Get a glimpse of what’s in store when Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler includes Headquarters Library in his book tour on January 8, at 2:30 p.m. for his newest novel Perfume River. ACLD Library Specialist Fiona Lama’s interview with Butler looks into his latest work of fiction and explores what fueled his writing.
Fiona: You have been known to say, “Fiction is the art form of yearning.” What do the characters of Perfume River yearn for?
Robert: I’ve come to believe that there might be a unified field theory of yearning for works of literary fiction. If you dig deeply enough into such books and what their characters are striving for - beneath the goals of love or human connection, sought alone or with a partner or in a family or in a circle of others; whatever the surface desires the plot manifests in literary works - the characters are yearning for a self, for an identity, for a place in the universe. The work of literary fiction deals with the great question that confronts every human being every day: the big question, “Who am I?”
Fiona: You served in Vietnam. Tell me about your war time work and what draws you to return to Vietnam in your stories?
Robert: I went to Vietnam inadvertently. After basic training the Army trained me as a counterintelligence special agent and then sent me to Washington, D.C., where I studied the Vietnamese language seven hours a day, five days a week for a full year, with a native speaker. I spoke fluent Vietnamese from my first day in the country. I fell madly in love with the Vietnamese landscape and culture and people. The Vietnamese people as a group are among the most warm and generous-spirited people in the world. Ultimately, what I know about the human heart was learned in the back alleys of Saigon.
Fiona: What is the significance of the two Roberts, one Bob and one Robert, in the book?
Robert: For these two main characters - one is managing his life in ways we understand as successful and one is lost in life and homeless, so I wanted to find names that had a superficial link. If there had been another male given name that had two forms as perfectly absorbed into the popular culture and as perfect in their consonance and assonance, I would have chosen it. William was a close second. The choice of Bob and Robert is definitely not an autobiographical hint.
Fiona: What was the initial seed of an idea for the book?
Robert: Family. War. Love. Loss. Marriage. Betrayal. Memory. Language. Being. One answer to this is: my whole life. That’s not a flippant answer. In some ways, Perfume River is a book that at last synthesizes the essay of what I’ve learned - from my childhood to the present - about the human condition. But I stress: it is not autobiographical. All good novelists have bad memories; what you remember comes out as journalism; what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. Perfume River is an utterly transformed imagining from my long, composted life, with the deeply connected issues of family and war and the fragility of human communication all intertwined.
Fiona: How does the book address the effect of war on veterans?
Robert: The book certainly addresses how the Boomer Generation’s wars deeply affected not only those who went to it but those who did not, the ones who stayed home and watched it and the ones who went into the homeland streets to protest and stop it. Those effects are complex and varied and not easily abstracted which is why I wrote the book. I’d also emphasize that the characters and action of Perfume River does not simply address the Vietnam War. Ultimately, Perfume River is about war and family in timeless terms.
Fiona: I was especially drawn to your descriptions of marriage and to the way Robert remembers the girl in Vietnam. How do these descriptions of relationships from the present and the past propel the story?
Robert: The very way this book is narrated explores an essential quality of marriage. The past is always with us. The people of this book carry within them a constant, dynamic interaction between the present moment and moments of the past. The book is about that dynamic. And it’s also about the inadequacy of language. We experience the present with other people, and that becomes forever fixed in our conscious and unconscious memories of the past. But this experiencing of life and the understanding of it is inevitably limited by our need to find the words to communicate it, both with each other and within ourselves. This is true between the partners of a marriage. It is true between all members of families. It is true between each of us and every human being we encounter. And words often fail us. They fail us in complex ways. Misunderstandings occur that can abide forever, and that may never be resolved.
Fiona: What do you hope readers will feel during and after reading Perfume River?
Robert: I hope readers, from their own deep human yearnings, feel the quest for an identity of the half dozen main characters in the book. And I hope that Perfume River somehow speaks, in that respect, for my boomer generation. I hope it addresses the ways in which our wars and our families our profoundly intertwined. This novel is a descendant of my collection of stories about Vietnam’s aftermath, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Perfume River aspires to bring a reader to a fuller understanding of how fragile human communication can be, how the possibility of personal connection can be endangered - and even destroyed - from misunderstanding what we say, or don’t say, to each other.
Fiona: Tell me about your Florida State University position.
Robert: I hold the Frances Eppes Professorship at FSU, and I’m in my 17th year there during which I’ve published 11 books. It’s an endowed position, and I teach two courses a year. One graduate and one undergraduate in creative writing.
Fiona: How did winning the Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain affect your life?
Robert: It got me this wonderful job at FSU.
Interview conducted on December 7, 2016 by Fiona Lama with Robert Olen Butler.
Check out more of his titles here!