Interviews July/August 2004

Faraway Voices

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler talks about tapping into different points of view and writing "from the place where you dream"
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Had a Good Time
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Robert Olen Butler
Atlantic Monthly Press
224 pages, $23.00

The inspiration for Robert Olen Butler's new book of short stories, Had a Good Time, came from a collection of picture postcards. For ten years, he frequented postcard collectors' conventions and antique malls, and while other collectors concerned themselves with the postcard photographs, Butler dug for glimpses of story—or as he says, "little fragments of expressed life"—in the written messages on the back. He chose fifteen postcards, breathed lives into the correspondents, and the result is a wonderful collection of stories that depicts American life after the turn of the twentieth century from a wide variety of perspectives.

The Atlantic Monthly has published one of these stories, "The One in White," in its July/August issue. On the front of the picture postcard that inspired this story is a man in dark pants and a crisp white shirt, walking by a leather goods shop and two dead bodies lying in the street. Several people walk in a group up ahead. A hand-drawn arrow points to one of the women. On the back, the message says, "After the battle notice the pretty Senorita's in this photo. The one in white does my laundry." From the interplay of the image, the message (including its lapse in punctuation), and a good deal of historical research on Butler's part, the man in the photograph becomes an American reporter in Vera Cruz, awaiting the arrival of the U.S. Navy, dispatched by Woodrow Wilson to bring about a political changeover. The woman in white, Senorita Luisa Morales, becomes "more than a laundry a girl." Surprising to the narrator, she holds strong political convictions that challenge, threaten, and ultimately, years later, influence the journalist's own views of the Vera Cruz campaign.

Butler gets his protagonist's fast-talking, arrogant voice dead on: "We boys of the Fourth Estate love our image and our woodchopper's feel for words." Butler is known for this—his ability to take on, convincingly, a broad range of voices. In this collection alone, the points of view include a mother who goes to the trenches out of concern for her son, a former slave who finally rebels against his former owners' condescension, a pair of frightened young twins from Ireland arriving at Ellis Island, a Christian woman from Alabama on a trip to Egypt, and a forty-eight-year-old insurance man on a Coney Island beach moments before a heart attack.

Butler does not seek out these voices. Rather, he says, these voices find him. He claims that his early work in theater, his meticulous research into the time periods and settings he writes about, and most important, his ability to tap into universal human themes, makes an array of characters available to him. Several of his ten novels have focused on the relationship between America and Vietnam—as did his Pulitzer-Prize-winning short story collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), which was written from the point of view of Vietnamese expatriates living in Louisiana. A fascination with tabloid headlines gave rise to his collection, Tabloid Dreams (1996), in which the narrators range from a jealous husband reincarnated as a parrot to a woman who turns into a nymphomaniac following a car accident. In his novel, Mr. Spaceman (2000), Butler writes from the point of view of an alien. Still another example of his ability to get into the "head" of his characters has yet to make it to the U.S.—a forthcoming collection titled Severance is comprised of sixty prose poems, each from the perspective of a head severed from a guillotine. It will debut in France.

Butler has written ten novels and two other collections of short stories. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine award in 2001, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and an NEA grant, as well as the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.

I spoke with him by telephone on May 20.

—Jessica Murphy

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Robert Olen Butler
 

The first of the many newspaper clippings interspersed throughout this collection is from a New-York Tribune editorial and it poses the following question: "Is it the picture itself or the contracted space it leaves for writing that gives the picture postcard its vogue?" How might you answer this question?

For me the words written on the back are definitely what's most interesting. I would be that bizarre figure at antique malls and at postcard collectors' conventions ... All the other collectors would be thumbing through the cards from the front, and I would be sitting there with my magnifying glass laboriously reading the backs of the cards. For me the real interest has always been in the little fragments of expressed life from people who once walked this planet and have long since passed away. It's about catching that little moment of emotion. But for every true expression of emotion, I've probably read five hundred cards with the most awful banalities. How many times have I heard ...

"Having a great time..."

Yes, "Having a great time." And how many times have I heard "Why aren't you writing?" Or, "I've got a head cold." There were a lot of head colds at the beginning of the twentieth century, let me tell you. But ultimately, I've collected two hundred or more cards with really wonderful messages—just extraordinary, subtext-rich outpourings of human souls. That's what drew me to postcards to begin with.

It probably took a decade of doing this as a hobby before I suddenly woke up one morning and thought, "My god, there's a book here."

So it was mainly the message that helped you decide which postcards would make good stories?

Sure. Although often it's an interaction between the written message and the image. The images that interested me most are the type called "real photos." That's the term used by postcard collectors to refer to postcards with real photographs. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the little Kodak Brownie cameras came along and people were able to record visually things from their daily lives. They loved to take their own snapshots, print them on postcard backs, and exchange them. That's one category of postcard in which I very carefully examined the fronts as well as the backs. In the card associated with "The One in White" it's the absolute disconnect between the image on the front and the written message that inspired the story—the man commenting in a seemingly frivolous way about this laundress, while walking past two dead bodies in the street.

Similarly, the card that became the inspiration for a story that I wrote on the Internet was also a real photo postcard, from the very early days of aviation. Somebody is standing on the ground at an air show, looking up at the sky. And all we see in the photo is this impossibly fragile biplane against a white sky. If you look closely, the upper right wing is starting to tear away. The message on the back simply says: "This is Earl Sandt in his aeroplane just before he fell." Of the fifteen cards in the book several of them are these real photo postcards, in which there is an implicit dialogue between the message and the image.

Regarding the postcard for "The One in White": I wonder how you started to conceive of the story, and also how you picked the historical period. We know from the message on the back that there was a battle, and we know that the setting is a Spanish-speaking country because of the writing on the walls. But we don't know anything else because no dates are given.

There's no internal evidence to suggest Vera Cruz. Given what I know about the way the backs of the cards look—the layouts, the printing, and so forth—I was able to estimate a general timeframe, and I dated the card from somewhere in the early to mid-second decade of the twentieth century. I understood it to be a Spanish-speaking country, and there's a Westerner there among them—because you can pretty clearly see that he's not Mexican, and his writing suggests that too, not to mention his colonialist attitude. Once you figure out it's an American from that decade and you see dead people lying in the street, you've pretty much lasered in on Woodrow Wilson's eerily familiar—given current events—little bit of military adventurism in a foreign country. Once that happened, then I understood the context. But before I figured that much out, the thing that was nagging at me was that emotional disconnect. This is a guy utterly oblivious to the death that he's just passed on the street and is focused solely on the lovely Senorita doing his laundry. And that attitude felt like an early twentieth-century journalist's attitude. Once I understood that, and figured out his emotional state, I just let the story unfold and speculated about what his relationship might be with that Senorita.

This is a theme you've dealt with before—an American on foreign soil being attracted to a local woman, the familiar conceit of the male character exoticizing the other. Why does this dynamic interest you?

I guess because at a crucial moment in my life I was forced to enact that role. I was drafted into the U.S. army at the beginning of 1969 and sent to Vietnam. But what allowed me to step back and see that experience in a different way was the fact that the army sent me to language school for a full year before shipping me off. I spoke fluent Vietnamese from my first day there, and fell in love with the culture and the people and immersed myself in the Vietnamese way of life—a kind of ironic spin on Vietnamization, I suppose. I spent five months working in the countryside in close contact with farmers, wood cutters, fisherman, provincial police chiefs, and so forth. Then I spent seven months working at Saigon City Hall as an administrative assistant and linguist for the American Foreign Service Officer there, who was the advisor to the Mayor of Saigon. I lived in an old French hotel, worked a civilian-clothes job. My favorite thing for those seven months was wandering alone, after midnight, into the steamy back alleys of Saigon where nobody ever seemed to sleep. I'd crouch in the doorways with the Vietnamese people, who are among the warmest, most generous-spirited people in the world, and they invited me into their lives and into their culture. I came away from Vietnam profoundly shaped by this sense of colliding cultures.

It's not just a guy going and finding an exotic woman. It's a much deeper thing than that. It's that basic human yearning for connection—for an identity—in a world in which people clash over things like culture and religion, race and ethnicity. That seems to me the central issue of humanity. It always has been, and it's particularly heightened today.

When doing historical research for a story, what's the most essential thing to get right?

The most important thing to get right is the universal human truth of the situation. What you cannot do is subordinate that to a more surface, factual kind of truth. If you read Shakespeare's history plays you'll see that he was quite ready to play fast and loose with history in order to throw a spotlight on the larger universal human truths.

Having said that, I'm pretty scrupulous about getting the details right. In "The One in White," for example, there's the physical layout of Vera Cruz, the presence of General Maass's troops, the reenacting of the invasion for the Pathé newsreel cameras after it was all over ... That, by the way, is absolutely true—although if it weren't, I would have had to invent it. I found out about that in a memoir of a cinematographer who worked in the early days of cinema. The Marines happily reenacted the taking of the Customs House for the newsreel cameras on location in Vera Cruz. Those images were then sent back to the United States and played over and over again in the movie theaters of that era as if it were the real event.

The wonderful thing about history is that when you start looking at it closely, the kinds of things that present themselves are often better than anything that could have been invented. But the point I'm making is this: if I hadn't found historical evidence of the Pathé episode, and if my imagination had gone in that direction, I would have had no compunction about inventing such an event out of thin air. It has to be historically plausible, but ultimately in fiction it's the deeper human truth that you're after.

One of the delights of "The One In White" is the journalist narrator's very distinctive voice. And the other voices in Had a Good Time are equally distinctive and widely varied. How do you capture the voice of a given era or milieu?

The character's voice is one of the more mystical things. The rhythms of the voice, the inner patterns of emotion, well, those things have always just come to me. To be honest, it feels a little bit like channeling—not to get too mystical. But it really feels like those voices take hold of me rather than me seeking them out.

But the thing that lends a character's voice historical veracity is the quality of the quotidian details—that the journalist in "The One in White" is drinking blue agave, for example. Those kinds of details come from many sources, but I'm especially indebted to the Internet. I cannot imagine having written this whole book of stories—which covers a wide range of historical situations—without it. I should dedicate the book to Google.

Let me give you an example from an earlier book because it's fresh in my mind. In Mr. Spaceman, there's an old woman telling a story from her youth. As a young woman at the beginning of the twentieth century, she was out walking and came over the rise of a sand dune and witnessed the first flight of the Wright Brothers' plane. Given who she is and what's happened in her life, it's inevitable that she would know what kind of cloth was stretched over the frame of that plane. But how do you find that sort of information at a traditional library? It would take countless hours of researching and maybe you'd still never find it. When I was writing the book, Google wasn't around yet, but I typed a few key words into AltaVista and about two minutes later I found some obscure subset of the Smithsonian Institute's Web site, and I discovered that the cloth was muslin. Having this character say what she does in her little riff about the beauty and the magnificence of this machine—having her speak of the muslin stretched over the bones of this plane—that's what gives her voice its historical reality.

Do you find it helpful to read not only about the period but also books from the period?

Sure. For this book I went back and read probably a hundred of O. Henry's short stories. There's a lot of dreck among his work, but there are a dozen just wonderful stories that I rediscovered. I'd forgotten what a wonderful storyteller O. Henry was. And he was particularly terrific with the quotidian details. He was a reporter and he tended to record those things carefully—the fact, for example, that apartment houses in New York City in 1906 had bells, and that you could ring a bell from downstairs to get into a building. In historical fiction, when you move a character through the day-to-day tasks, you run into these kinds of problems. He arrives at an apartment building and wants to go up to see somebody. How does he do it? If I had needed that detail—that's one I never used—I would have learned it by reading an O. Henry story. So O. Henry provided me with some of the basic details of life in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.

How do you make sure the details are essential to the character and not just period props?

It's easy to get seduced by that. But that's where your instincts as an artist come into play. All works of fiction are built around a character who yearns, and if you're in touch with what the character is yearning for, then every detail is filtered through that emotional center. That will guide you as to which details are appropriate and which aren't.

Let's talk about the newspaper clippings interspersed throughout the collection. They're all dated August 7, 1910. Is there any significance to this day, aside from it being the date inscribed on the last postcard in the collection?

I chose that day precisely because it was the inscription on the back of that postcard. That was the day a group of about one hundred twenty Americans looked up into a camera and smiled those wonderful, hopeful smiles, just before the shit hit the fan in the twentieth century. So the day was chosen for me. It was on the back of the card.

Then I got on the Internet, and went to some Web sites that sell old newspapers. I bought half-a-dozen newspapers from that day and just read them all. Every one of the news stories that I've included in Had a Good Time—except the very last one, which describes the death of my fictional character—are real. In fact, on that very day, one of the newspapers had an editorial about picture postcards. Can you believe it? That is absolutely true, not made up.

And, by the way, there's an interesting etymological note. I was shocked to come across the word "barf." I thought, Interesting, I wonder when that came into usage. If you go to the Merriam-Webster's dictionary the first use of the word "barf" was 1956. So then I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, and even in the 1989 supplement, the earliest recorded use of "barf" was 1960.

You'll have to send this in to the OED.

Yeah, I have to send it in. It was obviously in currency in 1910 because the little kid quoted in the news item had absorbed it from the zeitgeist. He didn't invent it.

How were you hoping these clippings would resonate with the postcard stories?

I had no reason to hope that they would, but I found those sixteen news stories and put them in and they resonate remarkably with the stories around them. It took a lot of juggling and careful reading and so forth to figure out the order in which to place those news items. They're placed in very carefully. And it's just astonishing to me that there was an editorial about postcards that day, August 7, 1910. The book seemed somehow destined to be written.

Let's look at a sampling of these headlines. "Dress With Buttons on Back Enables Woman Prisoner to Escape," "Scared Hoosiers Die of Heart Disease Because Astrologer Said They Would," "Boatmen Use Oar on Man Who Breaks from Randall's Island," "Woman Who Died Suddenly May Have Starved," "Tar and Feather Actors." Such colorful stuff.

It's all real.

And this was newsworthy! At first I thought about how what is newsworthy has changed quite a bit since 1910. But upon reflection, perhaps the subject matter is pretty comparable.

Have you been to a supermarket checkout counter lately?

Right. They do sound like tabloids.

They're exactly tabloids.

But these were real newspapers! And some of these clippings were front-page news.

These were stories from The New York Times, The New York Sun. But you can't forget that back then there were probably twenty or thirty daily newspapers in New York City. And they performed the whole range of media functions for people, pre-radio, pre-television, pre-specialization. The daily newspaper was also CNN, Entertainment Tonight, and The National Enquirer. The daily newspaper provided everything. It catered to the whole range of human-interest tastes. Those same newspapers were covering the bigger issues of the day, as well.

This is your third linked story collection. Your first, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won you a Pulitzer, consisted of stories told from the point of view of Vietnamese expatriates living in Louisiana. Tabloid Dreams took headlines from tabloid magazines and gave convincing and empathetic lives to the characters in the stories. Now you've used American postcards. Do you seek out a theme before starting on a collection?

I don't seek out the theme. It's not an intellectual process. I was interested in the Vietnamese diaspora because of the time I spent in Vietnam. I've always been interested in those wacky newspapers at the checkout counters. I collect picture postcards. It's those off-the-book-page interests. I've just finished another book, which will actually appear in French before it appears in English. It grew out of a trip I made with my wife back in 1995 to the War Crimes Museum in Vietnam, where I saw an old French guillotine, and I got interested in the guillotine. I did some research about it, and it turns out that the guillotine prompted a lot of pseudo-scientific speculation and experimentation. One of the epigraphs to the new book is a quote from a nineteenth-century French doctor who says that after due consideration it's his opinion that there's enough blood left in the brain of a decapitated head to sustain consciousness for one-and-one-half minutes.

Whoa.

The other epigraph is from a handbook of speech which points out that in a heightened state of emotion people speak at a rate of a hundred and sixty words a minute. So if you do the math, a minute-and-a-half, one hundred sixty words per minute ... I've written a book of sixty tiny stories or prose poems, or whatever you want to call them. Each of them is exactly two hundred and forty words and each represents the last outburst of internal monologue in a recently severed head.

My French publisher became enchanted with these and is going to bring the book out in French next March. The book is called Severance. I was going to call it Talking Heads. If you want to know the difference between commercial fiction and serious literary fiction, that's the difference: Talking Heads and Severance.

So this interest in the guillotine is the centrifugal force, if you will.

Exactly. There are sixty different voices ranging from an early cave man to Medusa to John the Baptist and on through to Jane Mansfield, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a woman beheaded in the collapse of the South Tower—and everybody in between. So the guillotine was the center of gravity, and it drew out all these voices.

There's really no voice, no point of view you shy away from, is there?

No. I adore plunging into my own unconscious and breaking through to wherever that universal unconscious is and listening very carefully to who's out there talking.

I'm hoping Had a Good Time will demonstrate in microcosm something that has always befuddled book reviewers about my work. And that is that I seem never to do the same thing twice. I'm always moving around. Now in one book you'll see fifteen drastically different voices. This is the way I see the world. I'm in search of the deep human truths as they play out across a wide range of characters and situations.

I wonder if we could speak a little bit about your Internet project, particularly in the way that it pertains to your new collection. How did you conceive of this idea and how was it received?

If I forget to mention this later, it's still archived and people can go watch it anytime they want at www.fsu.edu/butler. I've been teaching fiction writing to graduate students for nearly twenty years. What I teach writers to do is to get out of their minds, to turn off their analytical faculties. I try to teach them that the work of art does not come from ideas. Art comes from the place where you dream; it comes from the unconscious. The process of creating a work of art is something I feel needs to be focused on because so many writers are exposed only to matters of craft and technique. The one thing that other aspiring artists have over writers is that many of them can view their mentors at work. A painter can sit at the back of a studio and watch her mentor paint, a ballet dancer can watch his mentor rehearse and perform. But you can't really observe the creative process of a fiction writer. It's never been seen. So I decided to do a Webcast out of my office at Florida State University.

For seventeen nights, two hours a night, I wrote a short story from beginning to end. I would write in a sort of trance, and then I would step out of my trance and analyze what I had done for my virtual audience. People would also e-mail me questions while I was working. During the first hour and a half of our two-hour session my grad students would sort through the questions and bring me the best ones, and in the last half hour I would answer them. I made it clear I wasn't interested in suggestions, because that's not the way this art form works. The point was to inquire about process and technique and various decisions I'd made that night, encouraging me to explain this or that. Thousands watched during the process. It remains one of the most popular destinations on FSU's web site.

One thing I found very interesting about the process was that the first posting of your web story, "This is Earl Sandt," started with the same lines as your final version. Is this typical of your writing process? Do you need to get the first line right before you can proceed with the story?

I do. In the first session the first line was much agonized over. It was not the first first line. There were false starts.

There are two kinds of writers in the world. There are those that just free form with whatever initial inspiration they have, and they get a rough draft out of themselves no matter what. They just plow ahead and get that rough draft out. Then they go back and work it over. I understand that kind of approach, and I share the concerns that such a writer might have—of getting trapped in his head and preplanning and so forth. But I work differently. I will not go on to the next sentence until the sentence I've just written is the way I want it to be. Although of course that's open to change later if necessary.

Graham Greene once said that all good writers have bad memories. He was speaking about a larger issue. He said that what you remember comes out as journalism, and what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. That's an important point about the artistic origin of the work, but for me it also applies to the editing process: a writer needs to forget what she has just written in order to reengage it, in order to fix it or to improve it. My memory is so bad that I forget my sentences virtually as I write them. When I write a sentence, I go back and the previous sentence looks strange to me. It looks like somebody else wrote it. So I'm able to do effective rewritings of myself pretty much as I go. Obviously there are other editing issues that have to do with the larger rhythms in a piece, and so forth, and if you watch the Webcast you'll see that every day I go back and reread everything from the day before. One night I wrote a bunch of words and was very satisfied with them. Then the next day I went back and deleted them all. But by the time I finished the first night and had that opening, it was the opening I felt I would need—and as it turned out, it was the right one.

Would you ever do this type of project again?

I'd be willing to if the necessity were there. But there are thirty-four hours of Webcast for a student to absorb, so I don't see the pedagogical need for it. And I'm not a masochist. This was a very difficult task. A lot of my writer friends thought I was crazy.

Is it true that you wrote your first novels longhand?

Yeah. This was before computers. The reason I wrote longhand has to do with my writing process. Because I work over my sentences as I write them, you can imagine that for me, as a result, composing on a typewriter would be impossible. So I had to write longhand. But more to the point, every word of my first four published novels was written by hand on legal pads on the Long Island Railroad while I commuted.

I read that you've written a screenplay version of A Good Scent.

I wrote a couple of versions some years ago for Wayne Wang, but the movie—as many movies do—failed to get made. But there's a movie that I think the Sundance Channel is producing, about immigrant experience, that's fairly far along in getting the green light. And one of the stories from A Good Scent may be used in that. But we'll see. You just never know. I went on to write seven more screenplays for Hollywood—based on other people's material—and none of those got made either.

Are there particular challenges to adapting your own work into a screenplay?

Again I had to use my bad memory. And I had to be willing to drastically change things. It's a whole other artistic medium. And the problem, of course, is that even if a good movie is made from a book the two will bear the same relationship to each other as Keats's poem does to the Grecian urn. It's a whole other thing. You can't pour wine into Keats's poem. You have to accept that it has a different structure and a different ethos.

Is it true that your first novel, The Alleys of Eden, was rejected 21 times? Any advice to writers overly familiar with rejection?

Especially in this day and age, when literary fiction is not in great favor, my advice is to hang in there. If after fifteen rejections, or even twenty, I'd said, "aw fuck it," I wouldn't be talking to you right now. The thing that helps with rejection is to just move on to the next book or the next story. Once you've written a thing, and it's the way you feel it needs to be artistically, you put it out in the world and you let it go. If you let the ambition to be published—or to be famous or to get book prizes—supersede your ambition to look into the deepest part of your self and to articulate your vision as truly as you can, you will never succeed as a writer. Your art will be destroyed. And if you do succeed in getting published, it will be as a compromised writer whose works will never endure. So you just write the thing you know to be true, and you put it into the world. Then you let it go, and you turn to the next story or the next book.

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Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is the 2006-2007 Milton Center writing fellow in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and her fiction is forthcoming in Memorious magazine.

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