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The 20 Things You Need to Know For 2011

We figured out the people, places, and ideas that matter this year in Dallas. You're welcome.
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photography by Dan Sellers

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photography by Dan Sellers

#19
Ben Fountain will finish his novel. No one is calling him a genius anymore. And that’s just fine.

One day you’re up, the next you’re down. The way you handle life’s vicissitudes defines, and depends on, your character.

Take Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters With Che Guevara (2006), an excellent, prize-winning debut collection of short stories. He started his writing career after a stint practicing real estate law with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Field in Dallas. Fiction was not quite income-producing, however. Fountain worked for a long time with little to show for his efforts. An overnight sensation after almost two decades of writing in total anonymous obscurity, he came like a comet and, like a comet, then left the scene. When Ecco Press accepted his short story collection, it gave Fountain a two-book contract, the idea being that the novel he was going to write would come fast on the success of the short fiction. Fountain’s subsequent trajectory didn’t exactly turn out as expected.

As opposed to his Graham Greene-like stories, set in a variety of foreign places and touching on themes like the Ugly American, his long first novel, The Texas Itch, was going to be about our state, our people, and our times. Fountain kept plugging away, writing slowly, editing and revising.

In October 2008, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a blush-making piece in the New Yorker about prodigies and late bloomers. His prime examples were Picasso and Cezanne among painters and, from the Republic of Contemporary Letters, Jonathan Safran Foer and Ben Fountain. It is a wonderful piece in which our hometown hero and his equally heroic wife, Sharon, a tax lawyer, glow with promise, accomplishment, and love. It gives enormous encouragement to anyone who moves slowly and deliberately, unwilling to compromise for the sake of instant, early celebrity.
Two months later, Fountain heard from his New York editor: he decided to nix The Texas Itch, and no matter what possible suggestions for change Fountain made, he was adamant. “I found it sickly hilarious that Ecco rejected my book hard on the heels of the Gladwell article,” Fountain says. “Genius, my ass!”

What did the 50-year-old new “young” author do? “I lay down on the floor for a couple of days, and then got back up. I had other stories to tell.” It didn’t hurt, either, that the Fountains moved to Austin for the spring semester in 2009, Ben to teach at the University of Texas as a visiting fiction writer, Sharon to do her legal work there. Getting away from home and having new responsibilities took Ben’s mind off his recent troubles and gave him a shot in the arm. There’s nothing like a change of scenery to get the creative juices flowing.

Fountain’s new novel was supposed to be finished at the end of 2010. He now says that it will be finished sometime in 2011, and published in 2012. The tortoise always wins the race.

How does Ben Fountain work? I wanted to know, so I visited him in the North Dallas ranch house the Fountains have lived in for more than two decades, first with their children and now without them. Ben writes in a former garage, which looks less like a writer’s haven than the kind of pine-paneled room—with fluorescent ceiling lights that haven’t worked for years, abandoned bikes and weight benches, as well as the junior Fountains’ elementary school pictures tacked onto the walls (which they share with an enormous map of Paris, some Haitian folk art, and a beaded Hawaiian lady in a grass skirt)—that simply became what it is less by design than by accident.

Oh, one more thing: the office-garage has no air conditioning. “People wrote without AC for millennia,” Fountain says. In the dead of summer, Fountain can open the door to the kitchen, turn on a circulating fan to complement the garage’s ceiling fan, and proceed blissfully as well as carefully. He works at a small desk near a south-facing window. He writes on yellow legal pads and slowly transfers his prose to the computer later (and mostly inside the house).

“What’s the new book about?” I ask delicately, mindful that many writers do not want to talk about a work-in-progress. There’s no secret, as it turns out, because Fountain has been reading from the novel when he has accepted invitations to college campuses over the past year. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is, in fact, a Dallas novel. Set in a single day at the late Texas Stadium in Irving, it follows a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving.

“It’s about football, cheerleaders, the Iraq war, and the general insanity of America,” he says. The eponymous hero is a 19-year-old soldier, a small-town Texas boy, home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at the game. What’s the story? What happens? I didn’t learn. Fountain knows well enough to keep some things under his hat.

He assures me that this time around both his agent and editor have been cheering him on, happy with what he has shown them. Look for Ben Fountain and Billy Lynn next year. —WILLARD SPIEGELMAN

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