Touring the country for the release of his new novel, Perfume River, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler sits with SRQ to talk voice, Vietnam and the artistic process.

SRQ: This is not your first novel exploring Vietnam and the Vietnam War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain. Was there something else you wanted to say with this novel? Butler:  My aesthetic philosophy about the process of creating literature is: I don’t have anything that I know that I want to say and then I write a book to say it. That is, in fact, the antithesis of what the artist does. I know how you get that impression—I’ve been teaching creative writing for 32 years in graduate programs. Many people who sit in front of me have MFAs from august institutions and they know the second through the tenth things about being an artist and they don’t know the first thing about it. Art does not come from the mind. It does not come from the rational analytical faculties. Art comes from the place where you dream—from your unconscious. The impression that you get in literature class is bogus—what does this story mean or what is the author trying to say? Having a thing to say and creating this to say it. The “it” then, which is the answer to the question, is an analytical, rational thing. That’s the antithesis of the creative process. We are creating an object like a painting on the wall, like a symphony, like a ballet—it’s an object of the senses, a different way of knowing. For the artist, we are responding, as all artists do, to our moment-to-moment life of a body on the planet and therefore the life of the emotions. And if you are of the body and those abstracting ideas and theories—religions and political beliefs and so forth—if they let you down at all, your impression of life is that all is chaos. The artist, however, believes that there’s meaning and order behind that chaos but does not know what it is until she creates this narrative object which embodies that vision.

So there was an unconscious need to write the book? This book came from my artistic unconscious. Graham Greene once said something to the effect that all good novelists have bad memories. I can’t remember the quote. What you remember comes out as journalism and what you forget goes into the compost heap of your imagination. This came from my compost heap. Stuff that I’ve forgotten. Stuff that I’ve been through and has been dissolved into it. In the composting way, I’ve been working on [Perfume River] for the last 60 of my 71 years, at least. It involves more strata in that compost heap than anything else I’ve written. The time was right and it insisted on being written.

You recently said that in writing this book you encountered a new gear in the gearbox. What is that gear?  The gear has to do with accessing, in a synthetizing way, a wide range of composted stuff in my artistic unconscious. I’ve been moving toward this book—it’s not like it came out of nowhere—and a new gear implies I’ve already been driving at some high speed. I’ve been known for first-person voices and most of my books have been written in the first person for the last 20 or more years. I’ve moved back towards the third person because the complexities that the books seem to be engaging with—the disparity between what people think they’re saying to each other or even to themselves and what in fact is the reality, the way the past is always with us and in dialogue with the present—and that third-person narration is able to give us a place to stand as readers and me as a writer to explore. We can see the things that are being missed, the things that are misunderstood. Those things were embedded in the first-person voice that I used, but it relied on dramatic irony—where the reader sees more than the speaker does about the speaker’s situation—but dramatic irony can only go so far and it’s a thing unto itself and an aspect of the human condition that I’ve explored thoroughly. Now I’m beginning to embrace that godly position where you can see into people and identify things that are going on, those missed connections and the influences of the past that sometimes the narrator even points out. The new gear involves all of that, and in doing so, it gives me synthesizing access to more of what’s been accumulating over my 71 years of intense and wide experience. Detachment is sort of a reductive word because I don’t think it’s a detachment. In a way it brings me closer rather than farther off. I’m stepping back in order to get deeper in, which is the paradox of art.

How do you find the voice to honestly capture characters that seemingly come from a very different place than yourself? There has to be a certain deep and intensive direct experience with the other. I’ve been married five times, for example, and listened very carefully. I may not have said the right things, but I listened very carefully. The things that seem to divide us are less important than the things that in fact we hold in common. When I wrote A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain in the voices of Vietnamese people, I was a middle-aged white man from the Midwest. I was an only child. When my father died, my parents had been married for 70 years and never a day went by in my life with them where the word love and its sincere connection was not openly freely used and exchanged. I would argue that it is a greater leap of imagination for me to write in the voice of a middle-aged white male from the Midwest who came from a large family that was broken early by divorce and where the word love was never spoken. It is a greater leap of imagination for me to write through such a voice as that than a 90-year-old Vietnamese woman who was an only child, whose parents stayed together forever and where they understood how to express love. The things that, in this day and age, particularly seem to divide us, are crucial but they do yield to sensitive and inspired artistic imagination. They must, or we’re all lost and no one can communicate with each other. We all intuitively understand that artists have not only the capacity but even the right and even the obligation to leap across differences that I think are even more profound than gender or race or ethnicity.

And you had some firsthand experience before writing A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain. When I went to Vietnam, the army had sent me to language school for a year. I studied Vietnamese full-time with a native speaker. It’s a tricky language, a tonal language, but I picked it up. So I spoke it fluently from my first day in-country. The second day in-country I fell deeply in love with the Vietnamese people and their culture and their landscape and for five months I worked in intelligence and had the opportunity to have close contacts with Vietnamese farmers and woodcutters and provincial police chiefs. When I went home in 1971, I’d ingratiated myself with an American diplomat who was the advisor to the mayor of Saigon and he had me transferred to him. So I worked in Saigon city hall and lived in an old French hotel. My favorite thing in the world, virtually every night, was to wander alone into the steaming back alleys of Saigon armed only with the Vietnamese language. Nobody ever seemed to sleep. Enchanted that I spoke the language, they invited me into their homes, into their culture, into their lives. I immersed myself in them and was deeply connected to them and they to me. That also was necessary for me to write A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain with authenticity.

What keeps you coming back to the page? Was the urge to write always there? It’s always been there, but it didn’t have its medium to start with. I wanted to be an actor—went off to Northwestern in the fall of 1963 and had great success my freshman year. Then I decided that I wanted to write—to create the object—and because I was interested in the theater I assumed that I wanted to write plays. Went off and got a master’s degree from the University of Iowa, wrote a dozen full-length plays and I was a terrible playwright. I should have known better because my most impassioned writing was going into the stage direction. That’s a bad sign for a playwright. That is a closeted fiction writer. I went off to Vietnam, came back and figured out rather quickly that I wanted to write fiction and I wrote fiction very badly for a long time, too. I write because I have a deep conviction that the chaos out there makes sense. The chaos makes sense to an artist and they have to write to know what it is they feel and believe.