Jack’s bio

Jack Butler is the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, and grew up mostly in Mississippi, mostly in the Delta (his home town is Alligator).  The family moved every time the elder Butler took a new church, so about every three years.

It came as a surprise when, in his fifties, he realized he had lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, longer than he had lived in any other one place.

He wore glasses and was voted most intellectual in high school, though at the time he would rather have been a football hero and voted most handsome.  He took up long-distance running at about the same time he took up poetry, at sixteen, under the combined influences of Roger Bannister (who first broke the four-minute mile) and William Shakespeare.

By the time he got into grad school he had become fit, but now his cohorts didn’t exercise at all (this was before aerobics), and so maybe saw him as jockish though he still saw himself as a non-athletic.  Ironic enough.

He had been lost in what he calls “the Baptist funhouse,” even going so far as to become, for a brief time in his early twenties, a Baptist minister, but found himself increasingly drawn to writing, which in his vision required free thought.  He loves the arts generally, having done some acting in college, drawing and doing minor sculpture all his life, and painting seriously in his maturity.

He was also, uncharacteristically for artists at the time, deeply interested in science and mathematics.  Following his interests, he took a B. A. in English and a B. S. in Mathematics from Central Missouri State, and, eventually, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas.

He was astonished to hear other poets declare (in one of his first graduate workshops) that a love of science proved you were cold and heartless, and that it was anathema to use science in poetry, or to refer to it with anything but scorn.

He has been married three times, which is probably enough.  He and the spouse from his first marriage had two daughters, Lynnika and Sarah, both of whom are now grown women (and happily married).

He has worked as a preacher, a member of a road maintenance crew, a bread man, a seller of fried pies, a poet-in-residence/poet-in-the-schools, a college maintenance man, a finish carpenter, an actuarial analyst for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Arkansas, the Supervisor for Depreciation for the Arkansas Public Service Commission, the Assistant Dean of Hendrix College, and the Director of Creative Writing at the College of Santa Fe.  Now he writes and paints.

Gradually he has become more and more deeply committed to zen, and has been practicing yoga for seven years now.

He’s published nine books to rave reviews in journals such as The New Yorker, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, The Houston Chronicle, and the Washington Post.  His books have appeared in seventeen worldwide editions, including two Penguin trade paperbacks, three British editions, and a Japanese-language publication of Dreamer (his fourth novel).  His published books include two volumes of poetry, one of short fiction, a food book, and five novels, including two with Alfred A. Knopf.  He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner, has won numerous awards for both fiction and his poetry, and has been selected for the Pushcart awards.

His poetry and fiction have appeared frequently in The New Yorker, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Atlantic, Black Warrior Review, The New Orleans Review, Plains Poetry Review, and dozens of other well-regarded journals.  His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and The Los Angeles Times Book Review (they include reviews of work by Barbara Kingsolver, Larry McMurtry, and Fannie Flagg, among other notables).

(He likes to claim he gave Kingsolver her start, writing a laudatory review of her first novel for The New York Times Book Review.)

Mr. Butler currently lives in Eureka, on the far northern seacoast of California, behind “the Redwood Curtain.”  He was drawn here, as was her husband Alex Navas, by his eldest daughter, Lynnika.  A Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at the University of Arizona, she works with the Wiyot Tribe on restoration of the tribal language, whose last native speaker died fifty years ago.

This is his favorite of all the places he has lived, including Santa Fe.  He loves the weather (even the rain), the redwoods, the Pacific, and the people, and anticipates spending the rest of his life in Humboldt County.

33 thoughts on “Jack’s bio

  1. It was a nice surprise to find this website, Jack. I’ve followed your work for a long time and continue to wish you the very best.

  2. Stumbled into this today. I was perusing my old (first Ed.!) copy of “Jujitsu” and wondered what had become of you. Glad you’re still here and content. And I look forward to your essays.

    Frito Baggins. (David Henley, Tucson/Santa Fe)

  3. I recently memorized The Attack of the Zombie Poets. Read it in The Atlantic when I was in high school and bits of it always stuck with me. Found it recently on-line and now it is in my head for good I hope.

    • Thank you so much for telling me about coming across that poem. Sorry to have been so late getting back to you. Had all sorts of crazy stuff to deal with, but should do better now.

      Incidentally, my first novel, Jujitsu for Christ, will be reprinted by the University Press of Mississippi early this spring, and The Texas Review Press is bringing out my new and selected poems, Broken Hallelujah, which will be the first book to contain any of my poems from later than about 25 years ago. (Unfortunately, Attack of the Zombi Poets will not be in it–had to keep it really short. But I’ll be trying to bring another book out soon that has that poem in it.)

      Hope you’ll keep in touch.

      • And so, my friends, thinking it very funny, found a copy of your Jiu-jitsu for Christ and gave it me as a whimsical gift. The copy having the crucified gi on the cover, and me being a jiu-jitsu instructor for a living (despite my PhD in life sciences, unemployed). They fell over themselves in bemusement also in part because the same friends know that I’m not much in the way of religion (though I do spend a lot of time with some lovely Hindu lady friends).
        I was chuckling as well, but then I saw New Yorker and Atlantic, and the strange cover blurb about a hootenanny or a lynch mob. . . . Was this a real book?

        Finishing off my Halldor Laxness I started it. The first scene being exaggerated but wonderfully familiar, there was me doing a jiu-jitsu demo – having some young wrestlers want me to “show them sump’in” while they do everything they can to beat on me; ending up with sore participants and little money, doing the shakedown in the parking lot. . . . holy shit!

        My friends would not believe me, the book turning out to be one of the finest – even better than Conspiracy of Dunces, even better than Going All the Way . . . And no now I’m after the rest of your stuff, and wondering why I had been so weak in my own writing (three unwanted novels so far!). I didn’t know you could do that!

        Thank you, sir. Looking forward to the rest. And have you any advice for marketing my work?

      • Dear G.R. Balme–

        Your comments are a balm to my heart. Thank you. It takes some effort to bother to respond to what moves you. Most people cannot make the effort.

        Very glad to hear you’re a writer. Seems to me very much the only life to live. Also pleases me to hear you know and teach the martial arts. There’re many observations and little bits I put in the book for just such readers–both skilled in the arts and intelligent and questioning (though they are few enough). I myself have little training in either ju-jitsu or karate, but have long been interested and, like Roger Wing, find a common center to “all these curious practices.” I do perhaps eight hours a week of yoga, so am at least no alien in that world.

        There are many teachers of yoga who have mastered the physical performances but do not have the soul of the practice, and I feel it is likely very similar in ju-jitsu. It has always seemed to be that if one has trained in order to impress others or satisfy one’s own ego-demands, one has the form of the discipline, but not the essence.

        It has also seemed to me that the discipline of writing–as a discipline, and not a display–is strongly akin. Even felt that thirty years ago, when I wrote the book. Have never quite understood why Americans find it so easy to imagine the martial arts as a spiritual discipline (in the non-denomination sense of “spiritual,” but cannot understand the arts as the same sort of discipline, a way of living and inquiring. And meditating.

        On the matter of publication: I am 71 now, and my official literary career as a person of possible note ended some fifteen years ago, so doubt I have much current or relevant advice to give, but “such policy as I have give I unto thee.”

        It was always my desire and practice to concentrate on being the best writer I could and letting the recognition go hang. Cannot say the approach has been very successful from the standpoint of money or notice, but I feel satisfied with what I write most of the time.

        A great deal of self-confidence has been required, of a sort that might almost seem arrogant to others, and despite the fact that generally, in more social areas, I lack such confidence.

        As far as career, for a while the attention came, and then it quit coming. Seems to me necessary to be able to live with both. Beyond that I have little especial insight into the mechanics of getting published. I went with a small press with Jujitsu for Christ, not aiming big, but it got a lot of attention. The problem was the small press was unable to print a second edition in time to capitalize, and I missed the approximately two-week window one has for national recognition. From then on, though there were successes and good publications, the battle for money and recognition was uphill.

        The point of money for me (and the point of recognition was strictly money) was to be able to write freely, as I needed to–to have the time for all that, and yet have a decent means of making a living.

        But in this nation now, it seems to be either best-sellerdom or oblivion. Perhaps I am biased by experience. I have noticed, though, as an inveterate reader of detective fiction, that the clumsiest writers write the longest and most self-important prefaces to their novels, and thank the most people, editors and friends and consultants.

        Me, I thank the people for publication, but I did the goddamned writing, and that’s a fact.

        My hunch about today’s literary market (and we are now into the territory of hunches, which is all I have left to give) is that in this computerized age it may perhaps be just as useful to self-publish as to pursue the dwindling results afforded by the world of agents, editors, and publishing houses.

        There is the disadvantage that most self-published work is pretty awful (I am also, since my youth, an inveterate reader of science fiction–like you contrarily educated, I have an undergraduate degree in mathematics as well as one in English, and I love science as an instrument of accurate vision–so am recognized neither by scientists and mathematicians nor the typical math-illiterate “artistic” types).

        Self-publishing is far easier and cheaper than it used to be, and the great advantage is that you can appeal to readers directly rather than be subject to the misguided efforts of middlemen and -women. It is possible to connect with a large enough audience of exactly the type you seek to keep you going, whereas with a publisher, the audience would seem so small they would neglect you.

        I also must highly recommend MFA programs. Much can be said against them, and I hated the workshop attitudes when I was in one over 45 years ago–but it does allow you to live for a while in a universe of others who care about writing, and it does do a better job of providing you connections to the lit world than you can obtain on your own, usually.

        Finally–but you already know this–don’t quit. Write. Write. Write. Read the best of the past–not just what you think is best, but what has stood the test of time.

        Incidentally, a couple of years ago, a classroom teaching edition of JJC was published–but that may be the one you have, I now realize. First editions of the original are too pricy for its author.

        Long reply, but your comment was water in the desert. Many thanks. I hope to hear more from you. If it seems we would like to continue, I’ll give you my email address.

        Oh, and apologies for this website, and my inadequate upkeep of it. It looked like a good idea at the time, but the interface is kludgy and difficult to manage. Often, I can’t even log in without setting a new passowrd, as if the site were routinely outdating the password I remember.

  4. Mr. Butler,

    I would be interested in emailing you about the possibiilitiy of bringing some of your backlist titles our in eBook form as part of Dzanc Books rEprint Series. I’m available at dan@dzancbooks.org if you have any interest at all in seeing something like this happen.


    Dan Wickett–Dzanc Books

  5. Hey Jack,

    Greetings from Hendrix College. Heard that JFC for was being reprinted so I decided to track you down and see what’s happening in your life. There have been lots of changes at Hendrix, the most important of which is that we now have a decent place to pay basketball on Saturday mornings. I am curious whether the title “Broken Hallelujah” owes anything to Leonard Cohen?


  6. Hi, Jack. Very happy to have found your site. You won’t remember me, but I published a few of your poems in the Yalobusha Review for Ole Miss back around 2004. We share a common friend in the person of the great Johnny Wink, who was my teacher at Ouachita Baptist way back in 1996-2000. I’m currently re-reading NIGHTSHADE, which has a blurb on the back from the late Barry Hannah, who was my mentor during my time at Ole Miss in their creative writing program. A delight to discover new writing of yours.

  7. Mr. Butler, I have only ever read one book of yours, “Jack’s Skillet.” I’ve been carrying it around with me for over a decade now. In my opinion, it is an inspirational book. It is clear that you love food and cooking. And the stories and people connected to your experiences with both. I grew up in northern Michigan as opposed to the South, but we had iron skillets, too. Your stories about cooking resonate with me, and I have wondered for years if you might ever write another cookbook. Anyway, thank you for writing that book, and for your stories and recipes

    • Dear Jody G–Your comment makes me feel good. I had a blast writing the book and traveling with it. Minnesotans welcome! I didn’t so much make the book southern as it came out that way because I am. The skillet is the main thing.

      Am using Minnesota (not all that knowledgeably) in the novel I’m working on now. Some adventures of the main character.

      I’d love to write another cookbook some day soon.

  8. Jack,

    Please do write another food book. I treasure our copy of Jack’s Skillet. I can’t call it a cookbook, as it encompasses so much more.

    Happy to have found you.

  9. Mr. Butler,

    I read Jujitsu for Christ in the late 80’s and fell in love with it. I’m a film producer (Boogie Nights, United 93, among others) and would like to discuss with you a movie adaptation of Jujitsu For Christ. Are the rights available? My email is lloydlevin@gmail.com.

    All the best,


  10. Thanks for the responses, including one from the Real Jack Butler that came to my email but does not show up here apparently. Yeah, didn’t seem like a RJB (Real Jack Butler) book, but because of the “verses” in the title and because of RJB’s interest in science, I though perhaps… Anyway, glad I did not order it.

    I DID however order the new Broken Hallelujah, about which I am very excited. I loved the poems in West of Hollywood and The Kid who Wanted to be a Spaceman, so am very much looking forward to the new poems here.

    Any chance there’s a new novel in the works?

    • Dear Tod–

      I can’t thank you enough for your interest. Broken Hallelujah is a compendium of what in some ways I consider my very best work, but the publishers could not include many poems. The good thing is it lets readers see a bit of the poetry I wrote after 1984. (My first two books only covered what I had written up until then, and this is the first book to contain any of the newer work. The bad thing is I had to leave a lot of stuff out that I thought was really good. Have pretty much quit trying to publish in magazines in the last 20-odd years, but can send you samples if you wish.

    • Dear Tod–

      Sorry to be so long in replying. Also sorry for not adding more new comment. I need to get after this thing enough to whip it into shape, but I keep lapsing into other concerns that use up all my time. To answer one of your questions, I have a novel I have essentially finished, The Enlightenment of Elijah Lee Roswell, but am not satisfied with it yet. It’s too monolithic, the narrator too obviously excusing himself.

      Can’t tell you how glad I am to hear of someone having read the former two books of poetry and buying the new one.

      Again, really sorry for not replying for a year. Only excuse is age-related troubles. Hope you haven’t given up on me.

  11. Hello Jack,

    So glad to have found you on here. I hope it’s all right to use the blurb you gave me years ago for my novel, The River Caught Sunlight. I’m not sure what my publisher has planned but am sending it along because it says it. The book will be released August 1 and is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I have also started a blog here: http://www.katieandraski.com.

    Well, I’ll keep this short but hope to catch up more later. Are you on Facebook?


    • Dear Katie–

      Mighty good to hear from you. By all means, you are welcome to the blurb, and congratulations on the publication. I am on Facebook, but I hardly ever use it any more. I’ll get a notice if you post there, though.

      Love, Jack

  12. I ran across a copy of your piece “The Preacher’s Repast” from Country Home in 1998. I had sent it along with a letter to my parents in North Carolina when I lived in California. (I was a Preacher’s daughter, so it rang a bell.) I will look for your other writings. Seems like we have traveled some of the same roads.

    • Dear Joanna Ray–

      Unless perhaps you use the middle name: If that’s the case, beg pardon. Thank you for letting me know. I’d love to hear from you, in the event that one or the other of my other books affords you a pleasant time. The most southern are probably the cookbook and the first novel, Jujitsu for Christ. Am intrigued by your comment about traveling the same roads.

      Yours, Jack B.

  13. Dear Jack, you worked with the creative writing club at the high school in El Dorado, Arkansas, when I was a junior there (let’s not say how long ago that was). I have Jujitsu and Miss Little Rock, but my favorite is The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman. I didn’t know about Broken Hallelujah and will now do my best to get a copy. Would love to hear from you and know that you’re doing well. I have a self-published book of poems on amazon.com after many years of being afraid to put myself out there. It’s nothing like your work but I took the leap!

  14. Hi Jack,
    I’ve been a fan of your poetry for the past few years now and I ran across a poem called, “For Her Surgery”, I was curious as too whether this was a piece of yours or another Jack Butler?

    • Dear Fiona–

      And what a lovely name Fiona is. The poem is one of mine. Refers to a period when my third wife was forced to have a hysterectomy by fibroids.

      You could answer a question for me. I am absolutely delighted to know you have been a fan of my poetry–such good news–but how did you come to such a circumstance? It just surprises me that my work could come to anyone’s attention. I have a selected poetry out, by the way, with Texas Review Press, which can be ordered through them or Amazon. I was almost 70 by the time I had a selected come out. Sort of a “Butler’s greatest hits” thing. Not sure I’ll make it to a complete poems.

      Not to imply you ought to buy it, by the way. Just that as a reader you ought to know. Thank you for your kind letter.

      Yours, Jack B

      If you do buy it though, I will swap it out with you for a personally autographed copy.

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