An Interview With Fiction Writer Robert Olen Butler

by Ken Gordon

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Online Only, posted 9.29.06

Earlier this month Chronicle Books published Severance, a book of extremely short stories, each told from the point of view of a person who has been decapitated. Nicole Brown Simpson, John the Baptist, and Cicero are among the narrators. But Severance isn’t the work of some drooling, maniacal scribbler. In fact, the author, Robert Olen Butler, has published over a dozen books of fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain (Henry Holt, 1992).

Butler began with the hypothesis that people who have lost their heads remain conscious for a minute and a half after decapitation (put forth, in the book's epigraph, by a certain Dr. Dassy d’Estaing). Butler also factored in the idea that agitated people can talk at a speed of up to 160 words a minute, and then dug up 62 cases of decapitation and imagined the final thoughts of the headless monologists—all exactly 240 words long.

It’s not nearly as gruesome as readers might imagine—the book is filled with much tenderness and yearning, even comedy. One story answers the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Another gives us some insight into the act of smoking a post-coital cigarette. Butler even executes himself —“decapitated on the job, 2008” reads the note to the last story in the collection.

Poets & Writers Magazine extended Butler’s experiment by putting the author to the test. He was allowed exactly a minute and a half to answer each of the following questions via telephone (given the subject matter, his disembodied voice seemed fitting).

P&W: How did you come upon the work of Dr. d’Estaing, who says, in the epigraph of Severance, that the head “remains conscious for a minute and a half after decapitation”? And how in the world did he come to that conclusion?

ROB: [0:00] Dr. d’Estaing is, in fact—and here’s an inside scoop for you—a fictional doctor. A composite, as it were, of what in fact was a great deal of speculation, all through the heyday of the Guillotine, that there was consciousness left in the severed head. And a lot of experiments were conducted, in crude ways, for many years by a lot of doctors and prison officials and whoever. From arranging with imminently decapitated prisoners to make certain signs, to informal things—as when the executioner raised up the head of Charlotte Corday, during the French Revolution, and slapped her on the face and she reportedly, and this was seen by quite a few people, opened her eyes and blushed. The estimates for the continuing consciousness ranged from a few seconds up to actually six minutes. But a minute and a half seemed like an elegantly appropriate time. [1:30]

P&W: There is something Dantean about this book, in that we glimpse the first ninety seconds of the afterlife. It was interesting when, for instance, you cut off Charles H. Stuart’s head and then—after suggesting that he molested his daughters—you sent him to hell (“from under the door comes the smell of sulphur and I know it’s not them inside it’s what’s next for me”). What was it like to play God with all these people? Did you find it different from your normal writing experience?

ROB: [0:00] Fiction writers always play God, it seems to me. We enter into the characters that we create and we challenge them; we enter into their deepest desires and yearnings and thwart them. We understand them in ways that people tend not to understand each other. Indeed, we shape and prompt responses and characteristics in these characters that are as much from our minds as from theirs. That is the relationship that the character the great religions call God has with the characters that are called, you know, human beings, on this planet. And so, yes, this book is a kind intensification of that relationship. Instead of being Dante’s hell, it’s more like purgatory—it’s that state between life and death; that is the state that I enter into with these characters in a very intimate, God-like way.
[1:30]

P&W: Readers might not expect there to be so much humor here. The chicken, for instance. How does comedy figure here?

ROB: [0:00] There’s no question that there is comedy and humor in these heads, many of them. Indeed, in “Chicken,” one of the enduring questions of the 20th century is finally answered. And in “Sir Walter Raleigh” the origins of a long-standing tradition are revealed. But with any work of art, you do not preconceive an effect. That is what makes a work of art what it is. The artist does not know the effect that she will have on her readers before she begins to write. And so, when the humor came, it came as much of a shock and surprise to me as it does to a reader. With everything in fiction, I follow the yearning of the character, and in the world of that character how those yearnings are fulfilled or thwarted, and the tone that results is something that comes from the innate vision of the world that resides in that story. [1:12]

P&W: Were there any moments when these stories flowed out of you? Did any of it come to you as immediately as the words might have come to a decapitated person?

ROB: [0:00] Virtually all of them came to me in that way. The process was that I would spend a few days immersing myself in the details of the life—and for that I’m greatly thankful to Google. In some ways I should dedicate the book to Google; I cannot imagine having written the book without it. And I have many books also on everyday life and various periods and so forth. But I would meditate on the lives for several days, and then it would be my writing day, and I would sit and I would go into the writer’s trance and I would open up my own inner consciousness to these voices and the voices would be there. I never had to carry a story over to the next day. The voices came quite fluently and insistently and, in some kind of almost mystical-feeling way, directly. [0:56]

P&W: Can we talk about Joyce? There seemed to be echoes of Molly Bloom in some of these monologues. Were there any influences that you were conscious of while writing—or ones you discovered after you’d finished?

ROB: [0:00] No, I think in fact the influences for a writer, the ones that are truly influential, are ones that you don’t remember. Graham Greene said that all good novelists have bad memories; that what you remember comes out as journalism, and what you forget goes into the “compost of the imagination.” He’s referring to life experience there but it also refers to what you know of craft and technique and all of the great writers you’ve read and been influenced by. The writers who have truly influenced me—and I think this is true of any writer—are the ones that I cannot remember anymore. Their influence is such that it has settled into that compost heap of my imagination, into my unconscious, and is a working part of me. But Joyce’s wonderful exploration of stream-of-consciousness certainly influenced me because these are intense renderings of the stream of consciousness. [1:01]

P&W: The episodic and extremely focused nature of the stories in this book makes them perfect for—and I mean no disrespect here—the bathroom. At any point did this occur to you or the marketing people at Chronicle Books?

ROB: [0:00] Certainly the bathroom would be in some ways a very appropriate place for this. The intensity of the bathroom experience probably, in some ways, would have a metaphorical resonance into the intensity of the moment of the severed head. There’s a certain clarity that comes upon one, a certain focusing of the self, a certain rendering of one’s past experience. And it’s true also, I think, that these stories are best read singly and then put aside and meditated upon and absorbed. I wouldn’t recommend reading all these stories in one sitting or even two or three sittings. So in that respect...the bathroom is probably a very good place for this book. [0:52]

P&W: Mishima’s final moments were very interesting in that they seemed to transcend not just his life but to speak to the frustration of writers everywhere. He talks of “words, always words, only words, which are my coward’s sword” and concludes, pathetically, “I am only a writer.” Do you ever feel that writing is somehow a retreat from the world of action?

ROB: [0:00] Certainly Mishima’s attitude is that, as a writer, he feels a kind of impotence before the real world, the world of political action, and feels unable to fully and effectively influence it. But I happen to think that Mishima underestimates a great writer-artist in that way. Virtually all important political opinions are based on emotion, not reason. We don’t reason ourselves into our most important political positions.... And so writers who write politically are really only able to engage from mind to mind. But the true artist—in focusing on the moment, the individual soul, and the moment-to-moment flow of experience—gets around the mind and down to the place where political opinions are truly held. And indeed the artist can have, therefore, a greater impact on shaping real political change than anyone else. What’s political about Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony or a Cezanne painting? Well, Joseph Stalin knew, and he banned them. All the great dictators know that artists are profoundly influential politically. [1:22]

P&W: You decapitate yourself, in a self-deprecating manner, at the end of the book. The piece seems to be a combination of your dedication—about showing your wife Elizabeth at the War Crimes Museum in Saigon the origin of the voices of this book—and an accident while on the road promoting your book. Was it tough to cut your own head off?

ROB: [0:00] After doing all these other heads, the idea of doing mine came fairly late in the process, but it seemed a natural thing. The book did begin when I took my wife, Elizabeth Dewberry, to the War Crimes Museum in Saigon and I saw there a French guillotine that was in use up until 1954. And so the book began there, and I cut off everybody else’s head. I wondered how my own last intense moments would go. And it was at a frustrating book signing, where I only was able to sell about a half a dozen copies. And it catches me in an elevator where I’m doing what artists do, and that is: listening. Leaning out of an elevator to listen to voices down the hall, and the voices are full of yearning, and that’s what we respond to as artists. But I must say that I have promised my wife to take only the stairways in the year 2008. [1:09]