Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler is an American author that is best known for his collection of short stories from 1993 that won him the Pulitzer Prize.

Robert Olen Butler was born in 1945 in Granite City, Illinois to an executive secretary and an actor. A former student of Northwestern University from where he initially studied theater before finally settling for Play writing (University of Iowa), one of Butler’s most memorable experiences were the years he spent in Vietnam during the war.

The author’s educational objectives initially kept him out of the war. But once he got his Master’s Degree, he lost his student deferment. So he was deployed to Vietnam in 1969, working primarily with the counter-intelligence department.

His contribution to the war effort, not only as a translator but also the work he did once he was promoted to Sergeant, saw Robert Olen Butler earn a Tu Do Chinh Kien prize (Vietnam Veterans of America).

Butler’s comments about Vietnam were always positive. He described the people as being warm and welcoming. He also loved the culture and the traditions he encountered, and a number of the stories he went on to tell where inspired by his time in Vietnam.

Of course, like most veterans, Butler’s life after the war was quite complicated. He struggled to find a place he could call home, initially finding work as a steel mill laborer and proceeding to dabble in a few other fields before finally becoming a substitute teacher.

His future only began to take shape once he entered the publishing industry. He landed a position with Fairchild Publications which allowed him to work on the staffs of various trade publications.

It was while he worked for Fairchild that Butler began writing novels. He primarily wrote by hand using pen and paper. He had a daily commute on the Long Island Rail Road which gave him plenty of time to write.

His first novel (The Alleys of Eden) wasn’t the hit he hoped it would be. Nearly two dozen publishers turned it down. The experience did nothing to encourage Robert Olen Butler who had already written five horrible novels before ‘The Alleys of Eden’.

The story ‘The Alleys of Eden’ told followed an American soldier who was deployed to Vietnam, deserted his unit and decided to stay in the country. The story would have never seen the light of day if it wasn’t for ‘Horizon Press’ which came in and finally published Butler’s novel in 1981.

The development was all the push the author needed to write even more books. Over the years, Butler became quite the controversial figure. No one could ever truly peg him down because he wouldn’t stop changing and experimenting.

Each novel he wrote presented a side of the author that no one had ever seen. Books like ‘Sun Dogs’ were praised for their powerful moments but also criticized for being slow-paced and sorely lacking in momentum.

For every positive remark that Robert Olen Butler drew out of a critic, you would find another chastising him for his literary choices. Butler never wrote a book that didn’t divide audiences.

And when he wasn’t publishing novels, his short stories were making appearances in publications like ‘The Boston Globe’ and the ‘San Francisco Chronicle’.

Over the course of his long career, Butler has published multiple volumes of short stories. He has also written essays and lectures exploring the creative process. There are people who have had the pleasure of attending his creative writing classes at Florida State University.

It has been suggested that the author’s disparate approach to writing is the result of his extensive traveling. When Butler won the Pulitzer Prize in the early 1990s, he became a literary envoy of sorts.

The role saw him travel to a multitude of countries all over the world, sometimes teaching in Universities, other times congregating with writers in the places he visited. The experience allowed the author to learn as much as he taught.

He also felt compelled to keep experimenting, to keep pushing the boundaries of his stories. Some critics believe that the author’s most powerful tool is his straightforward approach to writing.

According to Butler, his training as a theater student heavily influenced his approach to writing. He spends a lot of time inhabiting the lives and mindsets of the characters he creates in the hopes of accurately bringing their personalities to life.

It is worth mentioning that while Butler accepts the praises and criticisms of people who say that he keeps reinventing himself with each novel and short story, those particular transformations in his writing are not always intentional. A lot of times, Butler just goes where his mind leads. The process is spontaneous.

On the personal front, Robert Olen Butler has been married five times. Four of his marriages ended in divorce. His marriage to Elizabeth Dewberry, a playwright, was the most controversial.

Following their divorce, Butler made a point to inform all his students and colleagues (Florida State University) in an email that their marriage had dissolved. The aspect that stuck out and which eventually snuck its way into major publications like The New York Times was the author’s insistence that Elizabeth had left him for Ted Turner, the communications tycoon.

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