Art Comes from the Place You Dream: An evening with Robert Olen Butler

 

Not heavy on literary events, 2016, though I’m rather proud of the lengths I went to in order to see Stephen King. It involved ten hours of driving, then five hours broiling on a sidewalk in the Louisville heat like a toad in a frying pan, dehydrated to the point I was near-hallucinating by the time I fell into my seat in the shade of the pavillion.

Never have I come so near weeping at the sight of an ass-breaking plastic seat. It shone like a lake in the desert. If I’d had any fluid left in my body, I’d have wept.

There was Irvine Welsh, as well. Not as dramatic an approach, but one hell of a fun evening. There was beer, laughter, moments of insight into the human condition as it applies to Scotland and universally, and one of my favorite author inscriptions ever.

Few but mighty, my 2016 literary functions.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet a writer native to the state I’ve called home since the age of three. Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer winner for the story collection Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, was born in Granite City, IL on January 20, 1945. His father an actor and theatre chairman at St. Louis University, Butler worked in the steel mills, equally at home with artists and blue collar laborers.

 

Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler and I have been as tight as any two Facebook connected strangers, lo these past couple of years. We’ve had our share of “Likes,” mostly mine in response to his posts. But who’s counting.

Not long past knee surgery, Butler’s currently engaged in a multi-nation book tour. When I saw he was coming to Milwaukee, I thought here’s my chance to meet him in person. It isn’t a long drive to Milwaukee, only an hour and a half or so. It’s also a very pretty route, if you avoid the expressways. There are many less pleasant ways to spend early autumn evenings.

Arriving at the venue, Boswell Book Company, like any 21st century being worth my salt I checked in via Facebook. Self-satisfied as likes began coming in fast and furious, I settled into a ridiculously comfortable leather chair in the front row, opening a review book to get in a bit of “work.”

Roughly ten minutes later, Robert Olen Butler himself strolled by, greeted me by name, shook my hand and chatted with me. Because he’d seen my post, in which I’d tagged him, of course.

 

butlertweet

 

Like!

Following a 37-minute reading from his new book, Butler and the moderator – a former writing student of his, now professor of English – spoke about what it means to be an artist, from where inspiration springs and briefly covered Butler’s career. The author of a couple dozen novels, several collections of stories and one book on the craft of writing, Robert Olen Butler admits he doesn’t fit easily into any genre, that in fact hardly do any two of his books seem to have been produced by the same writer.

The New York Times has called Butler a restless writer, one as comfortable writing literary fiction as thrillers, short stories and nonfiction. His range is broad, his gift translatable to multiple genres, fitting neatly into none. Asked to explain how each of his books inform the next, he replied his literary fiction is better for having written mystery/thrillers, and his mystery/thrillers better for his experience with literary fiction.

 

Akiro Kurosawa

Akiro Kurosawa

“To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.”  – Akira Kurosawa, as quoted by Robert Olen Butler.

 

 

They discussed how art comes from the creative unconscious, from “mucking about” in the mind with life’s big ideas and concepts. Butler’s own assessment is all art is about yearning, all fiction about yearning challenged and thwarted. We use politics and religion and race to define ourselves and justify our actions, but in the end it’s all about finding our place in the Universe.

As Butler said, “It’s about waking up every morning asking, “Who the fuck am I?”‘

When you think about it, he’s nailed it.

With his Pulitzer-winning Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, he took somewhat of a risk speaking in the voices of multiple Vietnamese first person narrators, set in Southern Louisiana. During his service in Vietnam, Butler became enchanted, falling in love with the country and people.  Having learned the language prior to deploymen, he talked about wandering the side-streets of Saigon, solo but unafraid, armed only with his ability to communicate.

 

Moderator: What’s it like being such a lauded author?

Robert Olen Butler: You don’t sell very much.

 

His newest, Perfume River, returns to the same themes as Good Scent:

 

“His new novel, however, plays it straight. Though compact, the book ­ranges widely in time and setting to trace the effects of war — primarily the Vietnam conflict — on several generations of a New Orleans family. Butler’s Faulknerian shuttling back and forth across the decades has less to do with literary pyrotechnics than with cutting to the chase. “Perfume River” hits its marks with a high-stakes intensity. ” – NY Times

 

As inspiration for his Cobb series of mystery/thrillers, Butler took a collection of fifteen postcards, written between 1906 and 1917, and chose one voice: a man writing about President Woodrow WIlson’s 1914 invasion of Mexico. From that piece, he was contracted to write three novels, historical espionage with a “backbeat of suspense,” as he describes them. He’s currently working on the latest in the series, titled Paris in the Dark.

Book One - Cobb series

Book One – Cobb series

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cobb Series - Book Two

Book Two – Cobb Series

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Three - Cobb Series

Book Three – Cobb Series

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Endlessly inventive, in 2014 Butler shared his writing process through the creation of a short story, shared live in seventeen two-hour YouTube videos. That’s thirty-four hours of writing instruction given by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. He describes it as “like watching paint dry.” I doubt that.

I followed him on Facebook when he was engaged in the project, but I’d entirely forgotten about it. Of course I want to watch them, and of course it’s easy to vow I will. I still may, now that he reminded me.

My Facebook bestie.

My Facebook bestie.

I’m so glad I peeled myself off the sofa for the drive to Milwaukee. I’ve not regretted a single author event I’ve attended, it’s just easier to stay put than drag yourself out the door. But every writer has wisdom to share, and I’ve never met one who wasn’t generous and kind, happy and willing to answer questions you know they’ve been asked hundreds of times.

It’s always worth it, every one.

Art does not come from your head. It comes from the place you dream.

– Robert Olen Butler

 

The Sunday Salon – August 27 Edition: The reading week. Bits of This and That. And Hitler.

030-3

route 66: the mother road herself

A bit of photography for you this sunny (here, at least), temperate day. I stood in the middle of the road to get this shot, in the heart of an almost completely abandoned Route 66 virtual ghost town. All the former businesses were derelict, windows broken, insides filled with debris. I'll be posting several other photos from this location throughout the week.

Have to cut this short this week. It's family birthday party day. (I know, yay.) My boys had their birthdays on July 30 and 31 (two years apart, not twins, which may actually be more remarkable) but we were on vacation then. Today's the first chance we've had to observe their joint birthdays. I still have loads to do; the house looks like Irene picked it up, tossed it around and threw it down again. We're nowhere near the coast, tucked away safely in metro Chicago, but you wouldn't know it by looking in our windows.

Hey, you aren't looking in our windows, are you? Because that's so not cool.

Reading news:

Still reading the Booker Longlist books, working on a couple reviews I'll have up on the blog and reading NetGalley eBooks on my iPhone.

I was reading Chris Bohjalian's The Night Strangers in bed last night. It has supernatural themes, which make me jumpy as a circus performer. When my husband let out a sudden SNORT in his sleep I swear I jumped a foot off the bed. My heart rate shot through the roof. It was not a fun time.

The Night Strangers

Chris Bohjalian

Crown, October 4, 2011

 

Nightstrangers

"In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts. 

The home's new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain due to double engine failure. The body count? Thirty-nine.   
What follow is a riveting ghost story with all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from bestselling, award-winning novelist Chris Bohjalian: a palpable sense of place, meticulous research, an unerring sense of the demons that drive us, and characters we care about deeply. The difference this time? Some of those characters are dead."
– Amazon.com

Over the course of last week I reviewed:

A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler

The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann

The Curfew by Jesse Ball

We stopped by Catoosa, OK for a look at The Blue Whale.

And had a look at one image from an abandoned gas station along Route 66.

Next week I'll talk about a great book for writers/bloggers, another Booker Longlist read and, if I have the time, a couple long overdue eBook reviews. And, of course, more photos from sites along Route 66 from our summer vacation.

Have a good week. Stay safe if you're out East

 

Whokillhitler

 

The Doctor: Rory, take Hitler and put him in that cupboard over there. Now. Do it.

Rory: Right. Putting Hitler in the cupboard. Cupboard. Hitler. Hitler. Cupboard.

 

– Doctor Who, Episode 8, "Let's Kill Hitler"

A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler

Smallhotel  A Small Hotel: A Novel by Robert Olen Butler

 Grove Press, August 2011

This is why I try to avoid reading other reviews of books before I write my own thoughts. According to a major newspaper's book blog, Butler's latest novel comes uncomfortably close to mirroring his own 1995 divorce, made infamous after an extremely personal email he wrote went astray. An email about why his marriage failed, citing specifics about his ex-wife's past.

I'll be honest, knowing Butler was at least inadvertently responsible for this happening pre-disposes me to feel a little disgusted, but I know I'm projecting my own prejudices and that's irresponsible. A writer's personal life should not have anything to do with any assessment of his art. It also hasn't escaped me that this newspaper's (I don't want to give them any more curious readers) intention in mentioning Butler's divorce fiasco in the context of this novel may be ethically suspect, stepping over the line comparing real life with fiction, judging a writer's art by way of one particular incident. That makes me more disgusted. I believe that's called opportunism.

Putting that aside, I very much enjoyed the novel. I found it well-framed, using a couple's present-day divorce to bracket remembered episodes throughout their 24-year marriage, flashing back and forward, starting the day Kelly Hays doesn't show up at the courthouse to sign final divorce papers. Instead, she flees to the New Orleans hotel where she and husband Michael first got to know each other, spent their honeymoon, and returned to often throughout their marriage.

On the same day, Michael takes his 29-year old girlfriend to an antebellum costume party at a plantation home an hour away. The two haven't consummated their relationship but intend to the same evening Kelly's in New Orleans drinking scotch and contemplating a drastic step.

We're also given a bit of back story: both Michael and Kelly grew up with distant fathers they loved intensely, leading Michael to become withdrawn and Kelly to crave what she never had as a child. This proves to be key in the eventual demise of their marriage, as well as a factor in relation to their own 20-year old daughter.

A plot like this could well have turned out to be schmaltzy and melodramatic, but it wasn't anything like that. I was annoyed by the overuse of the expression "waiting a beat" – "a beat" already becoming a convention – but it was a book I could hardly stand to put down and couldn't wait to pick back up again.

Reading back through the plot description I'm baffled as to how Butler managed to avoid turning this into a Hallmark Special script. Maybe it's because the issues he raises – the importance of communication in a marriage, and how the lack of it can ultimately bring about its downfall – are so true. Or perhaps the seriousness with which he approached it and the language he used, avoiding any heaving breasts or throbbing organs. Had it been otherwise I wouldn't have even bothered addressing the novel.

Lacking the time to go back and thoroughly analyze his prose style, I can only say he pulled it off with aplomb. It's a great read, rendering any resemblance this book may have to a former real-life relationship moot. Because the last time I checked an author was allowed to use life experience, so long as there's nothing libelous, and divorce isn't really a unique situation you wouldn't expect to find in a book. If it were otherwise there would have been a lot of books left unwritten.

Did I miss something? If I did I'm mighty angry I didn't get the memo.

 

Robertolenbutler

Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 collection of short stories: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.