Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler was born on January 20, 1945, the day of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth inauguration. Both Butler’s father, a U.S. Army captain, and his mother, voted for Roosevelt in 1944.
Butler, a professor of creative writing at Florida State University, says he would have done the same, had he been of age.
“I think I would have agreed with my parents at the time,” he said. “I have not voted for every Democrat, but largely so. I was not a McGovern supporter. I was not a Dukakis supporter. But I wasn’t crazy about their opponents either. My sense of things is that my dad and mom voted straight Democratic for all my lifetime, and most of the time I would have too.”
Butler was born and grew up in Granite City, Ill., a working-class steel town across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. And while Democrats’ union-friendly policies were a plus, what really endeared his family to the Democrats was the party’s embrace of intellectual candidates.
“We valued the word in our family,” said Butler. “We valued the mind.”
His first political memories are from 1952 and 1956, when Illinois’ Democratic Gov. Adlai Stephenson ran for President. “He was the thinking man’s candidate, said Butler. “In some ways, his appeal was Obama’s appeal. His articulateness, his intelligence, the quality of his mind: we revered him in our household.”
A few years later, the household developed a similar reverence for President John F. Kennedy, and Butler says it was Kennedy’s inauguration address, delivered on Butler’s 16th birthday, that was most emotionally memorable for him.
He remembers the speech as “full of the kind of aggressive, faintly self-righteous (maybe not-so faintly) nation-building that is no longer a liberal tradition.”
It was not the kind of speech that would endear Kennedy to Butler today, “but it was a different time, and we were a counterweight to a monolithic power.”
After college and graduate school, in 1969, Butler joined the U.S. Army. He spent his first year of service learning Vietnamese and his second year in Vietnam working as a counterintelligence agent.
In 1972, he moved to New York City to become a reporter. He started out at Electronic News, a weekly trade newspaper for the electronics industry. When the oil crisis hit a few years later, his paper’s publisher, Fairchild Publications, assigned him to help start Energy User News, an investigative newspaper focused on energy. He served as editor-in-chief from 1975 to 1985; all while launching his fiction-writing career during his commutes to-and-from work in the city.
“My first four published books were written written by hand, on my lap, on the Long Island Railroad,” he said.
Butler has written 12 novels and six short-story collections. He won his Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a collection of character-driven stories about Vietnamese immigrants living in Louisiana.
Vietnam and Vietnamese culture have probably been the biggest thematic influences on Butler’s work, but policy, politics and politicians show up regularly in his writing as well.
For example, Butler says President Woodrow Wilson was “the main instigator” of the first novel in his new historical fiction series. President Richard Nixon is one of Satan’s chauffeurs in Hell, a book Butler published in 2009. And President Nixon appears again, this time as the voice in 18 1/2, Butler’s short story guessing at the content of the 18.5 minute gap in the Watergate tapes.
It’s in his book Intercourse, however, where the most ex-presidents appear. Intercourse is a collection of very short stories about sex. Butler says it’s “not about what’s going on with the bodies” but rather what’s happening in the minds of participants in famous historical, possibly influential, or notably-mundane sex scenes.
Nixon, and his wife Pat, make an appearance. As do President George W. Bush and his wife Laura, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd.
But the center piece of the work is John F Kennedy. Butler explores President Kennedy’s rumored relationship with the journalist, beauty queen and suspected Nazi spy Inga Arvad in a three-scene series.
Butler jokingly attributes the roles politicians play in his work to the destiny associated with his Inauguration Day birthday.
“It’s all because I was born on this day,” he said. “It’s like being born on the Fourth of July.”