Robert Olen Butler and Perfume River


Robert Olen Butler's books have always been special to me. I first met Bob at a SIBA convention in  2000 when he was touring for his brilliantly imaginative novel  Mr. Spaceman

I'll always remember his kindness and generous spirit. We see each other now and again because he usually publishes his books with Grove/Atlantic, one of the great publishers I represent. 
Inspired by another personal favorite of Bob's books, A Small Hotel, I had a lot fun searching for the New Orleans hotel and then entering the room so prominent in the story.

Linda-Marie and I have had the pleasure of staying at his home in his writers retreat cottage and spending a wonderful evening with him and Kelly.

I'm always happy when I see he has a new book coming out that I can sell but especially now because he has written such an exceptional novel. He and his publisher feel it is his best work since his Pulitzer Prize winning  

 Here is what Publishers Weekly magazine said about his latest masterpiece Perfume River:

"Eddying fluidly through its half-century span, the book speaks eloquently of the way the past bleeds into the present, history reverberates through individual lives, and mortality challenges our perceptions of ourselves and others". 
Click here for the complete review.

Below is the description of Perfume River by Grove Atlantic

From one of America’s most important writers, Perfume River is an exquisite novel that examines family ties and the legacy of the Vietnam War through the portrait of a single North Florida family.
 Perfume River is a lyrical and emotional exploration of one family’s drama that echoes the lives of so many who are affected by the aftermath of war. It is a profound and poignant book written by an author at the height of his powers, a portrait of family, personal choice, and how war resonates through the American experience.

And now Bob shares his exceptional answers to my questions. 

Bob, tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.
I live in an antebellum plantation home replete with active ghost in a town with a population of two. Until about five years ago it had a population of one. Kelly Butler has now replaced me as the mayor of Capps, and I am her happy constituent. 

 We are surrounded by 30,000 acres of pine forest that are in preservation trust and for which we have no responsibility. We have a de facto pet armadillo.

Where were you living when you were 7 years old? Are they fond memories?

I was living, for one year (1952), in Springfield, Missouri. My dad was working for the B.F. Goodrich Company and it would be another two years and one more move, to Overland Park, Kansas, before he would get a high school teaching job back in the town where I was born, Granite City, Illinois. I have two memories of Springfield. One was my pet duck Dab-Dab sitting on my lap. Some of your readers may flash on his name. My favorite books at that time were the Dr. Dolittle books and Dr. D’s duck, with whom he could speak, was named Dab-Dab. Yes, I could speak to my Dab-Dab. The other memory was watching my first television show. The then-enchanting Howdy Doody.

Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?

I have two, both highly encouraging and highly influential high school English teachers, Helen Kuenstler and Goni Michaeloff. 

Goni Michaeloff (l) and Helen Kuenstler (r) .

I am in ongoing touch with them and hope to see them both on my Perfume River book tour.

Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?

Many. But I can’t tell you which ones, for the very reason that they were truly influential. Graham Greene once said that all good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. He is obviously speaking of life experience. But it is also true of the books that influence and shape you. They are now unrecognizable parts of my unconscious.

Do you have a favorite children’s book and what about it makes it so?

I mentioned the Dr. Dolittle books. But I also still have a row of my Hardy Boys books on my bookshelves. These are the old editions, from the Twenties and Thirties, before they were ruined by being “updated” to “modern” detective procedures in the Sixties.     

 It’s hard to read them now, of course. They are crudely written, with only vague allusions to the stuff of life. But just the invocation of roadsters and biplanes and shore roads was enough to give me, as pre-teen in the mid-Fifties, a felt experience of those earlier decades. How can pedestrian writing do that for a child? Because the very failure of the prose left blank spaces for me to fill in from my own imagination. Which I did. The Hardy Boys were very important to the jump-starting of my literary imagination.

What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?

My mother told this story five hundred times—a thousand times—in my lifetime, often, uncomfortably, in my presence. I got used to it. She and my father tried for eight years to have a child, to no avail. My dad was drafted into the Army in the midst of World War II, went into officer’s training, and was about to be shipped off to be an infantry officer under General George Patton. My parents had a farewell meeting in a hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky. After they tried once again, my mother said she heard the voice of God. God said, “Lucille, stand on your head.” My mother did. I was the result. 

How did you meet your beloved? How did your first date go?

My beloved Kelly and I met when I was on the book tour for A Small Hotel. She was working at Jake Reiss’ estimable Alabama Booksmith. Our first date was simply dinner on the same day we met. We neither of us thought of it as a date, but we had splendid talk and a very special rapport with each other. 

The date ended with neither of us quite realizing how deep and abiding was the connection we’d just made.

 Is there a song that you listen to when you are feeling a bit down?

I listen to the orchestral suite from 
Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” ballet.  

When I was growing up in Granite City, I had a strong sense of being rooted in my Midwestern steel mill town just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. I lived in a rather bleak little lower middle class subdivision. But I would sit on my front porch, next to the open living room window, and listen to Copland on the family record player and I would read and I would dream of someday being an artist of some sort—theatrical or literary was still unclear. I sensed even then that I needed always to be rooted in the place where I was. Copland expressed that. When I am down I listen to Aaron Copland.

I am reminded of that long ago depth of confidence in my future. And I am reminded that art begins with what is around you.

How are you different now than you were 20 years ago?

I am now utterly, unqualifiedly happy. Thanks to my circle of friends and colleagues, thanks to my publisher and its splendid operatives, and, most of all thanks to Kelly Butler.

And finally, Bob's very moving answer to my time travel question.


to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,

be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,

actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,

meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.

When would you go?

Where would you go?

Who would you want to meet?

And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?

I am absolutely not the character of Robert in Perfume River. Nor is the character of William my father. That father/son relationship is significantly different from the relationship my own father and I had. However, my father did serve as an infantry captain under Patton in World War II. And he did carry deep and dark secrets in him. He carried them all the way to his grave. I would go to Germany in 1945, as Captain Robert Olen Butler, Sr. commanded an infantry company. I would serve as a second lieutenant under him. I would be his closest friend and confidant. I would be with him when the things happened that were driven deep inside him forever, that created a core of sadness and even depression in him that I could never get near. I would somehow figure out how to move him to speak his secrets to me, back then, as they happened, so they would lose their hold on him forever.

Thank you, Bob, for taking the time to respond to my questions and share these memories. I look forward to seeing you read when you visit my hometown bookstore, Malaprop's, in September. Another talent we didn't discuss is your background in theatre and how that has translated in incredible book readings. For anyone who hasn't had the pleasure of seeing Bob at a bookstore reading, put it on your must-do list. 

Here is a list of places Bob will appear:

Perfume River Events

Birmingham, AL
  • Alabama Booksmith

Aug 18
Jackson, MI
  • Mississippi Book Festival

Aug 20
Decatur, GA
  • Decatur Book Festival

Sept 2 - 4
Asheville, NC
  • Malaprop's

Sept 13
Durham, NC
  • The Regulator

Sept 14
Raleigh, NC
  • Quail Ridge Books

Sept 15
Savannah, GA
  • SIBA

Sept 17 - 18
Shelburne Falls, MA
  • Boswell Books

Sept 19
Boston, MA
  • Brookline Booksmith

Sept 20
New York, NY
  • Barnes & Noble Upper East Side

Sept 21
Brookings, SD
  • South Dakota Book Festival

Sept 23 - 25
Denver, CO
  • Tattered Cover

Sept 26
Boulder, CO
  • Boulder Book Store

Sept 27
Granite City, IL
  • Granite City Branch Library 

Oct 1
Madison, WI
  • Wisconsin Book Festival lead up event Venue: Madison Central Library 

Oct 3
Milwaukee, WI
  • Boswell Books

Oct 4
Chicago, IL
  • Anderson’s Naperville

Oct 5
St. Louis, MO
  • Left Bank Books at Schalfly library

Oct 6
Iowa City, IA
  • Iowa City Book Festival

Oct 8
Mobile, AL
  • Page & Palette

Oct 10
New Orleans, LA
  • Garden District Books

Oct 11
Oxford, MI
  • Square Books

Oct 12
Memphis, TN
  • The Booksellers at Laurelwood

Oct 13
Nashville, TN
  • Southern Festival of Books

Oct 14 - 16
Vancouver, Canada
  • Vancouver Writers Festival

Oct 22 - 23
Berkeley, CA
  • Books Inc Berkeley

Oct 25
Portland, OR
  • Powell’s

Oct 26
Seattle, WA
  • Third Place Books

Oct 27
Toronto, Canada
  • Harbour Front

Oct 28 - 31
Houston, TX
  • Brazos

Nov 3
Austin, TX
  • Texas Book Festival

Nov 5 - 6
Boone, NC
  • Appalachian State University

Nov 10
Tampa, FL
  • Tampa Bay Book Festival

Nov 12
Tallahassee, FL
  • The Midtown Reader

Nov 16
Sarasota, FL
  • Ringling College of Art and Design

Nov 17
Miami, FL
  • Miami Book Fair   

Nov 19 - 20
Thomasville, GA                                                                                        Date
The Bookshelf                                                                                              To Come


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