Notes to self on becoming a multi-award-winning fiction writer who will be termed a genius by the New Yorker: 1) Quit ascendant law career 2) Write for six to seven hours every day for twelve years, publishing an occasional story in a literary magazine, until you land a story in Harper’s via the slush pile 3) During that stretch, travel to Haiti a couple of dozen times because you want to write about the country 4) Also during that stretch, spend four years on a novel that doesn’t get published 5) Afterward, for several hours one day, consider getting an MBA, then decide against 6) Two years later, upon the Harper’s publication, embark on writing seven more stories of equal beauty, grace, and devastation that will be collected in your debut book, eighteen years after you started.
Good money says that if you were to brainstorm a plan for becoming a successful fiction writer, the above sequence wouldn’t be how you’d draw it up on your legal pad. But this is the path Fountain traveled to literary acclaim. In 2006, eighteen years after quitting his practice at a major Dallas law firm to write fiction full-time, Fountain published the short-story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. Two of the stories had won a Pushcart Prize, and a third had won an O. Henry Prize. The book itself went on to win both the PEN/Hemingway Award—for the best debut book of fiction—and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and was also named a “Best Book of the Year” by both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. Fountain himself won a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award in 2007. In an essay for the New Yorker called “Late Bloomers,” Malcolm Gladwell draws parallels between Fountain and the painter Cézanne.
Brief Encounters, in other words, struck a chord. Given our rapacious desire to understand the world and to fit together the pieces of globalization, a book like Fountain’s, which spans five continents, is especially timely. One of the reasons Fountain’s stories are so moving is that, as Gladwell writes, “they feel as if they’ve been written from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in.” This is true whether we find ourselves in Haiti, in Colombia, in Sierra Leone, in Myanmar, or in central Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Each of Fountain’s stories reveals, with unsurpassed compassion and intelligence, the complex ways in which the macro forces of our world influence the outer and the inner lives of human beings who are often powerless to alter the consequences. The curtain is pulled back and the emotions flayed not through reportage, but through the interior swirl of individual lives—eight personal monsoons.
Fountain was a visiting writer at UNC Wilmington in the fall of 2009. On his last afternoon in town, early in December, we sat down to talk about the lifelong practice of writing, a shifting definition of success, an unexpected paean to Shelby Foote, and an awareness of global suffering, particularly with respect to Haiti, a country that has meant a great deal to Fountain both personally and professionally. This conversation now takes place in the shadow of the well-known earthquake of January 12 that ravaged Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area, killing upwards of a hundred thousand people. Since then, in Fountain’s words, “Around here it’s been all Haiti, all the time.”
Ben George: You grew up here in North Carolina, and write in your essay “The Way Back” that if you had stayed here “the cumulative weight of family and history and place, a kind of endlessly repeating nostalgic fog,” would have kept you from “something important.” How did that feeling play into your choice to leave?
Ben Fountain: When I was growing up, the South was physically beautiful to me. It was a lot more rustic and rural back then, in the sixties and seventies, and I never got tired of looking at it, just the lushness of the natural world. But my family has been here a long time, and I was always making connections in my mind about how so-and-so had once done something at a particular place that I might be visiting or driving by at the moment. An ancestral nostalgia was stalking me. Walker Percy once said about William Faulkner that Faulkner had managed to live in the South, but that he was really haunted by his ghosts and maybe that’s one reason why he drank. Being a drunk was the only way he could stand it. In my own case, I felt like if I was going to get any kind of clarity in my life, I had to go. And leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I could have been happy in one way, staying here and practicing law, and being within this network of family and social connections. I had a ready-made identity. But on another level I felt like I would go to sleep after a couple of years of that and I would never wake up for the rest of my life. I would drift through in this fog.
BG: After five years of practicing law, in Dallas, and doing quite well, you decided to quit and focus full-time on writing fiction. What all factored into your decision?
BF: That decision had been coming for a long time. There wasn’t any one catalyst. It was a lot of things coming together at once: having a kid; my wife, Sharie, making partner at her firm; me having practiced for five years and just absolutely having had enough; me turning thirty and thinking that if I was going to make a run at trying to be a writer I needed to get going. There was a sense of urgency, of time passing.
BG: Did you ever second-guess the decision?
BF: I didn’t want to waste my life. Especially in the first couple of years of writing there was a powerful sense of self-indulgence and delusion. Why would anybody want to read anything I was writing? Because what I was writing was really, really bad. In this society there’s so much emphasis placed on being “productive” and so much of your identity is bound up in what you do for a living, how much money you make, and what you can buy. By claiming that you’re a writer or trying to set yourself up as being devoted to something like writing, you immediately step outside the mainstream scaffolding that gives us these ready-made identities.
But I’ve never missed the practice of law. I never woke up and said, “Gee, I’d really like to go in and work a real estate deal. That seems a lot more attractive to me than trying to write a short story.” That never happened. But I felt very acutely how exposed I was psychologically. I didn’t have that corporate shell, that corporate validation propping me up, and so for all those years when I had very little to show for my writing, I really felt like I was in limbo. I wasn’t one thing or another, and the only way I was going to get to be a person again in society was to keep writing and hopefully at some point have some kind of measurable success. But after a while even that left me, and I reconciled myself to the notion that I might never have even a minimum of that kind of success. Are you going to keep on doing this—writing? I asked myself. I decided that, yes, I felt like it was worthwhile, I was getting better, I was working at an art, I got a lot of pleasure out of it, and if I never had any kind of real-world success, well, I could live with that. I was publishing things in small magazines and I wanted to continue to publish because I think that’s part of the writer’s job, but if I didn’t have any kind of breakthrough, I would just keep doing what I was doing.
BG: You mentioned taking pleasure in your writing, but it seems like every writer has a different sort of relationship to the work. How much do you find it to be gratifying as opposed to really difficult?
BF: The gratification comes from the struggle, from the fact that it’s so hard. Hemingway said he’d never found anything that had as much bite to it as writing, and I suspect he was talking about something similar. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever tried to do. And you never know if you’re going to succeed—there’s a lot of uncertainty and frustration involved. To be a writer you have to be born to that struggle, and you won’t be satisfied living any other way.
BG: How did you define success? Was it about seeing yourself get better over time?
BF: Yes, that’s the kind of success I had to focus on if I was going to keep on writing: trying to meet my own standards. It took a long time to sell a bunch of the stories in Brief Encounters, even though I felt like it was good work. I would send them out or my agent would send them out, and they would get rejected here, there, and everywhere else. It’s easy to get discouraged in those situations, but by then I’d had a lot of rejection, and I’d finally realized on this basic psychological level—duh—that rejection doesn’t withdraw permission to write.
BG: You published a number of stories over the years, but the earliest story included in Brief Encounters is “Rêve Haitien,” which came out in Harper’s in 2000. How did you choose the stories for the book?
BF: For the most part the stories were written between 1999 and 2005. Yes, there were other stories published previously, but I think they were a couple of clicks below what’s in the book. Also, we were trying to put together a collection that had a unifying idea. The eight that got into the book were the ones that fit the best.
BG: You’ve been writing pretty much every day for two decades now. If you work at that pace and with that consistency, you’re going to come up with a decent amount of material. What happens to the stuff that’s unsatisfactory? Are you revising and revising, or pitching stuff and starting on something else?
BF: Well, I’ve got a couple of novels in the drawer, and I didn’t throw them out or burn them, or delete them from the computer. Who knows—maybe someday I’ll go back to them in some form or fashion. I do try to write five days a week, Monday through Friday. For years the pattern was to get up, get the kids off to school, come back, work from 7:30 or 8:00 until noon, eat lunch, take a quick twenty-minute nap, and then work until 3:00 or 3:30, whenever I had to start taking care of the kids again. I work pretty slowly and I realized early on that if I was going to get anywhere I really did need to work every day of the week. It takes me a long time to figure things out, and the only way I can do that is by writing. It frustrates me that I don’t figure things out more quickly than I do. I wish I was smarter. I would love to be one of these prolific writers who comes out with a book every two years. But I guess I’m just not that kind of writer. So I have to deal with what I’ve got and try to be diligent about continuing to get better. Hopefully I’ll get another book out at some point.
BG: I’d like to say something in favor of hard-won art, which I think reveals itself in the denseness and lushness of your prose. There’s a quality of strangeness to it that can’t have come easily.
BF: It’s not like I set out to write any particular kind of prose. I think you’re right—it is pretty densely packed in those stories and in what I write in general. But it’s just the sound that’s in my head. I would love to write more simply and faster, but when it’s on the page it doesn’t look right to me. It lacks some measure of authenticity that I’m trying to get. The work is just not going to be right unless and until it’s at least right on the line-by-line level.
We were talking about Ezra Pound the other night. In The ABC of Reading, he broke it down into three ways you produce an emotional effect on a reader. There’s phanopoeia, throwing an image on the reader’s mental retina, and there’s melopoeia, using the sounds of the words themselves to evoke some kind of emotion, and then there’s logopoeia, which is taking a word or a phrase and using it in a different context from what the reader is used to. Prose writers, at least this prose writer, would be well served to study the poets and see how they get that maximum compression, that maximum charge of meaning in each line. If we can hook that compression of language to the narrative drive, then I feel like we’re getting close to delivering the whole package.
BG: Is Pound’s notion that when writing is flying at its highest then it’s doing all three of those things at once?
BF: Maybe not in a particular line, but yes. These are the categories of tools that we’ve got. I always trot them out in any class I teach. What are we after, ultimately? We’re trying to make sense of our own experience, and we’re trying to make sense of life in general. What does it mean to be a human being on the earth? The poets and the fiction writers get us as close as we come to understanding. It’s the unflinching vision, and also the fact that the poets and writers are using the most elastic and subtle medium that we’ve come up with so far for capturing the complexity of human experience. Film can approach it, but any one episode, or even moment, in a person’s life is so complex, with so many layers of past and present, desire and indifference, drift and drive, consciousness and unconsciousness, that language is the best means we’ve found of approaching that kind of complexity. Somebody who is a master at the language comes as close as we can to really capturing what it means to be a human being.
BG: Do you start out with a pretty strong idea of what you want to do with a story and its characters?
BF: Usually I have a person in a situation and a rough idea, pretty quickly, of where it leads. Really rough, not at all certain. It begins with a sense of something that I want to explore, something I don’t understand. As often as not, the story ends up in a different place from what I’d conceived at the beginning, which is fine. That’s where the interest comes from.
I’ve developed some facility for being abstract, for sitting down with a legal pad and sketching things out. That’s the fun part, almost the easy part. You would love to be able to sketch those things out and then turn it over to an assistant and say, “Okay, you get the general idea. Now write it. And write it just like I would write it. Meanwhile, I’m going to go off and come up with some more plots and interesting characters.”
BG: How important is it for a writer to be unique or idiosyncratic?
BF: I think idiosyncrasy is a writer having a particular style. But what we’re really talking about is the way the writer sees the world and is able to embody an approximation of that vision in language. So it’s going to happen on its own. It’s not like you sit down and say, “I really like this style, so I want to be this kind of writer, like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Lyrical realism.” If you’re working at it genuinely over the years, it’s almost like a radio signal. You start tuning it in, and you fine-tune it, and you get closer and closer to the sound that’s in your ear and the vision that’s in your eye. Norman Mailer said that every book he wrote had a different style, and part of the challenge was finding the language and the idiom appropriate to the subject. As far as my own work, I don’t think this a lot in theoretical terms while I’m actually writing. I’m just trying to get it right, line by line. Whatever comes out, comes out.
BG: One of the writers critics have likened you to is Robert Stone. Do you think that more American writing—like Stone’s, like the stories in Brief Encounters—should be more widely focused, globally speaking, and less myopic?
BF: Writers need to write about what they’re drawn to, and if a particular writer is interested in domestic drama, in the sense of what happens in one particular household, I think that’s a worthy topic, a worthwhile thing to explore. A lot has been written about this particular aspect of life in the last fifty years. We’re all familiar with the suburban-angst novel. Yet we still don’t know enough about suburban angst. We’re still trying to figure it out. I didn’t write the stories in Brief Encounters because I assumed this mission of trying to understand a wider external world. It was just what I was interested in.
BG: Speaking of suburban angst, there’s a line in “Rêve Haitien” where the white protagonist, Mason, feels that “any sympathy or comfort he might try to offer would be false, because he’d lived such a stupid life.” Yet he’s one of the good ones—he’s trying to help. Does he feel somehow that it’s noble to have suffered, and stupid not to have suffered?
BF: He’s one of the good ones because he has a certain level of self-awareness, in conjunction with an awareness of a different reality: this third-world reality, a reality that’s much different from what mainstream Americans experience. I think Mason’s reaction is a normal one, and probably a valid reaction when a middle-class American is confronted with a desperate situation, such as the kind you tend to run into a lot in a place like Haiti. There’s a sense of shame and deficiency. You ask yourself, Why didn’t I realize this before? You may have realized it intellectually, but then you start trying to get your head around how the world can contain such extremes. How can we go on living basically regular lives, when we have firsthand awareness of tremendous pain and suffering, and injustice, and hopelessness? When you look at a mainstream middle-class American life in that light, it does seem stupid. And yet I can’t say that it’s a bad life. The middle-class American is doing what so many other people all over the world want to do, which is do their work, live a decent life with a decent material standard of living, and raise their kids. For the most part, simple desires. In America, it becomes complicated by all sorts of materialism and consumerism, and by all the different kinds of pressures that come with this late-stage capitalist society. But I can’t say that I condemn that mainstream American life.
BG: The stories are very aware of the inner machinations of politics and power. They feel as though they could have been written only by someone moving deftly around in those worlds. Is it just through acts of the imagination that you arrive at that kind of insight—into the way these larger forces are exerting themselves on people in difficult places like Haiti, Sierra Leone, Colombia, and Myanmar?
BF: All I can say is, that’s where my interest naturally goes. I’m interested in the intersection of big macro forces and particular individuals or groups. I try very hard to get at the truth of it. I’m trying to get it right, trying to figure it out to my own satisfaction at least.
I practiced law for five years and that gives you insight into a certain mind-set that maybe a lot of writers haven’t had firsthand access to. There’s an almost casual cruelty, a very low level of overall awareness, but sometimes there’s also knowledge that real damage is being done—this attitude of “Oh, what the hell,” this kind of moral cognitive dissonance. These are people who have never missed a meal. It’s an unknowingness, an unawareness, that Reagan personified. Reagan was so sure of everything and yet his experience of the world was so narrow. How could he be sure of anything? I saw that over and over again in the wealthier people I worked with or had contact with while practicing law. Many people were operating from a very narrow range of experience, and yet they had complete faith in it. Their way was the correct way, the only way. They had virtually no awareness of any other way of life except in terms of demonizing things like communism, socialism, or Islam. It’s an extremely blindered experience of the world.
BG: Your stories are equally true about the failings of leftist ideologies. There’s that line in the lead story, “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” where John Blair, the captured ornithologist, realizes that “the Revolution had reached that classic mature stage where it existed only for its own sake.” Even the efforts to redress problems of social justice implode.
BF: Yes, the revolution becomes its own machine. Instead of fighting the machine and giving us a window to exist, some air to breathe, it just becomes a mechanism for a group of individuals to hold on to power and do what they want to do, to exert their will over the world. So it turns out that Blair is the one true idealist, the one true missionary in all this.
BG: Let’s talk about Haiti, where a number of the stories in Brief Encounters are set. It seems as though Haiti chose you, like a destiny.
BF: On a rational basis, I saw Haiti as a paradigm for a lot of things I was interested in relating to power, politics, race, and history. I went there a couple of times and at that point I probably had what I needed to get. It was some comfort to me to know, flying out of there the second or third time, that I didn’t really have to go back—and yet I did go back, many times. Once I was there I felt pretty comfortable. And the more time I spent there, the more there was that I felt I needed to understand. But I still can’t give a satisfactory explanation for how it happened.
BG: “Impasse Tempête,” a story you published in Ecotone, is based on your original guide in Haiti, who has since died. How did you meet, and what was your experience of learning the country with him?
BF: I’m embarrassed to admit that before this first trip to Haiti I’d never traveled outside of the country, and I was thirty-three years old. George Bush and I have that much in common. At a certain point leading up to the trip, the idea came to me: There’s somebody there for you, you won’t be alone. You’ll find the right person, and that will be your way in. I took a cab from the airport, got out at the Oloffson Hotel and walked up the steps, and there was Pierre waiting for me. He said, “You need a guide.” And I said, “You’re right, I sure do.”
It took me a long time to start to trust my intuition and judgment about the people I would meet. For quite a while I felt like I should give everybody the benefit of the doubt, that my initial feeling about someone wasn’t information, it was just an impression, not something I should pay any attention to. In the last twenty years I’ve come to trust initial feelings a lot. Part of that is based on my experience in Haiti. I seem to come across good people there. My wife, at one point, said, “Well, you’ve been lucky.” And, yes, I have been lucky. But then I started thinking about all the people I decided I wasn’t going to have anything to do with. I’ve had lots of encounters with lots of different people, and only a few would I pursue a relationship with. The others I sensed, in some specific instances, not merely a distractive element but a potentially harmful one. We should all listen to our instincts. Sometimes they’re wrong, but they provide information that needs to be considered. I was lucky to come across Pierre, and I had a good feeling about him from the very beginning. He turned out to be one of the finest people I’ve ever known. Just as solid and true as anybody I’ve ever met.
BG: Let’s talk about Haitian voodoo and spirituality and, from the outside blan perspective, the seeming irrationality of that world. What was your impression of that part of Haitian culture during your visits?
BF: When foreigners—say, for instance, Americans—go to Haiti, they’re so often struck, as I was, by the seeming fantasist state of mind. In individual conversations, especially, people say the most outlandish things: the CIA did this, the CIA did that, that Haitian general is on the CIA payroll, and so on. At first you dismiss it. The CIA can’t be all that bad, America can’t be responsible for all these terrible things that are happening here, no way. But the more you look into it, after a while you start to say, “Yes, actually that guy is a CIA agent. I have it in the embassy cable right here.” Or it gets documented in a news report or comes out in a history book years later. So when the natives are telling you such and such, they may not be right all the time—but you’d better listen to them, because usually they know better than you. What sounds like a fantasy or a species of wish fulfillment at first later turns out to have a lot of truth in it.
I don’t know what that has to do with voodoo. You can look at voodoo in different ways. You can look at it as just straight religion—there are gods, there are spirits—or you can look at it as this amazing and wonderful system for collecting and passing on the wisdom of the culture. It’s a mechanism for survival, psychological and otherwise, in Haiti.
BG: Do you think it’s more of the latter, more about finding a way to code and preserve these survival mechanisms?
BF: Yes, but no more than what’s in the Christian Bible. Ultimately, culture, secular and otherwise, is a collection of survival strategies. The things that look like decoration—poetry, novels, music, dancing—if you strip away all the layers, are mechanisms for coping, surviving, understanding. They aren’t decoration. They’re the real stuff. I think that’s why in times of crisis people do turn to the Bible, or they read poetry. When we’re thrown back on ourselves, if we have any kind of cultural equipment at all—by which I mean some kind of working knowledge of classical literature or music, anything that’s seriously making an attempt to understand human nature or what life is—that’s where we go. Will Ferrell movies are nice, but they aren’t going to get us through the crises in our lives. For that we’ve got to bring out the bigger guns.
BG: Brief Encounters has been roundly hailed as a masterpiece. It had to be a little unnerving to be compared to Cézanne in Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “Late Bloomers.” Has the success put pressure on you, changed your relationship to the reading public?
BF: Nah, no effect. I can’t say I’ve ever felt any extra pressure because of that. Pressure is when you’ve been writing for ten years and don’t have much of anything to show for it. If there was any inclination to think that I was somehow over the hump because of that article, all I had to do was sit down the next day and try to write, and realize that none of that attention makes it easier to get the words on the page.
BG: Gladwell writes that the stories about Haiti are the strongest in your collection, that they feel as though they were “written from the inside looking out.” But I think the lead story, for instance, which we mentioned earlier, feels every bit as much inside Colombia as the Haitian stories feel inside Haiti. Whereas you’ve been to Haiti about thirty times, you’ve never been to Colombia (or Sierra Leone or Myanmar). What is the difference for the fiction writer between having been there and not having been there?
BF: It’s better to go. It would have been better if I had gone to Colombia, it would have been better if I had gone to Sierra Leone. You never know what you’re missing. You never know what you don’t know until you go. But you can’t always go. You don’t have unlimited time and unlimited money. And so you do the next best thing—you try to imagine yourself into these places. The way I did it was to read everything I could get my hands on and to talk to other people who might have information. If there were helpful movies or documentaries, I sought those out. I was just trying to soak it all up and imagine my way into it using that basic research and my own experience in similar places or similar situations. People write historical novels all the time, and in those the writer has to imagine himself or herself into a different era. I think it’s just as valid an exercise to try to do that with space, with the caveat that it’s always better to go if you can. But if you can’t, I think with diligence and a lot of work we can get close to it.
BG: Do you want to talk about your first novel, the one about Haiti that had an agent and some support but never sold?
BF: That novel was my MFA. I made many mistakes on that book, yet there was a lot of good stuff in there. Maybe if I’d had some guidance at certain critical times I could have had some real-world success with it. Some people say the students who come out of MFA programs all sound alike, blah, blah, blah. Well, actually they don’t. MFA programs done correctly can really do a lot of good. There are aspects of careerism and one-upmanship that make it a less than perfect experience, but nothing’s perfect.
I think one of the most important things an MFA program can teach is clarity of vision. Tools for understanding and critical analysis. You can’t be a good, serious writer if you aren’t seeing things for what they are. What MFA programs may be doing is training a cadre of seers, in both senses of the word. We need seers, because it’s not the Harvard MBAs who are going to save the world. All we have to do is look at what happened to the world financial system a year ago for proof of that. That crowd’s not at all about clear seeing, and I think that’s true about a lot of other aspects of contemporary society. There’s so much that’s false, that’s not merely a distraction in this society but is actively false—from advertising to so much of what goes on in movies, the music industry, all the half truths and sloppy analyses that pass for news. We need people who see things for what they are, and these MFA students are among the people who are trying, just by definition of trying to make themselves writers. These are the people who come out of college and make a decision not to go to law school or med school or business school—they’re after something else. The rise of the MFA program has given these people somewhere to go and some means of guidance, someplace to go not just for comfort and fellowship and community, but for acquiring some real tools to do what they want to do. I think MFA programs are a great thing if they’re done right. So the Haitian novel?
BG: It was part of your long apprenticeship.
BF: Yes, it was part of that. I went down many false trails for many years by concentrating on the wrong things, externals as opposed to the emotional life, which is where the truth really happens. It’s valid for a writer to put some of his time and energy into the external circumstances, but that can’t be all of it. I couldn’t see it at the time, but I was dodging the issue, not focusing enough on what was going on inside people’s heads and hearts.
BG: Is there any way, other than intuition, that you decide you’re not going to be wasting your time with a given story idea?
BF: Well, you’re talking to a writer who’s wasted a lot of time and gone down a lot of false trails. But we do have to trust our intuition, because it’s all we have. Hopefully over the years we get better at reading the signals. One of the hardest things about this kind of work is that nobody can really advise you. There’s a point in your development where advice is truly helpful and can save you a lot of time, and I wish I’d had that kind of advice. Often by the time an agent or editor sees a book, so many choices have been made that they may be irrevocable without just making the book a different thing. When I teach, I tell my students that pretty much everything you learn about this kind of work you’re going to have to learn on your own. There are certain basic things that teachers can illuminate and hopefully save you some time. But beyond a certain level, it’s really all you. That’s what makes it hard but that’s what makes it wonderful, too.
BG: The teaching question reminds me how John Barth once said that “not even in America can one major in Towering Literary Artistry.” Should we talk about setbacks? For a while your byline would say you had a forthcoming novel called The Texas Itch. But Ecco turned it down when you delivered it.
BF: I guess you could say The Texas Itch has become a cyst on the ass of my writing career—if I do have a career. I conceived that book a long time ago, and I was a different kind of writer then. I suspect now that I wouldn’t have started it in the form I did. But by the time I’d gotten an agent and an editor, I’d spent a lot of time on this book. The feeling was that if I just put in six more months, eight more months, another year . . . I’d get there. And even though it wasn’t perfect, it was still pretty good. Just let me get this one done, I thought, and then I’ll go on to the next one.
It’s a cliché that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness, but there’s a lot of truth to it. One of my strengths is I’m really stubborn and I will stay after something. I will beat my head against a wall for a very long time. Sometimes the wall breaks open and you get through to the other side. By the same token, I probably stayed with this book far longer than I should have. I just kept thinking, Six more months and I’ll be there. You hate to see all that time and effort go to waste. But that’s part of the biz. That’s the risk you run.
BG: In the end you agreed with Ecco’s judgment that the novel wasn’t there, or you just accepted it?
BF: Basically Ecco said, “We aren’t going to accept the book.” For two or three days after that I was walking around saying to myself, “I don’t care. I’m going to finish it anyway. Even if it never gets published, I’m going to see it through.” Then I realized the idea of that was so fucking depressing. At that point I thought, Maybe someday I’ll go back to it, but right now I’ve got to move on. I’ve dug this hole long enough. I’ve just got to go on to something else.
BG: You’ve been working on a new novel about a group of soldiers who are on leave from Iraq. While you’ve been able to successfully inhabit characters far from your experience before—like the native Haitians in “Bouki and the Cocaine”—it can be risky, and politically fraught. Not having been a soldier yourself, not having been to Iraq, are you as confident that you can inhabit this perspective of the soldiers?
BF: You have to earn it. Not just from a writerly standpoint, but from a human standpoint. I’d been going to Haiti a lot of years before I tried to write a story like “Bouki and the Cocaine.” I did so many things in Haiti that I didn’t need to do for writing. I went lots of places that I didn’t strictly have to go to for whatever I was writing, or thinking about writing—riding buses for fourteen hours out to some remote place, eating a lot of dust, going through a certain amount of physical discomfort. But I felt like I needed to do those things to understand something about the country. I wasn’t really thinking about writing from the Haitian point of view at the time. I just needed to do those things to try to understand what life in a place like Haiti is like.
I’ve had to earn it with this new project, too. I really do have to read everything and see everything and talk to everybody I can. I don’t really want to go to Iraq, and I’m not planning on going. The book takes place in the United States, for one thing. It’s more about the United States than Iraq. Mailer said, If there is 5 percent of a character in me, I can write that character. He felt like he had enough writing chops to tease the part that was in him out. Develop it. Explore it. Make it into a full-fledged character. Mailer is a guy who wrote a first-person novel about Jesus. And his last book was from the point of view of a demon who had great influence over Hitler’s life. That’s pretty much running the gamut. A lot of Mailer’s enemies would certainly agree about the demon part. [Laughs] But anyway, it’s almost like method acting. You find an experience in your past that matches the emotional experience of the character you’re playing. We can also be method writers. It’s in us, these other experiences, these other natures. It’s all contained in us—which can be a really sobering thought. There’s 5 percent of Hitler in me? That’s scary, but it’s probably true. In certain circumstances most anybody is capable of anything.
BG: I’m thinking of the scene in “Bouki and the Cocaine” where Syto Charles is traveling by horse with his young daughter, who’s very sick, to see the doctor. He’s going insane with grief because she’s singing and yet he can feel she’s not going to make it. You have a daughter. When you’re writing that scene and you’re trying to fully imagine it, to what extent are you actually Syto Charles, this fictional persona, and to what extent are you channeling the feelings that you imagine you would have if it was your own daughter?
BF: That’s what I’m doing, the latter—without so much consciously thinking about my own daughter. As parents, we have all considered that ultimate catastrophe. First and foremost is the thought “I don’t know if I could live through that.” How could you live through that? As writers, that’s pretty much everything—imagining yourself into those circumstances and then trying to find the language to equal the feeling. For Syto Charles, it’s not so much that after his daughter died he wanted to die. He just wanted not to be. He wanted nothing. Nullity. Everything gone. Not in any sense of wanting to take everything down with him. He just wanted erasure—not to have ever been. That was the only way I could describe my feeling about that kind of potential in my own life. How do you deal with it? You don’t.
BG: I’m curious about how the mind works in that empathetic crossing over. You’re picturing the character from the outside—you have an image of him. Yet you’re also inside him, inside his feelings, writing him. But the only way you can do that is to get inside yourself.
BF: I think the actual sensation is a thinning out of an awareness of yourself, when the writing is really difficult and you’re trying to express something challenging. I’m not saying you’re in a trance, but there is this falling away of awareness of yourself as yourself.
BG: That line between you and the character dissolves, or attenuates.
BF: Yes, and maybe not even so much the specific character. That’s probably the vehicle for it. It’s almost like self-hypnosis, and the longer I write the more readily it seems to come. It’s like turning on a switch, and for a while there really isn’t awareness of yourself as yourself, but when you come out of it there’s a bunch of writing on the page. You’ve concentrated really hard and hopefully there’s something there that you can build on.
BG: Did you have any models, as writers, back when you were making the decision to quit practicing law—writers you could look to and think, Yes, I can do this and make a run at it?
BF: I thought about Walker Percy a lot, and continue to think about him, because he was a guy who wrote for a long time, and at first he was publishing mostly articles on linguistics, in scholarly publications. He was in his forties before he published The Moviegoer. He was trained as a doctor, then went off in a different direction. He was a kind of model for me—as much as anybody.
There was another moment in college, my senior year at UNC, in 1979. Shelby Foote was giving his papers to Carolina—he was an alumnus—and in connection with that event he gave a talk to the English Department in the graduate-student lounge there in Greenlaw Hall. This was before his meteoric rise to fame thanks to the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, and while he was certainly a well-respected writer at the time, he wasn’t a household name. The lounge held about fifty or sixty people, and the place was packed with professors and grad students. I think I was the only undergrad there, which shows what a lit nerd I was even at that tender age. Anyway, I remember that the talk was on the novelist’s responsibility to history, and Foote presented himself so well. He was a handsome man, he was well spoken. There was an aspect of such dignity and yet humility about him. Here was a freelance writer, a man of letters, and I’d never been around such a creature before. And at a certain point I looked up there at him lecturing—he was talking brilliantly, yet again with that sense of humility and always with a certain amount of doubt, always questioning himself—and I thought: I want to be that guy.
Photo: Liliana Castillo