Copyright ©2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. And here's something that comes up in this Internet age: e-mails to explain an awkward change in family circumstances. We read and reread a startling example this week at gawker.com. There's a link to it now at npr.org. It's the e-mail of the week, maybe of the year. Here's the gist of it: My wife left me.

Now, that's an ordinary enough story, but the me here is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Robert Olen Butler. His now ex is also a writer, Elizabeth Dewberry. Bob Butler writes that his more noted achievements were a problem in the marriage. And he goes on to others in jaw-dropping detail. He sent this e-mail to several graduate students at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he teaches because, as he notes, this sort of thing can get wildly distorted pretty quickly.

Put your coffee down, he advises his readers. And then he names his wife's lover. And that's where we began when I called Bob Butler yesterday afternoon.

I'm trying to imagine reading this e-mail as a graduate student of yours, and it sounds like the story of a relationship you worked on and it's developed. It all makes sense. It's just - she's leaving you for Ted Turner.

Mr. ROBERT OLEN BUTLER (Novelist): I know.

CHADWICK: It's just, I mean, what?

Mr. BUTLER: I know. And that's why I wrote the e-mail, because of that residue of what - in the absence of such an e-mail, it would have been, she's after his money, she's - that kind of petty, self-righteous reactions and the kind of vicious - assuming of the worst is going on in the blog site even now. It's appalling. But...

CHADWICK: Well, this may be part of it. This paragraph in your e-mail: She will not be Ted's only girlfriend.

Mr. BUTLER: I know.

CHADWICK: Ted is permanently and avowedly non-monogamous. But though he has several girlfriends, it is a very small number and he does not take them up lightly.

Mr. BUTLER: I mean, this is not news. Everyone knew that Ted had many women on his arm. And that was...

CHADWICK: It's not news, but, you know...

Mr. BUTLER: I know. But the fact is that that's...

CHADWICK: You're writing it to your grad students and they're reading this and thinking, what?

Mr. BUTLER: That fact of who she's going to be with was already there. And I go on to explain, it's the fact that she's not his only girlfriend that makes me worry less for her. Because that means she's going to spend two or three weeks a month working in isolation as the great artist that she can be. She can be with Ted in the way that he's very above board and honest with people about. And he's very loyal to those women. She's going into that with her eyes wide open.

CHADWICK: You say in this e-mail that your own success as a writer and your fame, it complicates the relationship a lot.

Mr. BUTLER: I was the Pulitzer Prize in the family. And the - and she wrote a brilliant book called "His Lovely Wife" about the relationship of women to more powerful men. It's a great novel. And ironically, though it would seem now she's going off to be another lovely de facto spouse in the world of Ted Turner, when she's introduced to the people that he is associated with.

And they say, Elizabeth Dewberry has published - he says she's published four novels with major publishing houses. They all go, wow, that's fabulous. We're so impressed. When she got introduced like that with me, people would react, oh, that's nice and, you know, what are you working on, Bob? And I often called her the - myself the second-best writer in my household. You know, I would emphasize her brilliance. And it was legitimate. But she couldn't step out of my shadow. And it was hurting her sense of self-esteem. It was hurting her as an artist.

CHADWICK: You have seen, I guess, some reaction to this e-mail already.

Mr. BUTLER: Yeah, sadly.

CHADWICK: It was up at gawker.com.

Mr. BUTLER: Yeah, yeah.

CHADWICK: Been up there less than 24 hours and already it's getting around.

Mr. BUTLER: It's a circle jerk of self-righteousness. I mean, these people are just being vicious to all three of us in ways that is totally dehumanizing.

CHADWICK: Here's a sentence that I think is quite important in this e-mail: She and I will remain the best of friends. She also knows about, endorses, and even encourages that I tell this much detail of the story.

Mr. BUTLER: I showed her the text of that e-mail before I sent it - for her approval. And she was deeply grateful for it.

CHADWICK: It's maybe hard to think that, just reading through it, because it is so shocking, so personal.

Mr. BUTLER: The personalness of it is public knowledge. I mean, the most personal thing is her unhappy childhood. That is totally public knowledge. She not only writes about it in her novels, she has written about it in non-fiction forms, in essays. She spoke in public about it. This is not a secret. And look, we're both novelists. We're both artists. The impulse to tell the truth about life and the human condition is deeply engrained in artists.

There is nothing in that e-mail that is not public knowledge in one way or another. But it puts it together in a way so that who Elizabeth is and why she's doing it - there would not be the chance of there being the reflex reaction that she's somehow prostituting herself or going after the money. It's not about money. It's about love. They really care for each other, these two people.

And Ted's had a bad childhood too. I think that they can help each other. And though I loved her - still do - a great deal, you know, I understand that, you know, if you love someone, your concern is for their happiness. And I really think that she could no longer be happy with me and that she has a legitimate chance to be happy with Ted Turner.

CHADWICK: Bob Butler, you are a noted and accomplished storyteller as well as a teacher. As a storyteller, what do you make of this moment?

Mr. BUTLER: It's a very complex love story. And as an artist, and Elizabeth's an artist, we know that the simple reflex reactions to things are not the deepest, truest reaction. And it does not necessarily reflect the real humanity beneath the events. And we're always looking to get down to that and that's what I tried to do in the e-mail and that's what I'm trying to do now. And she is too.

CHADWICK: Robert Olen Butler speaking with us from Florida. Bob Butler, thank you.

Mr. BUTLER: My pleasure, Alex.

CHADWICK: We also called Elizabeth Dewberry. She declined an interview, but confirmed they are divorced. She is dating Ted Turner. She said she had read Bob's e-mail, but had not approved it. There are inaccuracies in it, she said. But she wouldn't go into detail.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.