Robert Olen Butler Official Website

Writing Summer, 2012

July 30th, 2012

July 28th: Of all the vistas before me this past month—lush and exotic and teeming—this was the most beautiful: my writing space at 3:30 this morning. 8 hours and 45 minutes later, 1037 words.

July 26th: On flight between Istanbul & home, the vitreous in my right eye detached. Common for 67. Doc fixed small retina tear. Effects pass. But deadline for my novel looms & I need 2 months like last summer: 1000-word days. And for those 2 months I will see darkly through a firmament of 10,000 black spots & vast floating tendrils. Still: halfway there since 3:30AM. You just write through it every day.

July 24th: At 2:30 I woke to the Ramadan drummers calling the faithful to their final sustenance before the day’s fast, and I went up on the roof of the hotel, and beneath a scimitar of a moon I dreamstormed a long-sought breakthrough: the plot of the Istanbul-sequence at the end of my novel. The city’s parting gift to me.

July 18th: Another splendid balcony. Another splendid place to write my daily words. And finally in the very city that will comprise the last 40,000 words or so of the new novel. Istanbul.

July 16th: I deferred the writing so we could visit the ancient agora in the relative cool of the morning. I’m glad I did. Yesterday’s words came down thru Athena. Today’s strolled from the shadows of the peristyle of the Temple of Hephaestus, where Aristotle once walked in conversation with Plato. I may be wrong, but these latest 712 seem to have a certain something. (This & yesterday’s photo by Kelly)

July 15th: We’ve left Andros and are spending a couple of days in Athens. This is the view last night from our balcony at the St. George Lycabettus Hotel. With the Acropolis before me, I wrote 790 words today, and as we head out to dinner I bow respectfully toward the home of Athena, to whom many of the Ancients here looked for creative inspiration.

July 12th: After a 506-word morning, this is the view from our breakfast table on Andros. The ever-delightful Amalia Melis and her Aegean Arts Circle provide a splendid way to spend a week talking about the creative process and living it.

July 11th: In addition to nurturing the words of Christopher Cobb Thriller No. 2 each day, I nurture this family of feral cats. The mother is the black and white, and each night, after the late Greek dinner, I sit beside her in the dark beneath the oleander, and she calls her babies with a mournfully vowel-rich cry and we wait for them to climb down the tree.

July 5th: In my first hour on Andros, sitting on our balcony, as the day’s light waned, I finished my 500 words. (On my laptop, but my notebook and pen look so much more writerly romantic.)

June 19th: My friends, Kelly Lee Daniels and I have eloped. Not far. And on the 3rd of July we will fly to the island of Andros and then, later, to the city of Istanbul. For good reasons of her own she has decided to become Kelly Lee Butler. By whatever name, I love her deeply and I am very happy. She assures me that she feels the same way.

May 29th: An inspiration on my daily commute from house to writing cottage: our killer hydrangeas. They have come to remind me more & more of a novel: the long, unified flow of them; the seeming jumble of dramatic parts, each beautiful & well-wrought & discrete, but all blending into a coherent whole.

May 24th: Today I excised two Lusitania scenes, both great in vacuo, but for an organically whole novel, they were two cases of the research wagging the tale.

May 15th: My writing cottage, outside and in. These were taken yesterday, during plot-dreaming, which accounts for the 3X5 cards at the center of my work table. The cottage is a hundred foot commute from my house.

For 9/11, the Tenth Anniversary

September 11th, 2011

Kevin Smith, 32, advertising copywriter
Julia Hanson Smith, 30, graphics designer

in their apartment in Brooklyn, the night of September 11, 2001


I know the night is filled with smoke and with fire and I would not have thought it would be my wife clinging to me now because of what I have done: I should have gone out the door last night after my clumsiness, she was half-turned at the stove, the steam rising before her from the boiling rice, and all that I’d planned carefully to say came out impulsively, simply, badly, I am in love and she knew it was not her and she laid the lid on the pot and she turned her back to me and later we sat in chairs in the dark of our living room for a long while, the pot charred black on the stove, and I did not go and then it was this morning and then the long day and I am in love and I think it is not with her, but tonight, in this moment, we dare not change a thing


how can it be so quiet from across the river, if you do not make yourself look you might never realize the terrible thing going on, and he and I do not look, we know but we choose for this night not to look, even into our own hearts, though I can hear faintly through the wall someone weeping and from another place the murmur of television voices, and I see myself standing in an open window high above the city: I cannot go back inside and I cannot step into the empty air, and from this distance I am only a figure standing in a window, I can only try to imagine what I am feeling

Kevin Smith, 38, advertising executive
Julia Hanson, 36, art gallery manager

in her Manhattan apartment, October 16, 2007


our words–only an hour ago, in a coffee shop in the West Village, each of us alone at a table, and then an accidental synchronicity of glances over the Times and then her hesitation—for it was her decision to make—and then her yes, I’ll rise and come to you—our words still run through my head like reefer smoke, smoothing things over, blurring what our bodies remembered of the last time You look good I said So do you she said Are you still she began and I interrupted No I said too sharply and I knew she wanted more and I said Another man and she laughed, but gently, Perhaps it was with the man who just left me she said and we looked into each other’s eyes and we knew we were both burned down, we were both rubble, and I move now inside her and she splays her hands hard on my back and when we are done, when I can find my breath, my voice, I will say I’m sorry


a thing that was gone all this time, a small thing, now that it has returned I understand how badly I missed it, the thumb edge of his right hand, how as he begins to move inside me he always strokes my hair with that edge of his hand, for a long while, and I turn my face a little in that direction I want to kiss his hand and I imagine these past few years unwinding—I unweep, I unpretend I am in love, I undeceive myself, I unfuck, I unmeet a man I force myself to care for, and I go all the way back to us, to my husband and me, we undivorce, we unfall, we unburn, the world we knew unchanges—but this is a small thing, his familiar hand upon my hair, and I know that even on a bright clear morning something terrible can fly in your window, but until then I will kiss his hand and we will try once more

Books in Hell vol. 2

April 12th, 2010

Invisible Dick












Excerpt: “‘Jeehosophat! What a disgraceful scene!’ said Dick Brett, doing a series of physical jerks behind a bush, as he began to grow into visibility.”

by Frank Topham. Invisible Dick, D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd., Dundee, 1926.

Books in Hell: An Introduction & a First Selection

March 26th, 2010

I do not collect books. Not in the way most book collectors do. Those kinds of books—wonderful writers, nice editions, firsts—I simply accumulate, along with—just as happily—the fifteenth printings of the wonderful writers with the patina of past readers upon them. But I do ardently collect books of a very specific sort. Books with strange, bizarre, wildly inappropriate titles. The limitation: the irony must be mine. If the author is aware of how strange, bizarre or inappropriate the title is, then I’m not interested. Over the years there have been a few volumes chronicling such books. The first one itself, ironically, fits the category. Published by Doubleday in 1928, it was entitled Queer Books. (Ah, for a collector like me, how wonderful are the effects of the evolution of words.) An excellent, modern volume on the subject is Bizarre Books by Russell Ash and Brian Lake. The first edition appeared in 1985 and has been updated several times since, most recently in 2007. I was collecting these books before 1985, but Ash and Lake have pointed me in many good directions, for which I am grateful. But I discover previously unchronicled great titles all the time, as I obsessively scour the end spines in used bookstores and search for naughty or odd words at AbeBooks. Britain’s The Bookseller magazine awards an annual prize for the oddest title and many of those are splendid, though the judges are too tolerant, in my view, of books with intentionally odd titles. The Awful Library Books blog also occasionally has a fine example. I daresay there are other sources. But nothing beats the (admittedly labor-intensive) approach of creeping along a bookstore shelf listening for the authentic voice of a benighted author.

Hell has been a recent important venue in my own creative life. I think of these books being consigned there. While the shelves of poor Sylvia Beach’s bookstore in the Underworld are stuffed with Reader’s Digest condensed books, these are the books that best represent the misguided human soul.

Over the months—and even years—ahead, I will work my way through my extensive collection, with photos and characteristic passages. I begin with a classic from a British young adult series of the 1930s. A group of boy scouts makes an archaeological discovery of pot shards at the bottom of a pond.

Scouts in Bondage



Excerpt: “Dicky Ruthven was terribly impatient. He had taken his own find home with him, ‘to have tea with it, comb its hair, and fondle it,’ as Donald had said, joking in spite of his hollow feeling of depression…Maybe Dicky slept with the jagged lump of masonry under his pillow, for he was as proud as a peacock of his ‘find.’ And if he woke up during the night with the most pointed corner of it sticking in his ear, no doubt he only smiled in a seraphic manner and contentedly sighed his way to sleep again, with the comforting jab of the thing in the back of his neck. Or perhaps he had it clasped in his arms. Who knows but Dicky himself?”

by Geoffrey Prout. Scouts in Bondage, The Aldine Publishing Co., London, 1930.


February 19th, 2010

J. P. Sartre & J. Goebbels drink ape-piss tea in fetid bistro, wondering if they might’ve done differently without a walleye, a club foot

Swore by Stalin, mollified Hitler, Che & Chamberlain bake together in a low-temperature oven: damned if you do & damned if you don’t

Those who died demented in a nursing home think they’ve simply moved down the hall

Robert Olen Butler types away in a tiny, dark room alone with his unconscious & unable to avert his eyes: this is Hell, but it is Heaven too

I have to speak fast: Hell as untweetable novel officially available. Satan will do all he can to stop anyone buying it. Please resist him

Satan tortures writers by making them flog their books. Tweeting of news from the nethers will be somewhat less often now, but will not stop

She was faithful, he was not; then he was faithful, she was not; then they didn’t even care & split. Reunited forever in faithful rotten sex

In Nam, the “mad minute”: spooked, all shot wildly into dark. Here, vets live the mad minute, firing into the dark, hitting only themselves

The VC dug tunnels, quaked within the earth at bombfall. Here, they dig & dig & find, digging upward, peasants they killed who chose no side

Telemarketers & phone-sex workers are one here, calling endlessly, selling their own body parts. Handling & shipping is the tough part

Descending Picasso’s stairs: her face is 6 cubist planes: Fernande & Eva & Olga & Marie-Thérèse & Dora & Françoise: the sex will not go well

A sadly lost past: she the future reporter, YA in Fifties: on Sat. night the sound of metal wheels of paperboy’s cart with the Sunday paper

Childhood lost: chewing Teaberry gum. Childhood kept: chewing your nails, furiously, to the quick, afraid someone will see. They will.

The guys who slew all in Midian & Bashan & Heshbon & Gezer & Libnah etc. over who is God have new faith: the top guys are somewhere here too

Sarah Palin lives alone, talks nonstop to herself, unable to grasp her own syntax, believes she can see Heaven from her window. It’s Russia.

Hell is proud of its perfect model of a market-driven health care system.

A pragmatist in Hell: in Obama’s right ear a braying conservative; in his left, a braying liberal. He is driven to reconcile their views.


February 12th, 2010

There are no animals. Seeing balcony railings, park benches, window ledges in the Great Metropolis, everyone aches at the memory of birds

Montezuma stuffs tacos for throngs at Taco Bell, wearing flayed skin of Cortés, the rest of whom waits hopelessly nearby for golden fries

On tube, “The Genghis Khan Factor”: the Mongol & Rush Limbaugh utterly agree & wink & are wed on air: the consummation is Hell’s reality TV

In the cleric’s bar: Khomeini regrets his fatwa getting Rushdie laid 1000 times; Jimmy Swaggart regrets the ayatollah not going after him

Hoa the Saigon bargirl died by drug-addled American’s jealous hand, now drinks Hell Tea alone, longing for the way he tonguetipped her spine

Bronx tagger Scat 164, with can of cobalt blue, can’t tag on empty wall: it was always about who he is: still got Scat but he got no street

A host of Holy Men here, unaware religions are performance art & their truths metaphorical: when metaphor turns into dogma, real sin begins

Hell’s Great Metropolis is ringed in mountains where, in a cave, Osama bin Laden forever mistakes Cecil Rhodes for an adorable mountain goat

Hugh Hefner finds a blue pill at his bedside: he takes it & what he then has will never end & there is nowhere to put it & no doctor to call

Gertrude Stein gorges on bad hash Twinkies & reads Harlequins in apartment hung with Thomas Kinkades & finds that a Hell is a Hell is a Hell

One 4-letter word is never ever spoken, the L-word, & many spend the long night wracked by how a parent, a spouse prefigured this for them

When she comes to earth at night to steal seed to make demons, Lilith knows the man is dreaming of someone else. Even succubi suffer in Hell

A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu & an athiest are in a boat on the River Styx, heading for the dock, waiting for the joke to end

He put just-for-them nude pix of ex on Internet. Now he dangles naked on city-center lamppost: tiny enough before, it’s even tinier here

His grocery had a broom at check-out, charged to each stranger. If they noticed: O wasn’t it yours? He & broom do B. Madoff’s high colonic

Ended as bones under a dump fire in the Jersey Meadowlands, he is now reassembled, still an unmade man, once Joey Onions, here he’s John Doe

For Ben it’s all about a woman he left for another: she whistled tunes: he hears her thru the walls: he will forever hear her whistling

Descartes’ mother coughed blood & died before he could speak, think: he knows now he hid in his mind: ustulo ergo sum: I burn therefore I am

Tweets From Hell: Part One

February 2nd, 2010

When you ask a publisher what sells books, he or she will hem and haw and say that they do a lot of things to try to sell books, but honestly they don’t know if any of that works. What really works, the publisher will say, is “word of mouth.” But that declaration inevitably brings a shrug. Who knows, really, how to help generate that?

Last May I was waiting for the September publication date of my new novel, Hell. I’d been hearing about Twitter, but it was only when I had a new book imminent that something about this rapidly growing social network came clear to me. I could communicate in 140-character “tweets” to a set of followers, who in turn could “retweet” what I say to their followers who could retweet to their followers and so forth. This was, in other words, institutionalized word of mouth.

So I opened a Twitter account in the name of “TweetsFromHell.” I took the 140-character structure to be an implicit new art form—part haiku, part short short story. I began to tweet news bulletins from the Inferno five times a week. And this was all new material I was putting out. In the spirit of the book, but not from the book. In effect, mini bonus tracks.

Five months after pub date, I’m still occasionally tweeting from Hell. I love the form. I love going to Hell and checking out what’s going on.

And now, in a few installments, I’m going to post the TweetsFromHell archive.

Tweets from Hell, part 1

Hell is very very crowded, but this shouldn’t be a surprise: everyone who ever lived had millions who devoutly expected them to end up here

A. Lincoln & J.W. Booth dissolve wailing as one in sulfur rain & share nights at the theatre: forgotten lines & shooting pains & bad reviews

Satan himself moonwalks to the dock on the Styx, chortling to deliver the news: children are nowhere to be found in Hell’s Great Metropolis

The future is already present and the past is everywhere here in Hell: stop and take a whiff, folks: sulfur and sweat and self-righteousness

D. Cheney & Beelzebub secretly talk strategy for No. 2 guy to control No. 1, while Satan & G.W. Bush boohoo over disapproving fathers

4some: Marilyn Monroe & Bobby & Jack & Uncle Miltie, she forced to watch & wonder why she ever felt those parts could touch her aching heart

Satan feels his work in world is like soap opera & he has onus of daily script, but he will up Twitter output, given its potential for evil

The famed are still famous, eaten alive by those who aren’t & then declared insubstantial, Hell’s fast food, ravaging the diners from within

Rose the Bearded Lady finds face & back & chest hairless at last, thinks this Heaven, now vanishes into Hell’s throngs: O please look at me

He once sold the Britannica door to door & betrayed a hundred fragile hearts & now he eternally reads lies about his sins on Wikipedia

Dante blames himself: if he’d only figured out a way to make Paradiso as interesting as Inferno, the dogma as resonant as the body

Harold & Diane sit in their bungalow, weary & silent: the wind hums in the eaves, a clock ticks, TV plays in another room, & they are sad

Mardi Gras in Hell: the ones on the iron balconies try to bare their souls to the clamoring crowd but simply show their tits instead

Everyone here has to keep up with the new technology; Herman Melville has writer’s block after 1st sentence of his new novel: Call me email

More technological torture: while the heat of Rome in flames rages in his head, Nero can only play the iPhone ocarina app

In a restroom at the bus depot, the inventor of the electric hand drier wipes his own eternally wet hands on his pants

B. Clinton, hand on belt buckle, sits forever waiting for knock on his hotel door & it’s always Hillary, who expects Chief Justice & a Bible

Einstein finds all his family here, future as well as past, sees time like soiled panties in a knot & formulates General Theory of Relatives

My companion on the recent leg of my Hell book tour

November 17th, 2009

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A few weeks ago I noticed a green anole squeeze into the driver-door outside mirror of my car. It did not occur to me that he actually lived in there until this past weekend, when I took a four-day, three-night, 1200-mile book tour road trip from my home to a gig at Florida State College in Venice, Florida, and then on to an appearance at the Miami Book Festival and back home again. This little fella, whom I came to call “Larry,” went along for the ride, sunning himself at times at 70 miles per hour on the Interstate. He and I safely returned home but not without a couple of extreme-sport adventures. Twice Larry emerged entirely and flapped wildly in the wind like the green flag of a banana republic in a hurricane. The first time, before I could figure out what to do, he reconsidered the move and was able to crawl back in to safety. The second time, about fifty miles from home, I noticed him out there clinging by one foot and clearly about to fly away. I rolled the window down and grabbed him. (I have perfected a gentle-grab technique over the years with these guys, who often wander into my two-cat household at their great peril.) I pulled over and fortunately had a small box in the back seat that kept him safe until we got home. When I opened the box beneath the live oak at the end of the brick walkway to my house, he strolled casually out with what can only be described as an I-meant-to-do-that attitude.

How I Came to Hell

November 3rd, 2009

Any writer who, midway through his publishing career, makes his way to Hell, the straight way of his life having been lost, must go there in the footsteps of Dante Alighieri and his man Virgil. I first read Inferno on the balcony of my room at the Metropole Hotel in Saigon in 1971. It was the splendidly odd translation of Dorothy Sayers, appropriate, I thought, since she commenced it underground during the Blitz. The horizon before me at night crackled in that season, and it was hard to say whether it was thunder or bombs.

I was struck by the celebrity culture of Hell. Dante filled the place with the famous, from history and from his own time. It has always been thus: celebs live lives writ large, and since their sins are the common human ones, regular folks’ similar sins seem loftier somehow, part of a larger cosmos. On the balcony of the Metropole, I pondered the contemporary cast bound for or recently off to the fires: Dick Nixon and Spiro Agnew, William Calley and Charlie Manson, Joplin and Hendrix and Morrison, Brezhnev and Mao. Heavy on the seventh and eighth circles. All of this was the first seeding of my own vision of Hell.

And then, much later, the 21st century happened. The inspiration of most writers is in some way a response to the zeitgeist. The political wars of the 20th century had quickly turned into religious wars in the new millennium. And it struck me that every human being who has ever walked the face of the earth has had millions and millions of others who devoutly expected that person to end up in Hell. I thought: okay, everyone’s right. And I knew I would overstuff the underworld in a novel to capture this present state of things.

But fiction is built on character. And that most crucial novelistic inspiration had to wait for a few years. In 2005 I wrote a screenplay for Robert Redford. He wanted to play an aging TV network anchorman. I got the job and for research hung out for a while with Peter Jennings and Brian Williams. That screenplay was my ninth for hire in twelve years, and though they were greatly admired, which kept me getting hired, not one of them has found its way to the screen. I’ve been in Development Hell for more than a decade. But this last time I learned a great deal about network anchors, and Hatcher McCord, the anchorman for The Evening News from Hell, started talking to me. And—crucial for fiction—he spoke to me of his yearning: to find out why he was there, to figure out, indeed, who he had been in life, who he was now. Fiction is the art form of human yearning, and Hatcher presented me with the nearly universal yearning in characters in literary fiction—the yearning for a self, for an identity, for a place in the universe. After that, I just had fun.

Glow at Night’s End

September 7th, 2009

Giant lichen orbweaver spiders are rarely seen in even partial daylight. They build their webs each night and eat them before dawn the next day and then sleep away the sun in the lichen or, in this case, the Spanish Moss in the live oak twenty feet overhead. Her name is Glow. I’ve been spending some time watching her each night, but on the way to my writing cottage to work on my new novel a few mornings ago, I was happy to find that she’d woken up late. I’m not so reluctant to heavily edit my novel after seeing her devour all her beautiful work of the night before.