Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winner for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), is an alumnus of the University of Iowa Playwright program.

His stories have appeared in such publications as The New YorkerEsquire, Harper'sThe Atlantic Monthly, GQ, and Zoetrope All-Story. He has had stories included in editions of The Best American Short StoriesNew Stories from the South, and numerous college literature textbooks. Butler has also written feature-length screenplays.

Butler is the author of 12 novels and six short story collections. His debut collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) brought him the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In a review for The Guardian, renowned French author Claire Messud wrote, “The book has attracted such acclaim not simply because it is beautifully and powerfully written, but because it convincingly pulls off an immense imaginative risk. . . . Butler has not entered the significant and ever-growing canon of Vietnam-related fiction (he has long been a member)—he has changed its composition forever.”

After the usual collection of odd jobs, including steel mill labor, taxi driving, and substitute teaching in high schools, Butler became a publicist for the publishing company Fairfield Publishing and, in 1975, became editor-in-chief of Energy User News. Butler's participation in the Vietnam war from 1969 to 1971 informed much of his fiction in the first decades of his writing career.

Butler remembered fondly the people of Vietnam: "My greatest pleasure in life was at two in the morning to wander out into the steamy back alleys of Saigon, where nobody ever seemed to sleep, and just walk the alleys and crouch in the doorways with the people. The Vietnamese were the warmest, most open and welcoming people I've ever met, and they just invited me into their homes and into their culture and into their lives.”

Butler taught creative writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, from 1985 to 2000. He then joined the faculty of Florida State University as a Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor, holding the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing.

Butler is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2001 he won a National Magazine Award in Fiction.

Butler began writing novels on the Long Island Railroad while working as a publicist for Fairchild Publications. "Every word of my first four published novels was written on a legal pad, by hand, on my lap, on the Long Island Railroad as I commuted back and forth from Sea Cliff to Manhattan," Butler has said about his early writing.

The author's first novel is The Alleys of Eden, which was published in 1981 by Horizon Press after being rejected by 21 publishers. 

His most recent novel, A Small Hotel, was published last fall by Grove Press. In it, main characters Michael and Kelly Hays are on the brink of ending a twenty-year marriage. On the day their divorce is to become final, Michael spends the weekend at an antebellum mansion with his new—and much younger—flame, Laurie. Meanwhile, Kelly has fled their marital home in Pensacola, Florida, to return to the small hotel in New Orleans where she and Michael first began their romance.

About his writing process, Butler said: “I often cite Graham Greene. I don’t remember the exact quote, but he said all good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism; what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. He’s clearly talking about life experience, and he’s clearly right about that.

But it’s also true about all the craft and technique that you learn, which is fine to learn consciously, but the only craft and technique you legitimately have access to is the craft and technique you’ve forgotten. What authors have influenced me? Well, I don’t remember. Not remembering them is how they are influencing me.

So, in terms of process and the thrum, I employ my good novelist’s bad memory, as every writer must, and I return to my work only after I have forgotten it in some sense. It’s not total amnesia, but at least when I read it, I am reading it fresh. I read and go thrum, thrum, thrum…twang! And I hit something that’s wrong. Just doesn’t work.

Now, in most creative writing classes, even if they allow that the first draft should be free form, when you go back and revise, then it’s fair game to analyze, to think about, to consult your technique—or the dozen other people who are sitting around you who don’t know any more than you do and are consciously trying to think of fixes—to put a scene here and move this there and whatever.”[fn]Robert Olen Butler: “The Danger of Wanting to Be a Writer”.

In 2012, he married novelist and playwright Elizabeth Dewberry. They live in Tallahassee, FL.



The Alleys of Eden (1981)
Sun Dogs (1982)
Countrymen of Bones
On Distant Ground
The Deuce
They Whisper
The Deep Green Sea
Mr. Spaceman
Fair Warning
A Small Hotel
The Hot Country

Short story collections

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992)
Tabloid Dreams
Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards
Weegee Stories


From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (2005)


Text: Zlatko Anguelov

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