My friend Casey introduced me to Robert Olen Butler when we met in Spain. (Not literally, haha.) She lent me his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories, A GOOD SCENT FROM A STRANGE MOUNTAIN, which is fabulous, and now one of my favorite books. That’s all I’ve read of his so far, but I really want to check out this new collection, HAD A GOOD TIME, and the guillotine-inspired collection, SEVERANCE.
What astounds me most is how he comes to these ideas. The original inspirations almost sound like the hokey writing prompts you get in class or from Web sites, and yet he transforms them into non-hokey, fascinating voices and stories.
The inspiration for Robert Olen Butler’s new book of short stories, Had a Good Time, came from a collection of picture postcards. For ten years, he frequented postcard collectors’ conventions and antique malls, and while other collectors concerned themselves with the postcard photographs, Butler dug for glimpses of story—or as he says, “little fragments of expressed life”—in the written messages on the back. He chose fifteen postcards, breathed lives into the correspondents, and the result is a wonderful collection of stories that depicts American life after the turn of the twentieth century from a wide variety of perspectives.
I also liked his take on interracial relationships:
It’s not just a guy going and finding an exotic woman. It’s a much deeper thing than that. It’s that basic human yearning for connection—for an identity—in a world in which people clash over things like culture and religion, race and ethnicity. That seems to me the central issue of humanity. It always has been, and it’s particularly heightened today.
And of course, some general good advice/insight on writing:
It has to be historically plausible, but ultimately in fiction it’s the deeper human truth that you’re after.
All works of fiction are built around a character who yearns, and if you’re in touch with what the character is yearning for, then every detail is filtered through that emotional center. That will guide you as to which details are appropriate and which aren’t.
Graham Greene once said that all good writers have bad memories. He was speaking about a larger issue. He said that what you remember comes out as journalism, and what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. That’s an important point about the artistic origin of the work, but for me it also applies to the editing process: a writer needs to forget what she has just written in order to reengage it, in order to fix it or to improve it.
Ah good, another excuse reason for my bad memory!
Especially in this day and age, when literary fiction is not in great favor, my advice is to hang in there. If after fifteen rejections, or even twenty, I’d said, “aw fuck it,” I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. The thing that helps with rejection is to just move on to the next book or the next story. Once you’ve written a thing, and it’s the way you feel it needs to be artistically, you put it out in the world and you let it go. If you let the ambition to be published—or to be famous or to get book prizes—supersede your ambition to look into the deepest part of your self and to articulate your vision as truly as you can, you will never succeed as a writer. Your art will be destroyed. And if you do succeed in getting published, it will be as a compromised writer whose works will never endure. So you just write the thing you know to be true, and you put it into the world. Then you let it go, and you turn to the next story or the next book.