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AN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT OLEN BUTLER Robert Olen Butler Robert Olen Butler was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his collection of stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the first of which originally appeared in The Missouri Review. He has also published several novels, including The Deuce, and most recently the best-selling and controversial They Whisper, an excerpt from which also appeared originally in MR. In addition he is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rosenthal Foundation Award. He teaches creative writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. This interview was conducted in February of 1994 in Columbia, Missouri, by Kay Bonetti, Director of the American Audio Prose Library. The Prose Library offers tapes of American authors reading and discussing their work. For information contact AAPL at PO Box 842, Columbia, MO, 65205 or call 1-800-447-2275. An Interview with Robert Olen Butler Interviewer: Your father was the chair of the theater department at St. Louis University and you grew up in Granite City, UUnois, the quintessential factory or blue-collar town. Butler: I spent summers working in the Granite City Steel mill. As I grew up I was every bit as comfortable talking Cardinals basebaU with feUow members of the labor gang at the blast furnace as I was talking aesthetic theory with my father's colleagues at St. Louis University. Granite City is not a racially mixed city but it's fuU of exUes from the Deep South. There were forty thousand people in the city at that time and one high school, and I was the student body president so I had good friends through the whole socioeconomic range. The sense of cultural colUsion that you find particularly in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain I think flows from not just my experience in Vietnam but from my very chUdhood. Interviewer: You went to school at Northwestern University, first as a theater major, an actor. EventuaUy you took a Master's degree in playwriting from the University of Iowa. What changed your direction? Butler: I was more interested in acting than anything else when I was in high school. I went off to Northwestern in the faU of '63. Northwestern was, and still is, one of the premier training grounds for professional theater people. In that first year I was in four of the six major productions and had a major role in one of them, which was quite good. But into my sophomore year, I became restless with acting. I wanted to write, and since I was working in the theater I just assumed that the theater was what I should write for. On my twenty-first birthday, January of 1966, I was living at 626 Library Place in the top floor of a rooming The Missouri Review ยท 85 house run by a very unusual old bachelor of a high-school EngUsh teacher. I looked out over the snowy rooftops of Evanston and said, "WeU, if you reaUy think you're going to be a writer, you'd better write something." So I sat down and wrote, in the next couple of months, a fuU-length play caUed "The Rooming House" about that house and the people there. By the time I finished my Master's at the University of Iowa, I had written a dozen fuUlength plays. The foUowing eleven got worse and worse. I was a terrible playwright because I was in fact a nascent noveUst trying to work in the wrong medium. Interviewer: What's the difference? Butler: Plays and movies are coUaborative art forms. The writer is responsible for two things only: structure, and to some lesser extent, dialogue. But even that is a coUaborative process with the actors. If you don't understand and embrace your limitation as an artist you wiU write badly. I think artists write because they encounter the chaos of IUe on the planet Earth and yet have some deep instinct of order behind that chaos. If what you see about the world is deeply embedded in the moment-to-moment sensual flow of experience, then you're not going to be satisfied as an artist whose...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 83-106
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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