Re-Imagining the Final Thoughts of the Beheaded

Cover of 'Severance,' by Robert Olen Butler

Cover of 'Severance,' by Robert Olen Butler Chronicle Books hide caption

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Author Readings

Robert Olen Butler reads from his book, 'Severance:'

The premise for each story in Robert Olen Butler's new book is disturbing. Severance recalls the last thoughts of those who have been decapitated. St. George, Marie-Antoinette, Medusa, Anne Boyeln Sir Walter Raleigh, the Lady of the Lake ... In Butler's imagining, their last words are poetic and brief, and reveal what is most precious about being alive.

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JACKIE LYDEN, host:

We'll say this at the outset. Severance, Robert Olen Butler's new collection of stories, is an odd and disturbing book. The premise for each story are the last thoughts, the last recollections, of people who have been decapitated; hence Severance.

The words of these individuals are poetic and brief and seem to link human beings who have suffered this fate, whether they are monarchs or slaves, and reveal in their last moments what is most precious about being alive. Robert Olen Butler joins us now from our member station, KQED in San Francisco. Robert Olen Butler, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. ROBERT OLEN BUTLER (Author): It's a pleasure, Jackie.

LYDEN: I think I have to come to right to point on this and ask if you were influenced by what has been a gruesome and all-too-frequent occurrence in the news, and that is of the decapitation of hostages in Iraq and other places in the Middle East.

Mr. BUTLER: You know, it's interesting. Actually, I finished this book just before that began, and in fact there were 60 of these pieces in the book at that point, and I had to go back and put two more in as a result of the events in Iraq.

LYDEN: The book preceded the news, really.

Mr. BUTLER: The book preceded the recent news, but this has been in the news for millennia, the beheading of people.

LYDEN: Each story is just 240 words long. Why is that?

Mr. BUTLER: Each is exactly 240 words long, because there are two epigraphs to the book, one from a French doctor of the 19th century who says that after careful study and due deliberation, it's my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation; and the other from a handbook of speech which points out that in a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words a minute.

So if you do the math, 160 words a minute, a minute and half, 240 words. So each of these 62 little stories is exactly 240 words long.

LYDEN: Well, we should perhaps point out that that's not proved. Is it? I mean we don't know that.

Mr. BUTLER: Oh, no, no, no. But there has always been that suspicion, and there's of course no way to prove it. But I landed on a minute and a half, and it felt like a very natural length for these outbursts.

LYDEN: Would you choose one to read? I mean we talk about this going on for millennia. The book actually begins with someone in prehistory who you call the mud man. But I'd like you, if you would, please, to begin with Saint George, patron saint of England.

Mr. BUTLER: Saint George, all right.

LYDEN: Page 53.

Mr. BUTLER: So George, soldier and saint, beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian, 303.

Far across the field, the evil thing sits, small seeming from here. My horse rears and frets, sensing the ancient beast, as all creatures of God do. While in my ears, I still hear the voices of the villagers. A dragon, they cry.

And so it is. I see the evil one as I have never seen him before, complacent in a meadow beneath the sun, his scaled body the color of a toad, his breath a faint hiss in the air, wisps of smoke rising like morning mist about him.

The villagers cry: my daughter eaten; my son eaten; my husband. And I tell them of the Lord God and his own son whose body also was destroyed. And they cry, that did us no good, and they wail on. And I say, it did you no good because you have not eaten of your savior.

And I kneel before a priest in a secret place in Rome, and I eat the body and the blood, and afterwards I say, father, shall I leave my arms? And he says, fight in the Lord's name.

And now I sit on the edge of this ignorant village, and the dragon lifts his head and unfurls his wings. And I thump my fist upon my breastplate, and I draw my sword. And in the center of me, there is only the peace that passes all understanding, because of the things I have eaten.

LYDEN: This, like so many of these, is about really what is most prized in our souls, and we go through a lot of human souls in this collection: Cicero's, lost American Indians, bandits and overseers, slaves. But of course I have to come back to why. I mean in what way did you envision that heads would speak about the lives that they had lived?

Mr. BUTLER: Well, what draws a fiction writer are those moments when human beings are focused on what they most profoundly and deeply yearn for. And when I conceived of this book, that's what the focus was. These voices cluttered into my head at the moment that I in fact stood before a guillotine.

The book began when I was in Saigon. I brought my wife. We went to the war crimes museum, and amidst the unexploded ordinance and the rusting American airplanes there was a guillotine that the French used until they left in 1954. And standing before that extraordinary, infernal machine, suddenly I put it together that what more extraordinary moment of self-reflection and profound return to the yearning of your soul than in the moment when your head has just been cut off.

LYDEN: Did anyone say to you, Robert, maybe this isn't really such a great idea? I can't get past the repellant aspect of it.

Mr. BUTLER: Well, certainly that suspicion was floated by people around me. My French publisher actually was the one that encouraged me the most. I was in France and she just fell in love with the book. So I actually wrote the book for that French market initially.

LYDEN: Hmm. I found myself overcoming that hesitancy very quickly, and I must say my own hesitancy is informed by current events and the things that have happened to people so tragically. To realize that there was just such common humanity in this experience, that it had gone back to the time of Cicero and up to Jayne Mansfield. You gave each one of these people such extraordinary resonance.

Mr. BUTLER: Yes, indeed. What happens inside them really has to do with how they lived, not how they died.

LYDEN: And in this stream of consciousness there is a funny one in here, a chicken who's about to become Sunday dinner, and you have kind of chicken-ese language, which is wonderful and luscious and sort of sounds like a William Carlos William poem crossed with a Popeye character or something. And we have got to hear you read the chicken, please.

Mr. BUTLER: Certainly, and I'm glad you asked me for this one, Jacki, because in this one, one of the enduring questions of the 20th century is finally answered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: I won't give it away.

Mr. BUTLER: So Americana pullet beheaded in Alabama for Sunday dinner, 1958.

Little grit things in the straw here, and I peck and peck, and they're gone. And I go over there, a wormy thing, but it's a leaf stem, which I always grab, but it never goes mush like an actual worm, which I look and look and listen for.

And the flying ones come down, and they walk among us. And they cock their heads and hear the slither in the earth, and they grab, and up one comes. But after a rain, it's good for me. The worms come up, and I run here and I run there, and I eat. And the grit is good, too. Over there I go for grit, though the soft slither is even better. But it's dry now, dry all around, and they are vanished.

Wait, wait. The rest of me is gone. And from beyond the wire, from past the dog-leap, from down the long ruts, I can hear a muttery cluckering. And it is like when I broke at last from the eggy wall and into the light, and a fluff of feathers hovered near and made the same sound.

But this muckery wuckering is vast. This at last is the hen who fills the sky. And I am rushing now along the path, and the clucking is for me, and it is very loud. And a great wide road is suddenly before me, and she is beyond. And I cross.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: So now we know why.

Mr. BUTLER: Yes.

LYDEN: We know why.

Mr. BUTLER: Yes, finally answered.

LYDEN: For love. Robert Olen Butler, it's a stunning collection. Thank you very, very much for being with us today.

Mr. BUTLER: It's been my great pleasure, Jacki.

LYDEN: Robert Olen Butler is the author of a new collection of stories called Severance. To hear the last words of Medusa, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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