“Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well”
Trying to stand up and rebalance after the political knockdown. Trying to refocus on the positive. Trying to take my cues from Colson Whitehead, this year’s National Book Award winner, who celebrated the redeeming power of art in his acceptance speech last night. His mantra for all of us – “Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power.”
Good advice. I’m exhausted from the turmoil of the news cycle. Be positive. Stop whining. Look forward. Live honestly. Celebrate integrity and take comfort in reading, writing, and living the values I hope will inform the future our children and grandchildren’s will inherit.
Two weeks ago Robert Olen Butler read from his new novel, Perfume River at my local bookstore (Third Place Books) in Lake Forest Park. Mr. Butler is the 1993 Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a collection of short stories sourced from his experience as a Vietnamese-speaking US military interpreter during the “American War.” I read A Good Scent… around the time it was published but didn’t appreciate how good it was until I reread it while working in Saigon.
As an admirer of creative fiction I was astonished at the way this American writer was able to inhabit the characters of an old Vietnamese woman, a VC sapper, an American GI deserter, and a young Viet Kieu girl. Like a great actor, the author became these characters. I was so impressed on rereading the stories that I sent him an email asking if I could visit while in Florida on a work assignment. He agreed and I drove 421 miles out of my way to do it.
Butler lives in Capps, Florida, a T-intersection near Tallahassee, in an old plantation house filled with books and shelves lined with “hot” sauces –two of his obsessions. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places just a few miles from Florida State University where he teaches creative writing.
“I‘ll never stop believing it: Robert Olen Butler is the best living American writer, period,” (Jeff Guinn, book editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram).
There are a number of exceptional American writers but Robert Olen Butler, is unquestionably one of the best. The 71 year-old, five times married author, has published 16 novels, 4 collections of short stories, and a seminal work for aspiring writers called From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.
When I pulled up to the house – literally pulled up to the house because there is just a hard flat piece of ground ending at its steps – I was greeted like an old friend. “Come on up” he said. I climbed the stairs and entered a large simply furnished room. He led me through the house, a jumble of rooms filled with books. My kind of place. If you’ve ever toured the colonial homes of our Founding Fathers you’ll know what I mean, many small rooms with high ceilings but no discernible floor plan.
After the house tour and some small talk he asked if I liked Mexican food. I do. “Let me grab my coat and I’ll take you to the best Mexican restaurant in the country.” Sixteen miles north, in Monticello, near the Florida-Georgia line, the Rancho Grande looks like a typical Mexican café – high backed wooden booths, bright yellow walls with royal blue trim decorated with sombreros and serapes. But appearances can be, as they say, deceiving, and Butler was right; the food was some of the best Mexican I’ve ever eaten. I ordered the special Lunch Fajitas with rice and beans and washed them down with a Dos Equis Dark. Delicious.
During our meal we talked about writing fiction and the outline of our lives. He asked how many times I’d been married and laughed when I said three. He told me I was one behind.” Actually now it’s two, since then he’s divorced number four and married number five. Last week he told me he thought he was over his compulsive need to “commit.”
After lunch we drove back to Capps and he took me around to the small outbuilding that serves as his office/studio (also lined with books). He had just signed a contract to write two thrillers based on a short story written years before. There was no artifice about him. He asked me about myself and seemed genuinely interested. He asked if I read thriller fiction and if so what authors I liked. He was looking for models. I told him I admired Alan Furst, and he quickly said “Yes, but I think the characters are a little thin.” I wouldn’t have said that but he’s the expert. His characters always jump off the page as real people.
Our afternoon together passed quickly but he never made me feel it was time to go. When it was over, I thanked him and left behind a stack of books I brought for him to sign. Then I drove to the FSU campus to see where he teaches. Nice place. Two weeks later the box of books arrived in Seattle, each with personalized inscription. Bob Butler is a class act.
I’m reading Perfume River now and seeing in it my own Vietnam experience as well as universal and personal family issues. There’s no shortage of literary hanky panky here. The protagonist is a 70-year-old Vietnam vet, now a professor at FSU, who by virtue of the imminent death of his father must confront a number of long buried issues, personal, familial, and global. There are dysfunctional marriages, mistaken identities, a doppelganger homeless man, and reflections on family and mortality. It dexterously shifts back and forth between the war in Vietnam, the protagonist’s pre-war family, and his present day life in Florida. The scope is global but it’s grounded in the particular – something he implores his students to strive for. I’m not finished with the book but I’m savoring every word. Perfume River is an important new novel from a writers’ writer. It’s also a great launch point for me with Colson Whitehead’s mantra ever in the background.
Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power.