An Espionage Thriller Set in World War I Era: An Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winner Robert Olen Butler on His New Novel The Star of Istanbul

Robert Olen Butler reprises his hardboiled protagonist Kit Cobb from last year's novel The Hot Country for his new espionage gem, The Star of Istanbul (2013). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has previously cannibalized everything from sci-fi to romance, but lately he's become obsessed by the thriller. Kit Cobb, fresh off covering the American invasion of Mexico as a journalist, is on his way to 1915 war-torn Europe in this one, only now he's working, undercover as a journalist, as a spy for the U.S. government. No noire thriller can do without a dangerous woman, and here it's Selene Bourgani, renowned silent movie actress. As Kit starts falling for her while a passenger on the as yet floating Lusitania, he warns himself, "I needed a war. I needed the whisk of rifle rounds past my ears." For Cobb, falling in love is more dangerous than war. But despite his best intentions, he's headed deeper into the fray of both realms.

I caught up with Butler, shortly after he'd received the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. We talked about his views on the place of popular culture in his literary fiction, on journalists and espionage, on his cats and hobbies, and on why the genre of the thriller speaks so readily to our contemporary imagination.

Starting light, I couldn't help but notice that you've been photographed several times recently with your cats. Any aspirations of competing with Hemingway and leaving a feline legacy, all those cats wandering Papa's Key West estate purportedly descended from the cats he kept?

[Laughs] Well, all my cats are incapable of leaving a legacy, let's put it that way. I've got two beautiful Bichon Frisé dogs, but right now we have three cats, and if you've been watching me on Facebook pages, Kimmy -- I'm surrounded by thirty thousand acres of forest; I own eight-tenths of a notch, on an antebellum plantation home -- but she walked out of the forest a few months ago, and within six hours was letting me pet her tummy, and she's now ruling the house. Not to mention, I've got a de facto pet armadillo who lives under my writing cottage, and they are charming, keen animals. In one of my recent Facebook postings, I was photographed at the Smithsonian Institute, holding a four-inch, giant, hissing Madagascar cockroach, and I started petting him and we had a nice conversation. So I'm an animal lover of all shapes and sizes.

Let me segue from the creatures living under your writing cottage to the imaginative characters emerging from it. Kit or Christopher Marlowe Cobb made his first appearance in a 2004 story, "The One in White," from the collection Had a Good Time, each story therein inspired by a sample from your personal collection of historical postcards. Cobb's now at the center of two novels, with another soon to come. Why does he hang on in your imagination?

In the beginning of the 20th century there were about a billion postcards per year sent in the United States. And that postcard [for "The One in White"] is a photo somebody snapped of a man, Caucasian man, North American man, walking on a street in the hot country -- it was Spanish-speaking clearly. I'm convinced that this really is an image from the Battle of Veracruz, where America invaded Mexico in April of 1914 because we didn't like the dictator running the country, in order to protect American oil interests, and we fully expected the Mexicans to welcome us with open arms as their liberators. It turns out this is an old American tradition.

And the man's walking right past a couple of dead Mexicans on the street, in pools of blood, and there's a guy on horseback in the background, and women in the mid-distance -- one of which he's drawn an arrow toward, with the words, "After the battle notice the pretty Senorita's in this photo. The one in white does my laundry."

No doubt, Kit Cobb's cool in a crisis.

I figured this guy, given his calmness and aloofness, this was a war correspondent covering the war, and I wrote "The One in White," it was in The Atlantic Monthly -- and that guy's voice just never got out of my head. Otto Penzler, the dean of American editors of mystery, espionage thriller, and suspense books, read it not long ago, and called me up, and offered me a contract for at least two novels in this guy's voice. And I'd really thought, well, I should write a novel in his voice some time, and there are some really good reasons why he was hanging on. I'm writing close to the bone. I mean if you look at who Kit Cobb is and you look at my biography -- for thirteen years I was a business news reporter, for ten years I was an editor-in-chief for Fairchild Publications and actually created a hard-nose investigative weekly newspaper in the energy field. And I went to war, and in the war I was trained in military intelligence and worked five months in what passed for spy work in Vietnam.

In one of the novel's scenes, a Vietnamese pastry chef, Mr. Thanh, a former revolutionary, takes Cobb aside to praise the ideals of American democracy and lament the country's failure to live them. Still, he sees a spark of the free society in American newspapers and magazines, which "speak openly about the evils of your society and about the evils abroad in the world." Is this scene a wistful homage -- voiced from a foregone time -- to a lapsing mode in American journalism?

It absolutely is. And to underscore the importance of that passage, I'll let you in on a little bit of a secret, which no one has picked up on -- I'm laughing up my sleeve because that Vietnamese guy, and that name, that's Ho Chi Minh. He really was a valued pastry chef, training under Escoffier at the Carlton Hotel in the month of May in 1915.

A nod there to Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1993), in which Ho Chi Minh also appears?

And to my experience in Vietnam altogether, and of course he's set up for a later appearance in the series, if we get that far. Not only is all that true, what he says, but the historical irony is that it's Ho Chi Minh saying all that.

Cobb's harrowing escape from the Lusitania puts to shame the cinematic extravaganza of James Cameron's Titanic -- or maybe I should say, it renders the visceral experience of fleeing a sinking ship with far greater realism. Can you talk just a little about what kind of research it took to pull that scene off?

This touches on everything I've been doing in the series. For a literary fiction writer, if you're in the artistic zone even for three or four hours, that's a long and exhausting workday. My writing days are now twelve to fourteen hours. My accumulated writing time is still the three or four hours, but so much of it is ad hoc research, and I guess by rights I should be dedicating these novels to Google Books and its dopplegänger, Internet Archive, which also has a million and a half books, closing in on 2 million, and Google has 3 million, all before 1924, which the period I'm writing in conveniently fits.

As far as the Lusitania is concerned, there were a number of memoirs written at the time, and on Google Books there are many, many bound volumes of magazines and newspapers. Every time Selene appears I've got to put her in a dress and shoes and hair, and what was her perfume; and a Mercedes Torpedo, what does that sound like? Istanbul at the time? Every quotidian detail. So I do a lot of research, but I do it by being in Cobb's character. Henry James says, "Landscape is character," and he probably meant, and if he didn't he should have meant, that who we are as people, our personalities, our character, selects the sense details in the world around us that we will perceive. So that's what takes twelve hours a day.

Is there a difference, in your mind, between writing literary fiction and writing thrillers?

I find that my artistic unconscious, and the way it's responding in the deepest sense to the world, is often bound up in the forms of the popular culture. So I wrote a novel called Mr. Spaceman, which really draws on the science fiction genre. Another book Hell, set entirely in hell, with the main character being the anchorman for TV evening news in hell -- that's a fantasy. A Small Hotel was an Oprah Winfrey O Magazine book of the week, and they called it an "old-fashioned romance."

Why are you so often in sync with the pop cultural imagination?

If you look at the world now, or the way I look at the world now, my gosh, this is a world of terrorist attacks, secretly planned, and secretly thwarted, stolen top secret information, tracking down and assassinating enemies in person or by drones, high seas piracies, mass murders, governments falling and rising by conspiracy and revolution. And all of this rendered more and more in TV evening news, in short bits and high drama. It's the espionage thriller form, it's how we see the world right now.

As a journalist, Cobb throws himself into the spy game only too eagerly. Why does he accept this mission?

My deepest conviction is that fiction is the art form of human yearning, that plot is simply yearning, challenged and thwarted. If you dig deeply enough in literary fiction, there's a kind of unified field: I yearn for a self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe. That's what Cobb is restlessly yearning for. The great "Who the hell am I?" -- every soul on this planet faces that every morning when they wake up. It's complicated for him by the fact that he's the son of a great stage actress, without a father, and he has played roles all his life, with her or without her. Why does he turn into a secret agent-- well, because he's trying on these different roles.

Also, journalists of that era were rock stars, and a lot of the war correspondents were moonlighting as spies for their various countries. The thing that continues to surprise me -- everyone thinks of 1914 and 1915 and the battlefields -- but there was so much going on away from the trenches, the beginning of so many of the issues that we're still looking at here at the beginning of 21st century, this hundred years later.

Is Cobb less hardboiled than some of his forerunners in the genre, say, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Is he rather softhearted when it comes to women?

The labels you might put on it, romantic, for example, would be kind of reductive. And that's a hallmark of the kind of writing I love to do. He's a complex guy, he's getting more complex as the books move along; and the wonderful thing about the readers of the genre I'm embracing, the espionage-thriller genre, is that when they find you, they go back and read everything. And this really is a long multi-part novel: The Hot Country is a prelude to The Star of Istanbul, which is really a prelude to The Empire of Night (out next year), and they all stand perfectly on their own. Well, Cobb, he's really trying to define himself through women. And the femme fatale is one of the tropes of the genre, but he's not the tough guy, squash-the-grapefruit-in-the-face kind of guy.

After such long work days, what do you do to wind down? Any peculiar hobbies, besides collecting postcards that lead to award-winning stories and novels?

I'm blissfully, wonderfully, happily married now, and my wife Kelly [she's a poet] and I -- well, I read to her many nights, and we watch movies and read together and we love good food. We have an eye for the telling object. Kelly just bought me Kit Cobb's watch, for instance, this wonderful Waltham railroad watch from 1914, and Kit consults that watch in the book I'm writing now.

You've written the gift from Kelly into your upcoming novel?

I changed the watch from the Elgin, which he lost on the Lusitania, to the Waltham. And I've got a Luger Parabellum, with which Kit took off a German officer in Star of Istanbul, and I've got his Mauser, they're sort of fancy paperweights on my writing desk. Oh, and wait, guess what else I found, got it off of eBay -- the Lusitania sank in pretty shallow water, and they did some salvaging there, and I've got a authenticated tin box which was recovered from the Lusitania. That box sat in the center of my writing desk while I was writing those scenes. So even my hobbies now are Cobb-oriented.

R. Clifton Spargo is the author of Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (2013).