An Interview with Robert Olen Butler
Robert Olen Butler has written first-person narratives from a spectacular array of perspectives. He gives voice to Vietnamese refugees living in Louisiana in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of linked stories, Good Scent from a Strange Mountain; an extraterrestrial in Mr. Spaceman; a complicated and captivating female auctioneer in Fair Warning, and JFK, a nine-year-old who takes out mobsters, and a parrot in Tabloid Dreams. Butler’s ability to inhabit the minds of diverse characters is derived from both an unfettered imagination and boundless empathy. Butler’s humor is droll, clever, and supple; his emotional palette is rich, and his inventiveness is stoked by his fascination with human nature, delight in culture high and low, and bold interpretation of fiction’s form and function.
Currently a professor at Florida State University, Butler has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Butler has worked hard to reach the level of artistry he has attained. He worked as a business writer and editor in the 1970s, writing his first four published novels while commuting into Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad. And he endured 21 rejections before his first novel was finally published. As he explains in From Where You Dream, a collection of his intense and revelatory lectures about writing fiction, he has developed unusual techniques for escaping the thinking mind and entering into the receptive state artists must access. Butler has meditated on such artifacts as tabloid headlines and early twentieth-century postcards, the source for the virtuoso stories in Had a Good Time. Jumpstarted by the now cryptic messages on the back of postcards, Butler portrays 15 correspondents, including a man surprised to find himself romancing a gal with a wooden leg, and a mother who goes to the front during World War I, spanning the spectrum from comedy to tragedy.
Butler takes things up another notch in Severance, a startling collection of very short stories, prose poems really, containing the last synaptic firings of individuals who have just been beheaded. After conducting focused and fertile research, Butler selected 62 victims of decapitation both purposeful and accidental, ranging from such well-known figures as John the Baptist and Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, to Ta Chin, a Chinese wife beheaded by her husband in 1838 and Jacob, a slave beheaded by his owner in 1855. Then there’s Lois Kennerly, a systems analyst beheaded in the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center towers, and Tyler Alkins, a civilian truck driver beheaded in Iraq. At once mordant and soulful, shape-shifting Butler enters the inner precincts of others and discerns what it is to be human.
Robert Olen Butler spoke about his experiences in the tangible world and in the dreamspace from which he writes on Open Books in the WLUW studios in Chicago in November 2006.
Your fiction is about voice and character and the embodiment of diverse personalities. You were a theater major at Northwestern University, so one wonders, is there a connection in your mind between theater and fiction?
Absolutely. I went to Northwestern in the fall of 1963 as a theater major because my ambition was to be an actor, but at some point I thought I would rather write than act. So I changed majors to what was then called oral interpretation. It’s since been given some other name and has gotten politicized. But at that point oral interpretation was an art form, a critical approach to literature that involved focusing on the narrative persona, which you extrapolated from the text and then embodied in performance. It’s based on the presumption that all writing, not just literature, has narrative persona, even your cereal box in the morning. And that you can determine the personality of that speaker by looking at a number of things -- the choice of words, the rhythms of speech, emotional concerns, and so forth. That cereal box, of course, is a rather vapid fellow obsessed with food, but it clearly has a persona. Oral interpretation, as it was then understood and taught, was significant in shaping me as a writer.
You’ve written about your creative technique in From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.
Yes, and my first working title for that book was Method Writing as in method acting.
You make a key observation: “No other art form can really grasp the interaction between the external world and the internal world as fiction can.”
That’s true. Whenever we feel like fiction is going to vanish because of the movies, or television, or video games, or whatever, we need to remember that this is the intensely important, absolutely fundamental aspect of human experience that only this art form can get at. And indeed, the voices that are in my books -- and I do a lot of first-person voices -- they’re not the first-person voices that you’d hear sitting across a table in a restaurant or next to somebody on a Greyhound bus. Or even lying under the covers in the dark of night in bed with the person. Those voices are accessible in other art form. No, this is the inner voice. It’s the voice of the sensibility of the soul, if you will. And it’s the dream voice. So that’s not going to be doable in film, or on stage, or, needless to say, in video games. This voice is only heard in the rolling out of a narrative text.
Here’s another key line of yours: “We are the yearning creatures of this planet.”
That’s the crucial thing about us, and that’s what fiction is about. Every art form has certain characteristics. You cannot have the art form without those. Movement and dance, sound and music, color and form in the visual arts. In fiction, of course, language is our medium, that’s obvious. More importantly, fiction is about human beings and human emotions. Fiction is not about ideas. Students are writing from their heads, and that’s the problem. Art does not come from the mind; it does not come from ideas. It comes from the place where you dream. Because they are writing from their heads, they are abstracting and generalizing, and interpreting and analyzing people’s feelings, characters' feelings. They aren’t expressing feeling. They lose track of yearning.
Any Buddhist will tell you -- this is one of the great truths of their religion -- that as a human being with feelings, you cannot exist for even thirty seconds on Planet Earth without desiring something. That’s their word. I prefer yearning; it suggests the deepest level of desire. The manuscripts that I get from my students have characters with problems, much elaborated problems, and attitudes and opinions, and sensibility, and a voice, and a point of view, and ideas, maybe a vividly evoked milieu. But these things do not inevitably or automatically add up to the dynamics of desire. And it’s the dynamics of desire that make stories go.
Have you written things that lacked the dimension you’re describing, that didn’t capture the dynamic of yearning?
Oh my God, before this thing turned in me, before I figured this out, I wrote a dozen ghastly plays. I started writing plays after I left acting because I was interested in the theater. But I was a terrible playwright. I got a Master’s degree from the University of Iowa for it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t an awful playwright. I should have known because my most impassioned writing was going into the stage directions. That’s a bad sign. I was actually a closeted fiction writer. I was afraid to tell anyone, but I finally did. I finally came out. Then I wrote forty dreadful short stories, and I wrote five, count ‘em, five, miserable novels. I mean a million words of dreck, literally, before that thing turned in me and I wrote the first good book, which was The Alleys of Eden, my first published novel. Published in 1981.
Your experiences in Vietnam greatly influenced your work. Fluent in Vietnamese, you worked in army intelligence as a translator, so you could actually speak with people and understand the culture.
The army got me coming out of the University of Iowa, but they sent me to language school for a year before I went over. I spoke fluently from my first day there. And then I did work in intelligence for five months out in the countryside. I loved Vietnam and I loved the culture and I loved the people, I mean instantly. And had access to all of that in most ways other outsiders didn’t. I had contacts with woodcutters and farmers and fishermen and provincial police chiefs and so forth and then, this was in 1971, the unit stood down. Some units were starting to go home at that point. I got transferred to Saigon where I worked as a translator and administrative assistant for an American Foreign Service officer who was an advisor to the mayor of Saigon. So it was a civilian-clothes job. I lived in an old French hotel and I worked at Saigon city hall. But every night I would go out after midnight and wander alone into the steamy back alleys of Saigon where nobody ever seemed to sleep. I’d crouch in the doorways with people and talk to them. The Vietnamese people are perhaps the warmest, most generous spirit-people in the world, and they invited me into their houses, and into their culture, and into their lives. And of course, that shaped me as an artist.
But in terms of understanding what an art object is, though I was not practicing it very well when I got back, the roots of that certainly began in Vietnam. And that has to do with a couple of things. First of all, as I said, literary art is like a work of any other kind of art, in that it is a sensual object. We are sensual beings. War has shaped a lot of writers because in war your senses are heightened, especially in a war where there are no frontlines. The other thing is learning a new language. If you learn another language properly, it’s not a process of learning the equivalence of words. If you learn another language properly, you rename the world, every physical object. That itself is an extraordinary kind of intensification of your sensual being. Everything around you has a new name with a new oral property. So those things all contributed to my sense of what art is and certainly began to shape me as an artist.
You’ve used existing, non-literary texts as triggers for your imagination, as portals into the deeper inner realms. In Tabloid Dreams, you riff on supermarket tabloid headlines. In Had a Good Time, you extrapolate from old American postcards.
Right. I encountered in the culture certain objects that carried with them prompts, for me, for characters who apparently were ready to start talking through me. I collected old picture postcards for more than a decade before I understood that there was a book in them. And I collected these postcards not so much for the images on the front, but for the messages written on the back. These were all written by people long since passed from this earth, and the context for these little outbursts of emotion, rich in subtext, have vanished. Yet they still spoke to me.
It took more than a decade for me to realize that these cards I’d been collecting were going to be a collection of stories. I do seem to work from concepts, a fair amount. But those are not ideas.
My first five books were written very close to my, for want of a better word, demographic. I mean it was close to who I am, close to a direct experience I’d had. But then I began to roam further and further from my demographic, from those things that seem so irrevocably to divide us: race and gender, and ethnicity, culture and class. And eventually, and that’s the thing about the artist’s unconscious, eventually, you break through to a place where you’re neither male nor female, not black, white, red, brown or yellow; you’re not Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Sikh, you’re not Vietnamese, or American, or Albanian, or Serbian. You’re human. And if you write from that authenticity, then you can draw those truths up through vessels, character vessels, quite differently from yourself. And similarly with concepts. Those concepts did not engage my mind; they engaged the depth of my unconscious. They were ways in which to organize some of the voices that were muttering in me. And that’s what happened with the postcard book, with Tabloid Dreams, and with Severance.
It’s as though you’re channeling voices from beyond the scope of your exact life and tapping into a larger collective unconscious, to use the Jungian term. And in Severance, you write, as poets do, within a form, a structure. Each short short story is the same number of words. You’ve restricted yourself formally, yet freed yourself imaginatively. And Severance also harks back to your theater days; you’ve created your own private mode of improv. You give yourself a character and a predicament -- each 240-word story captures the last thoughts of an individual who has just been beheaded -- and generate as much as you can within the allotted time and space.
Yes, all of that is at work. In Severance, the basic understanding of the book resides in the two epigraphs. One from a French doctor of the nineteenth century, Dr. Dassy D’Estaing, that says, in effect, after due consideration, it’s his opinion that there’s enough blood left in the brain of a severed head to sustain consciousness for 1-1/2 minutes. And the other epigraph is from a handbook about speech, which points out that at a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. So if you do the math, you understand that each of the stories in Severance is exactly 240 words long, representing the last outburst of internal monologue in a recently severed head. And I cover 40,000 years of human history from a cave man to someone in the future. Medusa and Cicero and Anne Boleyn, and Marie Antoinette and on into the twentieth century and Jane Mansfield. The, in the twenty-first century, Iraq.
And yes, they are little improvs. I do inhabit the characters as a kind of method actor. I finally understood when I wrote Severance why poets get so excited about the restrictions of their form. Because it’s like the frame around the painting. Otherwise, you have to keep going and you paint the whole wall and then you go out the door. You have to use some of your creative energy to figure out where to stop. When a form is there, it’s like taking the magnifying glass and focusing a beam of sun. It gives you a narrow range, but then all of your creativity goes into that range and it’s quite stimulating.
What inspired you to think about beheadings?
Well, I happen to be married to a remarkable novelist named Elizabeth Dewberry and right before marrying her -- not that this was a test, I was going to marry her anyway -- I took her to my beloved Saigon. This was in early 1995, and we went to the War Crimes Museum, and there amidst the unexploded bombs and the rusting helicopters stood a French guillotine. The French used this thing right up to the day they left in 1954. If you read about the French Revolution, eventually you run into the fact that there was a lot of speculation during that time about the persistence of consciousness. Indeed there was a famous example of this when Charlotte Corday, who had murdered Jean-Paul Marat, a prominent figure in the French Revolution, was beheaded. The executioner picked her head up by the hair and held it up to show the crowd, and -- there are hundreds of witnesses to this -- he slapped her across the face. They say that her eyes opened in shock and anger and she blushed. So not only is there some consciousness left, there are even some motor skills. So as I stood in front of this machine, I thought, “Oh boy,” because a lot of voices started muttering at me. That’s how the book began.
A reader might expect stories of fear and violence. Instead, we find beauty. It’s amazing how sensually you render these last bursts of consciousness. You imagine that in their last moments, memories rise up of sunshine, caresses, food. Sheer pleasure and eroticism.
It’s not about the fall of the blade or the ax. It’s not about the death; it’s about the life. Closer to the phenomena that people who almost drown describe when they’ve been rescued, that their life was passing before their eyes. To me it’s not just a summary of the life. People do not go back to ideas, or philosophy, or dogma. None of that stuff that they used to protect themselves from their own bodies and their own existence and emotion when they were here. No, they go back to those sensual moments when you live fully present in your body, full of feeling.