The Intel: Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen ButlerWe’ve interviewed a lot of talented and successful people on The Intel already. But Robert Olen Butler is the first guy we’ve done who’s won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Yeah, you heard that right: the goddamned Pulitzer.

In Butler’s new crime novel, The Hot Country, war correspondent Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb arrives in Mexico to cover the country’s civil war and soon finds himself up to his neck in political intrigue. He’s nearly shot by a mysterious sniper, joins forces with a double agent and falls in love with a headstrong young Mexican woman who may be mixed up in the revolutionary plot.

The Hot Country — published by those nice people at No Exit — is the first in a new series to feature Cobb, who finds himself in the thick of the flashpoints of The Great War. In The Star of Istanbul Cobb finds himself in the depths of the Ottoman Empire on the eve of First World War, and travels to Berlin in The Empire Of The Night to meet the Kaiser. Both those novels are coming this year.

Butler gives us the lowdown on Cobb, his famous webcast in which he wrote a short story, Graham Greene, and following the muse wherever she may lead.

The Hot Country is set during the Mexican Civil War in 1914 – what was the cause of that conflict?

It’s a challenge to say this briefly, but here’s my best shot, with a selective emphasis on the elements that shaped my novel. A classic military dictator, favoring the rich and oppressing the poor, Porfirio Diaz, ruled Mexico from 1876 to 1911. When he was deposed, 1000 men owned 97 per cent of the land in Mexico. The man who overthrew him, Francisco Madero, was one of the thousand who had a major change of heart. He was, however, a weak leader and soon all the repressed factionalism in the country began to struggle for ascendancy.

The first to effectively assert his power was one of Madero’s generals, Victoriano Huerta. In 1913, he ousted Madero, had him murdered, and began his own repressive rule. All the factionalism then created an ongoing civil war in one form or another for the next seven years. From this emerged such widely familiar figures as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, though, ironically, neither of them ever ruled the country.

Was it a civil war that had subsequent consequences for the US?

The turmoil was certainly of concern for the U. S. But Huerta in specific prompted action from the American president, Woodrow Wilson. In April of 1914, Wilson finally found a pretext to invade the country and attempt to overthrow Huerta. Mind you, this was a president who would keep us out of the imminent Great War in Europe for three years. But he invaded Vera Cruz, Mexico, to overthrow a dictator he didn’t like and to protect American oil interests, while fully expecting the Mexican people to welcome us gladly as their liberators. (They didn’t.) This sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

Your protagonist, journalist Christopher Marlowe Cobb, appears in another novel, The Star of Istanbul – is the idea to send him to other conflicts in the early 20th century in subsequent books?

Indeed! He actually appears in a third novel, The Empire of Night, just published in the U. S. and coming to the U. K. this year. It is set only a few months after The Star of Istanbul. The Cobb series will explore the four years of the Great War.

UnknownWhat attracted you to the idea of writing a series set during that turbulent period?

The great allure is foreshadowed in one of my previous answers. From international politics to modes of technological warfare, from repressed personal rights to genocide, from media machinations to religious conflict to terrorism, most of the big issues of the beginning of the 21st century were in full uproar at the beginning of the 20th.

How do you keep on top of all the research?

I’ve accumulated an extensive library of useful physical books, including fifty Sears catalogs from 1893 to 1993. During the Cobb period almost literally every quotidian thing a person might own was sold and described in detail by Sears. But these Cobb thrillers could not have been written nearly so well or accurately if it weren’t for another major resource. By rights I should be dedicating all the Cobb novels to Google. For Google Books and for their word-search access to the vast informational resources of the Internet as a whole.

You famously wrote a short story in real-time on a webcast – what did you discover about your own writing process by doing it?

I was reminded of how solitary a task literary creation really is. And must be. Doing that project was a serious act of creative schizophrenia, toggling between the trance state of good writing to the analytical state of teaching your own process. By the way, that whole series is viewable on YouTube, under the title Inside Creative Writing. In spite of being two hours long, the first episode, as of the first of December 2014, has 59,000 views.

Take us through a typical writing day for you.

Up early, usually before dawn. Feed the dogs. Grind and brew the special coffee beans for which I’m always scouring the micro-roasters on the Internet. Write (on an iMac) for as long as I need in order to meet my daily quota of polished words, usually 400 to 500. That “writing” often includes several hours each day of ad hoc period research. What would her perfume be in 1915? Where is the safety catch on that Luger pistol? What were the London taxis in that era and where did the passengers sit? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Your collection of short stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – how did winning such acclaim affect your writing subsequently?

As for the writing itself, not at all. I might have been expected to repeat the sort of book that won the prize but I stubbornly stayed the writer I was before, open to following the muse wherever she leads, ready to reinvent myself with each book.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I always duck this question because I admire many of my contemporaries and as soon as I start listing them I forget someone. I run into too many writers in too many places to risk hurting any feelings. Of dead writers there are also many. But let me mention Graham Greene. He divided his work into his novels and his “entertainments”. I suspect he smiled an ironic smile at this division, however. His entertainments were often, in their deepest core, as “literary” as the rest of his work. I would hope this is true of the Cobb books as well. So called serious writers have too often and unnecessarily exiled themselves from dynamic storytelling.

Give me some advice about writing…

Write every day. Every day.

What’s next for Cobb?

The beans for the fourth novel have been roasted. I’m drinking a bottle-of-wine novel at the moment, but I will grind and begin to brew those Cobb beans sometime next fall.

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