Dallas author Ben Fountain made a big splash when his first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, became a bestseller in 2012 and won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction.
Based on an actual event in which a group of Iraq War soldiers participated in the Destiny’s Child halftime show of the 2004 Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game at the now-demolished Texas Stadium, Halftime Walk — which delves into the mind of a fictionalized version of one of those soldiers through his experiences on that surreal day — is now one of the major movie releases of the fall. It hits theaters Friday.
The film, featuring Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin and Vin Diesel and directed by Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain), is earning attention for the debut of newcomer Joe Alwyn as Lynn and being the first major full-length narrative film to be shot in 4K resolution and 3-D at 120 frames per second for extra depth and clarity. (That high-tech version is only being shown in New York City and Los Angeles. It will be shown in traditional 2-D in North Texas.)
But it’s also bringing attention to Fountain, a real-estate lawyer who quit his day job in 1988 to become an author.
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It took nearly 20 years for anyone to pay attention to his work, but his first release, the 2007 short-story collection Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, won a PEN/Hemingway Award.
But it’s Halftime Walk, an examination of the mixed emotions surrounding America’s treatment of Iraq War soldiers and veterans, that put Fountain on the map.
He’s currently working on a long-awaited new novel, this one set in Haiti. But it won’t be out anytime soon: “Oh, my gosh, don’t hold your breath,” he said with a laugh.
We recently chatted with Fountain by phone. Answers were lightly edited for clarity.
What did you think of the film?
I thought it was a good film. Obviously, it departs from the book in some places, and that’s certainly fine with me. I knew all along it was going to be its own thing. And so I made my peace with it at the very beginning. My attitude was the book is going to be the book no matter what the movie is and so it’s not going to change the words on the page. I’ve been pretty peaceful about it all along.
Were you surprised at any of the changes that were made?
No, I can’t say that I was. I mean, they stuck very much to the spirit of the book and actually I’m sort of surprised they didn’t change more. It’s just the way these things work.
Were you surprised that Hollywood called at all, considering it’s a very interior novel?
Yes and no. I didn’t have any expectations or aspirations that anything I ever wrote would get turned into a movie. I was just surprised when the production group the Ink Factory came calling.
In a lot of ways, it’s a very visual story. There’s a lot of pageantry and dialogue and interaction. But, yeah, so much of the book is interior and actually I think that’s the one of things that drew Ang Lee to it, this challenge of trying to express interior life in a visual way.
Did you see the 3-D version?
I saw it in New York and it was screened in exactly the way Ang wants it to be show. I saw it with the works, the high-def, the fast frame rate and 3-D. There were many, many points where it works to wonderful effect. The big, splashy scenes like the battle scenes and the halftime shows, the 3-D and high-def just really make it pop. And it’s a very visceral experience.
Were you not interested in writing the screenplay?
I was not interested. For one thing, I had never written a screenplay. And these guys seemed serious about really making a push to get it made. You don’t want to suffer with me learning how to write a script.
How different was what really happened [during the game] compared to what you wrote?
It’s very close and, I mean, this book gets labeled as a satire a lot. My feeling is it’s straight up realism. I’m just reporting, basically. The halftime show depicted in the book is very close to the halftime show that I saw on TV that day.
Has anything changed for you about Iraq since you wrote the book?
No, if anything, my views are more so. I think these wars were a huge mistake to get into. They were extremely poorly planned and executed. Tremendous chaos has come out of them. Tremendous amount of lost life and the chaos just keeps spiraling out in so many different directions.
Have you heard from any soldiers about the book?
The vast majority are very positive. But let me put a caveat on that and say the people who reach out to me are a self-selecting group. They’re the ones who liked it, who felt it said something genuine. The ones who don’t like it, they don’t the like idea of it and either won’t pick it up or they’ll read a little bit and throw it across the room and forget about it.
I’ve had very positive response by and large, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who feel differently.
Do you feel pressure with the follow-up since Billy Lynn was so successful?
Not really. Pressure is when you’ve been writing for 10 years and you have practically nothing to show for it. I was that person at the age of 40. I mean, that’s pressure. I feel pretty comfortable. I wish I were a fast writer and had more books out, but I feel really lucky to be able to get up in the morning and write and work on things that I’m interested in.
Do you think the North Texas literary scene has improved in the last decade or so?
Yeah, very much. There are some fine writers in the North Texas area now. … I think a lot of these things depend on serendipity. People end up in a certain place and they’re all similar and do good work.
But I will say that there have been some institutions and individuals in Dallas over the years who have nurtured a lot of writers. A man named Robert Trammell started an organization called Wordspace in Dallas. He was a huge help and encouragement to a lot of us.
Did you consider moving to New York or L.A.?
My wife is a lawyer and she has built a good practice in Dallas. She was the one who was making the money, and so I wasn’t going to rock that boat. I was lucky she was on board with me trying to make it as a writer.