New Jack Butler Interview! Science Fiction, the South, Sex — and a new novel?

faked by Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Rejoice, Jack Butler fans, which I assume is everyone who isn’t dead inside or an emotionless robot assassin! The newest issue of the Mississippi Quarterly (Summer-Fall 2005—as with many academic journals, publication dates often lag a bit behind real-time) contains a brand new interview with the author Jujitsu for Christ, Nightshade, Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, and all of your other favorite prose and poetry hits! Butler’s answers shed much light on his creative process, his philosophical questing, and the closer-than-expected relationship (to steal a line from the interview’s intro) between Mississippi and Mars.

But perhaps the most tantalizing bit of info is in this response to a question about whether he intends to revisit the southern setting of his first novel:

Jack Butler: Not only do I plan to return to Mississippi in my fiction, but I am returning to it now, in a novel in progress, The Illumination of Elijah Lee Roswell. About a Mississippi sharecropper’s son turned bank robber in the fifties. He happens to share my home town, Alligator. Gets taken up in a flying saucer, sort of, and finds god, sort of. Not your usual Southern fiction?

My teeth will soon be worn to nubs from all my chomping at the bit to read this novel. According to the interview, Elijah Lee Roswell and a re-issue of Jujitsu are forthcoming from the Toby Press at some point in the future. Some other excerpts from the interview:

Mississippi Quarterly: In your novel Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, “Jack Butler” appears as a character, a writer who says his two greatest influences are “the Bible and science fiction.” I want to come back to the issue of religion later on, but I’d like to start by talking about the second influence (assuming you’d agree with your fictional counterpart). Science fiction isn’t a genre that we traditionally associate with writers whom we consider “Southern.” Why are you so drawn to science fiction? Why has it been such a central influence?

Jack Butler: Because it was so much fun. Why was it so much fun? I suspect it was fun because I was bright, an early reader, and felt stifled by my culture. Dogma is not friendly to the curious and probing mind. In ordinary life in 1950s Mississippi, speculation was discouraged. In science fiction, which early on I did not distinguish from superhero comics, speculation was a prime virtue. You could imagine any sort of universe you wished. There was also a satisfyingly large sense of the cosmos. We lived way out in the country, there was little ambient light, and at night, in spite of the perturbations caused by all the water vapor, you could see the stars really well. Since I lived in the Delta, there were neither hills nor very many tall trees, and the sky was huge. I grew up dreaming of being a spaceman, which is what we called them before they were called astronauts. I was outraged when Sputnik went up. I was thirteen and I went around muttering, I told them!

The highest dream a human might dream, it seemed to me then, was to stand on a world that was not one’s birth world. I wanted to stand on strange and distant planets. I felt that desire with a physical passion I cannot now reconstruct.

So there was the hunger for otherness and the craving for mental exercise, the free play of the mind, in a culture which did not question and hardly read and in which everyone presumed they knew you. I grew up to prefer what they call nuts-and-bolts science fiction, by the way, stuff based on real physical principles or the extrapolation of physical possibilities. [...]

One of the advantages of SF back then was that the Christianoids were not well aware of it, so it wasn’t forbidden. For a while I was able to read SF in freedom and privacy. The science fiction writers of the fifties tackled, and admirably (for all their awful prose and juvenile characters), the philosophical dilemmas that have preoccupied the last half of the century. Professional philosophy strikes me now as mostly quibbling over terminology, but SF writers dramatized the issues, and so made them real. A good grounding in science fiction taught you more than an infinity of lectures on relativity or Kierkegaard. This age fancies itself scientific, though few of us are capable of decent logic, much less rigorous inquiry or mathematical thought.

Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia redneck homeowner says, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” speaking of medieval monks who slept in their coffins: “They wasn’t as advanced as we are.” I think of that line every time someone with no true understanding assumes the mantle of “scientific” age. Science fiction encouraged the ability to think for yourself. It dealt more directly and honestly with the nature of life in the modern world than most contemporary fiction. It was not as well written, I grant you. But our lives have been radically changed by the discoveries of science, and to ignore those changes is to ignore a great part of what it is to be human today. Most contemporary fiction has simply ignored what the scientists have learned, and handles character in the same old ways and makes the same old points. Boring.

Science is the de facto religion of our age, and science fiction its theological literature.

[...]

MQ: That’s really interesting—for a lot of reasons, but the one that strikes me first is how naturally it sounds like your affection for and devotion to science fiction arose out of the experiences of your childhood in the South—the Delta night sky, the rebellion against narrow-minded religion. And yet, I think that most people’s perception of the traditions of science fiction and of Southern literature is that they have little to do with one another, perhaps even that they are somehow fundamentally opposed. Was this a tension that you were thinking of when you set out to write poetry and fiction? Or am I being wrongheaded in assuming you might have seen it as a tension at all since, as I say, the two seem closely entwined in your own experience?

JB: The main tension I experienced with SF was the opposition of the Christianoids after they finally discovered it and decided it was a menace. I was in college before I realized SF wasn’t considered literature. I knew it wasn’t great prose, but I couldn’t see why good SF shouldn’t be good lit. Even later it dawned on me that SF was considered antithetical to Southernism. I think this latter attitude was born of two stereotypes: (a) all Southerners are deeply connected to nature (whereas SF was supposed to be divorced from it), and (b) all Southerners are too stupid to be interested in anything that required even rudimentary scientific savvy.

As you say, it worked precisely the opposite way for me. Science fiction became my haven precisely because I was in the South, among the Christianoids and open to the natural world. [...]

And, as a supplement to our book club discussion last year, this response might compensate for brd’s well founded complaint that we didn’t talk about all the sex in Jujitsu for Christ enough:

JB: Sometimes nowadays I wonder why I put in so many sex scenes. Sex is just as interesting as ever I suppose but there are so many interesting things. At the time—it seems such a strangely long time ago—I was obsessed with sex. Maybe I was trying to solve it by representing it. Certainly I was trying to have it by representing it. I had to imagine sex, a lot of sex, in a lot of different ways, but clean, you know? Deepdown comic and wholesome. [...]

There’s plenty more on these topics and others in the interview. So grab or order a copy of the latest ish of Mississippi Quarterly to read the whole thing.

FURTHER READING:
Ed Champion spotlights another brief excerpt from the new interview here.
And Jeff at Syntax of Things highlights yet another passage.

The Pretty Fakes Book Club on Jujitsu for Christ included an announcement, a kickoff, a discussion of Leon and the Blackhawks, a wrap-up, and a few dozen insightful and provocative comments. You’re sorry you missed it!

6 Responses to “New Jack Butler Interview! Science Fiction, the South, Sex — and a new novel?”

  1. gclark says:

    i just got my copy in the mail this morning. when i saw butler’s name on the cover, i immediately thought of PF. Whoo!

  2. gorjus says:

    Oh MY!! My subscription has lapsed, and damn me for letting it. I just fell out of my chair because so many ideas flew into my head at once. “Christianoids”? That something might not be good prose, but good literature? Science as modern religion, and thus science fiction as its holy texts?

    Mind = blown. I must have the Illumination of Elijah Lee Roswell. I am already giddy over the title. Elijah? Of course a man name Elijah is “raptured” into a flying saucer (the subject of more than one Chariot of the Godsesque speculations over the years). And Roswell? I can hear the wink all the way down in Jackson. 2007 is going to be the best year.

  3. TLG says:

    I need to see if it’s on the library shelves. The issue isn’t yet available via Magnolia.

  4. Pinky says:

    Baby Pinky says: “Happy Birthday Uncle Gorjus. I love you. On your special day I love you so much and I wish you a Happy Birthday. ::kiss:: Um, let’s see…what did you put? ( I tell her what I just typed) MOM, erase that!! Stop it! This is what I want to say!! I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day to you Uncle Gorjus. XOXO. Baby Pinky and one more X.”

    (I just typed what she was saying. I love you!! Happy Thank God You’re Older Than Me Birthday)

  5. brd says:

    Wow! Jujitsu for Christ lives. Thanks for sharing this info.

  6. [...] to confirm for me. And of course anyone who followed our roundtable on Jujitsu for Christ, or read my interview with Jack Butler in Mississippi Quarterly, knows that this issue is a source of ongoing fascination for me, and one around which I’m [...]