Robert Olen Butler

January, 2011

By William H. Coles

Robert Butler InterviewRobert Olen Butler Interview

Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his collection of short stories Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Groove Press, 2001). He has published sixteen novels and six volumes of short stories. He is a Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor holding the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University.

William H. Coles

You teach at Florida State University. Are you a native Floridian?

Robert Olen Butler

No, I’ve only been at FSU for ten years. I’m originally from the St. Louis area — just across the river in Granite City, Illinois.

William H. Coles

Where did you go to school?

Robert Olen Butler

Undergraduate at Northwestern, and I took the master’s at the University of Iowa. But as a playwright, not in the fiction workshop.

William H. Coles

Did you have mentors at Iowa who were important for your career?

Robert Olen Butler

No. [laughs] I was studying playwriting, and I studied with a couple of very good playwrights and they were helpful in that realm. But my mentorship came later. I studied with Anatole Broyard at the New School in the mid-1970s. If I call anyone a mentor, it would be him. He was, for many years, the primary daily book critic for the New York Times.

William H. Coles

When you switched from playwriting to prose, was it deliberate?

Robert Olen Butler

I had gone to Northwestern thinking I would be an actor, and I studied theater. But at some point I decided I wanted to write instead of interpret in my art form. I assumed, because I was interested in the theater, that I wanted to write plays, but as it turned out I was a terrible playwright. My most impassioned writing was going into the stage directions, which is a bad sign for a playwright. And what that implied was that I was a fiction writer. I was gobbled up in the pre-lottery-day draft after getting my master’s degree. I ended up in Vietnam, and one thing and another led to the realization that I’m primarily a fiction writer. Ultimately you do not choose your medium, it chooses you.

William H. Coles

People who are not “writers” often choose the wrong thing to write about.

Robert Olen Butler

Sure. But natural writers will often try to force themselves into a form — novel, story, screenplay, poem — that is not necessarily the appropriate form for the way they see the world. If they are writing not from ideas and the will, if they are not creating work in a fundamentally crafty way in order to produce an object of entertainment, if, in fact, they are writing from the artist’s impulse, which is a deep, inchoate vision of some sort of order behind the apparent chaos of life on planet Earth, they’ll be driven then to express that vision in the creation of the object — the art object. If they are that kind of writer, they may well end up trying to write in forms that are not best to articulate that vision of the world. They have the impulse to express their notion of the human condition, but perhaps — I’m talking about myself — I had not yet given myself over to that vision sufficiently for it to dictate its own form, which might turn out to be fiction, and indeed initially was strictly the novel, and then graduated to short stories, and then began expressing itself in even shorter forms for a while, until now. Most recently I’ve returned to the novel. When the muse knocks on our door, you have to let her in, let her slip off her diaphanous gown and take you where she wants you to go.

William H. Coles

In terms of the writer focusing on the idea of view of the world, where does the entertainment value of prose come in? Does that work against the entertainment value?

Robert Olen Butler

It certainly could. You know, I’m not sure that many people, in the pure sense, are entertained by many of the great works of literature. The entertainment value of literature is an aftereffect. To create a work of literature, if you have an entertainment intention, it will destroy the work of art. You have to let the vision of the world dictate the work . . . and I’m talking about art now. There are plenty of other perfectly splendid fictional forms — genre and entertainment works — where their authors’ a priori intentions are to entertain. The kinds of work I’m talking about are created because the author has a deep intuition about the world and an insistence, even an obsession, about expressing that vision but does not know what the vision actually is until she creates the object. Her creation is as much an act of exploration as it is of expression. If you’re saying, “I’ve also got to entertain as I do this,” then that puts you in a different place within yourself. It cuts you off from the deep initial impulse to write. You start writing things in order to entertain, so the decisions about the created object are no longer being driven by how the writer deeply sees the world.

Some of my books are very funny, but I have never sat down to be funny. The humor comes only from the way I’m seeing the world. If my intention was to be funny I would not be serving the expression of the complex vision of the world that is really my most important goal.

William H. Coles

Let me ask you about entertainment. It seems to me that entertainment for a writer (and the intention and vision of the world) are not competing, even on the artistic level, and that for the writer, entertainment is necessary to hold the reader’s interest. You’ve got to entertain a reader throughout the story in order to deliver what you’ve learned about yourself or your vision of the world. What can a writer do to entertain that person and engage them?

Robert Olen Butler

Anyone who is writing from the impulses I’m talking about, anyone who is creating a work of art, if they do what you said, would destroy the work of art. If Marcel Proust had done what you’re suggesting, that million words of Time Remembered [À La Recherche des Temps Perdu] would never have come out that way. And for it to come out some other way for the sake of entertaining his readers would then destroy, in fact, the heart and soul of that book’s vision of the world.

William H. Coles

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy entertains chapter by chapter.

Robert Olen Butler

What you’re confusing here, Bill, is intention and effect. Tolstoy did not write with the intention of entertaining. He did not write in the trance state in which he put himself to pull out the deep story of Anna Karenina and her world, and what that implies. He was not even thinking about the human condition. But that’s what’s working at the heart of it. Yet, in the process of creation, if he is also thinking how to make this book entertaining, and if he makes decisions of plot and character and tone and voice in order to accommodate that, then the art of the work is destroyed.

William H. Coles

I understand your point.

Robert Olen Butler

But this is very important. Great books do also entertain. A great writer with both an artistic vision and a gift for storytelling who then expresses that complex vision of the world, but in the way that stories fundamentally, inevitably, organically structure themselves, then the object that’s created will not only be a work of art but will also, intrinsically, have entertainment value.

William H. Coles

Yes.

Robert Olen Butler

A crucial distinction. I’m talking from the artist’s point of view.

William H. Coles

What if I say not “entertainment” but “engagement”?

Robert Olen Butler

I will still argue with you about the artist being conscious of the need to engage. It cannot be. It cannot be.

William H. Coles

I think you’ve convinced me.

Robert Olen Butler

But you raise an important question. Let’s think about literary fiction as simply another genre. If you say you’re writing a mystery story and I have to make readers laugh, or whatever, you’re confusing genres. And then I have to make sure the protagonist falls in love with the beautiful woman . . .

William H. Coles

Right.

Robert Olen Butler

If I feel in my mystery I have to work in laughter and romance, then there is something wrong. Now, some mysteries have humor. And some have romance. But if you feel that from the conception you have to work them in, the mystery will suffer. The genre of literature requires it be built fundamentally on the illumination of the human condition. And if you’ve got to make people hang on every chapter ending, you’re mixing genres.

William H. Coles

Let’s move on. You brought up humor. Your new book is humorous. How does humor work in prose? What about humor makes prose more exciting? Here again you might answer me in terms of intention, and I know you don’t have the intent to be funny. But you must have an inner sense of what will make people laugh.

Robert Olen Butler

I don’t think about it until afterward, and then only when people ask me the question. But for me, the humor of my work — there’s a lot of laugh-out-loud stuff in Hell, for instance, and this even confuses some readers. If you’re going to see the humor as intentional and an end in itself, you’re going to see the book on a shallow level. All the humor there, even the stand-up-comedy one-liners, is fitting into some larger, organic whole. And for me, in my work, there is a better word to understand those humorous parts: irony. The irony is not an intentional effect, I would hasten to add. It is, ironically, the disparity between human intentions and their actual effects. The ironic humor comes from the distance between what we understand about ourselves and what is truly going on in ourselves.

William H. Coles

You’re talking about the characters.

Robert Olen Butler

Exactly. Irony is behind almost all of the humor in the book. Even the gaggy one-liners, in the larger organic wholeness of the book, are operating not in isolation as “is this a funny joke” or “is this not a funny joke,” does it make you laugh or does it not make you laugh, or does it make you groan, or does it make you ask, “What the hell was that?” That’s not the point. The humor reflects on the function of humor in the larger view of the human condition. Hell takes on the zeitgeist in its wholeness, and how this present world, in fact, is a paradigm for how human beings have lived forever, the ways we have always lived, the ways we yearn to succeed, yearn for great things and fail miserably, or yearn for terrible things. There is a certain grace in seeing those things for what they are, which is possible only by the ongoing interaction of all the tiniest elements in the book. Most of the laughter is absolutely rooted in that. One effect is that the tears and the laughter are never really separated. The comedy and the tragedy are intimately entwined.

William H. Coles

You didn’t write to the ironies, did you?

Robert Olen Butler

Exactly. Everything I’ve been saying tells you that. It has to do with the ways in which characters are yearning to define themselves. And really, that’s at the heart of all narrative. Fiction is the art form of human yearning. What we are striving for. And plots in books are simply yearning challenged and thwarted. And so that’s the way the irony and the humor come out in the book, by my being focused entirely on each character who passes before me, each character that yields him- or herself up from my unconscious in the ongoing organic context of the book. The thing that my creative intuition goes to instantly is: What is the character after? What does the character want at the deepest level?

William H. Coles

A core desire.

Robert Olen Butler

At the deepest level. And if there is a unified field theory of yearning in fiction it is: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe.

William H. Coles

And recognition.

Robert Olen Butler

Not recognition. Not at the core. Because recognition is the kind of surface response that may or may not lead you to your true self. In fact, the desire for recognition may indeed be the kind of surface goal that leads that character astray. That may be one of the challenges of yearning for self.

William H. Coles

I see.

Robert Olen Butler

So, in my line-to-line creation of the book, I’m following, being guided by, the yearnings of each character who’s in front of me. And it’s only from that that these other effects occur — the humor, the irony that we’re talking about. It’s not on my mind. It’s not an intention. It just happens to be a natural part of the objects I’ve been creating from this desire to explore how I see the world.

William H. Coles

This is sort of a minuscule thought, I suppose, but do you ever think about dramatic irony as a part of the structure of a story, particularly in short stories?

Robert Olen Butler

Forgive me for quibbling with every question you ask, because you ask it as if that’s the way I create the story. I don’t think of it! No. But dramatic irony is almost always present in my writing, especially since I work so often in first-person narrative. All first-person narrative — since it is from the subjective point of view of a specific person who inevitably sees things through a complex scrim of memory and perceptions — has to come to terms with dramatic irony. And most of the stories and novels that I write embrace and use dramatic irony. The reader often knows more about the character’s circumstances and responses than the character knows about himself. That sort of dramatic irony is almost always at work in modern fiction, most fiction that’s being written.

William H. Coles

That’s valuable.

Robert Olen Butler

Yes. In my genre of literary fiction, dramatic irony is at the heart of most really good work.

William H. Coles

You’re here in New Orleans to research for your new novel. I’m interested in your process. What are you looking for? What do you write down in your notebooks? Part of the reason I’m asking is because you say you don’t have intentions when you start, but you must, as you research, begin to develop intentions about what you want to do with the story, or novel, in terms of humor or plot or structure. Characterization, too.

[silence]

Am I wrong?

Robert Olen Butler

You’re wrong. [laughs] In the terms of how you put it, I would not endorse those terms. “Now that you’re researching, you’ve got intentions.” No! I don’t have the kind of intentions you’re talking about. The characters are coming up out of my unconscious. My intuition is focusing on what they deeply yearn for. The world in which I place them and the circumstances that are beginning to present themselves — those things challenge the characters’ yearnings in certain ways. And in my research here and what I’m absorbing, I’m open to those kinds of inspirations.

William H. Coles

But not in a directed way.

Robert Olen Butler

Not in a directed, intentional way. And anything that comes to me in terms of turn of plot, or what a character might do or say, it’s always in those terms. It’s by concrete action and sensual moments that inspiration comes. But even that has been noted in the background and is open to transformation in the line-to-line creation as I write. What I’m really researching are the sensual details. Because in my genre, everything is told in the moment through the senses. A work of literary art is like a symphony or a ballet or a painting or a movie. All of those are entirely moment-to-moment sensual experiences. I look from the balcony of the room in which one of the main characters checks in at the beginning of my novel with the intention of killing herself, and I’m trying to find out what the trees are around the pool, what the smells are in the morning in the French Quarter.

William H. Coles

Right here, for example.

Robert Olen Butler

The way the sun comes in my balcony door in the afternoon.

William H. Coles

And you’re striving not to be disruptive, but to be emotive, how you react to these stimuli.

Robert Olen Butler

Exactly. Because every sense detail that goes in the book is not there just to paint a picture or create a scene. In my genre . . .

William H. Coles

Which is literary fiction as an art form . . .

Robert Olen Butler

Exactly. Every sense detail is there with an organic function in the larger piece. I do not stop and give, no matter how beautifully written, sensual portraits of the landscape or the room independent of the character’s point of view or her intentions. That the smell that comes in through the open French doors here is a mixture of coffee and somebody making roux, but with an undercurrent of rotten fish and piss against the wall, the description of that moment, the sensual description, is moving toward something about being alive, but with an undercurrent of death. What I will finally end up with, if I get it right, is the organic, resonant, correct description to fit a woman who has just checked into the hotel with the intention of killing herself. So it’s not a set piece where we do the slate roofs and gumbo, and the pigeons sitting on the roof.

William H. Coles

That would be description of setting.

Robert Olen Butler

And it could be a beautiful description of setting, but Henry James said landscape is character and in the work of literary fiction, every tiny detail has to organically resonate into everything else. So I was gathering all the organic sense details that were also authentic to the place in which this work is set. But which details will end up in the book will happen only in the act of creation, where everything has been drawn through the governing principle, which is the yearning of the central characters.

William H. Coles

And you’re gathering this for in the moment. You’re not gathering this for narrative distance — a description of Oak Alley, for example. You’re gathering details that are unique to the French Quarter. But it’s not a description of a specific place.

Robert Olen Butler

Exactly. And that’s the great thing about narrative. And this is why narrative can be entertaining as well. There’s ongoing interaction, the tension between the character’s inner life and the outer life around her. It’s why fiction exists. There is no other art form that can do that.

William H. Coles

Amen.

Robert Olen Butler

That can capture the central fact of all of our existence. Which is that we are utterly subjective entities reacting to an external world around us.

William H. Coles

And we’re alone, too.

Robert Olen Butler

Exactly right. That’s true. And in that sense, we are utterly alone. Even though there are other critters floating around here with the same subjectivities, there’s this insuperable barrier, which is why literature exists. And this is probably the ultimate in entertainment value. A work of literary fiction will ultimately allow the reader, if my genre is done correctly, to leave herself and enter into the other in a way that we don’t otherwise get a chance to do. And that’s engagement! And that’s entertainment! Of a high order. And the irony is that if you are consciously trying to entertain, you lose the ability to do that.

The artist lets go of the entertainment intention in order to entertain in the most profound way. I will draw you out of yourself and into this other entity. And in a way that you don’t have to project into it. When we read romance novels, for instance, and weep real tears, it’s not because there is this other living, breathing character on the page. It’s a flat character, but the flatness allows the reader to project into it. It’s self-referential. I always say the difference between literature and non-literature is the difference between making love and masturbating. There may be certain similarities to the physical effect, but one is a closed loop. It’s self-referential. The other . . . when you make love truly, you leave yourself and enter into the other. And so that’s what literature does, which is supremely entertaining, it seems to me.

William H. Coles

You write frequently in the first person. I’m interested in your narrative concept and approach. How do you think about the relationship between author as creator of story, the narrator as teller of the story, and the character that acts in the story? When you get into a first-person story . . .

Robert Olen Butler

. . . you take out that middleman . . .

William H. Coles

. . . you can take out the narrator or collapse the author into the narrator. Is there a way to author a first-person story and still present story through a narrator? That would be a more objective narration. Is that possible? How do you think about it?

Robert Olen Butler

Hell is the first book I’ve written in third person since Wabash, which was published in 1987, so it’s been twenty-two years. But you’ll notice that the third-person narrator has a distinct personality and often allows the character to speak in first person.

William H. Coles

This is Hatcher McCord?

Robert Olen Butler

Yes. Well, no. The third-person narrator is not Hatcher McCord. There is a third-person narrator. That third-person narrator is sometimes omniscient with Hatcher and sometimes slides into the inner consciousness of other characters. And also, sometimes the third-person narrator lets Hatcher speak in his own inner voice. There are always italics in those outbursts of first person. And then characters pass by, everyone from Jezebel to Richard Nixon, who speaks in the first person as well, that the third-person narrator allows to happen. That’s the way I’ve gotten around third person and first person in the same book.

But for the previous twenty-two years, first persons are first persons. And the voice on the page remains unremittingly the speaker of the character. My approach, I think, goes back to my actor training, because I was trained as an actor at Northwestern University. In method acting you work from the inside out; you make your own internal sensory mechanism come into alignment with the internal sensory mechanism of the character. This is somewhat similar to earlier when I was describing the woman responding to the smells in her room. And then, your external performance comes from that. When I write first-person voices, I think I’m getting into that same method-acting groove. I let my own sensory mechanism and my own unconscious come into alignment with the unconscious of the character. When I’m writing well, I feel as if, by going deeply enough into my own personal unconscious, I begin to tap into what Jung calls the collective unconscious, and I feel as if I’m able to draw my insights into the characters from there. So, if you can as a writer tap into that deeply shared humanity, that collective unconscious, you can embody those insights in characters that may not be very similar to yourself, and yet are deeply connected to you by our shared humanity. And the voices flow from there.

William H. Coles

The problem that writers run into when they think about first person in that way is the timeline. In the sense that the author is writing from sensibilities, historical knowledge, attitudes, and morality of his or her present, so the narrator is in story time. The problem is, if there is too much of the author in the narrator, the story may lose credibility. The author’s knowledge brings illogical and non-credible information into the story that then weakens the story; it becomes unreliable. Do you understand what I mean?

Robert Olen Butler

I do. And this is the danger of intention that we’ve been talking about. It’s a type of recurring theme. Because if your intentions are coming from your modern intentions, your philosophy, your attitudes, your conscious ideas, they are coming from your twenty-first-century self, and then you take on this narrator from some other period, or even some other gender, some other whatever — if you’re writing from your head, if you’re writing from intentions, you’re thinking your way into the work, then that’s going to be an almost insuperable problem because what you’re trying to put into your character is of you and your time. But the literary writer does not write with intentions or preconceived effects or attitudes or ideas. Art does not come from the mind, it does not come from rational analytical thought, it does not come from ideas; it comes from the unconscious, from the place where you dream. So, you internalize the character that you’re writing through and you understand the external world of that character. And by the way, you conduct historical research the same way you come to this hotel to research a novel, looking for smells and shapes of doorknobs and the ways in which that character moves through the physical world.

William H. Coles

Compatible with the story.

Robert Olen Butler

Exactly. And I have to say there’s a kind of mystical element to all this. If you tap into your art and the collective unconscious, and if you are really channeling authenticity from there, these characters fill themselves out. You let go of your own intentions. You just focus on the inner life of this other entity, this other soul, which is living in this other sensual world, which, by research, you absorb and understand and fully imagine, and you focus on what that character profoundly wants, the yearning. Then you let that voice speak. That’s the only way to deal with the problem you describe. Which is a real one. It’s not something you can train for; it is something that happens for you.

William H. Coles

That’s very helpful, because this is at the essence of problems beginning writers run into all the time. And they don’t know how to deal with it, or even recognize that it can be a problem.

Robert Olen Butler

Beginning writers need to understand, if they aspire to this particular genre, literary fiction, when they’re ready to try to write works that will eventually achieve literary quality, they have to stay within the range of their own authenticity, within their own unconscious. They have to write very close to people, the characters, who are like themselves in many surface ways. Now, this is from a guy whose voices have come from parrots and furniture — I wrote a story from the perspective of a waterbed in a story called “Titanic Victim Speaks through Waterbed” — but it was all still about human beings. Kafka’s cockroach was still about a human being. But my first five published novels have central characters very close to who I was. But I must hasten to add — and this is not a digression, a secondary point, or parallel point, but crucial to process — neither can you consciously write, if you’re going to do this genre, from literal memory, from the specific, overtly remembered events of your life.

Graham Greene, the great British novelist, once said, “All good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism, what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination.” And his compost of the imagination is the same as the unconscious I’ve been talking about. The beginning writers need to stay close to themselves, their most intense, white-hot center, but only the stuff of their inner selves that they have forgotten, that they have composted. They need to stay within the range of their own authenticity, but for an artist the “authentic” is the assimilated, the stuff of what is functioning now as self-rooted imagination. Eventually, if they do that book after book, story after story, year after year, they’ll have the ability to break through to the collective unconscious. In the meantime, they have to stick close to their own core.

William H. Coles

But in the writing, don’t they have to back away from closeness? To look at the story objectively.

Robert Olen Butler

No!

William H. Coles

To provide objectivity to the character rendering. You don’t believe that?

Robert Olen Butler

No, I don’t. On the contrary. When you say you have to back away and look at it objectively, the inevitable implication is that it’s from the rational mind, that it’s analytical. In the genre of literary fiction, it’s exactly the wrong thing to do. No, it stays subjective. Even all the craft and technique they’ve learned, all of that has been learned in writing workshops and literature classes in objective, thoughtful, analytical ways. And the danger with those ways of learning is that the nascent writers of literature have gotten the impression that this is how works of art are created — that you learn craft and technique and then when you write, in order to edit, you back away from work to be objective, and you analyze the problems and consciously apply craft and technique to fix them.

William H. Coles

You lose something?

Robert Olen Butler

You lose everything. Let’s go back to the Graham Greene quote. He was obviously talking about life experience, but it’s also true about craft and technique. The only craft and technique you have legitimate access to is the craft and technique you forgot, that has dissolved into the unconscious. So, when I say “stay subjective,” it doesn’t mean just wild ramblings. First of all, the character’s yearning will be the center of gravity and shape every choice. Secondly, the craft and technique you’ve learned is now operating at that subjective level. Because you have learned it so well, you have forgotten it. It has become second nature to your unconscious. It has become part of the compost.

William H. Coles

So there is a sort of objective application of the subjectivity.

Robert Olen Butler

No. There is no objectivity. You may have to learn it all objectively to start with, but you do not have legitimate access at that point. You apply it intuitively.

William H. Coles

Yes. I can see where that might be valuable.

Robert Olen Butler

It has to dissolve into the subjective self in order for you to have full access to it. I mean, how did Michael Phelps swim when he first started? The first time in the pool, he had to objectively adjust his stroke, he had to learn things in an objective way. At that point, when he was first learning technique, his body was doing things partly at the behest of his mind. But he could not become an Olympic champion until all of those things had been turned into muscle memory. Not an understanding of technique. The coach will tell you, “Look, your hand has to come onto the water this way; you need to keep your head so; you’re splaying your feet when you kick, they need to be kept closer,” and for a while he hears the technique objectively and applies it consciously, but he never breaks a world record in that state. It has to turn into muscle memory. Same for the writer with craft and technique.

William H. Coles

Got it.

Robert Olen Butler

So, you do not back off and think. What you do is dissolve everything you’ve learned and must know into the subjective, into your unconscious. so it functions there.

William H. Coles

How does revision fit into all this?

Robert Olen Butler

The corollary for a reader of everything I’m saying is this: in the primary and only necessary encounter with a work of fiction, you are not meant to understand it in a rational, analytical way. You are meant, as you read a work in this genre, literary fiction, to thrum to the work. Thrum. Like a string on a stringed instrument.

William H. Coles

For a long time after the primary encounter. Forever?

Robert Olen Butler

Yes. But in terms of this essential encounter with a specific work, it’s the aesthetic response I’m trying to describe. You are responding in a sensual, emotional, visceral way. And not with analytical ideas. So how does the artist revise? You use your good Graham Greene bad memory, and you forget your own work such that you can go back to it and read it without filling in the blanks with what you thought was happening on the page when you wrote it. You encounter your own work afresh and you thrum to it. You go: thrum, thrum, thrum, twang. Ah, the twang. When you get to the twang, contrary to what you learn in all writing workshops, you do not step back and objectively analyze the problem and then consciously and willfully apply your craft and technique to fix the problem. For one thing, the problem with the twang to begin with probably originated in your falling out of your unconscious and starting to will something into the work. But even if the problem occurred while you were in the proper trance, you’re not going to be able to revise properly by turning the revision into conscious, rational thought. What you do is you return to the part that twangs, you go back into your unconscious, and you redream it. Rewriting in redreaming. You revisit your unconscious.

William H. Coles

Not restructuring?

Robert Olen Butler

Not restructuring. Redreaming! But if you have properly assimilated your craft and technique, and you’re focusing on the essence of narrative, which is the yearning of the character, then redreaming will be restructuring.

William H. Coles

Let me carry this into the interesting series of videos you did for Florida State University, in which you took a photograph — it was a photograph of a biplane where the wing was falling off — and then your story started with the imagining of people on the ground who saw it happen.

Robert Olen Butler

One man’s perception.

William H. Coles

Wasn’t his son there too?

Robert Olen Butler

Yes, his son was there. But it was in the father’s voice.

William H. Coles

Then you walked through that with a very methodical progression that doesn’t exactly fit into the process you’ve been talking about. How, in the development of that story, do you see what we’ve been talking about?

Robert Olen Butler

Did you see all thirty-four hours of that project?

William H. Coles

No. It’s been some years.

Robert Olen Butler

How much did you see?

William H. Coles

I saw maybe seven hours.

Robert Olen Butler

I don’t see how you would think that’s a different process. It wasn’t. It’s exactly what I was preaching.

William H. Coles

Okay. I’ll go back and look.

Robert Olen Butler

Now that we’ve talked, you should go back and look, because you may have been interpreting what I was doing in a way that you’ve been continuing to ask your questions.

William H. Coles

I see. [laughs] And irritatingly, too.

Robert Olen Butler

No. Not at all. Not in the least. I hope I’m not irritating you by taking issue with you. Because you’re asking really good questions, and you’re asking them, Bill, in exactly the way every student who has come to me for twenty-five years is thinking about them. You are giving articulate voice to the fundamental misimpressions of all those craft and technique classes that all the aspiring artists of the world are taking. So I’m glad you’re asking them this way, because it’s is exactly how they’re approaching this. But now that you’ve heard what I said, you should go back to that video . . .

William H. Coles

Is it still up?

Robert Olen Butler

Yes. It’s up forever. Reexamine it, because I think you’ll find it’s embodying what I’ve said.

William H. Coles

Could we tell the readers how they can access the videos?

Robert Olen Butler

All seventeen sessions are available for free download at iTunesU. Just go to the iTunes store and search for “Inside Creative Writing.”

William H. Coles

Terrific. What can we expect from you in the future? We know of the new novel.

Robert Olen Butler

All I can tell you, given my answers here today, [is that] I’m in the novel of the moment. I don’t know what the future is. But right now, I’m writing a novel called A Small Hotel, which is set in this very place, the Olivier House in New Orleans, and also at Oak Alley.

William H. Coles

A lovely place.

Robert Olen Butler

Along the River Road.

William H. Coles

I love that place. The oaks.

Robert Olen Butler

And as I mentioned, there is a woman who checks in who is intending perhaps to kill herself while her husband — well, her ex-husband . . . well, he’s not her ex because this very morning she has skipped the court appearance that would finalize the divorce — he’s checking into Oak Alley with a woman friend. And all the assumptions you would probably make from that are wrong. There’s a lot of complexity here.

William H. Coles

It’s tantalizing.

Robert Olen Butler

Yes. And I’m staying with the third person with this novel.

William H. Coles

Where can people learn more about writing from you?

Robert Olen Butler

I recommend people follow my website, which is robertolenbutler.com, and I’d recommend my book From Where You Dream.

William H. Coles

Thank you very much for this interview. It’s been exactly what I wanted and will be valuable for our readers in terms of finding new ways of thinking about writing, about how to create story, how to get a vibrant art form on the page.

Robert Olen Butler

It’s been a delight, Bill. A pleasure to talk to you.



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6 thoughts on “Robert Olen Butler

  • Tony Powell

    I had dinner with Bob Butler once and sat through some of his craft lectures. I like him. I like his work. But he’s also full of s***. At the time, he was just beginning “Intercourse” and was holding forth at a post-reading cocktail party, soliciting ideas for couples to include in his book. He was funny, charming, entertaining.

    But as far as all this dreaming and redreaming is concerned, well, he may very well believe it, but in effect, he is just describing (indeed, “dramatizing” in scene) what all literary fiction writers do — gather wool, imagine, “hear the voices.” I would go as far as to say that Bob purposely obfuscates his process in order to make it as grandiose and mysterious as possible. He has one song and sings it almost word-for-word in this interview just as he delivers it in lectures and his book “From Where You Dream.”

    As of now (June 2011) he is in Europe teaching a workshop. On his Facebook page he posts carefully staged photos of where he’s writing — in lovely old saloons, hotel lobbies — with pad and fountain pen catching the sunlight from the window “just so.” They are the very stereotype of “making it as a writer.”

    Bob is a con artist when it comes to his persona. He talks about his own work more than any writer you could name. Sad part is, he doesn’t need to be. His work speaks for itself.

  • Tim Chambers

    Dr. Coles,

    I don’t question his method, just his claims.

    When I work I do pretty much the same thing, writing in a frenzy, letting each step suggest the next, until I get stuck with an insoluble problem. Then I stop, go back and revise, and sleep on the problem. The next morning I revise some more to get myself back in the swing of it, and write right through the problem. I figure I’m tapping into my own subconscious, as I don’t have access to the other.

    I certainly can’t claim the man’s success, but the only work of his I’ve read is a six word story in Narrative that was completely underwhelming.

    I did watch an hour or two of his videotape, and I have to admire him for putting his head on the chopping block like he did, but I cannot see myself sitting through all seventeen of them.

  • Tim Chambers

    Dr. Coles,

    I’ve enjoyed these interviews very much, but I wonder if you felt that Butler was talking down to you, maybe even pulling your leg a bit. The reason I ask is that he seemed so self-important, compared with the rest of the interviewees. Having read most the interviews in Paris Review, as well, I have found few authors, perhaps none, who presumed to claim they were tapping into the collective unconscious.

    • admin

      Hello Tim Chambers. Good to hear from you. Hope you are doing well. You’re insight is accurate as always. I’ve known Butler for a few years as an acquaintance, and more recently as a friend of sorts. And he certainly is smart enough to pull my leg at will, but I didn’t feel that during the interview, or after. Others have had similar thoughts as yours about the interview, and I think it is appropriate to say he an unusual personality. But the interview I felt was delivered in a passionate fervor to promote his understanding of how he thought the writing process should be, while, I think, exploring his own process in his own unique way. I was pleased with the content. How Butler writes is as close to 180 degrees opposite to what I’ve learned to value from my readings, interviews, and studies. But what was said in the interview, admittedly a little convoluted at times, was said by a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, sustained academician and teacher, who pleases many writers. And for all of us struggling to be the best we can, I thought it valuable to add Butler’s ideas for comparison to ideas in other interviews. I think side-by-side comparison to Shepard, for example, is enlightening and could help a writer make choices about his or her writing direction. I would also document what I expressed to him (Butler)–thanks for working hard over a long period of time, when he was incredibly involved with writing and life, to get the interview published. He could have easily trashed the whole project. I think it reflects his sincerity in the process and a willingness to explore the complexities of writing; many views are not that uncommon, I find, with many readers and editors. Best regards.