Why I write: Robert Olen Butler

Head games

In addition to publishing more than a dozen books, Robert Olen Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for his short story collection, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” (1992), told from the point of view of Vietnamese immigrants. His playful, touching new book “Severance: Stories” (Chronicle Books) collects 64 stories told from the point of view of severed heads, with each allowed 240 words in their final moments of consciousness.

Q: Why do you write?

A: I write in order to articulate my vision of the order behind the apparent chaos of life on planet Earth.

Q: What are you reading right now and why?

A: Right now, I’m reading “The Luck of the Bodkins,” by P.G. Wodehouse, because he’s an unmitigated delight. My delights lately have been mitigated.

Q: How difficult was it to stick to exactly 240 words for each story?

A: At first, it was agonizing. But the more of these I wrote, the more uncannily they seemed to fall, even before I did the word count, into about 240 words. Eventually, you internalize the form.

Q: Besides the 240 words, what other rules did you have?

A: No real rules. It’s more of the model of the life flashing before your eyes. And some of the moments seem fairly trivial, but that’s how thehuman soul works. We often find those little moments more compelling.

Q: It seems as if most of the heads are based on real figures.

A: A few of them are made up. I was scrupulous about the research. Each of the stories maintains its own integrity. Usually, I got them from some newspaper item or whatever. It’s not hard in the wonderful world of Google. There’s a thing called the Historic New York Times, which I have access to through my school. You can do a word search, so I searched for ‘decapitation.’ There were hundreds. I could have written this book five times over.

Q: Of everything you’ve written, do you have a favorite piece?

A: I think “Severance” is my best book in a certain kind of way. It’s certainly the most ambitious book I’ve ever written. It encompasses a range and the human condition. Part of writing from your unconscious is that you do not conceive, you do not write from an idea or a concept. It all has to be organically driven. I write because I see the world from my dream space. It’s an act of exploration as it is an act of expression.

Q: You finish the book with your own beheading in 2008 …

A: Last year, there were a dozen people beheaded by elevators. This is not unusual. I promised my wife I’d stay out of elevators and take the stairs.

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