Robert Olen Butler’s latest novel Perfume River is a poignant examination of an ageing couple and a wider family fractured by the lingering fallout of the Vietnam War. After three historical novels featuring WWI correspondent Christopher Marlowe Cobb, he returns to contemporary fiction with trademark tenderness and suspense. Here are some notes from his workspace.
Where are you now?
Sitting at my writing table in my writing cottage, a 60-second commute from my circa-1840 home in Capps, Florida, population two.
Where and when do you do most of your writing?
At this very table, in this very cottage. Every morning, often before dawn.
If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?
I grind the best fruit-forward (usually Ethiopian) coffee beans I can get my hands on and fill a couple of double-walled stainless steel bottles with my day’s brew, heavily cut by half-and-half.
Full-time or part-time?
Though I am also a dedicated teacher of fiction writing in the graduate creative writing program at Florida State University, I am, happily, free to write for as long each day as my Muse demands of me.
Pen or keyboard?
Keyboard, for the actual writing. Wirelessly attached to an Apple computer. All my planning notes are done by one of several favourite vintage pens from my collection. Lately a mid-Thirties, burgundy-and-tortoise Pelikan 100 with a fine, flexible nib.
How do you relax when you’re writing?
By rubbing the tummies of my two bichons frises, who are always nearby.
How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?
Perfume River is a novel of the boomer generation, our wars and our families. It’s also about how the past is always with us.
Who do you write for?
Myself. I write fiction in order to articulate my deep, ever-evolving vision of the order behind the apparent chaos of the human condition, a vision I do not myself understand until the writing is done. Writing literary fiction is more an act of exploration than of expression.
Who do you share your work in progress with?
My wife, Kelly. She is a wonderful poet and the smartest, most aesthetically responsive reader I know.
Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.
In the dark mid-November of 2016, my grimly favourite quotation of prose comes from Jonathan Swift: “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” This explains so much.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?
The Luck of the Bodkins by P.G. Wodehouse, just the ticket for a long, long day of travel on a long, long book tour.
What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?
Twenty books on the former, a thousand on the latter.
Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?
In Search of Lost Time.
Which book/s do you treasure the most?
What is the last work you read in translation?
Envy by Yuri Olesha.
Which story collections would you particularly recommend?
All the collections of all my good literary friends. They know who they are and so will not feel left out in the answer to this question.
What will you read next?
Paris Nights by Arnold Bennett.
What are you working on next?
I am in the middle of the fourth volume of my literary/historical/espionage/thriller series that takes place during World War I. It’s set in Paris, thus the Arnold Bennett.
Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?
I’d like to introduce Charles Dickens to the celestial Mexican food of the Rancho Grande, nine miles up the road from me in Monticello, Florida, a restaurant run by a Mexican immigrant family who are the dynamic embodiment of the American Dream.
If you weren’t writing you’d be…?
President of the United States, having beaten D.J. Trump as the outsider septuagenarian Democratic candidate. This is my 3 a.m. insomniac fantasy almost daily since November 8.
Robert Olen Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, five other short story collections, sixteen novels, and a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. In 2013 he won the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University. Perfume River is published by No Exit Press. The story sequences Severance and Intercourse are published together in the new Ace Double series by NOEXIT2 on 5 December.
Author portrait © Kelly Lee Butler