When asked which literary icon he'd ape for Halloween, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert Olen Butler doesn't miss a beat.
"William Shakespeare," he says, and then pauses for a minute, maybe to reaffirm what his gut is telling him, maybe for dramatic effect, or maybe our mobile connection just fizzled out since he's out on some back road in Alabama, between stops on his latest book tour talking on speakerphone.
"Yeah, I think Shakespeare's the guy."
If all the world's a stage, Butler struts and frets upon it with a dozen novels, six volumes of short fiction, a live writing video lecture series, and beaucoup literary awards; awards that include two National Magazine Awards, a NEA Fellowship, a Guggenheim grant, a couple of Pushcart Prizes and various other slings and arrows.
The Florida State professor just stuck yet another quill in his cap last May, when he took home the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature.
"Before I started writing really well, I wrote five god-awful novels, 44 dreadful short stories, and 12 terrible full-length plays," Butler admits in bursts of ambient crackle.
"It was all bad for many reasons, but the fundamental reason was that I was writing from my head, not my unconscious, not my senses, not my body."
Butler believes that writing comes from the unconscious mind, a place he calls your "white-hot center," a blissed-out and crunchy trance state where dreams are perchance born or made. A theoretical place where Butler advises artists never to flinch while staring down their demons.
"And it never gets easier," he tells me. "It only gets harder. But coming to that understanding — that artists are not intellectuals, they are sensualists — was part of the process of going from writing badly, which I did a heck of a lot of, to writing well."
Butler's theory holds a resonant appeal for writers who aren't exactly great thinkers — those of us who will always have to clunk and grope our way into the words.
"Creating a work of art is an act of discovery," Butler says. "We do not know what ideas might be latent in a work. We don't start out with them. All great ideas flow out of an examination of moment-to-moment life experience."
Butler's ideas seem to run contrary to that of many other authors. The literary giantess Joan Didion once said she wrote to delve deeper, to know what was in her own mind.
"But what does Joan Didion mean when she says 'she writes to know her own mind'?" Butler intones.
"I have a hunch that most artists, real artists, they say 'mind' — even if they think they mean 'mind' — but in the moment of creation, it's not actually their mind at all."
The guy is a pretty credible source, having written more than a dozen books that span time, place and audience. His oeuvre warbles sci-fi with Mr. Spaceman, young adult with The Deuce, nonfiction with From Where We Dream. His short stories have graced the pages of The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly and GQ. He penned a novel set entirely in Hell (aptly called Hell) and a "new old-fashioned romance" (according to Oprah) called The Small Hotel. Butler's 1993 collection of short stories about the Vietnam War, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, earned him a Pulitzer.
Presently, he's two books deep in a series that beats particularly close to his heart, with a character more like himself than he's ever written before.
This latest launch is historical fiction subgenre-d as spy thrillers based on a short story from the collection, Had a Good Time. The first two books, The Hot Country and The Star of Istanbul were released in 2012 and 2013. He's now 85,000 words deep into the third in the series, Empire of Night, with 15-20,000 more to go.
It's a moot point to ask Butler where he gets his ideas, since he believes art doesn't come from ideas per se, or even from the conscious mind.
So I ask him to elaborate on the white-hot center: Does it exist somewhere in the ether and the white hot center just mainlines into it? Does the white-hot center frack its way into a story? Or is the story inside the white hot center from the get-go?
"I think it's something that's created in the moment of the writing. It's not a pre-existing structure that we find our way to," he answers.
"It's a dynamic creation of a character who is deeply born from the white-hot center. We put that character into a world, a circumstance, where his or her yearning is challenged and thwarted. And we let that character and that yearning and that world around her have its way.
"In short, the process I'm describing would be of the 'we-create-it' variety. Or it creates itself through us."