An Interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen ButlerBy Susan Tepper
September 25, 2011
Why don’t you start off with the second question?
No, no, I’m going to start off with the first question.
I’m going to start off by saying it is Monday, August 22, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at an undisclosed location, outdoors, on a beautiful day…
I like your hair, by the way.
Oh, thank you! And I’m about to interview Robert Olen Butler. By the way, you’re the first Pulitzer… Poo-litzer… Poo-litzer…
Like pullet. Pullet. As if it were a prize for a chicken at a fair. Actually, no, it’s actually like a chicken dish, isn’t it? Pullet-zer prize, that’s it.
You’re the first chicken-prize winning author I’ve ever interviewed. You’re the first Pulitzer Prize winning author I’ve ever interviewed. Does that sound like I’m sucking up?
Uh… not enough! It’s a start. It’s your first sucking up.
Oh, OK. Well you know, I have to build. I have to do this in increments.
I know, I know, I know!
Now you just wrote a brand new novel called A Small Hotel. Which is a very intriguing title, by the way, it sounds very sexy, and actually it is sexy and other things. And I actually read your book and it’s terrific.
This is good, I mean you’re way ahead of most interviewers.
Of course. I like to get to the meat of it. Now what made you choose New Orleans as the primary setting for this story?
Well, New Orleans has been making itself part of my artistic unconscious for quite a long time. I taught in Lake Charles, Louisiana, at McNeese State University for fifteen years, and during that fifteen years, I probably averaged about once a month getting to New Orleans. Extraordinary city, of course. I’ve probably been to New Orleans 200 times in my life.
Do you think New Orleans has a sexy ethos?
Yes, sexy ethos, it does have a sexy ethos. It does indeed.
OK, so you think maybe that’s one of the things in your unconscious mind that pulled you to that locale for titling a book A Small Hotel? Which, in itself, is a provocative title.
It is. But it’s also quite a literal title ‘cause it takes place in a small hotel, it takes place in my favorite small hotel in New Orleans. The Olivier House Hotel is a real place, Room 303 is a real room, in fact the middle of next month I’m giving a reading in New Orleans, but then the next night there’s a reception for me at the Olivier House Hotel. (Note: reception took place on September 16)
And they’re going to fix up Room 303 as if Kelly is there— Gucci bag, bottle of Macallan Scotch, little black dress on the bed, and so forth. Bottle of Percocet.
Tell us about Kelly. Kelly is one of your central characters in A Small Hotel.
Yeah. You know there’s still some more on that answer about why New Orleans.
So not only has New Orleans been a part of my artistic unconscious for a long time, it also is, by the way, the setting for my Pulitzer book (Good Scent from a Strange Mountain). Much of the Pulitzer book is set in a Vietnamese community near New Orleans, and New Orleans is the overt setting for a couple of those stories. And it also plays a big part in a couple of other novels. Back in 2003 or 2004 I signed a two book contract with Grove/Atlantic. One was a book of short stories based on my postcard collection.
Your antique postcards.
Exactly. Which turned out to be Had a Good Time, the name of that book. But the second book then was going to be a novel and was described in the contract back in 2004 as a New Orleans hurricane.
And I had it in my consciousness to finally write an overt New Orleans book where New Orleans was a major kind of central, almost, figure in the book.
So New Orleans, in a way, almost has an inner life, along with the characters in A Small Hotel.
It absolutely does. And of course what happened then was that Katrina happened. I was getting into the novel, the second novel to be set in New Orleans, it was going to be kind of an epic story with two historic moments of past hurricanes in New Orleans, and then set in an indeterminate near future, a major category 5 hurricane.
That’s a big one, right?
Yes, a very big one. Biggest. But then Katrina happened before I really began to write, I was just in the dream-storming and planning stages of that book. And so it wasn’t a Katrina novel and it couldn’t be the kind of novel I’d envisioned, since Katrina did happen. And so that book pretty much vanished on me.
Katrina had a lot of impact on a lot of things.
But not the impact on me that it had on a lot of people. It certainly did change my artistic plans. And the novel I wrote to finish that contract was Hell. My book Hell.
Hell. Of course. Hell with the red devil face on the cover.
Yes. For the next book after Hell, New Orleans was still insistent on being at the center of a book. So this book (A Small Hotel) happened, much of it in the room at my favorite hotel in the French Quarter. And there was Mardi Gras. I’ve been to half a dozen Mardi Gras over the years, including the first one after Katrina.
Was that a somber event?
No! It was lovely. It had a kind of old-time family feel to it. There was still plenty of hedonism and wildness and drunkenness but that’s part of the deal. It was a kind of assertion of life over death, which is what New Orleans has always been about and that’s part of this novel too. The allure of New Orleans has to do with the fact that they have always been vulnerable. They have always known that the city could vanish in a day and night in the summer. The impulse to jazz and to partying and to sex and to all the joys of the flesh and the senses that New Orleans is about is always taken in the context of tomorrow you may die. And so that’s the kind of city that sits at the center of A Small Hotel.
And is that the kind of heart of the story?
It’s certainly part of the heart, yeah. The heart of the story really comes from the way in which people feel deeply about each other and yet cannot effectively communicate with each other.
Which is a large part of the population.
Yes. A large part of the human condition, actually. So that’s really the heart of things in the book.
I’m so interested in the characters, I always like books that are very character driven, yet I felt that place was almost equal with your characters. As you’ve said the book is set primarily in a place where at any moment everything could become turmoil and gone. So people make different choices. And I don’t want to give away any of your plot but certainly your lead character, Kelly, who is this ravishing woman— you made her very beautiful, by the way.
You really do know how to dress your characters.
Oh thank you.
The way you do their hair, their clothes— I was saying to myself: Gee, Kelly has on exactly what I would wear, you know, really beautiful stuff. And yet this is a woman who is living on the edge and has come to the edge. Right?
And so she doesn’t live in New Orleans, but she comes to New Orleans to do something. But we can’t say what.
Oh, that happens early enough in the book, we can certainly say that. The book takes place over about 8 hours on the day that Kelly has failed to show up at the court to finalize her divorce from her lawyer husband. The two of them live in Pensacola, Florida which is, what, four hours from New Orleans.
Do you feel that’s a common or uncommon choice— to back out of a divorce?
Well she backs out of the divorce to potentially embrace a much bigger divorce. That is, she checks into that small hotel and part of the basic set up of the book— it’s no great secret, you learn it in the first few pages of the book— is that she may well kill herself on this day.
Why didn’t she get divorced first and then kill herself? Was it a way of getting back at her husband, Michael? Stay married and die married? Guilt him?
I don’t think that’s the reason. I think it would give away too much to get into the complexity of that. No, I think on the contrary. It’s way more complex than that.
So it’s way more complex than her just saying: Well I’m gonna get you, and I’m not going to give you what you want?
You’re asking such good questions, Susan. It would be hard to answer them effectively without…
Without giving away your plot. OK, Robert, I understand.
You’re just way too smart an interviewer.
Oh, gee, thanks. By the way, I understand also that some people get to call you Bob. Is that special? I mean, you know, does one have to know you for a certain time period before they get to call you Bob, or?
Noooo…. Bob is pretty quick, yeah.
So I can call you Bob?
Heh! Yes, you can.
Oh, OK. I wasn’t sure ‘cause sometimes I see on Facebook that people call you Bob and of course I always say Robert, because, I want to be respectful, and, so you know…
Oh, yeah, you can call me Bob.
OK! And especially since we’re sitting here, you know, um, knee to knee, practically.
Knee to knee indeed.
So, OK, Bob. So, anyway, this is so interesting. I have to tell you that the way you bring the whole book together— I love the fact that you also use a lot of back story, because it’s always interesting that, well, somebody is at this point but what were they like before that?
Yes, though I think that back story is not a great term for it, though it’s certainly accurate in a kind of objective way. But the back story is the front story here. The book is a sort of emotional mystery story. Or psychological mystery story. That we know what is going on, that the marriage is falling apart, divorce was due this morning, and we know that one of the members of this couple is considering suicide. And we know that the other member of the couple has someone new in his life. And we begin to make assumptions about that, which are probably going to be wrong, but what the book does then, is it uses the back story, the flash back, as a way of gradually revealing what it is that has brought both of them to this moment.
And we do that in each of the two consciousnesses. The book is told in the third person, but the omniscient narrator is going back and forth between Kelly and Michael, and has access to both of them. There’s a kind of Rashamon effect in the book— that sometimes one of them will remember something and the other one also remembers it.
I loved when that happened.
And what the book therefore is able to explore is the way in which people who care about each other, legitimately, fail ultimately in being able to communicate it to each other and that’s where things go way wrong in this marriage.
Of course as a reader— you know a reader takes a position pretty early, I think, in a book.
And being a woman, I took the wife’s position. Now I felt that regardless of how she lived over the years, and her choices, there is a loveliness about her. At one point in the book you present her when she was 24, when she first meets Michael whom she marries. And I found her so lovely that there was really nothing she did down the line that I could say: Well she’s a horrible person, or, oh she deserves this outcome. None of that. I think she was trying to live as best she could.
So I was sort of rooting for Kelly, and I was against Michael! Do you think other people are taking positions about your characters?
Sure. But I hope that transformed into something a little different as the book went on for you. That you at least came to understand Michael, had some sympathy for what brought him to be what he is.
I can’t say it was equal, what I felt for each of them.
No, no, not equal, I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be equal for you.
I’d like to hear what a man would say, after reading the book. The Venus/Mars thing is absolutely correct, men and women really are on different planets. And I did understand Michael, I did understand how he got to where he was as a man, yet I still found myself saying: Oh, wow, I’m just with Kelly all the way.
And I think that’s legitimate, sure. It’s just not that there’s a villain and there’s a hero in the book. I think the book will adjust that initial impression.
Bob, you wrote the book Hell before A Small Hotel. You flip from book to book almost like a different author.
Yeah, it’s true, I always have.
It’s incredible. Do you think it’s because you started as an actor that you’re able to inhabit different characters and different situations so easily?
That certainly has something to do with it. I was trained as a Method actor as a young man, um, as were you, and…
I was a young man?
No, heh heh. You as a young woman. We don’t want to reveal too much, I mean that’s clear as we’re sitting here…
You’re welcome, Susan. But certainly the acting training has been enormously useful in my artistic process that allows me to make these changes and I do not make them willfully. It’s not like I’m adamant to be something different, I mean that would be antithetical to the process of art. What it feels like to me is that every book I write is the only inevitable organically consistent and whole rendering I can create to articulate my deepest vision of what the human condition is about at that point in my life. But I think there’s a through line in everything I write.
That’s what I was going to ask you next.
I think everything I’ve ever written is based on the yearning for self and identity in a place in the universe. Every character I’ve ever written, at the narrative heart of those characters, is that. And that we, all of us, every human being on this planet, every human being that has ever existed on this planet, is united and has a common soul in that yearning. That’s at the heart of everything I’ve ever written.
I’m with you there.
All the characters in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, who were Vietnamese exiles in Southern Louisiana, and all the characters in Tabloid Dreams, wild and crazy often surreal characters in the nuttiest supermarket tabloids, every one of the stories in those two books is that. Every character in every novel as diverse as Hell and A Small Hotel.
I couldn’t agree more.
We are trying to figure out that great ontological question, that great existential question that we all face every morning we get up and look at ourselves in the mirror and we go: Who the fuck are you?
What an outstanding interview! I loved hearing about Robert’s process and the interest in New Orleans and so loved the ease you had with each other that made this so much fun to read!!! Thank you, Robert and Susan! Great interview!
Dear Meg, it was so easy to talk with ROB, his great sense of humor and brilliance made my part a breeze. Thanks so much for reading the interview and leaving a comment here!
Enjoyed the interview very much. Very, very intersting. Congratulations to you both!
Dear Gloria, thanks for letting us know you enjoyed the interview. It was such fun to do! Cheers, Susan
I felt like a bird on your shoulder, strolling down Bourbon Street, winding through the French Quarter, and setting into some dark cafe for espressos. What witty banter, but fused with such delicacies from how one might refer to another, to how much a novelist can actually mention without feeling as if the novel is cracked open. This, of course, only comes from an expert interviewer like Tepper, so quick, so witty, and if you’re not careful, you might just figure out who the fuck you are! Brilliant! Can’t wait to read A Small Hotel.
Hey Robert, very “sleuthing” of you to assume we did the interview in New Orleans, but… not quite…. tee hee. ROB’s new book is a stunner and I know you will enjoy it a lot! Thanks so much for your very kind words here.
Wow! Susan, you have set a new benchmark in interviewing! I’m so glad I didn’t miss reading this. Thank you so much! And congratulations to the wonderful inimitable unique Robert Olen Butler.
Dear Ramesh, I’m so glad you enjoyed the interview. Yes, inimitable and unique are great words to describe the writings of Robert Olen Butler.
Thank you so much for flagging this interview for me. I read it with enjoyment as well as admiration for your skill as an interviewer. Both you and Robert Olen Butler made me want to visit New Orleans without delay!
Hi Roa, Glad you enjoyed this, yes, R.O.B. has a way of making New Orleans ultra-enticing! Cheers! Susan