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Robert Olen Butler

Yearning for Connection

Ironically, getting sent to Vietnam is the best thing that ever happened to Robert Olen Butler (S67).

Although he spent only a year there on a U.S. Army tour of duty in 1971, Butler fell in love with the people and the country. He became steeped in Asian culture, which inspired him to start writing fiction, including A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Penguin paperback, 1993), a short-story collection that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

Butler, who speaks fluent Vietnamese, also fell in love with the sensuality of Vietnam, a subject he explored in his latest novel, The Deep Green Sea: A Novel (Holt paperback, 1999). A love story about a middle-aged Vietnam vet who returns to Saigon, the book offended some reviewers, who panned it for its explicit language and what they considered gratuitous sex scenes. But Butler dismisses such criticism. His graphic writing about sex has a higher purpose, he insists.

"Sexuality is a yearning for connection, for some sense that you're not alone in the universe," he argues from his home in Lake Charles, La. "These are the issues my books are really dealing with. All my work has to do with yearning -- the yearning for self and identity. I think all fiction does, and when I write about human sexuality it's really in those terms."

But writing well about sex is terribly difficult, Butler says. Words for sexual body parts don't exist that suggest anything "vaguely resembling tenderness or beauty or significance," he explains. "So you have to reinvent the language, not in terms of new words, but as a way of describing the ways in which people seriously and deeply relate."

Butler's own use of the language, in both speaking and writing, is dazzling. He grew up in St. Louis, planning to be an actor, and enrolled at Northwestern as a theater major. But he got interested in writing in his second year and switched to oral interpretation.

"I was very fortunate that all the great pioneers of that discipline were still there," he says. "I studied with Charlotte Lee, Robert Breen, Wallace Bacon and Lilla Heston, actor Charles Heston's sister."

Butler graduated summa cum laude from Northwestern and went on to the University of Iowa for a master's degree in playwriting before going to Vietnam. After his return came some lean years in New York City, where he tried to make it as a writer. Butler wrote his first four novels in longhand on legal pads on the Long Island Rail Road, commuting to an editing job in Manhattan from his home in suburban Sea Cliff. Seeking a change of scenery, he got a position at McNeese State University in Lake Charles in 1985, where he still teaches.

Butler wrote in almost total obscurity until the Pulitzer Prize announcement put him on the literary map. Now, in addition to teaching and writing novels and short stories, he's working on screenplays -- none yet produced.

Butler has a grown son from a former marriage and is married to novelist Elizabeth Dewberry. They fell in love with each other's writing before they met on a book tour and were married four years ago on Shakespeare's birthday, April 23, in Central Park. -- E.B.