in Haiti, in spite of everything.

SYP: Tell me about the stories told from the female perspective, particularly “The Good Ones are Always Taken” and “The Lion’s Mouth.”

BF: In a sense, these stories turn on the basic fact of female sexuality, namely, that the woman chooses. She chooses what kind of sexual creature she’s going to be—who she’s going to be with, how many lovers, and what the terms are going to be. Of course it’s never absolute; there’s always negotiation, and degrees of choice, but in both these stories, sexuality plays a key role. In “The Good Ones are Always Taken” Melissa wrestles with Erzulie, the voodoo goddess of love and sexuality, trying to come to some understanding of her own robust sex drive and the significant puritanical burden that this society inflicts on her for it. In “The Lion’s Mouth,” Jill’s involvement with Starkey starts as a one-night stand. She goes back with him to his hotel, and keeps going back, almost in spite of herself, and to her own confusion and amazement. But it’s her sexual power that provides her entry into Starkey’s world; it’s hard to imagine that Starkey would have any interest in her if she wasn’t young and attractive. But ultimately it’s Jill’s choice to be with Starkey, and on one level the story plays out as her own exploration of why she was drawn to him, why she made that choice.

SYP: “Poverty, injustice, oppression, suffering. These remain the basic conditions of life on most of the planet…the poor seem more remote than ever, their appeal to our humanity, even fainter.” This statement, made in “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” seems central to the book and I wonder if it’s suggestive of a personal sense of political engagement. Is this the main compulsion behind your own writing?

BF: On some level, I’m trying to come to terms with the vast disconnect between two very separate realities, two very different planes of existence on the planet. On the one hand you have the mainstream bourgeois life of the U.S., Europe, the “developed” world —the life of technology, education, mortgages, careers, a certain level of physical comfort —while on the other hand, several billion people on the planet exist on less than a dollar a day. That’s a huge and terrible reality to get your head around. For many people, it’s not an issue—it either doesn’t occur to them to wrestle with this basic reality, or they don't see it as any concern of theirs, or, to take it further, they’re actively antagonistic toward any kind of engagement with it. For others, it’s absolutely vital and compelling to engage the issue. Why for some and not for others? A question of temperament, conscience, awareness—an accident of birth?

On another level, I think what draws me toward this kind of subject is the sense that I’m never going to understand myself, my own life, unless I try to get some kind of understanding of the larger forces—political, economic, ideological—that mean to control us. For me it’s a personal thing, not abstract or academic by any means. The power structure affects not just our material circumstances but how we think and feel as well, and I don’t see how we can claim to examine our experience with any seriousness if we aren’t engaging in those kinds of questions.

SYP: In “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” the leader of the rebel faction makes the statement that “Beauty…it’s nice, but it’s just for pleasure. I believe that men should apply their lives to useful things [i.e. the revolution].” So, what of revolution vs. beauty or the arts, literature?

BF: I agree with the answer John Blair gives to the comandante, something like “Who says beauty and pleasure aren’t useful?” Because I think beauty and pleasure are extremely useful, and more than that, I think they’re necessary for our humanity, our souls. A person deprived of beauty and pleasure puts me in mind of the Haitian notion of a zombie—a person disconnected from his or her soul, a person who works for others’ profit but never his own, a person who mindlessly does the bidding of the boss and exists in an emotional and mental limbo. A robot, a slave, a creature that’s lost its full humanity. So I’d say that if a person wants to be of any use to himself, he better insist on getting his fair share of beauty and pleasure, and if there’s something about the system that’s keeping him from getting his share, then I think he’s well within his rights to fight to change that.

SYP: The stylistic variation in “Fantasy for 11 Fingers” is quite interesting—the interspersion of different narrators and the use of diary entries to develop characters. Why the distinct approach in this particular piece?

BF: What I was trying for with the narrative voice of that story was a scholarly, arch, hyper-informative tone that’s slightly unhinged, or at times seems on the verge of that. A high-strung sensibility, yet more or less self-aware and thus capable of very dry humor at times. I was hoping that the scholarly tone would serve to convey a sense of distance and detachment from the world of the Kuhls, which is, after all, completely lost, but at the same time I wanted to achieve a cold kind of intimacy with the Kuhls, and Hugo’s diary seemed one way to do that.

SYP: This story seemed so different in political and historical context. All the other stories in the book are so very contemporary and set largely in Third World countries, while “Fantasy for 11 Fingers” takes place in turn-of-the-century Europe. But rereading the story, I thought about how Anna’s rebellion signified her own private revolution—-which is a critical overarching theme of the book.

BF: At various times my agent and my editor argued against including “Fantasy…” in the collection; though they saw that it fit, they were afraid that readers and reviewers would think we were just throwing it in there to pad out the collection, but I felt like it fit aesthetically and thematically, and I figured the alert readers and critics would get it, and the ones who aren’t so alert, well, I just wasn’t going to worry much about them. So I do think it fits, and beyond that, given the time frame of the story and the final paragraph, I saw it as both a summing up of the book and a kind of prophecy (a retrospective prophecy, if that makes any sense), as to what was to come in the new century.

SYP: How did you get involved with The Southwest Review?

BF: I met Willard Spiegelman, editor of SWR, at a WordSpace event in Fall 2002 at Martha Heimberg’s house, and Willard, being the brave and questing editor that he is, said, “Send me something.” I sent him “Fantasy…” which he liked and published in Spring 2003. A year later the magazine was going through some transition and he needed help with the fiction, so Willard asked me to come on as interim fiction editor for a couple of months. I ended up staying over two years—I stepped down this past May, though I’m still on their Advisory Board.

SYP: What sort of qualities did you look for in the fiction that you published at SWR?

BF: I published what I liked—stories that showed me something I didn’t know before, some aspect of experience as revealed either through the force of the narrative or the use of language, or both. I got brilliant stories from people who’d never set foot in an MFA program and had published very little, and terrible stories from people who’d published a lot and had all the credentials. It was all over the map and that was part of the fun.

Two things in particular I did try to do—bring in a story by an established writer for each issue, someone whose name would be recognized by the average literate reader so that when they saw that name on the cover, they’d be tempted to pick it up, have a look at the mag. I saw that as a way to boost the journal’s circulation and to give the less well-known writers we published a boost. We published work by Arthur Miller, James Kelman, Aharon Appelfeld, Barry Gifford, Ernesto Mestre-Reed, and Askold Melnycuk. My other emphasis was in finding and publishing homegrown talent, here in Dallas and in Texas, and including these writers didn’t detract from the journal’s standards at all. We published very fine work by Robert Trammell, David Searcy, and Isabel Nathaniel, among others, and the last story I accepted was by a young Dallas writer named Merritt Tierce, who sent us an amazing piece of work. There’s plenty of talent in Texas, and that’s shown in the SWR.

I was at the journal from February 2004 through May 2006. I enjoyed the experience but was ready to move on by the end of it. I’m a writer, not an editor, and though the editing rarely cut into my writing time, it did take away from that walking-around-thinking-about-it-when-you’re-not-thinking-about-it time that I think is important for writers. When you’re half-thinking about what you’re working on while driving, cooking . . . just letting things sift and settle, come to you.

SYP: Can you tell me what you’re working on now?

BF: I’m in the last stages, hopefully, of a novel set in Dallas called The Texas Itch. Among other things, it’s about that greatest of all American religions, money.

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