Freud posited that the keys to mental health are work and love, and if he was right then Robert Olen Butler is the sanest man on the planet. It doesn’t always look that way. Sane isn’t the first word that comes to mind when describing Butler’s idea to write a short story online in real time webcam, mike and all. But Butler, who teaches creative writing at Florida State University, doesn’t care about the looks of things. A prolific and protean writer, he goes beyond the safe and superficial in order to tap into what he calls dreamspace.
"Art does not come from the mind," he says, speaking from his 1840 plantation home in Tallahassee, Florida. "It comes from the space where you dream, the unconscious." This dreamspace has been the source of a dozen books including his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain and the latest, Fair Warning Its narrator Amy Dickerson, a glamorous Manhattan auctioneer, understands her affluent clients’ need to possess. "I know about desire," she says. "It’s my job to instill it blind, irrational desire in whole crowds of people."
Fair Warning, with its startling opening line, "Perhaps my fate was sealed when I sold my three-year old sister," began as a short story. It was originally published in Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine, and the dreamspace Amy came from was not Butler’s alone, but also Coppola’s. "Francis had seen Sharon Stone act as an auctioneer one night and was enchanted," says Butler. The director asked the author to develop that moment into a short story. "When the suggestion was made, it attached itself to some character in my unconsciousness," says Butler. "It struck a chord somehow or I couldn’t have done it. I just loved Amy." Others did, too. The short story version of "Fair Warning" won the 2001 National Magazine Award for fiction.
The voice Butler creates for Amy is sensual, sly, funny and real. Even as she flirts with wealthy collectors, she’s still trying to outrun her Texas cattleman past. "I love voices," says the author. "I’m very character-focused, very voice-focused. I feel often when I write as if I’m channeling more than creating." He often writes in first person, which allows him to create the voices he loves, voices as madly diverse as Amy, Tony Hatcher, a Eurasian boy torn between Saigon and New Jersey in The Deuce (1989), and 13 different Vietnamese voices in A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain.
A linguist for the Army during the Vietnam War, Butler spoke fluent Vietnamese, which led him to "encounter the Vietnamese people in very close and intimate ways." He learned the details of their lives and 20 years later, re-created that intimate and complex world in his book which won the Pulitzer.
To create the voice of Amy, Butler also drew from experience. "I’ve known a lot of women in my life," he says. "I’ve been married four times, though only recently for real," to novelist Elizabeth Dewberry. But for Butler, understanding other lives is the thin part of a writer’s responsibility. The rest comes from deep within, from "the dreamspace, the unconscious, a place where you’re neither male nor female, Muslim, Christian or Jew, black, white. The human truth that transcends these superficial differences, if you write from that level of authenticity, is not only possible, but is the profound duty of the artist."
He concedes that the sheer diversity of his work, as he nimbly goes from the stream-of-conscious sensuality of They Whisper (1994) to short stories drawn from real tabloid headlines in Tabloid Dreams (1996), can make people uncomfortable.
"We like our writers to be characterizable entities, and I’m not. I keep following the muse wherever it leads." That’s what led him to Fair Warning and to write "Aeroplane," his online short story (check out the story and web archives at www.fsu.edu and click on Inside Creative Writing). Butler, who’s taught creative writing for 17 years says, "You have to teach [writing students] to access the deeply nonrational parts of themselves. The best way is to let them sit with you and watch the process. Now for the first time, that process is accessible through the Internet. This is the next step, getting naked in front of your computer and letting people watch." Pretty risky stuff, but Butler, who channels other voices in his work, is absolutely at ease in his own skin. It was not always thus. When he began writing, he wrote what he thought people wanted to read. "I courted approval," he admits. "All that stuff was having a bad effect on my writing."
Butler has published 12 works. He has written 17. He laughs. "I wrote five of the worst novels you could ever read and never will, 40 truly dreadful short stories, a million words of dreck, before something clicked," he says. "The click was where I stopped writing from my head and started from my unconscious. I discovered there was something else in me the impulse to create works of art, which requires a total disregard for those other matters. Only after I learned to just write the books that are there and not think about anything else, that’s when I started writing well and getting published. Then I won the Pultizer Prize and I don’t have anything to prove to anybody anymore."
The professional sense of comfort came long before the personal. After three failed marriages, "I finally found a soul mate," says Butler, who after seven years still sounds moonstruck. "I found and married Elizabeth Dewberry, an amazing writer. I’m now the second best writer in my household." They read to each other from their work and encourage rather than compete with each other. "That has made a big difference. That sense of connection has shaped my work as well as my life," he says. "Home is with Betsy. Home is the unconscious, too, the dreamspace. You carry your dreamspace around with you."
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Butler believes accessing the dreamspace is more important than ever. "Art has always responded to the deepest travails of the human spirit," he says. "Mohammad Atta flew that jet into a building in search of a self. More than ever, we need artists to tell us what it means to be human, to live, to die, to seek a self, an identity. Artists must look into the cauldron of their own souls to find what is happening to our world."
Ellen Kanner is a freelance writer in Miami.