Robert Olen Butler was born in Granite City, Illinois, on January 20, 1945, the son of Robert Olen Butler, Sr., a theater professor at St. Louis University, and Lucille Hall Butler, an executive secretary. Granite City, a steel-mill town in the St. Louis area, attracted exiles from the Deep South and the Midwest, bringing to the area what Butler terms “a collision of cultures.” In the summers of his college years, Butler worked in the steel mills and found himself as comfortable talking baseball with the other workers as he was talking aesthetics with his father and his father’s academic colleagues.
Butler received a B.S. in Oral Interpretation from Northwestern University in 1967. On his twenty-first birthday, he decided to write the words rather than act them. To this end, he enrolled in the University of Iowa to pursue a master’s degree in playwriting. Immediately after receiving his M.A. in 1969, Butler enlisted in the U.S. Army, leading to service in the Vietnam War, an experience that deeply affected his life and his writing. Trained as a counterintelligence special agent and a Vietnamese linguist, Butler gained “professional proficiency” in the language after a full year of study. The immersion course was taught by a Vietnamese exile who gave Butler a glimpse into the Vietnamese culture and the struggle of an exile. Butler served his tour of duty in Saigon as administrative assistant to a U.S. Foreign Service officer who was adviser to the mayor of Saigon.
Butler’s early experiences with a wide variety of people while growing up in Granite City and his Army service during the war are the two elements in his life that most strongly influenced his writing. In Vietnam, Butler came into contact with a wider variety of Vietnamese people than most Army personnel...
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