How We Spend Our Days: Robert Olen Butler

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer ROBERT OLEN BUTLER.


My day begins by my rising at dawn with my two Bichon Frises and feeding them. We then commute together to the writing cottage behind my 180 year-old home in Capps, Florida, whose human population numbers two. The Bichon pictured in my arms and on her pillowed footstool beside me at my writing table is Susie Q. Sadie sleeps with her nose pressed to the space at the bottom of the cottage door, occasionally rousing herself, in a senior moment, to bark at passing phantoms.

I write every day. Every day. When I don’t, I have severe intimations of mortality. This was true when I was 34 and wrote what would be my first published novel. It is more intensely true now that I am 72, with more novels left in me than I might have time to write.

And part of adhering to that daily discipline involves adhering to preparatory rituals once inside the cottage. I use the word ritual advisedly. Literary artists deal with the same big questions that all the world’s religions ask. In our deepest being, who are we? Where do we belong? The yearning to find these answers is what drives our characters. And that yearning, challenged and thwarted, is what drives our stories.

Coffee is first. I am passionate for good beans. My favorites are fruit-forward, single-origins from Ethiopia. Yes, I have the same tastes in this regard as Robert Quinlan in my most recent novel, Perfume River. I grind the beans and brew them in a Ratio Eight Coffee Maker, which brilliantly replicates a pour-over. I mix my coffee with half-and-half. Precisely. Measured with the solemnity of the ritual. 500 ml of water to 200 ml of half-and-half to four heaping tablespoons of finely ground beans. This fills a 24-ounce, vacuum-sealed, double-wall, stainless steel bottle, which I will nurse through the morning.

And now to my writing table with my Apple desktop computer and Microsoft Word for Mac. I wind an old Waltham pocket watch, which I keep visible on my desk. Perhaps a reminder, again, of the finiteness and the preciousness of time.

I open the file of my novel in progress.

I am ready.

I have a quota in my head for each day. 400 words. Minimum. Polished words. At least provisionally polished. I am blessed with a creatively useful bad memory. My life experiences thus readily provision what Graham Greene calls the “compost of the imagination.” That bad memory also, in a very real sense, lets me forget my sentences as I write them. I am able to return to them very soon after their creation to effectively work them over, refine them, explore the sensual moments within them. So I am not a classic draft writer. I can end a day with a fairly advanced degree of polish.

Advanced, but often far from finished.

On this day I read over what I wrote yesterday. But considerations return of something written many weeks ago, considerations arrived at before dawn this morning. I often find the space between sleep and arising or between retiring and sleep especially fruitful for what I call dreamstorming. This is a process of free-associative imagining amongst all the stuff of my present project—sentences and characters and scenes—with the analytical mind forbidden to contribute. (Thus, not brainstorming.)

For just such times I have a digital voice recorder at my bedside. This pre-dawn morning the session was brief. I have one note on the recorder, which is all the prompting I need: “Expand Louise scene. Kit brings up mother.” Which meant that a scene I wrote months ago, early in the book, needs amplification. My words today must find a place within a scene I’ve already written.

This novel, entitled Paris in the Dark, will be the fourth in a series of literary/historical/espionage/thrillers I’ve been writing for Otto Penzler and his Mysterious Press, which is an imprint within my longtime publisher, Grove/Atlantic. The estimable Morgan Entrekin and I have done eleven books together. The narrating central character of Paris in the Dark, Christopher Marlowe Cobb (call him, like his Elizabethan namesake, “Kit”), is an American newspaper war correspondent covering, in the first book of the series, America’s invasion of Mexico in April of 1914 and, in subsequent books, World War I.

I am meticulous about historical detail, which has profoundly affected how I spend my writing days. In my straight literary-genre works, such as Perfume River, a good, extended writing day is, at most, four hours. One can only spend so much time in the welter of the artistic unconscious. I do still spend those hours in that place with the Cobb books—they are indeed, in their own way, “literary”—but I sometimes spend up to seven or eight additional hours doing ad hoc research. Not the macro research. I already understand the events of those years. It’s all quotidian research. Getting the moment to moment everyday details right. We now live in a wondrous age for this sort of research. By rights I should be dedicating these books to Google—particularly Google Books—and a website called the Internet Archive. Millions of books and bound magazines from the era I’m working in are available online, in full, and word and phrase searchable.

On this day, the scene I return to is at the American Field Hospital facility in Paris. It’s November, 1915. Kit is both doing a story in his reporter persona on American volunteer ambulance drivers and working for the American secret service, trying to find a German saboteur in the city.

Kit, for personal reasons, is very much interested in getting quite a bit closer to the supervising head nurse at the hospital, who is also an American volunteer. It’s his chatting up of Nurse Louise Pickering that needs to be drawn out more. And I need to establish a presence in this volume of Kit’s mother, who is a world-famous actress. She has been, to lesser or greater extents, part of the other three volumes. Though she won’t play an actual role in this book, I can’t just let her vanish.

Louise already has a bit of an established backstory, in Boston, having learned nursing at Massachusetts General Hospital. In the scene as written so far, when they meet she picks up immediately on the theatrical allusion in Kit’s name, so this will give him a way to engage with her as a theater lover. Louise will already know Kit’s mother well. Her father was an ardent fan. I dive back into the theater of that era. And eventually I find tobacco cards; for the father’s mantelpiece at home, I realize. These were beautifully lithographed advertising picture cards, rather like a much later generation’s baseball bubblegum cards. They were inserted in packs of tobacco and were created in series of various subjects. Famous actresses included.

I find a card, with no overt identification, that I can believe is an image of the great Isabel Cobb. Done up by W. Duke, Sons & Company for its Honest Long Cut Tobacco. I then research and discover that the card was distributed in a tin, not a pack. And I delve deep into the period’s millinery to identify the woman’s Welsh-crown hat covered in bird plumes.

As Kit draws closer to Louise, I imagine what she smells like as she has shown him around the hospital. And what she does not smell like. I research working women’s perfumes of the period. Louise has put on lilac water this morning. And I research the smells of hospitals of the period. She is not yet tainted by the antiseptic use of carbolic acid. She has met Kit before administering directly to the patients. Each morning she covers over the working smells of the previous day with lilac. I expect Kit to be moved by this.

Those details sound so simple in this telling. They will sound natural and evocatively real in the words that I will write on this day. But they have taken hours of research to discover. All morning.

And so the day has come to lunch. A rendezvous of the pups and me and three cats and my wife Kelly, who has been working on a new poem. We eat. We talk.

The pups and I return to my cottage at 12:45 PM. The re-entry to my imagination is achieved by repeating the ritual of the coffee.

Now I have another 24-ounce bottle of Ethiopian.

But I have zero words. The morning was all research.

I have been here often before. It’s always unsettling, all these hours without words, but I am confident. I have found the quotidian life that surrounds Louise Pickering and Kit Cobb.

And so the hard work begins. Inhabiting this world, these characters, and their yearnings. Struggling with and cajoling and leaping upon and riding bareback upon the English language. Hunkering down upon it to guide it into the sensual world of the story, into the moment to moment flow of the story.

And by the end of the afternoon, I have 634 more or less polished words.

And for the evening, it is Kelly and I. We read together. We catch up on our beloved The Americans. We hold each other close and speak of how we spent this day.

~

NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. What book is on your desk now and why?

  • The Sears Catalog from 1914. To the side for quotidian reference. I have an extensive collection of them from 1895 to 1993. In the era my new novel inhabits, everything you could possibly own, from perfume to barbed wire, from a union suit to a laundry stove, was sold through the Sears Catalog. With detailed descriptions.

2. What one word best describes your reading life?

  • Slow. People who love to read books tend to read far too fast. Especially literary fiction. If you read literature faster than would allow you to hear the narrative voice in your head, you are not reading at all.

3. Is there a place in the world that feels right?

  • Not since November 7, 2016.

~

By Robert Olen Butler:

O

Other Writers in the Series

4 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Robert Olen Butler

  1. It’s so wonderful to find my pal Bob on Catching Days. I’ve missed our chats on social media since caring for my mother the past few years. She died at the end of August, but I have yet to find my way back. So this post has been a real treat to catch up with you, one of my favorite people. This is the only blog I keep up with anymore, and here you are. xoxo

    Like

  2. I loved reading about the day in the life of an author I so admire and who always wishes me a Happy Birthday on Facebook though we’ve never met in real time. Favorites: Good Scent and Had A Good Time, linkage and heart and brilliance, A Small Hotel, bought at Faulkner House and read while visiting New Orleans, love a good love story, and the one I keep nearby, From Where You Dream (VCFA Bookstore summer 2009)…looking forward to more…any recommendations?

    Like

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