Friday, August 14, 2020

Tommy Butler

Tommy Butler was raised in Stamford, Connecticut, and has since called many places home, including New Hampshire, San Diego, Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, he was a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and is an alumnus of the Screenwriters Colony. His feature screenplay, Etopia, was the winner of Showtime's Tony Cox Screenplay Competition at the Nantucket Film Festival.

Butler's new novel is Before You Go.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I hope the title does two things. First, I hope the word “You” draws the reader into the book in a personal way, because this story—particularly the Before and After vignettes that are told in the second person—is indeed meant to be about you, that is, about being human. And second, I hope the title as a whole evokes both the fleetingness of life and, more importantly, what we do with it before it ends.

What's in a name?

Given how much I agonize over choosing my characters’ names, I guess I have to say “an awful lot.” When it comes to fiction, I can’t agree with the Bard about a rose smelling as sweet by another name. There are some pragmatic reasons why names matter to me (for example, I try not to rhyme or alliterate the names of main characters), and then there are the more inexplicable, the more gut-driven. Why “Elliot Chance”, or “Sasha”, or “Bannor”? I don’t entirely know. Certainly, “Chance” evokes a state of precariousness, a balancing moment between success and failure. But mostly they just felt right.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find beginnings harder to write than endings, though both are more fun than “Act Two.” A lot of groundwork needs to be laid in the beginning, with a light touch so that the reader doesn’t feel it happening, which is hard work. I outline heavily before writing, and then write linearly from first page to last. By the time I got to the last few chapters of Elliot’s story (not to mention the adventures of you and Merriam and Jollis), the ending had become inevitable to me.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Elliot is not me, and his story is not my story, but I looked more deep than far for some of the emotions that drive him—his sense of wonder but also disconnection, his desire to be himself yet also belong. The same is true for the emotions that propel Sasha and Bannor. If those three characters are kindred spirits, then I’d include myself among them, at least in part, though there are other (lighter) aspects of my personality that don’t feature in their stories. As to the wisdom of Esther, I can only hope I grasp it once in a while.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Philosophy and science, whether studied formally or informally, and including many late-night conversations with friends and schoolmates. Theoretical physics and Eastern philosophy, in particular, can affect me profoundly. Also travel and the natural world, both of which can simultaneously astound and ground me. And, of course, the people I’ve loved or just known, and the moments we’ve shared.
Visit Tommy Butler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue