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49 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 ben george a conversation with Ben Fountain 50 ecotone 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 51 a conversation with ben fountain conversation now takes place in the shadow of the well-known earthquake of February 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...


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