Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Magazine Award in Fiction (twice) and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. His latest novel, Paris in the Dark, is the fourth in his Christopher Marlowe Cobb thriller series.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to have Robert Olen Butler participate in our One Hundred Words project with exactly one hundred words on topics we drew from his latest novel.

STAY THIRSTY: Paris in 1915.

ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Paris, yes, and far beyond: Drastic new technologies, expanding the capabilities of mass killing and destruction. The appropriate place of America in the world. The ravages of war. Waves of immigration, often desperate in motive. The struggle for a viable free press. Violent acts of terror. The thrashings of governments under siege. The clash of ideologies both political and religious. Racial oppression and gender repression. Dictators (and would be dictators) gaining and asserting power. Sound familiar? I wrote Paris in the Dark—I’m writing all the Christopher Marlowe Cobb books—in order to tell the fundamental story of our times.

STAY THIRSTY: Autobiography.

ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Christopher Marlowe Cobb carries more of me than any other character I’ve written, in a very personal way. I went to war (in Vietnam). I worked in military intelligence as a de facto spy. I emerged from a theatrical upbringing: my dad chaired the theater department at St. Louis University and I studied acting in a great theater school, Northwestern. I was a business news reporter and then Editor-in-Chief of an investigative business newspaper. Kit Cobb is a newsman, he goes to war, he turns into a spy, and he is shaped by his theatrical family: all true of me.  

STAY THIRSTY: A postcard.

ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: Cobb began in a short story based on an old picture postcard. The front is a Brownie camera image of a man walking a sidewalk of Spanish-named shops. In the distance, a gaggle of women. He has drawn an arrow to one of them, and on the back, he's written, “After the battle. Notice the pretty seƱoritas in this photo. The one in white does my laundry.” As well, he is passing two dead Mexican men in pools of blood. He became Kit Cobb covering America’s invasion of Mexico in 1914. The story was in The Atlantic. The novels followed.


ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: It’s the day to day stuff that’s the most demanding for research, to get the moment to moment sensual world right. Shoes and dresses and street pavements and taxicabs. And what is the smell in the air? Would a first-class cabin door on the Lusitania have a Do Not Disturb sign? It’s those sorts of details that are the most demanding. For all that, I probably should be dedicating these novels to Google and The Internet Archive, with many million scanned off-copyright books and magazines. I’ve got low-tech resources too. A collection of 50 Sears catalogues from 1898 to 1990. 

Robert Olen Butler 


ROBERT OLEN BUTLER: My literary idol, Graham Greene, was never more “literary” than in his self-styled “entertainments,” like Stamboul Train and The Honorary Consul. As the old Ella Fitzgerald song goes, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” Indeed, as a fictionist working from my unconscious, when I began the Cobb books, I’d already written in half a dozen genres: sci-fi (Mr. Spaceman), fantasy (Hell), romance (A Small Hotel), history (Wabash), young adult (The Deuce), and sex (They Whisper). In my own personal response to the zeitgeist, I’ve always embraced the popular culture and its modes of expression.

(Photograph of Robert Olen Butler: Courtesy of WFSU Public Media)


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