A Conversation with Author Robert Olen Butler
By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
Lately, I find myself drawn to literary thrillers: stories powered by a full-throttle narrative, driven by sharply drawn characters whose every turn has been carefully plotted.
This is a big change for me. For many years I downplayed the importance of plot in a novel. In fact, the more intricate the plot, the less likely I was to read the book. I preferred the machinery of the human heart to the gear-springs of overt action and reaction. "Character is plot" used to be my mantra.
My father, may he rest in peace, helped me see the light. "I just like a good story," he used to say. His words rankled … until they made sense.
My father would have enjoyed the novels in Robert Olen Butler's Christopher Marlowe Cobb Series. In the hands of a great writer and storyteller like Butler, the synthesis of character and plot is a sublime combination. I interviewed Mr. Butler in February 2015, focusing on his new and extraordinary series of literary thrillers.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: It's not as if plot and suspense are absent from your earlier work—but you seem to have changed your focus and manner. The Hot Country is the first novel in your Christopher Marlowe Cobb series. How did you come to conceive this series?
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: It all began with a picture postcard. I wrote a book back in 2004 called Had a Good Time, which was based on my postcard collection. I'd collected them for years, all from the first two decades of the twentieth century. My specialty was not the image on the front but the message written on the back. The postcard that turned into the story that began these novels is a photo postcard—taken by a Kodak Brownie camera and printed on a postcard back—of a man walking on a sidewalk. You see him from behind, passing a row of adobe shops with Spanish names. In the far distance, on the cobblestone street, you can see a man on horseback, from behind. From the cut of the uniform he's clearly an American Marine of the era. In the middle distance is a gaggle of people, mostly women. The sender of the postcard has drawn an arrow to point at one of the women, and on the back he's written, "After the battle. Notice the pretty señoritas in this photo. The one in white does my laundry." What he does not mention is that not more than an arm's length away from him, lying on the sidewalk in pools of blood, are two dead Mexican men. Based on all of this, I deduced the image was from the Battle of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1914. After that, this voice wouldn't let go of me. So I wrote the short story and it had some literary success. It was in the Atlantic Monthly and it won a National Magazine Award in Fiction. And then eight years later the story came to the attention of Otto Penzler, the legendary American editor of books of mystery, suspense, and espionage. He read the story, saw its possibilities, got in touch with me, and offered me a two-book contract to write at least two novels in that guy's voice. Being of a literary turn of mind, I think my exact response to him was, "Oh boy, you betcha!"
Though I'm considered a "literary" writer and I've been teaching the literary genre in universities for thirty years, I have always drawn energy and inspiration from the so-called entertainment genres. As the old Ella Fitzgerald song goes, "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it." Indeed, as a fictionist writing from my artistic unconscious, I'd previously created books in half a dozen genres: sci-fi (Mr. Spaceman), fantasy (Hell), romance (A Small Hotel), history (Wabash), young adult (The Deuce), and sex (They Whisper). In my own personal response to the zeitgeist I've always been drawn to the popular culture and its modes of expression. Indeed, the background and life of Christopher Marlowe Cobb are actually way closer to me than any other character I've written, in a very personal way. I went to war. I was in military intelligence as a de facto spy. I came from a theatrical home, my dad being chairman of the theatre department of St. Louis University, and I studied acting in a great theater school. I was an investigative business reporter and then the editor-in-chief of an investigative business newspaper. Kit Cobb is a man who's gone professionally to war as an investigative journalist, turns into a spy, and is profoundly shaped by his upbringing in a theatrical family: all of that is true of me. And if you look at the twenty-first century zeitgeist—just turn on CNN any day of the week—you will find the elements of espionage thrillers. So I feel this character and these books and this historical period I'm writing about are all tapping into how I view the world at my deepest, unconscious level.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Christopher Marlowe Cobb is a fascinating character. Raised in a brothel and theater, he acquired the improvisational skills necessary to thrive as an undercover journalist. Has the derring-do Cobb ever surprised you—or do you keep him on a tightly scripted rein?
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: He always surprises me. The only question is when in the process he does it. I create the book in two modes. One I call "dreamstorming," where I go into my creative zone and float in a free associative way through the possible events of the book one level removed from line to line writing, at the level of scene. I make no effort to organize or structure the book at this point, though I let the internal structure of scene sequences develop. I just don't push them. I write very brief identifiers of these scenes on index cards, one scene per card. Now, all these scenes are being driven by the characters. Mostly Cobb, of course. I can arrange and rearrange these cards endlessly to get one tentative structure of the book after another. The second mode then is the line to line writing. But I keep those index cards in shuffle mode always. Cobb still gets to have his own way. If he surprises me in the line to line writing, I simply go back to the cards and restructure the rest of the book based on what he's decided to do.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Though he is capable of killing in the line of duty, Cobb is a moral man who believes he can foster justice through his printed words. What are your thoughts about this pen and ink crusader?
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: You're right. He does have a moral compass. It's personal to him and shaped to some extent by his unique personality. The complication, of course, is that he is also a man of his time. An American of his time. And that pulls strongly on his compass needle. He gets caught up in our complex national impulse that wants to make things better for others but often leads us to mix our motives and fail to see the full impact of our methods. Our beneficence gets tainted by our self-interest. Take the situation in The Hot Country, for instance. It's April of 1914. The Great War has not yet begun. Woodrow Wilson will keep us out of that war for three years. But he invades Mexico because he sees a dictator he doesn't like, he wants to protect American oil interests, and he fully expects the Mexican people to welcome us with open arms as their liberators. Then he simply grabs Vera Cruz and vicinity and goes no farther, to the frustration of his generals who wanted to march on to Mexico City. Instead, he puts the occupying Americans to work bringing sanitation to a disease-riddled city. Cobb finds something far more important going on in all this, but he does get caught up on a personal level with the mixed motives and wrongheadedness that are being played out on a national level. That internal struggle will continue for him through the whole series, and he will learn and evolve. By the way, I say he's an American of his time, but I need hardly point out that our country and our world still struggle with these issues. That's why Cobb and his era are so interesting to me.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: There's quite a bit of acting, role-playing, masks, and switched identities in these three novels. How do you describe the idea or theme that embraces all this?
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: I'm delighted at your focusing on those elements in the Cobb books. Your question goes to the heart of my fictional aesthetic. The thing that drives all narrative is the goal, the objective, the desire of the central character. Since I most often teach the "literary" genre, I'm partial to the word "yearning" because it suggests the deepest level of goal and objective. Fiction is the art form of human yearning. And plots in books are simply yearning challenged and thwarted. I've taught fiction writing in university graduate programs for 30 years. This is the fundamental thing I have to teach my students. Most of them have lost track of it because the fundamental character goal in a so-called literary story is not immediately clear. That's why so many people love to read the entertainment genres, why they are instantly hooked into the stories. The goals are perfectly clear. To solve the mystery. To win the war. To win that man or that woman. To escape and destroy the monsters. And that's certainly enough. But for the literary genre I've come to recognize a kind of unified field theory of yearning. If you look deeply enough, most central characters in literature are being driven by a yearning for self, for an identity, for a place in the world. I certainly feel that about Cobb. The elements you have wisely identified in your question are manifestations of that. He is always confronting the great question of identity. Journalist. American. Son. Lover. Thinking, feeling, value-seeking human. He is an actor in his own life, taking these roles on, trying to make them fit together, trying to figure out who he is.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Throughout the series we learn how Cobb's mother has influenced her son. How would you describe their relationship, especially in The Empire of Night, where she figures significantly?
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Complex. She is a very famous stage actress who raised Cobb alone in countless theaters and countless rooming houses in countless cities of the world. She was mother and father both—never even identifying the man whose blood he shares—and she enlisted the skills and influence of her fellow actors and actresses to teach him many things. She too is in avid search for a self, an identity, and in The Empire of Night this yearning is under serious challenge, since she has reached an age when the identity she has most firmly clung to all her life—the beautiful young leading lady—is no longer viable on the stage. So when she becomes a major player in Cobb's adventure in The Empire of Night, her yearning and his are thrown together in a very complex and conflicted way indeed.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Actors compartmentalize new identities, feelings, even moral codes—without absorbing them. The work of a novelist can be very similar. Your thoughts?
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be an actor. I studied acting at a great theater school, Northwestern University, in the mid-Sixties and learned what is popularly called "Method acting." This requires that the actor resist creating a role from the outside in, by consciously putting on gestures and posture and vocal mannerisms and such. A Method actor first brings his own inner sensory mechanism into alignment with the inner sensory mechanism of the character he is trying to create. Then the outer performance flows from that inner place. I write in the same way. I inhabit the characters I create as a Method actor might and I take on their identities and feelings and moral codes by making them one with my own inner sensibility. I create them from my deepest unconscious. I suppose that's why I am so partial to first-person narration. Once I am inside the character, I am inclined to speak in his or her voice.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Each of the three books in the series involves events related to World War I: the revolution for Mexican independence (The Hot Country), the sinking of the Lusitania (The Star of Istanbul), and the zeppelin bombing of London (The Empire of Night). What led you to choose these events as the hubs of your novels?
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: I am working my way chronologically through the 1914 to 1918 period, and before I begin each book I sit down and read intensively about the next fairly narrow slice of time. I open myself to the major events of those few months and am particularly drawn to the issues—be they social, political, or technological—that resonate powerfully with the issues of our own time. The early twentieth century and the early twenty-first are strikingly similar in the global and personal issues facing human beings. The Iraq wars and 9/11, terrorism and genocide, weapons of mass destruction and human rights struggles: all these current events and issues, and many others, are foreshadowed in the Cobb books.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Towards the end of The Hot Country, Cobb says: "I was in the midst of an actor's recurring dream: I was about to go onstage and I had no clue even what the play was, much less what my lines were." This reminds me of the uncertainty I sometimes face as a novelist. Are you still plagued by such terrors? Is it different when you are writing a book with a strong plot line?
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Plagued and exhilarated. Since plot flows from yearning, both strong plots and subtle plots are equally torturous and energizing. For me they all come from the same terrifying and universal question: who the hell am I?