Robert Olen Butler on Writing
AFG: Tell us how your experiences in the Vietnam War formed your writing?
ROB: In 1969, I was caught up in the pre-lottery draft for the Vietnam War and wound up in the Army, first in military intelligence and then in Army language school learning Vietnamese. I studied the language for a full year with a Vietnamese native speaker and did well at it. When the Army sent me to Vietnam in January of 1971, I spoke the language fluently from my first day in-country. Once I was there, I had a chance to work very closely with the Vietnamese people, and I immersed myself in their lives and their culture. I was stationed in the countryside for five months doing intelligence collection, and then I was transferred to Saigon, where I spent my last seven months doing administrative work and translating for an American foreign-service officer in Saigon City Hall. I lived in an old French hotel and my favorite thing in the world was to wander every night after midnight into the steamy back alleys of Saigon, where no one ever seemed to sleep, and I’d crouch in the doorways and speak to the people. The Vietnamese are among the most warm and welcoming people in the world, and they invariably invited me into their homes and into their culture and into their lives. So when I returned to America and left the Army, I’d undergone this remarkable, intense, immersive experience into this incredibly sensual place and into its lives and stories and culture. There’s nothing more effective than that to create a fiction writer.
AFG: What is The Empire of the Night about?
ROB: It’s August of 1915 and America is still more than two years away from entering the Great War. However, our swashbuckling American newspaper war correspondent, Christopher Marlowe “Kit” Cobb, is now officially a U.S. secret agent as well. He is given a cover identity as a German-American journalist sympathizing with the Fatherland, and he’s assigned to investigate a member of the British Parliament, Sir Albert Stockman, suspected to be a German mole. As it turns out, the American Secret Service has also enlisted another operative to work with Kit, to his serious discomfort. The other operative is his own mother, Isabel Cobb, a famous American actress who has won Stockman’s admiration and likely lust. She may indeed be having similar feelings. Things get intense and complex when eventually mother and son end up in Berlin (along with Stockman), she performing the title role in Hamlet and he undercover as the German-American journalist. I won’t give too much away, but these are the first days of Zeppelin warfare, the conflict is taking a turn that foreshadows issues in the rest of twentieth century, and Kit and Madame Cobb have some serious secrets to uncover.
AFG: Do you find that you get tired of writing in a particular style and like to shift and try various themes?
ROB: I’ve published sixteen novels and six books of short, and this recent run of three Cobb novels is pretty much the first time I’ve written two books in a row, much less three, that all seem to have been authored by the same writer. I’ve always been a shape-shifter in my work in style and voice. But it’s not from growing tired of anything. On the contrary, my imagination simply is enchanted with the rich variety of life and its literary expression. As for theme, I think you’ll find, at their deepest level, all my books and stories are about one thing: our yearning for a self, for an identity, for a place in the world.
AFG: You’re a great short story writer—what is the most challenging aspect of writing a short story?
ROB: Thank you. I love both the short and the long forms and both have their challenges. I find the most challenging aspect of fiction writing pertains pretty equally to both forms. That challenge is to enter into the central character and find, by empathy and intuition, what he or she most deeply yearns for. Fiction is the art form of human yearning. And what we think of as plot is simply yearning challenged and thwarted. Once I understand the character’s yearning, the length of the fiction flows pretty naturally from the character’s internal life and the nature of the quest to fulfill that yearning.
AFG: Are you an outliner, or do you write and see where it will take you?
ROB: I certainly don’t write outlines, taking that term to suggest a fixed, predetermined structure that inevitably leads to a resolution that I know beforehand. I do, however, have a system I call “dreamstorming” where I can free-associatively anticipate a wide range of possible paths for the book. Early in the process, I go into the zone of my creativity and make a long, long list of possible scenes in the book. These scenes are recorded very succinctly—no more than a dozen words—and I make no attempt at this stage to arrange them or structure them or even to resolve incompatibilities. Then I transfer these to index cards—one scene per card—and I lay out possible sequences. But those are done and redone numerous times, even during the writing of the book, and they never ossify into an outline.
AFG: Which author would you say influenced you the most?
ROB: Graham Greene—one of my favorite authors who no doubt did have an influence—once 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. He was talking about life experience, but I think the same applies to all the influential books you read. They are true influences only after you’ve forgotten them and their aesthetic essence has broken itself down into your compost heap and become part of the raw experiential material of fiction in your imagination. So I can’t really say who’s influenced me most because I’ve forgotten them.
AFG: What are you currently reading now?
ROB: I am answering your questions at 35,000 feet on a plane from Los Angeles to Atlanta. In the seat pocket before me is a Georges Simenon Maigret mystery, whose title the translator has rendered as Maigret Goes to School. In my pleasure reading, I often alternate between Simenon and P.G. Wodehouse—one a classic mystery writer and the other a star in the original Strand.
AFG: Why does most of the world have a fascination with crime novels?
ROB: A fundamental condition of being human is our relationship to right and wrong. Crime novels put us inside the minds and hearts and sensibilities of those on one or the other side of that polarity. (Or even both sides at once.) As we all personally yearn to figure out who we are, we become entranced with the narratives that allow us to witness the great and often complex contention between right and wrong.
AFG: What’s the best part of being a writer?
ROB: Being required always to live in the moment, in your senses, keenly aware of the inner lives of all the people around you. And those daily words, which are as delicious as the daily coffee beans I grind to commence them.