Robert Olen Butler Biography

Robert Olen Butler Biography

Robert Olen Butler is one author on whom critics can't seem to agree. While some have rapturously praised his work, others have found ample room for complaint. By Butler’s own admission, not everything he writes is a masterpiece. In one interview, he owned up to having a slew of his short stories, novels, and plays never published because they simply were not good. Despite the criticism, Butler’s 1993 A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, a collection of short stories based on the author’s experiences in Vietnam, won the Pulitzer Prize. In addition, Butler has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. An award bearing his name was created in his honor to recognize up-and-coming authors.

Facts and Trivia

  • Butler’s original interest was theater, which he studied as an undergraduate. Only while pursuing his Master’s degree did he switch to creative writing.
  • Butler served in the military during the Vietnam War and even did intelligence work. Some of his later books recount his fondness for the Vietnamese people.
  • The short story collection Severance, one of Butler’s most curious works, is about the post-beheading thoughts of people like Marie Antoinette and Nicole Brown Simpson.
  • Butler’s short stories have appeared in virtually every major publication, including Harper’s, GQ, and The New Yorker.
  • Butler courted controversy in 2007 when he sent his students at Florida State University an intimately detailed email about his fourth wife’s decision to leave him for billionaire Ted Turner.


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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In his novels and short stories, Butler depicts characters that are haunted by the past, ambivalent about the present, and in search of truce for the various wars—not just Vietnam—that they carry within them. Butler’s ceaseless experimentation with techniques for representing unusual voices has led to his being lauded as “our pre-eminent practitioner of first-person narrative.”

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Robert Olen Butler was born on January 20, 1945, in Granite City, Illinois; he received a bachelor’s degree in theater from Northwestern University in 1967 and an M.A. in playwriting from the University of Iowa in 1969. He served with the U.S. Army in counterintelligence from 1969 to 1972, part of that time in Vietnam, where he also served as an interpreter.

Although Butler had begun writing plays during college, after his Vietnam experience he turned to narrative fiction, completing his first three novels during the hours he spent on a train commuting from his home to his editorial job for Energy User News in Manhattan. His experience in Vietnam furnished him with fertile subject matter and a desire to tell...

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Robert Olen Butler, Jr., grew up in Granite City, Illinois, a steel town near St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Robert Olen Butler, Sr., was chair of the theater department at St. Louis University. Butler majored in theater at Northwestern University in Illinois, from which he graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in oral interpretation in 1967. He went on to graduate school in the writing program at the University of Iowa, where he earned a master’s degree in playwriting in 1969. While a student in Iowa, he married Carol Supplee; they divorced in 1972.

American involvement in the Vietnam War was at its height when Butler finished graduate school, and, believing he would be drafted, he decided to enlist in the Army...

(The entire section is 388 words.)