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Interview with Pulitzer Winner Robert Olen Butler: The Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller Series and the Importance of WWI

A Veterans Day/Armistice Day Centennial Day WWrite Exclusive!



KArmistice111118 25An effigy of the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm in New York, one of the many hundreds on display that 1918 day. Getty Images

For Veterans Day and the Armistice Day Centennial, WWrite has had the honor to speak with Robert Olen Butler. Butler, who has been called the “best American living writer,” won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1993 and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature in 2013. A Vietnam veteran and a former reporter, Butler unites war and journalism in his Christopher Marlowe Cobb espionage thriller series. Four books trace the journey of American spy, Kit Cobb, as he navigates his way through the most important aspects of the WWI-era. The Hot Country (2012), The Star of Istanbul (2013), The Empire of the Night (2014), and Paris in the Dark (2018), take the characters and plot through the Mexican Civil War, the sinking of the Lusitania, the use of Zeppelins, and trench warfare. Butler is best known for his literary fiction, but in this interview, he explains the equally-intricate, equally-literary process of writing spy novels against the historical tectonic shifts of 1914-1918, a time, he says, closely resembles our present era. 

Listen to the fascinating interview below:


Date: November 11, 2018

The interview took place on November 7, 2018

Author's bio

ROBERTOLENBUTLERPHOTORobert Olen Butler has published sixteen novels—The Alleys of EdenSun DogsCountrymen of BonesOn Distant GroundWabashThe DeuceThey WhisperThe Deep Green SeaMr. SpacemanFair WarningHell, A Small HotelThe Hot CountryThe Star of IstanbulThe Empire of Night, Perfume River—and six volumes of short fiction—Tabloid Dreams, Had a Good TimeSeverance, IntercourseWeegee Stories, and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Butler has published a volume of his lectures on the creative process, From Where You Dream, edited with an introduction by Janet Burroway.

In 2013 he became the seventeenth recipient of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. He also won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and has received two Pushcart Prizes. He has also received both a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. His stories have appeared widely in such publications as The New YorkerEsquireHarper’sThe Atlantic MonthlyGQZoetropeThe Paris ReviewGranta, The Hudson ReviewThe Virginia Quarterly ReviewPloughshares, and The Sewanee Review. They have been chosen for inclusion in four annual editions of The Best American Short Stories, eight annual editions of New Stories from the South, several other major annual anthologies, and numerous college literature textbooks from such publishers as Simon & Schuster, Norton, Viking, Little Brown & Co., Houghton Mifflin, Oxford University Press, Prentice Hall, and Bedford/St.Martin and most recently in The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford.

His works have been translated into twenty-one languages, including Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Polish, Japanese, Serbian, Farsi, Czech, Estonian, Greek, and most recently Chinese. He was also a charter recipient of the Tu Do Chinh Kien Award given by the Vietnam Veterans of America for “outstanding contributions to American culture by a Vietnam veteran.” Over the past two decades he has lectured in universities, appeared at conferences, and met with writers groups in 17 countries as a literary envoy for the U. S. State Department.

He is a Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor holding the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Under the auspices of the FSU website, in the fall of 2001, he did something no other writer has ever done, before or since: he revealed his writing process in full, in real time, in a webcast that observed him in seventeen two-hour sessions write a literary short story from its first inspiration to its final polished form. He also gave a running commentary on his artistic choices and spent a half-hour in each episode answering the emailed questions of his live viewers. The whole series, under the title “Inside Creative Writing” is a very popular on YouTube, with its first two-hour episode passing 125,000 in the spring of 2016.

For more than a decade he was hired to write feature-length screenplays for New Regency, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney, Universal Pictures, Baldwin Entertainment Group (for Robert Redford), and two teleplays for HBO. Typical of Hollywood, none of these movies ever made it to the screen.

Reflecting his early training as an actor, he has also recorded the audio books for four of his works—A Good Scent from a Strange MountainHellA Small Hotel and Perfume River. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree from the State University of New York system. He lives in Florida, with his wife, the poet Kelly Lee Butler.