Fuck Sentimentality: An Interview with Robert Olen Butler
By Emily Alford
I met Robert Olen Butler five years ago when he came to read at McNeese State University. As a first-year MFA, I was lucky enough to have a manuscript consultation with him. I was terrified. I’d read From Where You Dream and the Pulitzer-Prize winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and was certain I’d have nothing interesting to say to a man with two Pushcarts whose books you can buy in nineteen languages. Perched in overstuffed chairs, tucked away in a corner of McNeese’s small student union, he held up my story like a doctor holds a patient chart and said, “Never flatten one character out to add depth to another. That’s counterproductive.” I scribbled the sentence into a notebook but didn’t need to; I absorbed his advice immediately into what he would call the “compost heap of my unconscious.”
Half a decade later, I spoke with Butler again on the breezeway of his Northwest Florida home surrounded by his three napping bichon frises. His nineteenth book, the novel A Small Hotel (Grove Press), had just been published in August. Whether he’s talking about leading workshop, writing from the dream space, or what to do with “bone headed” reviews, he has a way of stating ideas that is simultaneously practical and radical, and even with the tape recorder running, the graduate student in me found herself reaching for a pen.
Butler is currently a Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor holding the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University. A recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, he also 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. His stories have appeared widely in such publications as The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Zoetrope, The Paris Review, The Hudson Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and The Sewanee Review. He lives in Capps, Florida, which has a population of one.
Emily Alford: In your book on writing, From Where You Dream, you explain that all literary fiction must come from characters driven by yearning. Please explain your definition of ‘yearning.’
Robert Olen Butler: Yearning seems to be at the heart of what fiction as an art form is all about. It’s based on the fact that fiction is a temporal art form—it exists in time—and it’s also an art form about human beings and their feelings. Any Buddhist will tell you that as a human being on this planet, you can’t exist for even thirty seconds without desiring something. My favorite word is yearning because it suggests the deepest level of desire. My approach [to teaching writing] tries to get at essential qualities of process for the aspiring artist beyond what is inherent in the study of craft and technique. This notion of yearning has its reflection in one of the most fundamental craft points in fiction: plot. Because plot is simply yearning challenged and thwarted.
How would you advise a writer struggling to figure out what a character wants?
I’m just fussing at your semantics, but “figure out” implies a thoughtful process in a kind of self aware and conscious state. You don’t analyze the character or look at the character and try to come up with a sound bite of a description of what the character wants. That’s not the way to do it. It’s more like intuition.
You sit with the character, you hear the character’s voice, you get a feel for the character because she’s emerging from your deep unconscious, not as you, but as a stranger in a dream, which we all have. And, you’ll be tempted—because of the way you’ve been trained in craft and technique and, indeed, the way you’ve been trained in literature, especially at university levels—you’ll be tempted to try to translate her into ideas and themes and structures and descriptions of her psyche and her desires. But with yearning, as with all elements of character, I advise just being with her in the way that you’re with another human being. [Think of] the process of falling in love with somebody, or meeting somebody where there’s a chemistry that allows for falling in love. It’s a sort of proximity, or awareness.
At what point does learned technique comes into the process?
The novelist Graham Green said that what you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. Now, my sense is that this runs even deeper than his initial context. This is absolutely also applicable to all the craft and technique you learn. The only craft and technique that you have legitimate access to as an artist is the craft and technique you’ve basically forgotten. That which has gone out of your conscious, analytical mind goes into the same compost heap—the dream space and the unconscious that I always talk about. It dissolves and continues to function in shaping the material of your unconscious self.
That way you establish a sense of the deep there-ness of a character and her reality. A writer ends up creating a character of whom, at the end of a story or a book, the reader may say, “I’ve known this character all along, in a kind of evolutionary way. There are things here I’ve noticed all along, but now they all coalesce for me.” The way all that happens is that the character is created absolutely in the senses, in the moment. Our “knowledge” of a character really is knowledge of gesture and tone of voice and the selectivity of sensual impressions around her that is done by her emotional state. If the artist carefully chooses these, and by carefully I don’t mean thoughtfully, the object she’s creating is organic.
Would you advise writers coming from a workshop culture, where technique feels paramount, to write until they forget what they’ve learned?
Exactly. Or forget that and start writing. It’s not as if those things are erroneous. As an observation about the way many stories effectively work they’re absolutely true. What’s erroneous is the assumption that the thoughtful analysis and willful insertion of that in the work is the creative process, and that’s where the great misunderstanding happens, because, in fact, it’s the antithesis of the process.
Your workshops focus very much on yearning and writing from the unconscious. Most workshops focus on making whatever manuscripts students turn in as close to “finished” as possible. Oftentimes, you tell students to put manuscripts away. What happens when the advice always seems to be to just keep revising until some journal takes it?
Learning to revise from your head leads you to anticipate. It begins to shift your motivation for writing. Real artists write not to be published, not to be famous, not win prizes, not to get sex. You write because you have some deep intuition that behind the apparent chaos of life on planet Earth there is order and meaning, and the only way that you know to express that vision of order is to go back to the way we live that chaotic life, in the moment through the senses, and pull bits and pieces out of it and reassemble them into these narrative parts. If you start perverting that with other motives to write, your ability to become an artist is severely hampered, if not destroyed.
You may become a very polished, published writer, and you may even have a literary career because a lot of book critics don’t have a clue as to how to read an aesthetic object either. But the kind of thing that endures, the kind of thing that those writers began setting out to create, the kind of literature that will be read two hundred years from now and still illuminate the human condition has been lost because of settling for this other thing.
The terrible taint on the artist’s ambition is to be thinking about publication, much less writing for it, much less writing and revising for that. The sad thing is that there are people capable of creating real works of art—I’m afraid that there are future artists who are getting diverted into just being future writers and published writers, and they’re going to end up settling because creating real works of art is a scary thing. Akira Kurosawa said that to be an artist means never to avert your eyes. You have to stare down your demons every day of your life. Asserting technique to get published in some literary journal is really safe, and artists are not safe. If you’re starting to feel safe, you’re not pushing deep enough.
I’m glad you mentioned safety because I think your new novel A Small Hotel is fearless. Most writers shy away from sex scenes, especially sex scenes between people who love one another because we think, “Cliché!” and “Sentimentality!” A Small Hotel is a novel based around the inability to say the words “I love you,” and it challenges what intimacy is, where intimacy comes from. These are the things people avoid writing about so as not to come off as sentimental. Did it ever occur to you to try to avoid sentimentality?
I don’t think I’ve ever written an un-risky book, so no, it didn’t occur to me. This is the book that has come out of my unconscious. It took the death of my parents. My dad was eighty-eight when he died a few years ago, and then my mom died two and a half years later at ninety-two. When [my father] died, they had recently passed their seventy-first wedding anniversary. The two of them were shaped by familial forces that were very similar to the way Michael and Kelly were shaped. The foreignness of saying ‘I love you’ was the only model either of them had seen in their childhoods. The communicating of it was just the surface manifestation of the feeling, but it shaped their ability to either feel love or express it. That sort of thing gets passed on and on.
Michael really loves Kelly, but he cannot say it. He does not speak that language. Kelly deeply needs it, but she cannot ask for it. She says in the book, ‘If you have to ask it doesn’t count’. And that’s the terrible ironic, tragic reality of so many relationships in this life, and that’s the way my mom and dad lived. But they decided to speak the word and to speak it, frequently. Never a day in my life went by where that word was not used freely and openly. When my father died, I thought my mother would die immediately after, just because of the intense symbiosis. They found each other, my mom and dad, when he was fourteen and she was sixteen. They got married when he was seventeen and she was nineteen. And in the seventy-one years that followed, they just willed that word and that expression into their lives every day. It was a heroic act on their part because, in retrospect, I don’t think either of them either felt it or knew how to feel it. There’s not a day that went by where they didn’t argue furiously as well, but they had to end up saying, ‘I love you.’ It became kind of a compulsion. And there are problems with that too.
Seeing the arguments had an effect on me too, but my ability to feel it and speak it, that feeling of love was preserved in a way that it wasn’t in them. The heroic thing about them is that they knew to create the illusion of love. So, that’s where this novel came from. You know, fuck sentimentality. There have been some fabulous reviews of this book and there have been some absolute boneheaded reviews of this book, and it’s a kind of litmus test for the reviewers in some ways, and that’s fine. I don’t worry about being called sentimental and I just write the books I’m given to write.
I’ve read the good reviews and the boneheaded reviews. I wonder if the reason writers won’t write about love is that some reviewers simply can’t stomach a book about love.
To love and to express it is to be vulnerable. To create works of art is to be vulnerable, and it’s hard for people to let themselves be vulnerable. Especially in this world, where the internet lets us democratically savage one another, it’s even scarier, but the courage to be an artist means also the courage to love and to express it.