To Learn the Language of Feeling: An Interview with Robert Olen Butler

By Nathan C. Martin

A few weeks ago I posted a flippant comment on Room 220 about how the narrative in Robert Olen Butler’s new novel, A Small Hotel, might in some ways resemble a real-life divorce he had gone through not long ago. Butler called me out on my erroneous post, saying I should try reading the book, which I then did, and as a mutual gesture of reconciliation we agreed to have a conversation about it.

A Small Hotel follows to-be-divorced couple Michael and Kelly through the long day the divorce should have been finalized, had Kelly not skipped town to hole up in a French Quarter hotel instead of appearing in court and signing the appropriate documents. As Kelly checks into her regular room at the Olivier House, one that’s filled with memories of her marriage, Michael arrives at a historic reenactment party at the Oak Alley Plantation with his new, young girlfriend. The bulk of the novel takes place in the protagonists’ heads, which wander, often unwittingly, back through the happy and unhappy events of their relationship that led them to this point.

Robert Olen Butler is the author of a slew of books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories A Good Scent from Strange Mountain. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and two National Magazine Awards for fiction, among other prizes. He has been an occasional resident—or, at least, frequent visitor—of New Orleans for years, and much of his fiction takes place here. I spoke with Butler the morning after an appearance as part of his book tour in his childhood hometown of Granite City, Illinois, where he met with former high school English teachers and spoke to a roomful of bright, inquisitive kids, mostly the sons and daughters of steel mill workers. Butler said the sweet smell from the blast jets at the mill reminded him of how the nascent writer’s desire for intense experience often overshadows some of the more subtle, intricate pleasures in life, and brought him back to the time when he worked in the mill before becoming a full-time writer.

Butler will appear for two events in New Orleans this week: at a reading and book-signing at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 15, at The Garden District Book Shop; and at a book-signing and reception at 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 16, at the Olivier House Hotel, which will have the room Kelly occupies in the novel open for viewing and done up as it appears in the book.

Room 220: I was wondering about the structure of the book, how it starts in the present, then skips back in time and progresses to the present day. What was the advantage of telling the story this way? Why not just tell it chronologically?

Robert Olen Butler: It’s kind of an emotional mystery story, and if you think about the structure of all mysteries, the crime has already occurred and all the suspense and narrative interest has to deal with going back and reconstructing how this event occurred. It’s the same sort of structure here. We begin by seeing the disillusion of this marriage at a very late stage. Then, the mystery comes out through the two principals—Kelly and Michael, the wife and the husband—sorting out for themselves, under extreme circumstances, what it is that brought them to this. So the immediate suspense is this terrible decision that Kelly’s making, and the obliviousness of Michael, but the through-line paralleling that is the reader understanding, even as the characters try to, what happened to bring them to this.

Rm220: It’s interesting how memory works in this story. It seems like it’s almost imposing itself on the characters’ abilities to stay in the present. Long-term memory subsumes short-term memory. It makes one think of the Faulknarian idea of the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Where you conscious of working in this Southern tradition of having the past and present collide?

ROB: You know, not consciously, but that Southern tradition is not an artifact, it’s not an artificial construction. That Southern tradition is a human tradition. I think it’s the way all of our consciousness works—every human being is shaped by things in the deep past that are often lost, and yet their effects are very immediate. What we’re calling the Southern tradition here is just a natural reflection of how human beings exist on this planet. So there’s no conscious embrace of a literary tradition. It’s a natural movement toward the way we exist in life.

Rm220: The settings for this book—the French Quarter and Oak Alley—are places where the past is staunchly preserved, and in the case of Oak Alley and the reenactment Michael and his new girlfriend take part in, it’s actually brought to life. How did you intend for these particular settings to interact with or enhance the themes of memory in the narrative?

ROB: You just articulately put your finger on one of them. New Orleans is an extraordinary city in that the past is always with us, and so it’s the perfect place to put a book in which memory and the past interact with the present. That’s what New Orleans is all about. New Orleans is all about another thing, and that is that everyone in the city is aware of the fact that what happened in 2005 can always happen again. The intensity and the joy of life and living in the present moment is always tempered or undercut by the notion that we are thirteen feet below sea level and we can be underwater within a few days. In this sense, New Orleans is the perfect setting for a love story in which the woman knows, as New Orleans knows, as that wonderful phrase goes: In the midst of life we are in death.

Rm220: I don’t know if “didactic” is the word, but there seems to be an instructive element of the book that stresses the importance of expressing your emotions. Michael is incapable of telling Kelly he loves her, is sort of emotionally closed off, to the severe detriment of his relationship. It feels like an old-fashioned way of being a man—that sort of stoic toughness—and newer generations are taught to be more in touch with their feelings and express them. How do you think this instructive element is applicable in today’s world, to a more touchy-feely generation of men?

ROB: I guess I would disagree with both of your premises. First of all, the book is not instructive in any sense. You can derive legitimate instruction from any great work of art, because a great work of art reflects the deep truths of the human condition, but it reflects them in an aesthetic way, it reflects them in a way of the moment and of the senses. It’s an art object, after all, and an art object is a thing of the senses. You’re not meant to understand a work of art in a thematic, instructive way. You’re meant to thrum to it, like a string on a stringed instrument. And as a result, what you just mentioned as the instructive element is a significant oversimplification of what the book’s aesthetic effect is.

Also, I’m not sure I really agree with you about how that’s old fashioned and men now are very touchy-feely. On the contrary, I think that is part of maleness in a very serious way. A lot of that touchy-feely today has to do is something picked up by a lot of guys as a way of manipulation, and though they may be quick with the words, there is still a disconnect between what they say and what they feel. This is represented in the book by Drew, the younger lawyer. It’s just kind of a flipped image of Michael’s problem. Michael has sincere feelings for Kelly, and cannot express them. And a lot of people today who seem to be touchy-feely and expressing their feelings, they’re not expressing their feelings at all—what they’re expressing is what is expected, or a way of manipulating the person they’re expressing those things to.

Rm220: Throughout the book Michael does have sincere feelings for Kelly, but he doesn’t express them and doesn’t seem to really understand them. What is the relationship between what one feels and what one expresses? If you have a true emotion, does expressing it to another person make it more real?

ROB: That’s a much more basic thing that the book is about. I think it’s a matter of the difficulty that people of good will and sincere feeling face in learning what the language of feeling is for the other person. Michael, in this book, feels as if he’s adequately expressed his feeling. The book’s ironically twisting that old Erich Segal novel, Love Story, where he says, “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” Michael believes love means never having to say “I love you.” Michael has convinced himself that silence is the language of love for him, and that somehow that’s understood. What he doesn’t understand is that it’s not understood. And to some extent, being able to express a sincere feeling clarifies it and enhances it and helps that feeling live. But Michael’s love for Kelly is real, even in the present time in that book, but he does not speak the language, he does not know how to say it to her, and she does not know how to ask for it, because, as she puts it, if you have to ask, it doesn’t count. It has to be a voluntary thing. And that underlies a lot of how we communicate or fail to communicate. We don’t know the language that the other person is speaking in their emotional life, and I think to some extent the question of the book is, Will Michael figure out how to speak Kelly’s language?