Marcia Butler is amazing. She's not only one of my favorite people on the planet, but she's been a professional musician, interior designer, documentary filmmaker, and author. As an oboist, the New York Times has hailed her as a “first rate artist.” During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer/pianist Keith Jarrett. Her interior designs projects have been published in numerous shelter magazines and range up and down the East coast, from NYC to Boston, to Miami. The Creative Imperative, her documentary film exploring the essence of creativity, will release in Spring 2019. Marcia’s nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, was one of the Washington Post’s “top ten noteworthy moments in classical music in 2017”. She was chosen as 2017 notable debut author in 35 OVER 35. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, PANK Magazine, Psychology Today, Aspen Ideas Magazine, Catapult, Bio-Stories and others. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. She was a writing fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and a writer in residence at The Betsy Hotel.
Her new novel PICKLE'S PROGRESS is astonishing. Don't believe me? Just look at these raves:
“A suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge sets the lives of four New Yorkers careening out of control in the mordant debut novel by memoirist Butler…. With detached wit and restrained horror at her characters’ behavior, Butler explores the volatile nature of identity in this provocative novel.” —Booklist
“Identical twins Stan and Pickle McArdle live tangled lives, fulfilling expectations imposed on them in childhood by their controlling mother… Butler’s debut is character-driven…the book starts with a crash then slows as the characters’ personalities develop. In this study of how childhood experiences shape perception, and how deception keeps people caged, Butler shows that nothing need be set in stone.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The four main characters in Pickle’s Progress seem more alive than most of the people we know in real life because their fears and desires are so nakedly exposed. That’s because their creator, Marcia Butler, possesses truly scary X-ray vision and intelligence to match.” —Richard Russo
“Oh, what a pickle Pickle’s Progress puts us in–a duke’s mixture of villainy, deceit, betrayal, and, Lord help us, romantic love–all of it rendered in prose as trenchant as it is supple. Clearly, Ms. Butler is in thrall to these fascinatingly flawed characters (us, but for time, circumstance, and bank account), and by, oh, page 15 you will be, too. Let’s hope this is just the first of many more necessary novels to come.” —Lee K. Abbott, author of All Things, All at Once
“How does healing happen? Sometimes in quirkier ways than you might expect. Butler’s blazingly original novel debut (her memoir The Skin Above My Knee made me want to run away and join an orchestra) is a quintessential moving, witty, New York City story about the love we think we want, the love we get, and the love we deserve, all played out with symphonic grace. I loved it.” —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World
“Like the first icy slug of a top-shelf martini, Marcia Butler’s debut novel is a refreshing jolt to the senses. Invigorating, sly and mordantly funny, Pickle’s Progress offers a comic look at the foibles of human nature and all the ways love can seduce, betray and, ultimately, sustain us.” —Jillian Medoff, bestselling author of This Could Hurt
“Marcia Butler’s debut novel Pickle’s Progress is funny, sharp, totally original, and completely engrossing. It joins the pantheon of great New York novels. I loved every page.” —Julie Klam, New York Times bestselling author of The Stars In Our Eyes
“Marcia Butler’s debut novel, Pickle’s Progress, is a fierce and glorious NY story. Written in brave and startling prose, Butler has written a fast-paced tale of identical twin brothers and the women in their orbit, who collide and dance in a haunting tale of tragedy, passion and love. Throughout this surprising work, we see NY in all its beauty and raunchiness, with a finely tuned soundtrack, so that the city itself becomes an integral part of the complex and compelling plot. Rare is the brilliant memoirist who also writes fiction with the same sure hand, but Marcia Butler is such an author.” —Patty Dann, bestselling author of Mermaids
“Pickle’s Progress is a wild trip into the heart of New York City with wonderful, complicated, highly functioning alcoholics as tour guides. Marcia Butler’s characters are reflections of the city they live in: beautiful but flawed, rich but messed up, dark and hostile – but there’s love there, if you know where to find it. Butler’s sharp, artistic sensibilities shine through here, and the result is a brutal, funny story of family, regret, and belonging.” —Amy Poeppel, author of Limelight
“New York City is all about three things: Money, Real Estate and Sex. In Pickle’s Progress, Marcia Butler has neatly tied them all together by focusing on one scarily dysfunctional family. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll shake your head, but you’ll keep turning those pages to find out what happens to Karen, Stan, Junie and Pickle in this riveting, dramatic version of musical chairs.” —Charles Salzberg, author of Second Story Man and the Shamus Award nominated Henry Swann series.
I cannot thank you enough, Marcia!
A Conversation with
Q) What inspired you to write this story about twins and complicated family relationships? How does their relationship exemplify the themes or messages you wanted to examine?
A) A few things came together for me when I began this novel. The surface inspiration was a set of identical twin sisters I knew from college days. One of them had just become engaged and confided in me that she was worried that her fiancé was attracted to her sister, who appeared virtually indistinguishable. She summoned the courage to ask him and he denied any attraction whatsoever. She felt reassured and relived. (They are still married!) Yet, I remained suspect; how could he not be attracted to the sister? This notion became the territory which I then explored more deeply in my novel regarding nature vs. nurture in family of origin.
Another influence inserted itself into Pickle McArdle’s character and story line in an almost stealth way. I recognized this only after the book was complete. This is an example of how the author will most assuredly insert some aspect of herself because she is writing from her personal psychological prism, and cannot help doing so. I came from a large family with five children and was always painfully aware that I was not the favored child. And it became my childhood mission to first, somehow understand why I was so low in the pecking order, and second, to try and be a “better” child so I might float to the top. That never happened. But this imprint of the child’s struggle to please the parent who could never be pleased, landed squarely in my novel.
My protagonist, Pickle McArdle, is the least favored twin. Growing up, his mother prefers his brother, Stan, in the most appalling and damaging of ways. Pickle bears these scars well into his adult life and the impact of this neglect informs the relationships he has with women. That being said, the bond of identical twins is significant. In spite of their disparate upbringings, the McArdle twins still seem to pull strength and purpose from each other. The deep connection of twin-ship is juxtaposed with a mother’s effort to destroy her least favored son. My novel watches this rub play out as Pickle tries to get the love he never had.
Q) Your main characters Pickle and Stan are wonderfully imperfect and what Richard Russo described as “more alive than most of the people we know in real life.” What is your approach to writing characters that are nuanced and deeply human?
A) It will become obvious to anyone who reads my novel that I am not afraid for my characters to behave badly, hurt each other, and most importantly, hurt themselves. A lot of mischief goes on and I was comfortable allowing my characters a wide berth to behave in ways that defy some manner of “literary logic.” Because real life is, and always will be, bigger and larger and stranger than most fiction. Based on my observations of people throughout my life, where much behavior was not logical, I gave myself permission to let the stops out with regard to recklessness. It doesn’t mean my characters are bad people. Rather, what I hope comes through is that they are damaged souls. And this contrary notion – the surface action and the underlying reason for that action – has always been an aspect of how I see people reveal their true vulnerability. As my characters take risks and surprise the reader, they are exposing themselves in ways that raise the stakes of their lives and this presses the plot forward to an unimaginable conclusion.
Q) What was the experience like when you made the shift from writing personal nonfiction to creating fictional characters and the world they live in?
A) Freedom. That pretty much sums up the overwhelming sensation I had when writing about people I could make up and bring to life, rather than tacking strictly to the facts and people in my own life as I had for my memoir. The characters in my novel are completely unfamiliar to me and I was happy to meet them and eager to see where they would take me. With that in mind, I had no plot laid out beforehand and I let Pickle drive the bus. While writing this novel, I had the distinct sensation that I was sight-reading a piece of music I’d never heard before. So, the discovery of the story unfolded as if the notes were being played for the very first time. Risky and wonderful. I should have been afraid – but I’ve always been a bit of a renegade and have taken many chances throughout my life with regard to how my creative expression has emerged.
Q) What was the most challenging part of writing this novel? What was the most fun?
A) Learning the craft of novel-writing while I wrote the novel, was surely a challenge. In all art forms one needs to understand and perfect the rules before one can break them. Though, I took some comfort in the fact that I’d written a memoir and even in that context, the author still needs to fashion a really compelling narrative. This is my first novel so I proceeded by trial and error – almost like feeling my way along a dark tunnel. That wasn’t an altogether bad feeling, though, because I’m old enough to know how to tolerate the discomfort of difficulty and frequent defeat. And the fun came, ironically, in the exact same way! What a great thing to navigate a new art form and come out the other side, so much richer for the experience. I did this thing – a novel! And looking back, I still have a hard time believing it!
Q) What is the significance of the book’s title? How was it chosen?
A) The title, which is meant to be ironic, came to me fairly early on. I love alliteration, so I stayed with the P’s. Pickle is working on all cylinders to manipulate all the people in his life in order to get what he thinks he wants: true love. Yet, with all of his shenanigans, he’s actually running in place. It isn’t until the very end of the novel that Pickle realizes the truth: his heart’s desire was always there, right in front of him. It’s a kind of “no place like home” moment.
Q) You are an accomplished artist of many mediums. How has your experience in music, interior design, and film informed your writing?
A) Past artistic careers have set up an architecture of aesthetic discernment that informed my memoir and now, my novel-writing. My journey as a writer in many ways feels intuitive, but I know that is not really the case. Music, art and design, and film making all provide a foundation which I’ve funneled into my writing. All art forms are vehicles for storytelling and exploring the human condition. The transaction of the artist to the receiver is universal: The artist creates. The art is then in the world. The world then experiences the gift of the art. With this in the forefront of my mind, I can explore freely because I understand the nature of making art in the world. I try not to think about exact influence because I consider life to be a continuum of experience. Everything is connected. Everything.