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Robert Olen Butler Plays with Voices

Robert Olen Butler, here A lot of voices.

"The voices, you know, that's the thing I do," he confirmed.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Butler delivered first-hand tales from fifteen Vietnamese expatriates living in Louisiana. Outrageous humor and wild imagination came to the forefront in his next collection, Tabloid Dreams, a funny yet compassionate investigation of the deeper yearnings behind those sensationalist headlines we find in the supermarket checkout aisle. Now, in Mr. Spaceman, Butler brings his talents to the story of a sensitive, impressionable extraterrestrial (named Desi by his Alabama-born and bred wife) studying American society in preparation for the mission his species has been planning for a hundred years.

"Desi is the ultimate alien, literally, the ultimate outsider," Butler explained. "In spite of the surface differences between this book and others I've written, at the heart of it, the Vietnamese and Desi are both outsiders thrust into American culture with a pressing outside need: coming to terms with that."

Call it science fiction or call it literature - the novel incorporates aspects of both - Mr. Spaceman is simply the latest product of a gifted American writer whose work continues to surprise and delight.

Dave: How long have you been in Lake Charles?

Butler: Fifteen years.

Dave: But you're originally from Illinois, right?

Butler: The greater St. Louis area. Really, I feel like a St. Louisan, but I lived in what they call Metro East, just across the river.

Dave: How did you end up in Louisiana?

Butler: It was the availability of a teaching job in a Masters program. Ten years previous to my arrival in Lake Charles, I was the editor-in-chief of a business newspaper in Manhattan. I lived in Long Island, and as a result, every word of my first four published novels was written on a legal pad, by hand, on my lap, on the Long Island Railroad as I commuted back and forth from Sea Cliff to Manhattan.

This was the job that was available, and it was a wonderful happenstance because southern Louisiana has fit into my sensibility very readily, and of course directly gave birth to A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

Dave: I wondered about that, the influence. A Good Scent is equal parts Louisiana and Vietnam.

Butler: I don't know that it would have occurred to me to write about the Vietnamese diaspora, as I did, if I hadn't been in southern Louisiana where I happened upon this remarkable, preserved Vietnamese community near New Orleans. Not that it was an act of journalism, far from it. Of the fifteen narrators in A Good Scent, not one of them has a real life counterpart.

Southern Louisiana's parallel to South Vietnam, its culture and climate, helped stimulate all of that, but certainly a more direct influence on the book was the year I spent in Vietnam. And the crucial thing about that year was that I spoke fluent Vietnamese from my first day in country - the army had sent me to language school for a year before I went over - so I had a chance to submerge myself in the Vietnamese culture while I was there, with the language. I learned enough about the people to see past the surface details, the sociology and anthropology of the culture, to the universal human yearnings that are the real subject matter of art.

Dave: It's interesting that you bring up language right away. Even in Mr. Spaceman, which has nothing at all to do with Vietnam, one of Desi's fundamental concerns is language.

Ha Jin was here recently, and because he's so new to English, we talked a lot about language. He said that, as an immigrant, there's really nothing to compare with language, that you can try to assimilate as much as you want into a culture, but as a foreign speaker you can never truly complete that process.

Butler: And Desi is the ultimate alien, literally, the ultimate outsider. On that point, in spite of the surface differences between this book and others I've written, like Good Scent, at the heart of it, the Vietnamese and Desi are both outsiders thrust into American culture with a pressing outside need: coming to terms with that. Language is one of the primary concerns in both cases.

Dave: You use language in Mr. Spaceman to great comic effect. Despite his best intentions, sometimes Desi can't help sounding like a parrot of pop culture.

Butler: Well, Desi grew out of a short story from Tabloid Dreams, yet that aspect of him wasn't fully formed in the story. The short story was written in Edna Bradshaw's voice [Desi's wife]. As soon as I started to write from Desi's voice in the novel . . . once as an artist you get deep enough into the point of view character, the way of looking at the world emerges.

I winged it more in this book than I've ever done before. I just sat down and Desi declared his existence, the "I am" that begins the novel. And if you take away the period and continue into the second sentence, you get "I am The word on the face of the bus," or, "I am the word." Desi is shaped by his words; he's shaped by his language because his species doesn't use words. And also it's the beginning of the religious allegory.

But as soon as he began looking around twentieth century America with the naïve eye, as the outsider for whom everything is fresh and everything is meaningful, then advertisements, pop song lyrics, intellectual speech, all of it becomes of equal value. And, indeed, those aspects of popular culture are presented with great intensity - a guy like Desi would be drawn to that.

The clichés that become part of his vocabulary, through his naïve and alert mind, they always have a subtext. There's always a spin on them. It's a cumulative thing, the climax being when he says, "Nothin' Says Lovin' Like Somethin' from the Oven," which brings together language, American culture, and theological aspects in one moment.

Dave: You say you were writing off the cuff more than in the past, and yet the book works on many levels. Were those layers fleshed out in revisions or were they conceived the first time through?

Butler: In fact it all happened simultaneously, as weird as that sounds. My work has been tending toward this inextricable mixture of comedy and tragedy, the pop culture and high culture, it's just how I see the world now. It all intimately interconnects. I find it impossible to move through a fictional voice now without all of that happening at once.

Dave: That commingling is impossible to ignore in Tabloid Dreams. "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot" is one of the most heartbreaking stories I've read in a long time, and yet, it's ridiculous, too.

Butler: It's funny and heartbreaking at the same moment and for the same reasons. That's how I see the world now.

Dave: What led you to write Tabloid Dreams? It's quite a departure from your earlier fiction.

Butler: Late one night in that same Kroger grocery store that Desi visits, actually, I was there shifting a cold bottle of milk from hand to hand, stuck at the back of a line at midnight, and my eyes fell to the rack of tabloids by the checkout counter. And I didn't pause at the relatively high-class tabloids like The National Enquirer; I went all the way down to the bottom of the rack to The Weekly World News and The Sun. I think the story that night was "Boy Born With Tattoo of Elvis."

I've always watched those headlines. They're engaging. You pick the thing up, though, and the stories are terrible, quoting Albanian scientists and so forth, with no humor at all, no irony. I decided that they were getting the headlines right, but the stories wrong, and I had to set the record straight on a dozen matters of importance like "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot" and "Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed."

I took the headlines and riffed on them. Who's the central character behind this headline, and what is the deeply true and real human yearning that exists at the core of the character? That's where all of my fiction starts, with that fundamental yearning inside each of us.

I actually started scooping The Weekly World News. "JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction," for example, can be found nowhere but in that book.

Dave: Someone had written us an email asking about "the Sci-Fi writer coming to Powell's on Friday," and it took me a minute to realize they were referring to you. Mr. Spaceman certainly shares a lot of elements of science fiction, but really, it's literature that just happens to be about someone from another planet.

For me, what's interesting is more what's not said than what is. For instance, Desi calls Jesus "a mysterious and important public figure." There's really very little explanation of why the world is as it is or what it will become in the future - which I would expect in a more traditional work of science fiction. What's important here is Desi.

Butler: One of the writing classes at Bard College studied Mr. Spaceman before I was there to talk about it. A young man, probably twenty-two years old, shook my hand and ardently thanked me for writing the book. He felt that it was a redeeming, in the public eye, of science fiction, an endorsement of it. He was a deeply engaged science fiction fan, and he recognized this book as science fiction but also, clearly, as a literary work. It was an important thing to him, to take the genre seriously.

The difference between any genre or entertainment writing and art is that the entertainment writer knows before the first word is written what effect it will have on the audience or what ideas or thoughts the audience will take from it. In science fiction, there's a vision of society, a political implication, a sociological implication; they create a work to make a political or philosophical point, and/or they write to produce an effect of escapism, to take the reader away. Either way, there is a preconceived end effect or message, and the object is constructed to achieve it. That is the entertainment writer's process.

The literary artist works from the other end. She does not know, before the work begins, what it is she sees about the world. She has in her unconscious, in her dreamspace, an inchoate sense of order behind the apparent chaos of life, and she must create this object in order to understand what that order is. It's as much an act of exploration as it is an act of expression.

The science fiction elements in Mr. Spaceman were logical, compelling, and indeed inevitable because they provided the most complete, articulate way to express my vision of the world. It was not that I sat down in order to provide readers with an escape into something extraterrestrial, nor did I sit down to write an allegory of the modern attitude toward religion particularly as it has transferred itself with an obsession toward spacemen, which it has. It came out in this other, more organic way.

Dave: Right. Mr. Spaceman is as much born of character as anything you're likely to read; the narrator just happens to be from another planet. But as you say, it's not much different from a book with a Vietnamese narrator.

When Desi taps into the memories of the people he's abducted, for one thing, it just seems like, as a writer, you're having a lot of fun. But in all your stuff, there's so much focus on voice. In They Whisper, also, I was caught up in the story immediately because of the voice and the way the narrator plays with other voices. There's the great scene right near the beginning when Ira, who is sixteen, is hiding in a bathroom stall trying to write graffiti in the voice of a girl, trying to find the words and the tone a girl who'd be writing about him would use.

The other voices in Mr. Spaceman are so completely different from Desi's and from each other. How did you decide who was on the bus? How did that happen in that process?

Butler: I had a sense of some of the landmark events in twentieth century American history. All those voices in Mr. Spaceman, each one of them is from the periphery of a major event, from the first manned flight to the NASA space program, from the Zoot Suit riots to the OJ Simpson trial, from the birth of the atom bomb to the assassination of JFK, and so forth. I wondered if there was a character somewhere on the periphery of those events. That's not a lot of guidance, but I say that only because the rest of the answer gets a little weirdly mystical, I suppose.

The voices, you know, that's the thing I do. There are fifteen different voices in Good Scent and twelve in Tabloid Dreams, and fifteen more voices in this book. They Whisper is full of I don't know how many different women in addition to Ira.

They present themselves to me, I don't know how else to say it. They're different from each other and they're different from me, and they each of them have their own basic yearning, and those yearnings work themselves out into these little epiphanies that surprise me.

A lot of those voices in Mr. Spaceman, at the end, there's a little twist, a turn, a beat of revelation. None of them were preconceived. They just happened, and I went, "Oh, wow, that's what that was about." That's really how it feels to me.

Dave: In your reading, do you find yourself seeking other voices?

Butler: No, the deeper I get into my own unconscious, the less open I am to other voices. If I were not a writer, I would be ravenously reading literary fiction - I certainly went through a long period of that in my life - and I still do read with great pleasure, but much more selectively now. I do try to be as open to new voices as I can, but I don't read nearly as much fiction as I used to. I'm way too busy, and I'm a very slow reader. I don't think you should read fiction faster than would allow you to hear the narrative voice in your head.

Dave: What kind of books do you teach?

Butler: I'm a bit of a heretic in this respect because I tell my writing students to cut back on their reading. Reading is a way out for them. It gives them the illusion of preparing themselves as writers when really they don't have the courage yet to go into their own unconscious. Instead, they retreat into other people's visions.

That's the fundamental mistake almost every young writer makes, trying to write from ideas and influences instead of letting go and getting into that dreamspace. There's a period in a writer's life when you must stop reading as much. Except for my books. That's always helpful, of course, to read my books!

Dave: Your first novel was rejected by twenty-one publishers, right? When it was finally published, it got some very positive reviews. That's a great example for your students.

Butler: That's right. I didn't sell much for a long time. And before I sold that first novel, I wrote five ghastly novels, about forty dreadful short stories, and twelve truly awful full-length plays, all of which have never seen the light of day and never will.

Dave: Good Scent was your first collection of stories, but with the Pulitzer, that was the one that brought you the acclaim. All of a sudden people said, "Oh look, this Robert Olen Butler has been writing great books for however long."

Butler: Twelve years.

Dave: You sat down to write that book as a whole piece, right? The stories were written to be read together.

Butler: I've never just written a story here and a story there and pulled them into a volume. Those stories were all conceived at once and written back to back, as were the ones in Tabloid Dreams.

Dave: Do you see yourself continuing to produce stories that way?

Butler: I don't see writing a lot of random stories and pulling them together. Mr. Spaceman has fifteen stories in there. It's a novel, but it's a reconciling of the two forms in a certain way. I have a few scattered stories I've written, but mostly they're conceived with an overarching vision.

Dave: I won't mention how the book ends, but when I was about twenty pages from finishing I was across the street talking to someone who asked if I'd finished it. I told her, "I don't know if I want to see what happens to the characters or if I just want to know what the hell he does to tie it up!"

I think whether a reader will be satisfied with the ending is entirely a matter of their own tastes and expectations, but I loved it. I was only ten pages from the end, and I didn't know what you were going to do.

Butler: I think a considerable amount of suspense builds up because of the religious allegory. The expectation for Desi is not very bright. We do not have a very good track record as a species in accepting those who are quite different from us, especially when we sense that they're superior. And even more so when they're gentle and compassionate. I mean, that's how that religious parallel developed. Desi is in some serious peril as we get to the end of the book, but it has an interesting twist to it, I think.

Dave: Are you working on something now?

Butler: I just finished a commissioned short story for Zoetrope Magazine, Francis Ford Coppola's publication. It turned out real well. It's called "Fair Warning." I think it's going to be in the May issue, as well as the anthology that Harcourt Brace is publishing, The Best of Zoetrope. I think I'm going to turn that into a novel. It's in the voice of a female auctioneer in the upscale world of New York auction houses.

Dave: Imagination doesn't seem to be a problem for you.

Butler: I keep pushing the envelope, and I pay a certain price for that. Sometimes people want to pigeonhole you. They want you to do what's familiar to them. That's alright. I understand that's just something one has to accept, but if you look at the record: a book in the voice of a spaceman [Mr. Spaceman], previously a Sophoclean tragedy set in Vietnam [The Deep Green Sea], before that a book written from the tabloid headlines [Tabloid Dreams], before that an intense novel about the nature of human sexuality [They Whisper], and before that I was writing in the voices of Vietnamese exiles young and old, men and women [A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain]. I just go where my unconscious leads me and wait for whatever it throws up on the shore of my imagination. It always surprises me, too.

Robert Olen Butler met Murgatroid, Powells.com's pet axolotl, on March 3, 2000, prior to his reading at Powell's City of Books. After speaking to Murgatroid (a discussion sure to be referenced in Murgatroid's forthcoming tell-all memoir of life in the Internet book industry), Butler sat down to talk to Dave.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Deep Green Sea : a Novel (97 Edition) Used Trade Paper $8.00
  2. They Whisper Used Trade Paper $1.95
  3. Tabloid Dreams Used Trade Paper $3.95
  4. Mr. Spaceman Used Trade Paper $4.95
  5. Good Scent from a Strange Mountain:... Used Trade Paper $7.50


Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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