...In-between sets from poet Cynthia Schwartzberg Edlow

October 11, 2012

ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Have Your Cake; Eat It Too!


Step over to the Preach Corner for a few seconds and let me holler at you:  The most attractive, the very most beautiful person in this world, is the person who, not merely willingly but joyously, ebulliently, with both arms throwing it out at you, gives you the knowledge they possess of the thing they know best, and they want you to have it, they want you to have it so bad that you now know it’s not actually a gift, but a duty.  And the duty for you will be to pass that very thing on to the next fellow. There is absolutely no more beautiful person in the world.  I will not spend this time telling you about all of the people who have committed this bounty to me, and they know who they are, on the many, various occasions of my life.  I want to tell you about last night.

Last night I walked into The Poisoned Pen Bookstore expecting a crowd of 60, 80, 100 people at the least. This was a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Guggenheim Fellow, Nat’l Magazine Award winner, with at least 17 books under his belt who was giving a reading.  Eight people milled around, counting Patrick, the bookshop employee.  This figure is more important than it appears, so bear it. My friend, Martha Schulzinger, came in, and now there were ten of us.  Robert Olen Butler arrived, with no attending fanfare – he’d made his way from the Valley Ho, with its bathtub eight inches from the bed’s mattress. (See Mr. Butler’s own photo on his “facewatch” page.  All puns and double entendres intended.)  [And that’s what we call “fb” in our house; we call the internet the “internut,” “nut” for short; and we call photoshop “autoshop.”] That is how we manage to not go crazy with technology that changes every three months; we make fun of it.

So, we’re engaging in introductory conversation at the front of the store, near the cash register, when Howard, whose business card I have but not the permission to disclose his private information, mentions that yes, he’s now writing his 3rd book on Van Morrison.— OK, now if you know me, you know that Van Morrison belongs to me – me alone; of course, Van does not know this but everyone else does, so there. He’s mine. Go get your own.  The key thing here is, Yes – I pushed, and we do have witnesses, I pushed a Pulitzer Prize-winning author out of the way to get to the counter to share contact info with regard to Van.  Suffice it to say, everyone was amused, particularly Mr. Butler.  With another Pulitzer Prize-winning author (ahem) this may have not been the case.  And I know you writers know who and what I mean.  In the background, I heard Patrick moving what had been three long rows of chairs. 

Now there was small, intimate circle of chairs.  If there had been a round table, and food, it would have made for an apropos celebratory dinner. The intros and reading began.  Mr. Butler read from his new spellbinding book “The Hot Country.”  I believe he read probably, only, the first 10 to 12 sentences from the book.  He told us the tale about how he possessed a postcard showing the nape of a man’s neck, and a horrific murder, male bodies heaped upon on ground in front on him, and further ahead, a gaggle of beautiful Hispanic young women, one of whom did this man’s laundry.  The man in the postcard had drawn an arrow from the back of his large head to her, there far down the road.  This was the spring from which Mr. Butler began his new novel.  And then you know what he did? He laid it to rest.

And then you know what he did?  He started talking to me, and to Martha, and to the guy next to us, and to Howard, and suddenly and without warning, us in this small circle were present to the privilege of an astonishingly gifted writer sharing his craft, how to shape it like clay, how to work plot (and that means all of us, all ya’ll, poets included.)  He said, verbatim: “Plot is simply yearning challenged and thwarted.”  Any writer in any genre can utilize that one sentence alone to better and polish their craft.  And he shared with us, many, many more insights.  You know what it was like? It was like AWP without the10,000 people roving about in an airport concourse trying to find their flight.  It was just you and the man who knew how to do what he did best.  Which he did extraordinarily well.  And he was telling you alone.

RECOMMENDATION:  To those of you fortunate enough to be in the geographic path of Robert Olen Butler’s book tour for the rest of October and November, RUN, DON’T WALK, to be at his appearance and reading for the wonderful “The Hot Country.”  Buy his books; support the literary arts.  Bring a friend; I bought “Hell” and “From Where You Dream.”  Martha bought “The Hot Country.”  We’ll swap and return when we’re finished reading. 

To Robert Olen Butler: Best Wishes on your fantastic book tour.  It was not just a nice evening of literary worth.  It was a night I will always remember. Thank you for the generosity of your wisdom, your talent and your spirit.  Thank you for your inscriptions.  As promised, we’ll be in touch in December.  Onward!

Robert Olen Butler, upon throne:

Robert Olen Butler and Cynthia grimacing at all the books Robert had to sign to leave for the bookstore shelves. (Note re: photo: Never let your wonderful hairstylist cut your hair one week after her honeymoon.  Way too much of Cynthia's hair cut.)

Good friend and wonderful fiction writer, Martha Schulzinger, and Robert Olen Butler.

A wonderful night.

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