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.

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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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