A respected American writer shares the secret behind his stories. His stuff and writing from the soul.
When FSU professor and Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, Robert Olen Butler, swings open the front doors to his historic plantation house, his loyal gang of bichon frises —three perky white clouds of cotton fluff—sniff and wobble around a stranger standing on the front porch.
If Gilded Age portraitist John Singer Sargent were to have painted Butler here, he would have included the dogs as well as the home's sleek, graceful, Greek Revival bones as backdrop.
A decade after buying Rosewood, the name of the 1840 plantation home located about a half-hour's drive east of Tallahassee in tiny Capps, Fla., Butler still retains his original enthusiasm for his architectural muse. Since he bought the place he's written seven books, six from the small guest cottage on the property where he retreats daily for "psychic distance."
The seventh book, a collection of short-fiction based on rare photos by Weegee, the artsy-edgy pioneering paparazzi of Manhattan who died in 1968, is due out this spring.
"I had wanted to live in a historic home, but it seemed that all the old houses in Tallahassee were lawyers' offices," recalls Butler http://www.english.fsu.edu/faculty/rbutler.htm, who had been teaching creative writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. when he was recruited in 2000 by FSU to teach in its venerable creative-writing department.
If anything, Butler's plantation house is a writer's mecca and nothing short of magnificent, a symmetrical jewel with dormer windows, a massive screened porch on the back and a central breezeway for cooling the airy, light-filled rooms in the muggy Panhandle summers.
The kitchen, the converted original dining room, showcases his colorful collection of hundreds of bottles of hot sauce, an obsession Butler has nurtured since his days teaching in Louisiana. He'll be the first to tell you that his passion for collecting is deeply connected to his need to tell a story. Everything in his house has a tale, it seems, a provenance, a twist of mystery.
"Much of my appreciation of collecting is the connection to implied story," Butler explained one cool, winter afternoon as he gave a visitor a tour of the high-ceilinged rooms.
The house serves as a hybrid of gallery and library, a three-dimensional patchwork quilt of paintings, sculpture, found art, historical paper ephemera and books by the thousands, from the usual expected literary stock of a well-known writer to the hilarious and obscure: The History and Romance of Elastic Webbing, or The Practical Embalmer, ("as opposed to the impractical," Butler jokes).
A sign on the kitchen wall for the "2ND Chance Bail Bond Company" proudly proclaims: "Let the Lord Open the Door for You," and was bartered for right off the wall of a restaurant in Lake Charles, La. Butler explains that he stumbled upon another oddity, an 1840 surveyor's map of the Tallahassee area, while browsing in an old map and print store in Boulder, Co. months before he was hired at FSU. The surveyor's name was Robert Butler, a coincidence he finds remarkable, if not "providential."
The temptation is to linger with Butler and just look, allowing the master short-story writer and novelist with a background in theater, to weave fascinating tales around each treasured object: The 1930s "Josephine Baker" department store mannequin; the electric cross that folds into a suitcase and once belonged to an early 20th century traveling evangelist.
A shoe collection in a glass bookcase includes a pump with a butterfly rhinestone heel, once worn by Ella Fitzgerald, at a 1920s wedding shoe, its soles lightly scuffed in a circular pattern, surely "from dancing the Charleston," Butler speculates.
Butler sees narrative in everything he collects, from postcards (the inspiration for his book, Had a Good Time, came from his extensive postcard collections) to art to Victorian advertising cards, including a set of the 50 most respected American newspaper editors of 1888, once token freebies inside cigarette packages.
Though not a Southern writer by birth, he spent 15 years living and teaching in Louisiana before heading to the Panhandle. He is averse to discussing specifics about what writers have influenced him, because, he says, those writers are forgotten, settled into his unconscious "and, untraceable."
He typically rises before dawn every morning, advice he dispenses to aspiring authors in his non-fiction compilation of his lectures: From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (Grove/Atlantic, 2005) then traipses—dogs in tow—to the guest cottage. There, he grinds and brews his coffee and sits down to write at a desk that overlooks his columned house and moss-draped live oaks.
"I write until I have 400 polished words," he explains of his creative process. "I'm not the kind of writer who begins by creating a sprawling, extremely rough draft. I work my sentences over as I go—very carefully. It's more like, 'How many drafts per sentence?' Some sentences I re-write 40 times."
He typically writes for hours at a time, then turns his attention to research—particularly if he is working on a piece that requires historical or biographical background.
Butler advises student writers to head to the computer keyboard shortly after rolling out of bed, a work habit that allows the writer to maintain a connection to his or her unconscious. Do not—repeat do not—turn on CNN or reach for that back issue of the New Yorker beforehand, he admonishes, because, "You go to your fiction writing without letting any conceptual language into your head."
If he's able to dodge the temptation himself, he probably can't resist sneaking a read of his cottage's bathroom walls. Over the years they've been signed, scribbled on and cartooned by some of the most famous American writers of the last century, all friends of Butler, who have visited and taken inspired pens to powder-room walls: Amy Tann, Richard Ford, Amy Bloom to name a few.
At 65, Butler is still prolific and as excited about his craft as he was in his 30s. He works regularly with Hollywood, most recently having written a screenplay for Robert Redford (one that hasn't been produced "and probably won't be" according to Butler). And his innovative 34-hour webcast—a short story written in real-time back in 2001—will soon become available for classroom downloads on I-Tunes U.
"I had always preached to my students that art came from the unconscious, but there was no way to really describe that," he says. "Dancers can watch choreographers create every moment of the process; there's a movie about Picasso painting on glass where the viewer watches from the reverse side. But conveying the writing process has always been done by communicating from one mind to another. Until the webcast there was no way for anyone to really see it."
Truth be told, Butler, can pretty much write from anywhere—even in long-hand while seated in a moving vehicle. In the era before laptop computers, before his Ph.D., before his Pulitzer Prize and resulting literary rock-star status, he wrote every word of his first four published novels on legal pads while commuting on the Long Island Railroad to his Manhattan day job. (He toiled then as editor-in-chief of the trade publication, Energy User News.)
These days, when he's not teaching, he has no commute except for his morning walk to the guest cottage of Rosewood. The home is a striking feature of the unincorporated community of Capps, of which Butler claims to be the only citizen. "No one lives in the city limits of Capps but me."
Capps is little more than a wide swath at the intersection of U.S. 19 and U.S. 27 that for years has offered refuge to the Panhandle's own brand of eclectic: A roadside stand still hawks Georgia pecans, tupelo honey and mayhaw jelly. Media mogul Ted Turner owns a 31,000-acre hunting preserve on the town's outskirts, known as well for its life-size portrait of Scarlet O'Hara hanging in its sitting room as the wild game roaming the property. A few years ago, Butler's fourth wife, the writer and playwright, Elizabeth Dewberry, decided to leave him for Turner, a much gossiped-about event that was chronicled in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on National Public Radio after Butler's e-mail about the break-up was leaked to the media. It was a dramatic exclamation point in Butler's life, one that began quietly enough in the humdrum of the Midwest smack in the middle of the 20th century.
The son of the former chairman of the theater department at St. Louis University, Butler grew up in Granite City, Ill.—a suburb of St. Louis—and holds degrees in theater and playwriting.
Trained as a method actor, he brings the same sensibilities to his teaching, believing wholeheartedly that "writing can be taught if the application of craft and technique are not portrayed as the paradigm for the creative process."
In fact, Butler says, the working title for his writing textbook, From Where You Dream (Grove Atlantic, 2005) was originally Method Writing.
"You can't teach people to have vision, drive and calling. You can't teach them to have the artist's unique insight into the human condition—that's something you have to have on your own," he explains, "but you can teach them that you must go to the unconscious to create works of art."
He has no doubt taken his own advice to heart. With 11 published novels and five volumes of short fiction under his belt, including the critically hailed (and Pulitzer-winning) A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Henry Holt and Company, 1992) a collection of stories about Vietnam immigrants living in Louisiana, Butler has the stuff that creative writing programs are built around.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, he says, he was afforded the kind of artistic freedom that became scarce in the publishing business during the ensuing decade.
"Winning the Pulitzer felt like being struck by lightning. As for how it changed my life, well, I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you had it not been for the Pulitzer," he says, pointing out that his 1989 novel, The Deuce, though critically acclaimed "didn't sell jack s---t, just 1,086 copies."
The years since the Pulitzer have been fairly charmed, Butler says, "especially during a time of the conglomeration and commercialization of publishing houses; a time when marketing departments were making editorial decisions. I've had the artistic luxury of listening only to the muse and writing what I want to write, not to mention getting to teach at FSU and having a marvelous endowed chair."
His career trajectory is clearly the sort that attracts top-notch graduate and undergraduate students alike. He's been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award and the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim fellowship in fiction and two National Magazine Awards. Butler is regularly published in the kinds of magazines where most writers will never see a byline: The New Yorker, Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Paris Review, Butler's classes are a hot ticket on campus.
He eschews what he refers to as "the flawed approach to the discipline—writing from our heads," and instead encourages students to allow experiences "to leave the willful mind and dissolve into the unconscious."
Students who have studied under him say that the process is tough, but ultimately rewarding and often leads to a published work.
"If you don't get the character's yearning into the first two pages—the way a character experiences the world, yearns for identity or connects to others—then he'll tell you not to go on with a story, to throw it away," explains Forrest Anderson, Butler's former assistant and archivist who earned his Ph.D. in creative writing at FSU in 2009.
"The reason he does that is to teach you that you can't think your way into a story—if you don't have that initial emotional zest, you just aren't going to be able to think your way in. I kept taking workshop after workshop with him until I reached his level of yearning. It was very beneficial to me as a writer."
In From Where You Dream—a compilation of his creative-writing lectures edited by fellow FSU professor (now retired) and writing guru, Janet Burroway— Burroway http://janetburroway.com/ writes that many writing teachers advocate free-writing, drafting or "getting any words whatsoever on the page, in order to have material to work with."
Butler's "writing zone," she notes, is quite different, "…a place of meditation on the sense experience of the characters, requiring both patience and a depth of concentration that must be surrendered to and cannot be willed."
Butler is renowned for tucking away manuscripts that don't meet his own exacting standards. He often tells students he has about a dozen plays, 40 short stories and five novels that were never published—something Anderson confirms.
Anderson says he spent a lot of time helping Butler prepare and archive his manuscripts for the digital era. Butler wrote his entire short story, This is Earl Sandt http://www.fsu.edu/~butler/ (about the death of an early aviation pioneer) online and in real-time. He believes that the future of libraries is online. He wants his work to be readily available both to academics, researchers and the public.
"With A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, he had written multiple drafts and thrown them into a box," says Anderson, now an assistant professor of creative writing at Arkansas Tech University. "It's rare to get this close to a writer's work, to see what was a first draft, a fourth draft and what made it into print."
In the seven years since Butler won the Pulitzer for Good Scent, he says he turned down plenty of "serious inquiries from a lot of serious institutions."
He was initially drawn to FSU because he says, "I thought this would be a place where I could spend the rest of my life and create books. I needed to create."
And he's been doing just that.
"This has been an incredibly fruitful time for me as a writer, and I attribute a great deal of that to FSU. I'm happy to be a Florida writer now," says Butler, who fell so in love with the university and the Tallahassee area that he put a large, non-refundable retainer down on his charming, Southern plantation house months before he knew whether he had the job.
"I thought I'd rather lose the money if I don't get the job," he recalls, "than lose the house if I got the job."