If you set your novel in interior Maine, there’s a better chance that a moose will stray into your narrative than, say, if you situated the story in Nevada. Still, it’s a rare writer who’d be so accommodating to the moose’s sudden appearance, and only a truly daring and inventive one who would allow the animal multiple point-of-view chapters. Nor, in Marcia Butler’s Oslo, Maine, is doing so a gimmick. You think there’s nothing going on in a moose’s brain? You think there’s neither love, nor pain, nor loss in her heart? Think again.
I’ve known Marcia Butler for a good decade now and my admiration for her has grown to something closer to envy. As a young man I used to play guitar and sing semi-professionally (I was paid, but not much). When I decided to become a writer, I put the guitar in the closet and never took it out again, convinced that I would only have enough creative energy for storytelling. Butler—a first chair oboist, novelist, and documentary filmmaker—proves that we needn’t make such choices, needn’t reject gifts. All we need to be is fearless and devoted to craft. That Marcia is all that and more will become evident in our conversation below.
Richard Russo: You have more than a tourist’s knowledge of Maine, where your fictional town of Oslo is set. How did you come by that?
Marcia Butler: When I was a professional oboist, and for many summers, I performed at a music festival in central Maine. We musicians were housed with local residents who graciously opened their homes to us. My host was an older widowed woman who happened to be a gifted storyteller. It was through her that I learned about the town’s doings and human dramas. Celebrations and illnesses. Who’d given birth, who’d passed away. Those who separated and then reconciled. All the profound and minor aspects of life in rural Maine. Weirdly, I never met any of these people yet found myself becoming emotionally invested—and increasingly so with each passing summer.
I also heard lots of stories about moose which I soon became obsessed with, especially because for years I didn’t see one. I’d hear about a sighting on the other side of Bridgeton and race to the location. Of course, the moose was no longer there. But I kept at it, jumping at the vaguest mention of the animal, till finally I was rewarded. A moose cow with her calf. What a day that was, and particularly sweet because it happened to be the final year of my tenure at the festival, and, in fact, my career as an oboist. I retired from music but never forgot that moose or the Mainers, one or two of whom serve as archetypes in my novel.
RR: The novel has several point-of-view characters, the most unusual of which is a moose. In the hands of another writer this device might have come across as a gimmick. How did you avoid that pitfall?
MB: Indeed, this was daunting to consider. A few author friends suggested I read other novels with animal points-of-view, but I didn’t want to be influenced in any way—sort of like not listening to another oboist’s version of the Mozart Concerto. And I felt somewhat (naively) qualified because my obsession with moose has continued past my Maine years. I’ve probably YouTubed every video of a moose in existence and spent a lot of time researching the way they manage their world—all before I ever became a writer. Moose are stunning animals: efficient, intuitive, a miracle of survival. They’re born knowing that the only place they can get a vital nutrient is at the bottom of a lake and they’ll dive twenty feet to access that plant. During the winter they eat up to seventy pounds of leafless twigs a day to survive the season. Just two of many jaw-dropping factoids. My moose, and what happens to her, is the lynchpin of Oslo, Maine because though she remains a background character, almost all human action flows from this animal’s presence. Specific to her point-of-view, I needed to convey what she observed in a manner that was both understood by the reader and still remained animal-like. I made decisions along the way that straddled those imperatives, achieving what I felt was believable anthropomorphism. She also, at times, contributes dramatic irony in that through her point-of-view the reader is clued into events that human characters have no awareness of. My moose is probably the most sympathetic character in the book because she operates purely and without guile. A thing to behold and something humans might aspire to but will never achieve.
RR: Some of the characters in this novel do some pretty reprehensible things, but you seem remarkably non-judgmental toward them. You appear to suggest that just as the moose is going about its business of being a moose, your characters are simply human and doing what comes naturally. It’s their nature to be violent and venal, but also to be kind and generous. Can you source this non-judgmental tone in the book? It seems pretty remarkable given the age we live in, where social media judgment is swift and vicious.
MB: Big topic. Yes, my characters are messy. But life is messy—beautiful, ugly, painful, blissful, and filled with people mostly doing their best while failing miserably. This is the world I grew up in and it is the world we all continue to live in. This bandwidth of human nature is what I am interested in exploring through my novels; to draw complex, interesting, and unknown people. To place them in situations where the human stakes are high, yet their solutions may not seem ideal or even good enough. In other art forms such as music, there are certain norms that one adheres to, such as always, always make a beautiful sound. I believe that one of the reasons I was so drawn to contemporary music is because the thrust and difficulty of that type of composition demand priorities other than a pretty sound. I ended up making lots of beautiful and unusual noises on the oboe!
So as a writer, when a character shows up and he/she behaves not so pretty, I am curious as to where this person will end up and I loosen the reins in order to find out. It is a necessary process of discovery that my novel deserves. Then, if that character remains through many drafts, I keep in mind that someone loved this person despite their bad acts. Which brings me back to the source of the nonjudgmental tone in my novels. I know firsthand about bad acts and that most people don’t set out in life to commit them. I try very hard to give people, and my characters, a pass.
Regarding the current treacherous territory of writing unattractive or controversial people in fiction, I am aware that as I write these words I am also considering censoring myself. Right now. And that’s a shame. The truth is, I’m all for likable and relatable protagonists, but I don’t ever want to feel that I must tamp down (or gussy up) my characters in order to appeal to a certain readership who might be put off or to avoid a backlash on social media. I strongly believe that with any creative endeavor real art, and perhaps ultimately important art, will emerge from the freedom to defy some of the rules—and, if necessary, break every single one. As writers, we are naturally limited by the personal prism through which we see the world. We fight this every day and when we break through, this is how imagination takes flight. It is tragic that we might allow someone else’s limits to constrict what we write!
So, in this current “cancel culture” environment, defying popular talking points takes bravery. I always seem to go back to music, but when Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was premiered in 1913 it was met with near riots in the audience and was deemed nothing less than demonic: “a barbaric and puerile barbarity”. Clearly, popular culture was less than happy. Yet, there is no doubt that this one composition changed the course of music for the next century. I shudder to think what might have happened if Stravinsky censored his creativity because he was afraid of offending popular tastes. So yes, I occasionally made a strange sound on the oboe and I’ll create a father who, despite loving his child deeply, hurts him. And yes, we must break all the boxes we possibly can. Because when things fall apart, how we decide to reassemble might help people understand each other.
RR: One of my favorite characters in the novel is a boy named Pierre who, after a head injury that wrecks his ability to form short term memories, is saved by music. I know that music has been a vital presence in your own life, but did it save you? How about writing?
MB: The beauty of a prepubescent kid who’s not yet become jaded can spot irony without even knowing what it is, and notices the absurdity in the adults around him, well, that sort of kid captures my heart. Pierre, indeed, finds relief from his injury and those who fail him through his violin. I relate very much to how learning an instrument demands a focus we rarely achieve during our everyday lives. Music itself creates a space and time where the past and future are suspended—it anchors your entire being to the now. There is no doubt that if I’d not discovered music at age four my life would have played out very differently. Music served as my only friend while navigating a bad childhood. Then, throughout subsequent difficult adult years, my mantra became “as long as I can play the oboe, I’ll be okay.” Now as a writer I’ve discovered a different freedom of expression, one that feels more interior, more personal. And while writing is not performative, I do lose myself to the process every day and for many hours. I feel lucky to be able to “go there”. In many ways, the introvert in me finds making up worlds preferable to real life.
RR: Your novel shows great reverence for teachers, which suggests you must’ve had a few pretty good ones yourself?
MB: Oh, yes. I believe teachers are boots on the ground first responders – saviors, really. They are, after parents, the adults who shape children’s minds, sometimes without the child knowing the full impact until years later. When I was in seventh grade my history teacher taught the Roman Empire through the love affair between Antony and Cleopatra. Though it was embarrassing to listen to (I wasn’t even sure what a love affair was) I’ve never forgotten how absorbed I became with a subject that otherwise would surely have been dry and tedious. I couldn’t wait for class to find out what happened next; the teacher was a master storyteller.
While in music conservatory, my oboe teacher was the primary source for the musician I became. He encouraged me to step up and dedicate myself to a profession where the odds of success were slim. Most valuable was emulating his strict sense of discipline, which continues to serve me to this day. He did all these things and then went farther. During my first year, I was experiencing emotional turmoil such that it impacted my ability to progress on the oboe. He found a benefactor to pay for a shrink. I believe his insight and this pure act of kindness, in large part, cemented my future in music. He cared and he saved me. Then, years later after I sold my first book, which is non-fiction, I made my first ever stab at a novel and was accepted into a weeklong workshop with a well-known author. My pages were filled with point-of-view problems and terrible dialogue, but he gently brought me through all the mistakes and ended the session by advising me to take heart. The craft stuff was easily fixed. But the best news was that the story premise was “golden.” That word meant everything, and those nascent horrible pages turned into my first published novel. Ah, pedagogues: to lead the child of any age!
RR: What’s next? Have you started a new book? Some other project?
MB: I don’t know what I’d do with my day if I wasn’t writing, so, yes, I’m well into my third novel. As of this morning, it involves a twenty-year-old woman of Northern Irish extraction, a financier from Belarus, a washed-up British rock star. And a plumber.
—A Year in Reading: Richard Russo