I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.

photo credit: Florida State University

June 1, 2017: Robert Olen Butler

Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream; it comes from the white-hot center of you.

The Perfume River is located in the city of Hue in Vietnam. It has two sources and is only fragrant in the fall when so many flowers fall into the river that it takes on a perfume-like scent.

Perfume River, which comes out in paperback on August 15th, is Robert Olen Butler’s sixteenth novel. It’s the story of seventy-year-old Robert Quinlin and his brother and their father and it’s also the story of each of their wives and of each of these marriages and of their family and of the far reaching fingers of the Vietnam Wara war that affected me at age ten so much that thirty years later I told each of my children if it comes to it, I’ll go with you to Canada–and this novel is the story of still so much more that I could write post after post. Things happen, choices are made, and then somehow it’s forty or fifty years later. But if I were asked to choose one thing, what I’m most struck by is how the writer (to distinguish him from the main character named Robert and another character, a homeless man, named Bob) weaves back and forth in time as if there were no barriers whatsoever between the past and the present. The past is as much a part of this story as is the present and every bit as compelling, the large moments and also the small.

Music, darkness, messages–anything can be a trigger and send characters careening back. But there is one passage in particular that I will forever return to when I want to study flashbacks, when I want to slow a scene down, when I want my words on the page to create emotion in the reader.

In this novel, with its gorgeous cover, Robert is married to Darla. After she goes for a run, Robert receives a frantic call from his mother (his parents are approaching ninety), and as he heads out the door for the hospital, he leaves Darla a note. My father has broken his hip. I’m in Thomasville. Don’t worry. Work well. Thomasville is forty miles away. As Robert steps from the car in the hospital parking lot, his cell rings, and he recognizes the number. Darla says, “I’m so sorry.”

Darla is standing, sweating, in the foyer, just returned. It occurred to her to shower first. But she carries a memory, not so much in her mind as in her body. She stood in the doorway of the bedroom in their first house in Tallahassee, a rental near Lake Ella, and there was only darkness before her. She’d just spoken to her brother Frank on the phone downstairs. Dead. His voice. Both of them. And she’d said Oh. She stood in the doorway and she realized that this single word might not have been the right one. Perhaps she’d said more. But she could not remember any further words with her brother, nor any details of her passage from the phone downstairs to this doorway. She thought: We need an extension up here. She stood there waiting for something, but she could not imagine what. And then he emerged from the darkness. Robert. She blinked hard at him. She thought: I haven’t been seeing him very clearly lately. And Robert knew to say nothing, he knew instead to step very close. He smelled of Ivory soap and flannel and coffee on his breath. He drew her against him, and as soon as he did, she could remember what had happened, and she fell into him, fell a long way into him. Their first death. The first close death that comes to a man and a woman who are sharing a life. The first death brings all the future deaths with it. Brings all the deaths in all the world. And he held her close.

At AWP in Atlanta, back in 2007, Bob spoke about his writing process, which he details in his craft book, From Where You Dream (the source of the opening quote). The excerpt above is a beautiful example of a technique he describes in this book.

The dissolve is a transition form one image to another where the first fades while the second comes into focus superimposed over the first. The two things, then, mix inextricably for a time.

I’ve often mentioned Ron Carlson‘s craft book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Well, Robert Olen Butler takes that concept one step further with a YouTube series called Inside Creative Writing. It’s a 17-part series of two hours each in which he writes a story in real time. Yes, he actually manages to write a story and talk at the same time.

In addition to his sixteen novels, Robert Olen Butler has also written six story collections, one of which, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review. They’ve been chosen for inclusion in four editions of The Best American Short Stories and eight editions of New Stories from the South. “Fiction,” he writes in From Where You Dream, “is the art form of human yearning.” Currently he teaches creative writing at Florida State University. 

Come back on JUNE 1st to read how ROBERT OLEN BUTLER spends his days.