Robert Olen Butler interview: The art of yearning

Pulitzer winner Robert Olen Butler on how great stories are made.
By Ryan G. Van Cleave | Published: April 25, 2017


Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler stopped by the Ringling College of Art and Design this past November to read in our Visiting Writers Forum speaker series; he then headed down to the Miami Book Fair International to read with National Book Award winner Ha Jin. And that’s before heading to Europe to finish off the 80-day book tour to promote his new novel, Perfume River, which he describes as the “best book I’ve ever written” – something he’s never said about any of his books before, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

Despite Butler suffering from an increasingly severe bout of laryngitis – he was on day 54 of the tour, and he did a large-venue gig in Tallahassee the night before without a working sound system – we were able to speak with him during the Q&A period after the evening reading on the Ringling College campus, as well as during an intimate craft-oriented lunchtime chat with creative writing majors and minors.

 

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I’m a book sniffer. I never met a book that I didn’t open up and stick my face into. [laughs]

I was also probably the first writer ever to read in public from a device. Right around 2000, I had come to the AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] conference in New Orleans. I owned – long before the iPhone – the Hewlett Packard Pocket PC, a little silver thing. (HP really blew it – all they needed to do was add the phone!) This model actually had a version of MS Word on it. In the middle of the reading, the screen went blank, and a message came up telling me I was 15 minutes late to my own reading. [laughs]

 

In Perfume River, there’s a character named Robert who works – as you do – at Florida State University as a professor. Plus there’s a homeless Vietnam veteran in the book also named Bob. How much of you is in what you write?

It’s all me and it’s none of me. The great British author Graham Greene 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.” I have a really good “bad memory.”

So much of me is in Perfume River. But it’s only the stuff that has dissolved itself into what I call the artistic unconscious, or what Graham Greene calls the compost of the imagination. Anything I write because it happened, or I put it down and changed the names because it intrigued to me, is a failure of the process. That’s why Hemingway put a shotgun in his mouth, I think. The Sun Also Rises is basically a record. Hemingway was a journalist right up to his death. He just ran out of stories to tell.

But back to your question – yes, I teach at Florida State University, and so does a guy in the book named Robert. It’s all from the compost heap. These are things, settings, and situations that are certainly in my compost heap, but I did not draw on them as literal memory. They came out on their own. And so when I started naming the characters, which takes place early on in the process, I needed a name that was common in the Boomer generation in our childhoods. I wanted a homeless man who was clearly emerging as a parallel character, a shadow character to the main character, to share a name. A common name. I wanted a formal version and a kind of nickname, shortened, casual version.

It could have been William and Will or Billy, but that’s too euphonic. It could have been James and Jimmy, but Jimmy is a little reductive. Robert and Bob was the perfect combination. If my name were Marmaduke, they would’ve still been called Robert and Bob.

It’s not an elbow in the ribs saying, hey, it’s about me.

 

How do you get such a fine level of detail about your characters, their thought processes, and their lives?

I’ve done a lot of living. I’ve been married five times, went to Vietnam, went to war, worked in the summers with the labor gang at the Granite City Steel blast furnace, drove a cab.

Artists are not intellectuals. We are sensualists, we are ravenous for life. And I had been. And I’ve got a really good bad memory, and all that stuff goes into the compost heap. The “how” of what that process is down there, I have no idea. All I know is that characters keep emerging, voices keep speaking to me, and I keep writing them down.

 

Both Perfume River and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain are Vietnam books. How does your relationship with Vietnam inform your writing?

Vietnam is deeply within me. I got my master’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1969 and was immediately called into the Army. I ended up in military intelligence school, and then they sent me to language school for a year before I went over. I studied Vietnamese with a full-time native speaker. It’s a tricky language because of its tonality, but I was able to pick that up, and by my first day in Vietnam, I spoke the language fluently. My second day in the country, I fell madly in love with the Vietnamese landscape, its people, and its culture. I worked five months in intelligence, had close contacts with farmers and woodcutters and provincial police chiefs.

In 1971, a lot of units were starting to go home. My unit did too, but I owed the army seven more months. I had fortunately ingratiated myself to an American diplomat who was the advisor to the mayor of Saigon, and he had the army transfer me to him. I was his administrative assistant and sometimes translator.

I lived in an old French hotel, and my favorite thing in the world – almost literally every night for seven months – was to wander after midnight alone, armed only with the Vietnamese language, into the rather dicey and certainly steamy back alleys of Saigon, where nobody ever seemed to sleep. I would approach people and crouch in doorways with them. They were enchanted that I spoke the language so well. They are a warm and generous-spirited people. They invited me invariably into their homes and their culture and into their lives. I was 26 at the time, had been in schools all my life, including Army school, and was an only child. When I was in my second month in Vietnam, I got a Dear John letter from my first wife. So I was adrift, alone in the world. I was ready to Vietnamize myself, which I did. And they were ready to adopt me.

All that I learned about them, their culture, and their view of the world – really much of what I know about our shared universal human condition – I learned in those back alleys. My connection to that place runs very deep. And rather uniquely so, given how I had an unusual combination of experiences there.

 

What type of writing training did you have?

Remember that I went to the University of Iowa for a master’s degree? It’s in playwriting, though. I started off wanting to be an actor. As an undergraduate, I went to Northwestern, a great theater school. And despite a lot of success, I decided I wanted to write instead of interpret. So I went off and became a playwright. I wrote a dozen full-length plays, and they were all terrible. I was a terrible playwright.

I should’ve known better because my most impassioned writing was going into the stage directions, and that’s a bad sign for a playwright. That’s a sign of a closeted fiction writer!

So I got back from Vietnam, and I’m a fiction writer. OK. Over a period of 10 years, I proceeded to write – I have a graduate student now who, over the last several years, catalogued my papers, so we have an exact count – 44 dreadful (unpublished, thank God!) short stories. And I wrote five terrible novels. All total, I wrote about a million words of dreck before something turned in me and I was able to write The Alleys of Eden, my first published novel.

 

Why didn’t those first short stories and novels work? What was that turn?

There are two things I teach to every student who comes to me.

One: I’ve been at Florida State University for 16 years now. We have a Ph.D. in creative writing, which means that many of the students who sit before me have MFAs from august institutions. Invariably, though, I find that they know the second through the 10th things about being an artist, but they don’t know the first thing about it.

Art does NOT come from the mind. It does not come from your rational, analytical faculties. It does not come from ideas. It does not come from theories. It does not come from philosophies. You don’t write a book in order to express a theme or make symbols. That’s NOT the process.

Art comes from the place where you dream. It comes from your unconscious. It comes from your white-hot center. It comes from the compost heap. That was a big, crucial difference between The Alleys of Eden and all the stuff that preceded it. But it was true of The Alleys of Eden and it’s true of Perfume River. Things have just gotten deeper and richer and more comprehensive along the way.

Two: The second thing that The Alleys of Eden had that the previous writings didn’t is a thing that has evaded the comprehension of all the students who sit in front of me. Virtually every one of them.

Fiction is a temporal art form – it exists in time.

Every art form has certain things that make it that art form. Movement in dance, sound in music, color and form in painting. Fiction, though, has a few things.

For one, it’s always about human beings. So it’s about human feelings, even if the character’s a giant cockroach or a parrot in a Houston pet shop who’s a reincarnated husband.

We use words, too – language is the fundamental medium on the page. We share that with poets. Poetry doesn’t have to acknowledge the passing of time. The poem is an object on the page in many ways. Line length is part of the form. You can have a poem that just walks around in a timeless state as an object.

But fiction? If you let the line length run on and you turn the page, you are, as they used to say, upon a time.

And any Buddhist will tell you – and it’s one of the great truths of their religion – that as a human being with feelings, you cannot exist for even 30 seconds on planet Earth without desiring something. We are creatures of desire, big and small.

 

Desire is one of the buzzwords associated with you and your writing. How does the concept of desire play into the writing of fiction?

I use the word “yearning” with my students because it suggests the deepest level of desire, which is where fiction gets to. So fiction is the art form of human yearning. You can understand it because the one craft element that we most associate with narratives is plot. Plot is simply yearning challenged and thwarted.

So my early work had the problem that virtually every student who comes to me has. The characters have voices, they have opinions, they have attitudes, they’ve got personality, they’ve got sensibility, they’ve got all this stuff, but all of this stuff added up together does NOT equal the dynamic of desire.

The most common false thing that they put at the center is problems. Characters have problems. And implicitly, if you have a problem, you desire not to have it. But that’s not strong enough to carry a narrative. It basically puts the character in a passive receiving mode of the problem.

So The Alleys of Eden has a character who yearned, and so does Perfume River, and so does everything I’ve written in between.

 

You have a different idea about the act of reading than some. Would you please explain that?

Listen, folks – in spite of what you learned in literature classes, you are not meant in your primary and only necessary encounter with a work of literary art to understand it in an abstract, analytical, theoretical, thematic, philosophical way. In your primary and only necessary encounter with a work of art, you are meant to thrum to it. Like the string vibrating on a stringed instrument. That you have to learn first.

If you go back and study it then in the other way and recognize that that’s not really reading at all, that’s a different thing. Most literature classes would have you ask “What is the author trying to say?” As if it has to be translated into abstraction for him to have said anything. Nonsense.

The correct response to literature is to thrum.

 

Do you know the ending to a story prior to writing it?

The ending is the last thing I know. If you know the ending ahead of getting there, then de facto, it’s coming from some other place than your unconscious. The object is organic. It’s got to earn that ending in the terms of every comma stroke that’s come before. The ending’s the last thing I want to know.

 

You’re a fan of Akira Kurosawa, right?

The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” The scariest thing about that idea is that therapists try to deal with the things that torment people, that make them behave in ways that are not appropriate. They go back to the compost heap too, and they try to restore those memories literally, to defuse them and what they have given you. That’s difficult. That’s what therapy’s about.

The artist has to do it the other way around. You have to go there and roll around in it. That’s why you want to avert your eyes and avoid it. The way that you master it, though, is by getting up on the back of that tiger and riding it. You have to have the courage to do that. Every great work of art is an act of courage.

It has to be worth the doing for you or you won’t do it.

There’s only so much you can teach. I can teach you that it’s what you have to have. But then you have to find it in yourself.

 

Do you struggle with averting your eyes when it comes to writing? Does it get any easier?

It’s always a struggle. Whatever made me come here and do that reading last night when the doctor said, “You better stay home?” I don’t know how to teach to that. OK, it’s something I’ve got to do, so I do it. The alternative is worse. Not coming here. Not doing this. Not reading to and speaking with the people last night.

I enjoy doing this. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy reading.

Yet every morning I go into a place within myself where it’s scary as hell, but there’s also wonderful stuff there. Your unconscious has got good stuff, too. The alternative is, “OK, I’ve done enough books. I won’t be a writer anymore.” Or I’ll write crap just to write, or write to be published and make money.

That’s not why I write. That’s not why artists do what they do. I’d be writing these books if I were sitting on a desert island with my monkey friends.

 

Any tips for aspiring young writers?

Our medium is language. Every word makes a sound, but the sound is a medium overwhelmed with meaning. And the meanings of most words are not of the senses. Even though this object we’re creating is an art object, it’s intended to be perceived in its primary and only necessary way through the senses. Our medium is trying to drag us into our heads. That puts a special burden on the state of mind we have to get into.

So there are things to do. If you’re not a morning person, you should try to make yourself a morning person. Get up and write first thing. Do not do anything with language until you’re finished with your writing workday. Don’t read your emails. Don’t watch CNN (I’m not going to watch CNN for the next four years anyway). Don’t pick up The New Yorker next to the toilet. Don’t read. Just go straight to the work. Let your actual sleep time clear your linguistic palette. And get into your creative language zone, your sensual zone with language, before you let the other uses of language – conceptual – come in at you. Which is going to happen to you as soon as you walk out the door. Certainly as soon as you come into school.

 

Got any final parting thoughts for us? Any secrets?

I’m going to give you the keys to the kingdom, and you better forget this as soon as I tell you if you’re an aspiring writer. I have come to believe – and it’s not even in my writing craft book From Where You Dream – that there’s a unified field theory of yearning. I think that if you dig deep enough into almost all great literature, you’re going to find a single expressible yearning, and the danger is that you turn this into an idea and then write a book to try to put that in, and you fail. But it’s the thing you intuit, the thing you feel into your characters.

I think that if you dig deeply enough, the yearning at the center of great literature is I yearn for the self. I yearn for an identity. I yearn for a place in the universe. That’s the great thing, the great “Who the hell am I?” which we ask ourselves every day. All the things we seem on the surface to be concerned about in this day and age especially – our race, our gender, our sexual preference, our politics, our religion, you name it – those things provide us with an answer to that question. WHO AM I?

I am black. I am white. I am Muslim. I am Christian. I am an atheist. I am a Republican. I am a Democrat. I am whatever Trump is.

Poor Donald, tweeting at 3 in the morning. He’s in desperate search of that answer. We all are. And I think that’s from Anna Karenina to Madame Bovary to Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield, you name it. It’s “I yearn for a self.” And that’s something you can take out of Perfume River, too.

 

Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the creative writing program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Web: ryangvancleave.com.

 

 

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