From Where You Dream
     By Mark Budman

A Conversation with Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler has published ten novels and four volumes of short fiction. "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain," won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His most recent collection is "Severance," from Chronicle Books. Four modern dance ballets based upon four of the stories in "Severance" were performed in Lyon, France, in the spring of 2005. Also in 2005 Butler published a volume of his lectures on the creative process, "From Where You Dream," edited with an introduction by Janet Burroway. 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.

He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction. 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. They have also been chosen for inclusion in four annual editions of The Best American Short Stories, eight annual editions of New Stories from the South, and numerous college literature textbooks from such publishers as Simon & Schuster, Norton, Viking, Little Brown & Co., Houghton Mifflin, Oxford University Press, Prentice Hall, and Bedford/St.Martin. His works have been translated into fifteen languages.

Since 1995 he has written feature-length screenplays for New Regency, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney, Universal Pictures, Baldwin Entertainment Group (for Robert Redford), and two teleplays for HBO. He is the Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor holding the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. He is married to the novelist and playwright Elizabeth Dewberry.

Photo by Elizabeth Dewberry.

Budman. Let me start with a common question but give it a little twist. Suppose the FBI approached you back in the seventies, when you returned from Vietnam, and told you that in the interest of national security you cannot be a writer. And suppose you listened. What would you do, then? Be a playwright?

Butler. My suspicion is that they decided that instead of asking me not to be a novelist, they simply have conspired ever since to keep me off the bestseller list. But that’s another story. Since you’ve posited it in the question, I suppose yes, at the time, I would have done that. But I was a terrible playwright. I got my master’s degree in playwriting, but I just didn’t understand the medium. Or perhaps I would have gone into academia somehow. My father was a teacher. He was the chairman of a university theater department. Mine was an academic household. My suspicion is that I would have ended up teaching something, probably literature or theater.

Budman. So, you are satisfied with your career as a teacher? A lot of professors I know, think that teaching has actually very little teaching in itself. Most time you have to fight for grants. That’s not the case with you?

Butler. No, not the case. I do enjoy my teaching. Let me put it this way: I feel I am good at teaching and I do care about my students. A book based on my lectures on the creative process was published last year, “From Where You Dream.” I put a lot of energy and serious creative thought into my teaching. I am not a writer whose teaching is simply a job. I write the kind of books I want to write by not making my economic life dependent on them.

Budman. Some writers just write, regardless of labels but, as an English professor, you are probably more prone to analysis than some.

Butler. Actually, when you read my book “From Where You Dream,” you will find that that is exactly the opposite of what I teach. No matter how advanced my creative students are—ironically, the more advanced they are, the more they are prone to fail in their creative process on that very basis. I find that most students think too much; they are prone to analyze far too much. My basic premise is that art doesn’t come through the mind. Art doesn’t come through the rational, analytical thought process. Art comes from the place where you dream, through unconscious. I teach writing, not literature. When I taught literature in the past, in my previous school, McNeese State University, I did that the way the writer teaches literature: through the moment, through the senses, and not trying to fit the work of art into a theory or philosophy.

Budman. Now, my question becomes almost irrelevant but let me ask it anyway. Are you familiar with the concept of the “new wave fabulists?” Some people think that genre story entertains while the literary one enlightens. “New wave fabulists” and your new short-short story collection “Severance” do both. Of course, there has always been the old reliable term “magic realism.” However, this seems to belong to the South Americans. Have you thought about the genre of your stories in this collection, whatever the label is?

Butler. These pieces have been published in fine literary magazines as stories. But some great poetry editors classified these stories as prose poems. I feel that they are stories, though they are characterized by meticulous attention to language, which is a characteristic of poetry. But they also have the basic characteristics of stories—characters who yearn and are revealed by a narrative arc. Beyond that, I don’t think I should label them. I don’t think that entertainment and enlightenment are mutually exclusive. But if the writer has either of these goals in mind when she writes, she will fail as an artist. Fiction is an art form of human yearning, of desire. Each of theses stories manifests desire. They were also written from the artist’s impulse to find order behind the apparent chaos of life. A writer articulates a vision of order out of chaos, in an object that exists in the moment, through the senses. But this is done without a pre-conceived idea or effect in mind. Creating the art object is, for the artist, as much an act of exploration as it is of expression.

Budman. You’ve mentioned that a lot of magazines that have originally published those stories as prose poems. Would you name just a few?

Butler. Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly, Agni and others.

Budman. The sixty-two stories that comprise “Severance,” are monologues of severed heads. Some of them are not even human. Why would you choose such a morbid subject? Was it triggered by modern events or perhaps by childhood fascination?

Butler. Well, the morbidity is only in the concept. If you noticed, none of the stories dealt with the actual act of severance. I caught a dramatic moment in which a human soul reevaluates its life. In this extraordinary, dynamic and dramatic moment, a person is compelled to do something which is essential to his life, to review his life. As soon as the blade cuts—just before the story begins—we move away from the morbid moment. When I just married Elizabeth Dewberry, who is a terrific writer herself, I wanted to show her my beloved Saigon. I took her to Saigon, and we went to the War Crimes museum. I saw the French guillotine that was in operation right until the French left in 1954. The presence of it brought the vision of all those severed heads into my mind.

Budman. Every story in your book is exactly 240 words long. Your two epigraphs point out that a head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation, and that in a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. Your characters speak as if they are out of breath. Every single story is delivered in one long sentence without capital letters, and without much punctuation except for commas. The characters actually are out of breath, for obvious reasons. They are honest and natural. There is no time for pretense. If everyone would spend his or her life as if they had only a minute-and-a-half left to live, would there be any wars or crime?

Butler. That’s a good question. And I like the observation you made, that they are out of breath. That’s a great observation. But I think that people with their head cut off will remain what they are. The only reason there will be no wars or crime is that they will have no bodies to commit them. I don’t think that attitudes or human nature will change. That’s the dramatic irony of the situation.

Budman. I like your subtle humor such as with the dead chicken, whose last words provide an answer to an age-old question. An escape from the vicious reality.

Butler. Yes, irony is a great tool but, as I said before, if a writer will come to see this as a tool, he is going to fail as an artist. The most legitimate tools are the ones that are assimilated into the unconsciousness. This is one of the problems I have with the pedagogy of creative writing. Too much emphasis is placed on craft and technique. Almost exclusively so. And it leads to the wilful, analytical use of the “tools” of writing, which draws the writer out of the unconscious.

Budman. Some of your characters are famous personalities. They are either real such as Cicero or legendary, like Medusa. But some are just the figments of your imagination like Mud, a man, beheaded by saber-toothed tiger, circa 40,000 b.c. How did you come about selecting them?

Butler. It’s amazing how many I had to choose from. For example, the Historic New York Times Web site indexes every word from the newspaper since 1850. I found hundreds, and hundreds of these stories, of people being decapitated. So it was just a matter of me researching around the name, meditating. Then I began to hear a voice. In the end, the subject chose itself. Also, the choices represent the whole range of human history. They represent a wide range of humanity in terms of countries, ethnicity, gender and race.

Budman. Some of them are not even human.

Butler. Right. The chicken and St. Michael’s dragon.

Budman. And even Medusa. It’s not human.

Butler. She was human at one point. She started off as a human being before being changed into a gorgon.

Budman. In the last story, the severed talking head is yours. I am not going to spoil the reader’s surprise, but sufficient to say, you will die as a writer should. Why did you choose 2008 as the date of your death? Don’t you hope to add more stories to the second edition of “Severance?” And if you do add more stories, how about a few more Russian heads? My suggestions would be Bulgakov’s Berlioz and Yemelyan Pugachev.

Butler. Of course, I hope this is not bound to happen. I reserve the right to stay out of harm’s way. In terms of the date, I chose it to be fairly soon but still just out of reach. So when the book comes out, it hasn’t happened yet but still we don’t have to wait too long. And as for a second volume, from your mouth to the books buyers’ ears. If the book is successful, needless to say, I have many, many more stories to add. I’ve already written another volume of short-short stories coming out in fall of 2007, which you might want to hear about.

Budman. Yes.

Butler. I was approached by a publisher and editor of wonderful photography books. He said that he had a collection of photographs by a photographer Arthur Fellig, who called himself Weegee. Fellig is most known for his book of photography published in 1945 called “Naked City,” which, appropriately enough, was turned into a film noir. Fellig did flash photography of crime scenes and the underworld. I’ve chosen to write short-short stories based on his photographs that are literally flash fiction. In the moment of his flash bulb, what is the burst of consciousness in the heads of his subjects? So, I am working further in the short-short form, and if the "Severance" book is successful, I have many more heads to write about.

Budman. In “Severance,” you had a minute and a half to express the thoughts of head. Now, you literally have a fraction of a second.

Butler. I will take an artistic license. And, honestly, it’s not what just happens at the moment. The moment of a flash is just an instigator. I think that the shortest peace is about 175 words and the longest is about 400.

Budman. What is the title of this book?

Butler. “Weegee Stories.”

Budman. Going back to my original question, I would like to express the will of reader. Why don’t you add some more Russian heads? Not mine, not mine.

Butler. Not yours. That’s a good question. I would be open to any suggestions that you have. I have a Russian woman, a victim of a pogrom, but in the course of my researches, no other Russian heads presented themselves. I don’t know if the tsars beheaded people.

Budman. Yes, they did.

Butler. If you have any suggestions, go ahead.

Budman. I have two right away. One is a literary hero, from Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita.”

Butler. Mark, if I had to choose one book to take with me to a desert island, it would be “Master and Margarita.” It’s one my favorite books in the world. You mentioned earlier magic realism as belonging to South American writers. Bulgakov used magic realism two decades earlier than the South Americans did. But I decided not to do literary characters. I went to the animal world and to mythology as well. But I didn’t want to borrow heads from the literary creations.

Budman. The second one is Emelyan Pugachev. He was a leader of a revolt during the times of Katherine the Great.

Butler. If I’d known about him when I wrote the book, I would’ve added him.

Budman. Of course, Russian tsars kept beheading left and right. Peter the Great beheaded his mistress.

Butler. Great.

Budman. When is “Severance” coming out?

Butler. September.

Budman. September this year?

Butler. Yes, very soon.

Budman. That wraps it up. I just have one piece of advice for you. Be careful in the elevators.

Butler. (Laughs.) You can well imagine that I’ve heard this advice from my wife.

Budman. It was a pleasure. I hope I didn’t scare you with my accent.

Butler. Not at all. I was delighted to talk to you, and you’ve asked really good questions. I really like your magazine on the Web.

Budman. Thank you.

Mark Budman's fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry have appeared or are scheduled to appear in such literary magazines as Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, Iowa Review, McSweeney's, Cafe Irreal, Another Chicago, The Bloomsbury Review, The Connecticut Review and Night Train. Exquisite Corpse nominated him for the Pushcart Prize. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine Vestal Review, and the recipient of the Broome Country Art Council grant. One of his stories has been accepted for the WW Norton anthology "Flash Fiction Forward." He is the interview editor for Web Del Sol.
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