Robert Olen Butler has come to Athens for Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival. I’ve read a couple of his books, including the spicy and engaging novel, They Whisper, so I went in to hear his lecture on writing. He’s a dynamic, sometimes arch speaker, and clearly on top of his subject. (Next up for me, from his works, will be his 2005 book on writing, From Where You Dream.)
His talk was original and fascinating—yet what grabbed me hardest was an anecdote he told about his sixth novel, The Deuce, the story of a young runaway American-Vietnamese on the hard streets of New York. Mind, he had published five novels already, most to solid acclaim. He seemed to hit it big with The Deuce when the New York Times Book Review gave him a full page review. Scott Spencer—he of the glorious Endless Love—called Butler’s voice “marvelously convincing.” He wrote that readers would have “the distinct pleasure of watching a fine novelist as he grapples with his great subject.”
Then the kicker. This book, published by an established New York house, praised by Scott Spencer and the Times, wound up selling, according to the author, a total of “one thousand and sixty-four copies.”
The moral, backed up by the second speaker of the day, the novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell, is that you better write what you want, not what you think anyone else wants. That’s advice that goes down smoothly with me. I write too slowly to do anything else. I can only write a story that fascinates me. I take some story out of the Cuban Revolution and pursue it, connect it to my mother, dig down inside it. I stay happy with it for years, and eventually it’s a book.
But 1034 copies. By a great writer, Robert Olen Butler. That was kind of crushing.