Robert Olen Butler

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally attended a reading at Once Upon a Crime. The garden-level bookstore has one of the steadiest schedules of literary events in the Twin Cities, but because it’s a bookstore devoted to crime, thriller, and mystery titles, I rarely step inside. I have nothing against these genres. However, I don’t actively read mysteries, so I don’t know much about the authors that fill the squares of Once Upon a Crime’s event calendar.

Robert Olen Butler reads from The Hot Country

That changed on the night of Tuesday, October 9. Robert Olen Butler was in town promoting his twentieth (20!) published work, The Hot Country. Although Butler is widely regarded as a first-rate author of literary fiction, (he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his 1993 story collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain), he recently made the switch–for this book and its followup at least–to genre fiction.

For a Pulitzer-winning author to jump on the genre-wagon seems a rather drastic move; as though predicting that many in the audience would be curious, he spoke at length about his decision to write this book, how it affected his career on a larger scale, and what he sees as the primary difference between “literary fiction” and “genre.” Said the author, “All genres have their own sense of how the world fits together. Whether something is ‘literary’ has to do with where the impulse comes from to write. Literary writers don’t start out knowing the effect that the work will have on a reader. In genre, you do. Mystery, romance, sci-fi . . . in order for these to satisfy the literary impulse, the genre has to be the best and most efficient way to express the writer’s sense of what the world is like.” He went on to make the bold proclamation that his newest novel, a work of “genre,” is “as literary as anything I’ve ever written, because this voice is the best and most efficient expression of my interest in the human condition.”

The voice of the book was something he’d established long before the novel was written. Derived from his National Magazine Award-winning story “The One in White,” published in The Atlantic Monthly in 2005, Butler felt like the character and voice hung with him, even as he wrote and published four complete novels before setting to work on this book. It wasn’t until publisher Otto Penzler of Mysterious Press took his imprint to Grove/Atlantic, Butler’s publisher, that the two got the idea of working together. Butler sent Penzler “The One in White,” and after a weekend with the story, Penzler offered Butler a two-year deal to write “in this voice.”

“I don’t remember my exact words, but it was something like, ‘Oh boy, you betcha!'” Butler recalled.

As he recounted these behind-the-scenes details, Butler’s gift for storytelling was on full display.  A lecturer at Florida State University, he was clearly comfortable in front of a room, and he did well responding to the audience’s unsolicited questions.  The entire reading had the feel of a seminar: a moderated discussion rather than a lecture or performance.  Perhaps this is because of the size of the event (only ten or so people showed up, but because of the tiny quarters it still felt well-attended), but I got the distinct sense that the audience was accustomed to the space–regulars of the bookshop, was my impression.  This was their turf, and anyone who showed up, Pulitzer-winner or not, was their guest.

Though he did eventually read from the novel in question, Butler’s preamble was the real treat of the evening. He detailed his curious hobby of collecting old postcards–not for the images, mind you, but for the snippets of correspondence preserved on the backs. “Postcards were the original Twitter,” he said. He described in great detail the postcard that inspired both the story and the novel. This particular correspondence hailed from a time when the fad was to use snapshots as postcards, so in this case both the picture and the text revealed something about the character. The image is of a young military man walking casually down a hot street, passing a leather goods store. All the writing on the storefronts is in Spanish. The text scrawled on the back reads: “After the battle. Notice the pretty señoritas in this photo.  The one in white does my laundry.” The important detail, which Butler withheld until now with a mystery author’s aplomb, was that near the soldier’s feet were two dead Mexicans laying in their own blood. No wonder this postcard captured his imagination, and not entirely surprising that it led to a thriller of a novel.

–RHM

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the left and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar to be at the next LitSeen.org attended event. See you around!

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