“Lone Wolf of a Lie”: Robert Olen Butler on The Best Small Fictions of 2015
Pleiades intern Allina Robie recently had the opportunity to interview Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler regarding his current project, The Best Small Fictions of 2015, for which he served as guest editor. The result of that interview is below. Three stories from Pleiades are appearing in The Best Small Fictions of 2015: “Wimbledon,” by Seth Brady Tucker; “s c a l e,” by Michael Martone; and “Notes from the Office of Reclamation” by J. Duncan Wiley.
How has being a veteran influenced your writing? How has it changed or deepened your literary aesthetic?
In 1969 I was caught up in the pre-lottery draft for the Vietnam War and wound up in the Army, first in military intelligence and then in Army language school learning Vietnamese. I studied the language for a full year with a Vietnamese native speaker and did well at it. When the Army sent me to Vietnam in January of 1971, I spoke the language fluently from my first day in-country. Once I was there I had a chance to work very closely with the Vietnamese people, and I immersed myself in their lives and their culture. I was stationed in the countryside for five months doing intelligence collection, and then I was transferred to Saigon, where I spent my last seven months doing administrative work and translating for an American foreign service officer in Saigon City Hall. I lived in an old French hotel and my favorite thing in the world was to wander every night after midnight into the steamy back alleys of Saigon, where no one ever seemed to sleep, and I’d crouch in the doorways and speak to the people. The Vietnamese are among the most warm and welcoming people in the world, and they invariably invited me into their homes and into their culture and into their lives. So when I returned to America and left the Army, I’d undergone this remarkable, intense, immersive experience into this incredibly sensual place and into its lives and stories and culture. There’s nothing more effective than that to create a fiction writer.
My writing teacher says that an artist shouldn’t fear failure, but s/he should have a healthy fear of success. What do you think about that? As a successful writer, what would you say are the perils of success?
The only way for a literary writer to handle success—before you get it and after you have it—is to define success in only one way: whether each day you have written deeply and truly and unflinchingly from your dreamspace, your unconscious, entering there by a vision of order behind the apparent chaos of life on planet earth, a vision that can be understood only by creating the sublime lies of literary fiction. If the pursuit of or the maintenance of any other kind of success influences your aesthetic choices in this process, you will fail as an artist.
In regards to your recent project, The Best Small Fictions of 2015, what have the biggest surprises been in the process of selecting small fictions?
The biggest surprise, though I should have expected it, is the fascinating diversity of the form. Tara Masih and her editorial staff shrewdly named the works in this much-needed annual anthology “small fictions.” The 105 finalists they then sent me were remarkable in their range of tone and subject and vision. Some of the fictions you will read in the book are full-fledged stories. (I’ve written elsewhere about how I define “story” in the small forms. Google my name and “short short theory.”) But empowered by their smallness, to be fiction all they need to do is lie. About large fictions, which, by their length, must have plenty of story in them, Carlos Fuentes once said, “A novel is a pack of lies hounding the truth.” A small fiction is a lone wolf of a lie, sometimes hounding the truth across a field but oftentimes simply sitting on a hilltop to raise its face to the moon and howl. And these wolves know a lot of songs.
Who is your favorite recent literary discovery? What book are you reading now that other writers should be reading but may not know about?
My favorite recent literary discovery is, perhaps not surprisingly, one of my students, Jesse Goolsby. When Jesse came to our creative writing program at Florida State University, he was a major in the Air Force, fresh from writing speeches in Washington for the Air Force Joint Chief. He was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a veteran teacher of creative writing at the Air Force Academy. In Tallahassee he put the finishing touches on his first novel,I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, which has just been published by Houghton Mifflin. He’s working on his second with me now. Not only is he one of the very rare authors who writes with authoritative insight into the warfare of the 21st century, he does so with an even deeper insight into the profound yearning for connection, for identity, that drives us all. I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them is a truly great novel. And I’ll throw out the name of another writer for you, another of my students, Spencer Wise. He won’t be publicly discoverable for little while, but he just received his PhD from us last May and is presently doing some final work on his surpassingly brilliant dissertation novel, The Emperor of Shoes. Watch for that one as well.
How do you balance or reconcile your multiple roles as a writer, an editor, and a teacher?
The writing comes first. Which means I must write every day—literally every day—and I do that before I do anything else, usually before dawn. I do it for as long as I need for my gut to tell me I’ve been productive. Once a book is fully underway that usually is reflected in a word count. I polish my sentences as I go, and so that means a count of polished words. Not to say I don’t do plenty of ongoing backtrack rewriting. I certainly do. But that work doesn’t get counted in the day’s production. The minimum for each day is 400 words. What’s left of a given day’s time and energy goes next to my students. Happily, I am never short of either, though part of what I teach my students is how to be self-sustaining. The community of writers, the mentor-over-your-shoulder are very nice things in a writing program. But both will—and should—vanish utterly in the real world of artistic creation. The creation of a work of art is a profoundly solitary and even lonely act. It is part of my responsibility to prepare my writers for that reality. As for editing, I don’t do much of it. But I believe The Best Small Fictions series, which will begin with this 2015 volume, is an extraordinarily important literary event. The art form of the small fiction speaks strongly to the zeitgeist of the 21st century and this sort of focused recognition is long overdue.