In his epic and intimate new novel, The Hearts of Men, Butler examines the flaws of men and women who are trying to keep their crumbling worlds from falling apart.
Three books in four years: you write fast.
Well, I don’t have another job. So my distractions are my children—good distractions. I usually take six to nine months off between projects to figure out where I’m going next. That’s also enough time for me to feel disgusted by my own inactivity and to get excited about a new project. I also write books that are based in my own backyard; I’m writing about my own place on Earth, I don’t have to spend a year in Mongolia. You know, Shotgun Lovesongs was written about the time of President Obama’s reelection. The country was still filled with a sense of hope. We didn’t have a full comprehension of the unease that was percolating. But I wrote The Hearts of Men at the beginning of the current election cycle, and I felt like something very different was happening in our country. I wanted to discuss the combative vibration that’s in the air now, which is at odds with the morality I was interested in examining.
In some ways this book feels like a lament. What do you think we’re in danger of losing?
Clearly we’re in danger of losing the natural world—and our connection to the natural world, which is maybe what’s hurrying its demise. Over the last five years I’ve been interested in Japanese poetry, and samurai and other warrior cultures, and thinking about what it means to have a code of conduct or morality. I wonder if in our own society having a code is even possible anymore. Or what people would think of you if you told them you had a code. It’s not that I’m dogmatic or politically conservative by any stretch, but I think it’s commendable for a person to have a vision for how they want to live their life.
Where did the men in this book come from?
I’d been reflecting about my parents’ divorce, spending a lot of time trying to forgive my dad for some of what he’d done, and thinking about how frequently divorce happens. If you’re married, you’ve made a promise to another person and to a community—and you break that promise. What does that mean? Am I just a grown-up Boy Scout for believing that promises matter? My great grandfather died in a coal-mining accident when my grandpa was just a baby, so he grew up without a father. And my grandfather spent most of his time away from home; he was an engineer on merchant marine ships. So my dad’s dad wasn’t around a lot. And my dad used to say to me, “We’re trying to do better, every generation.” He used to say, “You’ll be better than I ever was, and maybe your son will be better than you.” Even though my dad was a deeply flawed guy, that stuck with me. We’re all just trying to be better.