Ben Fountain is just a typical guy who quit his big-firm associate gig to become a stay-at-home dad, make dozens of visits to Haiti and write a critically acclaimed short-story collection.
On his way to becoming a writer, Fountain practiced law in Dallas as an associate with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. But he left the firm in January 1988 when his wife, Sharon, made partner at Thompson & Knight. Fountain quit to stay home with his son but also to free up time to write. He realized he would never have any peace in his life without making a go at his lifelong dream of being a writer.
It's a decision that has paid off, but not until nearly 20 years elapsed between quitting his day job and publishing his first book in 2006, "Brief Encounters With Che Guevara," a Hemingway-esque short-story collection.
In early 2009, Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, will release Fountain's first published novel, titled "The Texas Itch," which is set in Dallas.
"The Texas Itch" features as its main character a former big-firm attorney turned criminal defense lawyer who is drawn into a series of deals involving his family. Few novels have been set in Dallas, says Fountain, who finds the city to be fertile ground for storytelling.
"Dallas," he says, "is the most American city in the sense of commerce, money, business -- there's pretty much everything."
Fountain says in 1997 he was "purged of all expectations and hopes of success" after publishers rejected his still-unpublished novel about Haiti, which he finished in 1996 and based on his years of visits to the Caribbean nation. Nonetheless, he kept writing.
Today, Fountain's friends credit his breakthrough to hard work, discipline and perseverance.
"Everyone says, 'I have a book I want to write,' " says Robert Elkin, a partner in McKool Smith who was in Fountain's associate class at Akin Gump. "Ben had a plan. He rigorously taught himself the craft of writing. What's he's finally reaping is years and years of an incredible investment of his heart and soul."
Fountain's short stories have won an O. Henry Prize and two Pushcart Prizes, while "Brief Encounters" has garnered strong reviews and more awards for Fountain. He won the PEN/Hemingway Award, an annual honor given by the Hemingway Foundation and the literary organization PEN to new fiction authors, and the Whiting Writers Award, a $50,000 prize for emerging authors.
The hardcover edition of "Brief Encounters" has sold at least 20,000 copies, says Ecco's editorial director Lee Boudreaux, which is "extraordinary for a hardcover." The softcover edition is steadily selling, she says. "Brief Encounters" has been translated into French, which Fountain speaks. Last week, he returned from a book tour in France, where he read from the French version of "Brief Encounters" to audiences and did a radio interview in French.
"Brief Encounters" is named after one Fountain story that features a character who throughout his life keeps meeting random people who claim to have loved, served or even killed Che Guevara, the iconic Latin American communist revolutionary.
Several stories in "Brief Encounters" share a theme of well-meaning but feckless Americans coming into contact with the violence and mystery of the more unstable parts of the developing world.
In "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," a penniless grad student studying rare birds in the jungles of Colombia is taken hostage by revolutionaries; he faces a dilemma as a prisoner when he spots a type of bird thought to be extinct.
In "Asian Tiger," a third-rate golf pro desperate to pay child-support bills takes a job offered to him by the military rulers of Myanmar (also known as Burma) to be "ambassador of golf," but finds himself entangled in intrigue and shady deals.
In keeping with Fountain's longtime fascination with Haiti, several stories in "Brief Encounters" explore the beleaguered Caribbean nation and its culture.
Fountain says he first visited Haiti in 1991 never having been abroad before, and he has been there at least 30 times. The issue of race and the country's tumultuous politics sparked his interest in visiting the country, Fountain says, but he also believes he went to Haiti because he was "subconsciously looking for a shock to my system."
Fountain says he traveled to Haiti twice a year for many years, visiting friends he made there and exploring remote parts of the country. Because of political upheaval in Haiti and the fact that he has been busy working on his novel, Fountain has not visited Haiti since 2004 but hopes to go back soon.
FOR LOVE, NOT MONEY
Born in 1958, Fountain grew up in several places in eastern North Carolina. But he says Kinston, a racially divided small town where he attended second through eighth grades, made him "aware of the larger world."
In Kinston, Fountain's father was a community college president, and he was "very liberal for the times" in that he worked to improve education for all of Kinston's citizens, Fountain says. Fountain's mother was a public school music teacher.
During his childhood, the civil rights movement was reordering black-white relations in Kinston. Fountain recalls the peaceful desegregation of his junior high school in seventh grade and news of a riot at the town's high school.
"As a child, I internalized a lot of the stress and anxiety" of the times, he says.
Fountain attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was an English major, and took two creative writing courses, "enough to satisfy myself that I had a knack," but not a talent, he says.
After graduation, Fountain did not pursue his writing. "I felt like I wasn't ready to write, because I didn't know how the world worked," he says. Instead, Fountain went to Duke University School of Law "to forget about writing," he says. "It was a safe, lucrative, respectable career," and several family members were lawyers.
Unlike his undergraduate work, Fountain says he did not enjoy law school.
"Law school was like technical school," he says. "Most of it I found pretty tedious, just grinding through the material."
Despite such frustrations, Fountain earned top grades, made law review and was admitted to the Order of the Coif.
"The smartest thing I ever did in law school is ask my future wife to go out dancing," he says.
They clicked, he says, but Sharon was a year ahead of him. When she graduated and moved to Dallas, where she'd grown up, to work at Thompson & Knight, he followed her in 1983 to work at Akin Gump.
"I came for love, not money," he says.
The couple lives in north Dallas and has two children who are in college.
Fountain recalls his years spent working at Akin Gump as "not a whole lot of fun," except for "paydays and happy hours." His first year there, Fountain did commercial litigation, which he did not enjoy. Some people thrive on the conflict of litigation, but Fountain found that it wore him down. So he changed practice areas and for the next four years did real estate finance and banking work, which he liked better.
After the Fountains had their first child, both continued their law practices but found the time pressures of career and family overwhelming.
"Our son was spending 10 hours a day in day care," Fountain says, "and we were wearing ourselves out."
Sharon Fountain, who practices employee benefits law, recalls that she enjoyed her law practice, but her husband did not. "In our case, it made sense for Ben to go do what he wanted to do," she says.
So Ben Fountain left Akin Gump and became a stay-at-home dad/aspiring writer. The couple weathered the loss of one income, he says, because they lived modestly, driving late-model cars and eschewing lavish purchases. "I tried to keep it low key," Fountain says. "I wanted freedom, options."
Being a stay-at-home dad in the 1980s was unusual and is still looked at askance today, Fountain says. "People do look at you funny," he says. "There is this assumption that you are kind of a bum." Fountain, who admits those reactions bothered him some, responded by redoubling his efforts to be a successful writer.
Sharon Fountain says that before her husband quit his law practice, she had never read his writing other than a law review note. But she had faith in him. "From my perspective, it was, 'Let's see.'"
Ben Fountain advises attorneys considering a new path to scale back their living expenses, then take the plunge if they are truly serious. "The only way to do it is to do it," he says. "Is it really in you to do something else? Is it powerful enough for you to give up the financial rewards, the prestige and the validation of being an attorney?"
Fountain says that he feels a sense of detachment regarding his literary success. After years of struggle and rejection, "I got to the point that being a failure didn't affect me that much," he says. "I've gotten to the same point with success." Even so, he finds his positive reviews gratifying.
When publishers initially passed on "Brief Encounters," Fountain says that he "had gotten pretty Zen about it. I thought, 'It's just not my time. When it is my time, I'll be ready.'"
Fountain says he never considered going back into law but, briefly, considered business school when his publishers rejected his first novel.
When his story "Lion's Mouth," about an American relief worker in Sierra Leone who agrees to smuggle "blood diamonds" so she can obtain funding for a garment-making co-op, appeared in The Paris Review, Ecco contacted him, ultimately buying "Brief Encounters" and his upcoming novel.
With royalties from his work and cash stipends from awards he has won, Fountain says, "I've had a couple of nice years. I make less than [big-firm] attorneys. ... It's pretty good money for a writer." During his best year financially, Fountain says he made nearly half the salary of a first-year associate at a big law firm.
Several former and current Akin Gump attorneys recall working with Fountain. Partner Randall M. Ratner did real estate finance work with Fountain and recalls him as a talented attorney with a "great spirit of adventure who made friends quickly."
"Very few of us chase our dreams," Ratner says, "but Ben did, and it's great that he's achieved success."
Steven P. Anderson, an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law and a former Akin Gump partner who quit after 13 years there to become a public defender, worked with Fountain at the firm. He remembers him as a hard worker who was unhappy.
Fountain had a caring side as an attorney, Anderson says. He remembers working with Fountain on a deal to finance a fishing trawler, a marathon transaction that involved 53 straight hours of work. While working on the deal in New York, Anderson says at 3 a.m. he was done in, and Fountain told him to go to sleep. Fountain assured Anderson he could carry on. "He was the only attorney I ever worked with who showed me that kindness."
Anderson, who has gone to Haiti twice with Fountain, believes that his friend's law background helps his writing by giving him precision and discipline.
"In Ben's writing," he says, "no word is wasted. He knows what he wants to say, and he gets it said. That's what lawyers do."
Fountain finds legal writing to be easier than writing fiction. In legal writing, he says, you have raw material, such as case law, to shape. "With fiction, it all comes out of your head," says Fountain, who makes a lot of notes before starting a project.
Learning to write fiction after practicing law, Fountain says, was a slow and painful process like "growing a new skin." In law, he says, "there's always a procedure to follow. There's a logic to it based on rational thinking." But a fiction writer cannot rely on the logic and sequences of the law.
"Writing fiction," he says, "is more emotional logic. You can't include every step."