Ben Fountain summarizes his near perfect (in our opinion) debut novel in less than 25 words: "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - I think it's about football, cheerleaders, the Iraq war, the movie business, capitalism, sex, death, love, family, and the general insanity of American life."
My writing place is kind of new. For years and years it was our garage, which the previous owners had converted into this very raw living space. It didn't have heat or air conditioning, it had just a thin sheet of linoleum laid down over the concrete and cheap wood paneling over the exposed cinder blocks. So it was a pretty rough space.
And I kind of liked having that rough, crappy space, because there was no pressure. If you had this gorgeous office in the British Museum you'd feel you have to write something truly excellent and wonderful. But if it's just me out there sweating in the garage or freezing in the winter, it was like, well, it's not like we invested any money in this office. So anything I do out here is going to be a bonus.
But finally after 22 years in this house my wife basically said it's time to remodel. And so my office now has beautiful hardwood floors "¦ One wall is bookshelves, and I've got a bunch of Haitian art up in there. I have to say, she was right - it's better to have a nice office. Maybe after 23 years of writing I've sort of paid my dues and now I can have an office with air conditioning and heat.
I write first drafts out by longhand, with black ink pens on yellow legal pads. After the first draft is done I'll put it on the computer, and do some editing while I'm putting it on the computer, then print out a hard copy and mark that up, again with pens. Then feed those revisions into the computer, print it out the next hard copy, and go from there.
I don't like to have the computer sitting there waiting on me, with that cursor blinking at me. And I just like the tactile aspect of the paper and the pens. And the pace seems right. That seems to be the pace where my head works.
I have a MacBook Air, a beautiful little piece of gadgetry. But I don't know anything about how to use it aside from basic word processing and email. I'm a complete idiot with the technology.
Not when I'm writing. Really it's just when I'm doing scut work, like cleaning up my office or doing mechanical stuff or answering emails. I'll listen to Dylan. And lately I've discovered Woodie Guthrie. Maybe I'm the last American to discover Woodie Guthrie. But he had a beautiful voice. Just a lovely singing voice.
I try to keep a pretty steady pace. I'm not a binge writer.
My office is in our converted garage. I'll go out there in the mornings, I'll have a little bit of breakfast. In the morning hours I'm drinking tea, hot tea. Coffee I discovered early on made me too jittery. I just couldn't concentrate on coffee so I went to tea. It seems to work much better. It's kind of a crutch. I guess I drink tea instead of smoking cigarettes. I never drink (alcohol) when I'm writing.
In the afternoons: water and fizzy water. The fizzy water seems to give me a bit of a kick. Maybe I'm kind of an aesthetic. Not by intention, just by sort of falling into it. I want to keep a steady pace. Drinking tea and mineral water while I'm writing, that seems to give me a sustainable pace.
Before I started writing, I read a lot about the Iraq war, mostly memoirs by soldiers or reportage, like the David Finkle book, The Good Soldiers, which is a wonderful book, and Dexter Filkins' book (The Forever War) "¦ There's been a lot of good nonfiction written about the last 10 years of American involvement in that part of the world. I was trying very hard to get it right - the military life, and combat. A book I came on pretty late in the writing process was Sebastian Junger's War. And that is an extraordinary book, not just about the Iraq War and war in general but just about the experience of being a human. There's so much about human nature and why we are the way we are.
And then for general inspiration or just trying to understand the American psyche, I found myself reading a lot of Norman Mailer. He's been sort of a guide for the past five or six years for me, trying to figure out why America is the way it is.
I like to sweat. For me a really good day is get a good solid six hours of writing in and then go outside, and either run or ride the bike or work in the yard. It's pretty rare for people in North Dallas to do their own yard work, but I do my own yard work, and I like it. So if I'm not inside working or reading, I want to be outside.
I don't have too many temptations. Procrastination has never been a problem. But I tell you what, that damn email"¦ I have gone so far as to take the computer and put it in my car. I find once I break the cycle--if I can keep myself from checking email until after I'm done writing for one day--then it's easier the next day, and by the third day I'm not even thinking about it. But when you get into those cycles where you have to be in touch for one reason or another, it's so easy to get into the habit of checking it every hour. And it disrupts the work and it's also, I don't know, like drinking soft drinks all day long. There might be this instant gratification but then you just feel kind of flat, flattened out, mentally and emotionally. So, I try to stay away from the email.
I like working. I feel much better when I've worked, done a full day's work and concentrated well, than if I've been haphazard or distracted. And a lot of that is up to me. Am I going to let myself get distracted?