Last spring, weekends on All Things Considered spoke with author Ben Fountain just as he released his widely acclaimed first novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Later in the year, it was nominated for the National Book Award.
We asked Fountain to share with us what he's looking forward to in the book world next year. He says he's read about 25 books for release in 2013 and tells host Jacki Lyden, "The state of American fiction is really strong, at least from where I'm standing."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
This past spring, we spoke with writer Ben Fountain just as his widely acclaimed first novel, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," was released. It features a cast of Iraq War vets, given celebrity status in front of America's team at the Cowboys game. It was nominated for a National Book Award.
We asked Ben Fountain for whom writing was a second act in life - formally, he filled his days with being a lawyer - to share with us what books he's looking forward to seeing released next year. After all, just like NPR, authors get advanced reading copies. First, though, we asked Ben Fountain if he'd let us tag along for his big moment at the National Book Awards.
BEN FOUNTAIN: It's kind of like the nerds version of the Oscars. I was more nervous about it than I thought I would be. Looking around at the other finalists, I felt a bit better because everybody looked kind of wrecked, even the pros who'd been through it many times before. And, you know, nobody knows who's going to win going in. And at the end of the day, whether you win or lose, you get to go home and write stories.
LYDEN: Yeah. Not a bad life at all. You used to practice law. Now, you're a full-time writer. Is there any way that being a finalist at the National Book Award has changed your writing career?
FOUNTAIN: No. I can't say it has. I mean, you know, it helps sales. And my agent was very happy. My editor was very happy. And my parents were proud. But stuff like that doesn't help you. I mean, you can win all the awards in the world, get all the great reviews, but when it comes to actually, you know, writing a story or a novel line by line, none of that stuff can help you.
LYDEN: Ben, you're a writer. You're also, as all writers are - I certainly hope and think - a great leader and you get advanced copies of books before they're published just as we do. So we've asked you if you would do us the honor to pick out a few standouts that have caught your eye. Would you share your picks with us?
FOUNTAIN: I'd be delighted to. I think I've read 25 or 30 books in galleys that are coming out next year, and I'm happy to report the state of American fiction is really strong.
LYDEN: Good news.
FOUNTAIN: Yeah. At least from where I'm sitting. But I want to mention a book - it's a novel called "Eleven Days." It's a first novel by a young woman named Lea Carpenter. And I think it's coming out in May or June. All the books I'm going to mention come out in the first half of the year.
But "Eleven Days" is - first and foremost, it's a mother-and-son story. It's the story of a single mother whose son goes to the naval academy and ends up becoming a Navy SEAL. It moves from a mother-and-son story to a war story - and a really wrenching and unflinching, I would say, war story.
LYDEN: Your second pick is the novel "A Marker to Measure Drift" by Alexander Maksik. And it's about a young Liberian woman named Jacqueline who exiles herself on a Greek island. And it sounds tempting and yet I'm wondering what drew you to it.
FOUNTAIN: Well, it has a lot of the things I'm interested in - politics, power. The big external forces in our lives that play such a big role in our interior lives, and that intersection between the individual and the larger forces in the world. Jacqueline, she's a refugee from the Liberian Civil War that ultimately brought down Charles Taylor. And she's lost literally everything, except the clothes on her back - her family, her home. Basically what she has is her memories and her wits, and these memories, especially of her family, they sustain and torment her as she tries to survive from, you know, day to day on this what's essentially a tourist island.
So, you know, this book, the writing is extraordinary. And when I say extraordinary, I don't mean it's pretty or gorgeous for gorgeousness' sake. Maksik, he's really getting down deep into, you know, the nature of human experience and the nature of love and the nature of loss. And line by line, the power accumulates in this book kind of like a stealth tsunami. And by the end of it, you feel like you've really been through something.
LYDEN: I'm speaking with writer Ben Fountain. His novel, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," was a 2012 National Book Award finalist. Ben, the next book you brought us isn't a work of fiction. It's actually a biography of Robert Ripley of, of course, Ripley's Believe It or Not!
FOUNTAIN: Right. If you told the story in novel form, nobody would believe it. Oh, my God, I just made the worst pun in the world.
FOUNTAIN: But, yeah, we are talking about the guy who invented Ripley's Believe It or Not! I would say Robert Ripley is a true American original. He invented himself, and along the way, he invented huge chunks of American culture. He was right there at the beginning of cartooning, tabloid news. But so much of what we recognize as, you know, just the background of our lives and American culture, you know, sensationalism and celebrity news, Ripley was right there at the beginning of it.
He built an entire entertainment conglomerate around himself. At one time he was, you know, an extremely wealthy man. He traveled all over the world in search of the exotic and the strange and the weird, and he also had a pretty racy personal life. He had a harem long before Hugh Hefner ever thought of the Playboy Mansion.
FOUNTAIN: So this guy, Ripley, you know, it's an all-American story. And I think if you want to try to understand America, you know, 21st century America, how we got where we are today, that's a pretty good place to start with Robert Ripley's story.
LYDEN: Your last pick for books to read in 2013 is a short story collection, and it's always good to give a shout out to these. The collection's called "Taking What I Like" by Linda Bamber - not a writer I know. But I like the concept here. The stories take famous literally character and gives them a new world.
FOUNTAIN: Right. Linda Bamber is a professor of English at Tufts University in Boston. And most of the stories in the collection takeoff from various Shakespeare plays - "Othello" and "Antony and Cleopatra," "Henry IV," "As You Like It" - and she takes them in these amazing directions. In one story, the heroine of "As You Like It" leaves her play and ends up dating all the three principle men of "Henry IV." In another, the entire cast of "Othello" is now a college English department, and Desdemona is the chairman, and Othello is the only minority member. And Iago is in there as well, you know, making trouble as always.
In another, a man is serving time in prison for murder, and he plays Hamlet in a prison production of the play. And - I mean, I've never read anything quite like these stories. They have attitude, they shake things up. They're playful and inventive and funny, and Bamber gets the entire world into each one of her stories. They have the effect, the same effect as when you see a great production of a Shakespeare play. It makes the work come alive. And it's a small press that's publishing this book - Black Sparrow Books - in Boston. But I really hope this book gets a lot of play. It deserves it.
LYDEN: I think it also might be the concept for the next dinner party game. I love that. I'm going to read that. Well, Ben, I hope that your own writing goes really well this year. I know that many of us will be eagerly awaiting the dreaded second novel. And you know I said dread only because everybody gets nervous about the second book.
FOUNTAIN: Well, you know, I feel lucky. I get to go home and write. And that's what I like to do.
LYDEN: Ben Fountain, thanks so much again. We look forward to reading all these picks in 2013. Happy New Year.
FOUNTAIN: Thank you, Jacki, same to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.