'The Hot Country' takes readers on a cool trip

Robert Olen Butler's new book is "The Hot Country."

Story highlights

  • Robert Olen Butler's latest novel was inspired by a postcard
  • The historical thriller was a genre leap for the Pulitzer Prize winner
  • "If Ernest Hemingway and Indiana Jones had a bastard son," it would be Kit Cobb

In "The Hot Country," U.S. troops invade a foreign country where oil interests are at stake, a rising foreign power is looking to derail U.S. forces using cloak and dagger tactics, and there's a gunfight in the desert against insurgent enemies.

Déjà vu, anyone?

As contemporary as this story sounds, it doesn't take place in the Middle East, and it's not set in modern times. The latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler uses the Battle of Vera Cruz and the American invasion of Mexico during that country's civil war in 1914 as its backdrop. Butler takes an often-overlooked chapter of history and turns it into a whip-smart tale of intrigue and espionage.

At the center of this swashbuckling thriller is Christopher Marlowe Cobb, an American newspaper war correspondent, better known as "Kit." Covering the war in enemy territory, he's nearly shot by a mysterious sniper, joins forces with a double agent, is almost killed by a German army officer and falls in love with a headstrong young Mexican woman who may be mixed up in the revolutionary plot.

You don't need to be an expert on the era to enjoy the story, but history buffs will appreciate cameos from real-life characters like Jack London, Richard Harding Davis and Pancho Villa. Butler recently spoke with CNN about his new novel. The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: What was the spark behind your new novel?

Butler: It began with a postcard. I did a book back in 2004 called "Had a Good Time," which was a book of short stories I wrote based on my picture postcard collection. I collect them not so much for the images on the front but the messages written on the back. Although this particular postcard had a terrific image. I describe it in the short story, and that became the beginning of "The Hot Country." It was a photo of a man walking on the street. You see him from behind. He's passing a row of adobe shops with Spanish names. Way in the distance on the cobblestone street, you see a man on horseback. If you study his profile, you see it's an American Marine of the era. In the mid-distance, a gaggle of people, mostly women. The postcard author has drawn an arrow to point at one of the women, and on the back he's written, "After the battle. Notice the pretty señoritas in this photo. The one in white does my laundry." What he does not mention is, not more than an arm's length away are two dead men lying on the sidewalk in pools of blood. From all of this, I deduced this was the Battle of Vera Cruz in 1914 Mexico. After that, this voice wouldn't let go of me.

CNN: You're a bit of a chameleon as a writer; no two novels are the same. What led you to write a historical thriller?

Butler: I've always loved the genre, but I just follow where the muse leads me. In this day and age of terrorists operating covertly and wreaking havoc, governments rising and falling from populist revolutions, mass murders in movie theaters and high seas piracy, this is an intense age. All of which is given to us in these tense, brief, highly dramatic outbursts in the various news media. If you're responding to this world around us, for me, the thriller, especially the espionage thriller, seems absolutely the right choice.

CNN: What inspired your main character in this novel, Christopher "Kit" Cobb?

Butler: Biological improbabilities aside, if Ernest Hemingway and Indiana Jones had a bastard son, it would be Kit Cobb. Honestly, this character is very close to me. I went to war. I was in military intelligence in Vietnam. I was a spy. I was a reporter and then an editor in chief of an investigative business newspaper for a decade. I grew up in a theatrical family and trained as an actor. I'm relating major elements of who Christopher Marlowe Cobb is, and the stories he has to tell about himself are reflective of how I see the world right now. I'm thinking of this book as part one of a six- or eight- or 10- or 12-part novel. He's a complex guy, and he's evolving as the series goes on.

CNN: You wrote several of your early novels while a commuter in New York. How did that experience impact you as a writer?

Butler: That was during my journalist era. I lived in Sea Cliff, Long Island. I rode the Oyster Bay branch into Manhattan, where I worked. My life circumstances were such that if I wanted to be a novelist, I was going to have to do it on the train. This was before laptop computers, so I had a drafting pencil, a legal pad and a Masonite lap board, and amidst all the chaos, I wrote 300 polished words on the train going into New York in the morning and 300 polished words on the train going home at night. You have to write every day to be a real novelist, and there's no excuse not to. I was at an absolute crossroads. Either I'm going to do this under the most difficult circumstances, and I'm going to do it every day of my life, or I won't do it. It represented my fundamental choice to be a writer.

CNN: What drives you to keep writing?

Butler: I have no choice but to do it. It's these voices inside me. I'm known for doing first-person voices. This book is in Kit Cobb's voice. I wrote several books of very short stories, and in the space of a couple of years I wrote in the voices of 163 different people, including an animal or two. Those voices are there in my artistic unconscious and ask to be heard, and I channel them.

CNN: What's the most difficult part of your job?

Butler: Self-discipline is one of the things. If you write from your unconscious, your white-hot center, then the place you go into is scary as hell. As the great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa said, to be an artist means to never avert your eyes. The whole process is multifaceted and a big monolithic challenge. You have to do it every day, and you can't look away.

CNN: What's next for you and Kit Cobb?

Butler: I just finished the second book in the series, "The Star of Istanbul," which will come out next fall. It opens on the Lusitania in May of 1915, and we'll move on to London and then Istanbul. There's a beautiful silent film star who's a person of interest in this book. There's a lot of derring-do, surprises and revelations.

Read an excerpt from "The Hot Country."

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