Last month, City University's English department invited American writer Robert Olen Butler to speak in Hong Kong. Butler won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his collection of short stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. The Florida State University professor took the stage at CityU's Wei Hing Theatre dressed all in black. He was holding what appeared at first to be a black leather folder. I imagined that it held a stack of papers, but it contained an iPad. He gave a reading from his forthcoming novel, his 12th, A Small Hotel. The story is set in New Orleans, and is a meditation on love, miscommunication and misunderstanding. It features a couple, Kelly and Michael, in the middle of a divorce, and recalls the major emotional events of their 20-year relationship. Butler held the iPad in one hand and gestured theatrically with the other - he had been a theatre major at Northwestern University, where he first focused on acting before switching to playwriting. 'I was a terrible playwright because all of my most impassioned writing was going into the stage directions,' he joked. Still, he earned a master's degree in playwriting from the University of Iowa. He then read a short story, Salem, told from the first-person point of view of a former Viet Cong soldier. Salem was written while he was on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Vietnam. When the reading was done, he began to talk about writing, and his belief that it comes from the place of dreams. 'Plot is yearning challenged and thwarted,' he said. Members of the audience nodded and took notes; it felt as if we were sitting in on a writing master class. 'The universal yearning is for self.' He revealed that he writes every day, and sets a goal of 400 words minimum. The next day he sat down for an hour-long interview. I asked him about his formative years (born and raised in Granite City, Illinois), and soon he spoke of his service in the Vietnam war. 'I was informed that as soon as I got my master's degree I would be drafted into the army,' Butler said. 'So I took the initiative - if I signed up for a third year instead of being drafted for two years I could choose my military occupational speciality. I chose counter intelligence. 'So I went into the army for three years, and one of those years was spent in a Vietnamese language school. The point was for me to stay out of a combat arm, where I wouldn't be involved in killing anybody, which I successfully did. But I did end up in Vietnam. The great thing was I spoke fluent Vietnamese from my first day there.' This allowed him to immerse himself in the culture. 'I loved Vietnam,' he said. 'I love the culture, I love the people. I had very close contacts in the countryside with farmers, woodcutters, fisherman and provincial police chiefs.' He was later stationed in Saigon, where he was the translator and administrative assistant to an American foreign service officer. 'My favourite thing in the world was to wander into the steamy back alleys of Saigon, and crouch in the doorways with people and speak to them in Vietnamese. They invariably invited me into their homes. That's where I learned most of what I knew at that point in my life not only about Vietnam and its culture, but about the human heart.' When he left the army, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a business journalist from 1972 to 1985. 'I wrote every word of my first four published novels by hand on legal pads on my lap on the Long Island Rail Road commuting to this job in Manhattan,' he said. With a fifth book under contract, he began teaching creative writing at McNeese State University in Louisiana, where he taught for 15 years. Then he took a post at Florida State University, where he still teaches today. In addition to his 12 novels, he has published six short story collections and a book on the creative process called From Where You Dream. Why does he write? 'Because I must,' he said. 'Because in the apparent chaos of life on planet earth, I have some intuition that there's order behind that chaos. A lot of people have that intuition - they have to express it or find it in some way - not just artists, but theologians, and philosophers and therapists and scientists. For a fiction writer, the only way that I know to articulate what I am feeling about the way the world works and how it fits together is to create these narrative objects.' I asked if he regrets sending an infamous e-mail to five of his graduate students about the end of his relationship with writer Elizabeth Dewberry, who left him for mogul Ted Turner. The message, which was as honest and precise as his literary writing, was leaked to the snarky blog Gawker, which called it 'insane'. 'I did that to protect her,' he said. 'There was nothing in the e-mail she hadn't herself already spoken of quite openly and explicitly in her own writing, in her novels and even in non-fiction pieces. 'So, there were no secrets there whatsoever. Her deepest fear was that all the people in the literary community and the academic community would assume that she was a gold-digger and a slut. I wrote that in order to intercept that kind of talk. And it did its job. 'She sat there at my elbow while I wrote it and vetted it and approved it,' he said. 'Anybody who thinks ill of me because of what I did, f*** 'em. You can quote me on that.' When I finished reading A Small Hotel on the day of my cousin's wedding, it occurred to me that we can never really know the particulars of a relationship that is not our own. In fact, sometimes we don't even understand the inner workings of our own loves and lives until it is too late. How are we to judge the intimate history between two people? Surely, it would take far more than an e-mail to convey the emotional landscape of a relationship. It would require, at minimum, the length of a short story or the breadth and depth of a novel. Perhaps it is this mystery of the human heart, too, that propels Butler to continue writing.