You had no problem pounding out that first novel. In fact writing on a legal pad during your daily train commute to work, you've produced many more since that fateful first attempt. But getting published? That's a different story altogether. Twenty-one -- yes, twenty-one! -- publishers rejected your manuscript. For author Robert Olen Butler that was what he faced in 1981 with his book, The Alleys of Eden, an affecting tale about a Vietnam War deserter and the former prostitute he loves. But writing well is the best revenge. And he did, prolifically. His work has been featured in the Paris Review, The New Yorker, and four annual editions of The Best American Short Stories. He earned a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which detailed the struggles of fifteen Vietnamese immigrants residing in Southern Louisiana. In 1997 he produced the acclaimed Tabloid Dreams, a book of short stories based on the screaming headlines of supermarket scandal sheets ("Hillary Clinton Really an Alien"). And speaking of extraterrestrials, Butler's latest book, Mr. Spaceman, centers on the travails of an alien bewildered by his attempts to understand the human race. Join the club!
This Thursday Writers on the Bay, a joint production of Florida International University's English department and Creative Writing program, closes its fall semester of readings with Butler. Cited in New Times' Best of Miami 2001 issue, this series has showcased a slew of talents over the years, among them poets Robert Pinsky and Lorna Goodison, writers Bruce Jay Friedman and Gay Talese, and Nation publisher Victor Navasky.
Eleven books after the humiliation of having his first work rejected 21 times, Butler has forged a successful career that offers a lesson in perseverance. He says of writing: "That's where all of my fiction starts, with that fundamental yearning inside each of us." Thankfully for some authors and for a world of readers, the desire to write and get published has often outweighed anything else.
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