The striking similarities between Pulitzer Prize–winner Robert Olen Butler, who teaches at Florida State University, and the narrator in his latest novel, Perfume River (Atlantic Monthly, Sept.), who is a Florida State University teacher named Robert and, like the author, a Vietnam veteran, leads readers to wonder if the book is in some way autobiographical. Butler maintains it is not. “Graham Greene, the great British novelist, once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘All good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism; what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination.’ I’m a pretty good novelist and I have a really bad memory. I have virtually never written in any mode in any book what could in any real significant way be called autobiographical.”
He tells Show Daily that what became Perfume River did not start out as a novel. He’d been commissioned to write stories for two different literary magazines, and then he wrote a third. “All of a sudden I thought I had a collection of short stories, which would be a direct descendant of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” his Pulitzer Prize–winning book. While that book was about Vietnamese exiles in America in the early 1980s who had to reinvent who they were, in these new stories, Butler says, “the Americans have been exiled into the country of incipient old age and imminent death, and have to redefine who they are in light of that, and [they] discover that who they are was deeply shaped by their experience in Vietnam.”
Then Butler had an encounter with a homeless man in a health food store that he frequented. “I bought him some dinner and over the next week or two, that experience became a short story. But as soon as I began writing, I realized that all of this was a novel.”
His earlier A Small Hotel, about a marriage that is falling apart, had themes that resonate in his latest novel. “That book is also about the extension of family and the way in which the present and the past are always in intimate dialogue with each other,” the author says. “Those elements were suddenly here now as well, so those two books of my past, two important books for me, suddenly spawned this novel.”
A veteran of Book Expo, Butler notes, “I was at Book Expo when it was the ABA conference—I love it! I’m good at working a room and I love shaking hands with booksellers—I adore them. I’m looking forward to shaking 4,000 hands.”
Today, he will be shaking hands and signing galleys of Perfume River in the Autographing Area at Table 3, 3–4 p.m. Tomorrow, Butler is participating in the “Hot Fall Fiction 2016” panel, 12:15–12:45 p.m., at the Downtown Stage.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.