Robert Olen Butler has published sixteen novels and six volumes of short fiction, including A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 2013 he became the seventeenth recipient of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature, won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and has received two Pushcart Prizes. He has also received both a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
His stories have appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Zoetrope, The Paris Review, Granta, The Hudson Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares and The Sewanee Review and have been chosen for inclusion in four annual editions of The Best American Short Stories, eight annual editions of New Stories from the South, several other major annual anthologies and numerous college literature textbooks from such publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Norton, Viking, Little Brown & Co., Houghton Mifflin, Oxford University Press, Prentice Hall, Bedford/St.Martin's and in The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford.
His works have been translated into twenty-one languages, including Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Polish, Japanese, Serbian, Farsi, Czech, Estonian, Greek and Chinese. He was also a charter recipient of the Tu Do Chinh Kien Award given by the Vietnam Veterans of America for "outstanding contributions to American culture by a Vietnam veteran." Over the past two decades he has lectured in universities, appeared at conferences and met with writers groups in 17 countries as a literary envoy for the U. S. State Department.
He currently is a Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor holding the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University and he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the State University of New York system. He lives in Florida, with his wife, the poet Kelly Lee Butler.
Stay Thirsty Magazine is truly honored to have Robert Olen Butler participate in our One Hundred Words project from his home by writing his one hundred word responses to the topics we suggested based on his latest novel, Perfume River, that examines family ties and the legacy of the Vietnam War through the portrait of a single North Florida family.
STAY THIRSTY: Perfume River.
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: I've been writing Perfume River for most of my seventy-one years. It's about my boomer generation, our wars and our families and how they are profoundly intertwined. It also examines the fragility of human communication, how the possibility of personal connection can be endangered—and even destroyed—from misunderstanding what we say, or don't say, to each other. Not just each other. It's about the dialog always taking place within each of us. Our feelings in the present moment are in ongoing communication with moments from our past that even decades later continue to exist and to profoundly affect us.
STAY THIRSTY: Vietnam War.
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Only about twenty percent of the men who went to Vietnam saw combat as we classically picture it, carrying a rifle or driving a tank or flying a B-52. (That's a typical split for most armies in most wars.) For all the others sent there and for everyone who experienced the war at home—by TV-proxy, by protest, by family ties—the felt impact of the war deeply involved a collision of cultures. We were all challenged as never before to redefine who is "our own" and who is "the other." The legacy of that continues to this very day.
STAY THIRSTY: Fathers and sons.
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: The father creates the son in body, of course. Then comes the inevitable shaping of the son in every other way, just as certainly by instant abandonment as by full agenda-driven intent. And the son is indeed shaped, just as certainly by denying the old man as by accepting him. The Catholic Church ordains its priests by the touch of a bishop with the chain of that touching believed to stretch back unbroken to Jesus himself. It is so for fathers and sons. Every father shapes his son who shapes his son. We are all creatures of all our fathers.
STAY THIRSTY: Marriage.
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: When my father died in 2007, my parents had recently celebrated their seventieth wedding anniversary. There'd not been a day in their lives together when they failed to overtly, explicitly declare their love for each other. There may have been a day in their lives when they had not volubly, furiously fought, but I doubt it. Their expression of love was heroic. Neither had ever heard such a thing from their parents. Ever. So they vowed to make profoundly natural for me what was for them profoundly unnatural. It took me five marriages to come at last to enduring love.
STAY THIRSTY: Mortality.
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Intimations of mortality lead inevitably to the question of immortality. A major character in Perfume River struggles with this in a secular way. His brother joined the army to please their WWII veteran father, but he exiled himself to Canada. He thinks: It is only science of the past hundred and fifty years that has shaken our belief in our consciousness surviving death. But elemental science gives us examples that confirm the ancient and abiding paradigm. The caterpillar, for instance, does not even have the sensory mechanism to perceive the butterfly it will become; but it will be transformed nevertheless.
STAY THIRSTY: The human condition.
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: The longer I live, the more I write, the more deeply I believe that the human condition and the dynamic essential of literary fiction are the same and can be found in the question every soul on this planet asks itself every day: Who the hell are you? All the things we cling to, all the issues we struggle with—work and family, religion and politics, gender and passion, race and ethnicity—are essentially ways we seek to answer that question. Fiction is the art form of human yearning, which drives the narrative, and that yearning is for a self.
STAY THIRSTY: Kept secrets.
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: I am absolutely not Robert in Perfume River. Nor is William my father. Our relationship was quite different. However, my father did serve as an infantry captain in World War II. And he did keep secrets. He carried them to his grave. Perhaps every man who has gone to war has secrets. From respect, I never pressed him for what he did not offer. Perhaps it would have done no good. But I regret that failure to this day. I wish I'd moved him to speak his secrets to me, so they would have lost their hold on him forever.
STAY THIRSTY: Writer's compost.
ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Graham Greene said that all good novelists have bad memories; what you remember comes out as journalism; what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. I teach something similar to all my writing students: Art does not come from the rational, analytical mind; art comes from the place where you dream, from your artistic unconscious. Perfume River, for instance, consists of utterly transformed imaginings from my long, composted life, with the deeply connected issues of family and war and the fragility of human communication all intertwined. Readers must not analyze a literary work; they must thrum to it.