Blake Butler Interview

This interview was originally published by the defunct Writers' Bloc and will now be archived here.


Blake But­ler was kind enough to do an inter­view with me at his home in Atlanta. The inter­view took place in mid-June, 2009.

But­ler is the author of EVER (Cala­mari Press) and Scorch Atlas (Feather­proof Books). He is the editor of the inter­net journal Lam­in­a­tion Colony, and he co-edits the print journal No Colony. He blogs here.

Spivey: How have you been sleep­ing lately?

But­ler: Up until about three weeks ago I’d been sleep­ing beau­ti­fully for about six months. Per­fect for prob­ably the longest time in my life. Then about three weeks ago some­thing, maybe it’s just the sum­mer and the heat, but I’m start­ing to sleep pretty bad again. Which is frus­trat­ing after sleep­ing for six months pretty nor­mally; I thought I had got­ten past it. That time when you’re lay­ing down expect­ing to go to sleep and then you don’t — the period between that and accept­ing you’re not going to fall asleep is the worst time.

Spivey: Is Inland Empire by David Lynch sim­ilar to how you dream?

But­ler: Inland Empire is what it feels like to be awake. I have really viol­ent and fucked up dreams. But when I’m awake, when I haven’t slept, that’s when it kind of feels like Inland Empire. It even crosses the line [between awake and dream­ing], because when you’re in that area you’ll fall asleep and have two hours of really dead sleep that kind of blurs into not being asleep. That’s why I love that movie. There’s never really been another that’s caught those weird blank spaces so well. So it felt like a lot of reg­u­lar days, even though it’s such a fuck­ing weird movie. Watch­ing it, I felt like I’d walked out of my house and done that, or at least exper­i­enced what that felt like, which is a strange thing to think. I don’t know, a lot of people didn’t con­nect to it at all — even people who love Lynch — but that one had it all for me.

Spivey: Is EVER auto­bi­o­graph­ical at all?

But­ler: One of my really good friends — my first friend, besides lit­er­ary ones, that bought the book and read it — said, “This is your life. I see so much of your life in this and you’re just try­ing to hide it”. Which I can see. I think it always comes into your writ­ing without you con­trolling it at all. I try not to think about it that way. I’m never think­ing: I’m going to write a veiled ver­sion of when daddy beat me too hard that one time, but you’re a fil­ter for what’s com­ing through your head, so you kind of have to, whether you meant to or not. Things are going to come out that are you. Dur­ing the time that I wrote EVER I was basic­ally liv­ing with my par­ents and my stuff was in boxes from the tor­nado. I was kind of dis­placed. So I guess that period of not really hav­ing any­thing that I was used to liv­ing with around me had a lot to do with it.

Spivey: I know you have a secret word, a com­fort word, that you keep to your­self, but is that word in EVER?

But­ler: No. I’ve never writ­ten it down. But I often talk in gib­ber­ish to myself. So even though there’s a lot of gib­ber­ish in the book, and even though it’s not neces­sar­ily stuff I say to myself on a reg­u­lar basis, I think that gib­ber­ish is import­ant to me, but I really can’t say why. And ‘com­fort word’ — it’s inter­est­ing you call­ing it that. It is a stress reliever. Maybe it’s like speak­ing in tongues, without mak­ing it a reli­gious con­text; maybe it’s just a release. I don’t even know where it star­ted, but I really wish I could stop say­ing it. I try really hard, but it’s got­ten more com­plex. Things get added to it, and at this point the word kind of has an evol­u­tion. it star­ted off just as this gib­ber­ish word, but I append it in all these ways: I don’t know if I should ever tell any­one what they are. Instead of being able to con­trol it, it just keeps get­ting more con­vo­luted. But then I can’t stop doing it in the con­vo­luted way either. I don’t really know what it means. Or what that means, or why it’s a thing except a habit.

Spivey: It’s a habit you control?

But­ler: It’s a habit I con­trol, but it’s a weird double. I know that I’m say­ing it when I say it, but I also con­tinue to say it without want­ing to. It’s like an uncon­sciously con­scious choice or something.

Spivey: Lynch has said that he is a fan of the absurd. Would you con­sider your­self a fan of the absurd?

But­ler: Yeah, def­in­itely. I think that his absurdity is absurd in a way that doesn’t really com­pare to Monty Python absurd; it’s scary absurd. And I think I like the scary, the ter­rible. Or one word that describes it: the sub­lime. It’s scary but pleas­ing at the same time. All of my favor­ite art has that double effect; it’s funny, but it also takes you back in a way that you can’t really say why. Since I respond to that most, that’s mostly what I want to cre­ate. I think things have to have a sense of humor at the same time that they’re ser­i­ous. If you take away from either side, you kind of … I don’t like the word ‘earned’ because people love to say in writ­ing “you need to earn this moment,” which I think is fuck­ing bull­shit; it either works or it doesn’t, you don’t have to earn shit. But with this, there’s a cer­tain level of it either works or it doesn’t, and in that con­text of the sub­lime, it’s either that the thing is sup­posed to exist or it’s not.

Spivey: Is writ­ing a selfish act or purely for self-fulfillment?

But­ler: I don’t know. I was actu­ally talk­ing with someone about this recently. Someone was ask­ing if you’re sup­posed to have a cer­tain reason for what you make, and I think it’s just kind of a viol­ent thing for me. It’s an out­let to a point. It’s selfish, but a lot of the times I don’t even feel like I’m writ­ing what I write. The things that I’ve felt most proud of, that I felt did the most or the most well honed would be bet­ter than proud of; the best objects I’ve made I either a) don’t remem­ber even doing, or b) had very little influ­ence on when I was mak­ing them.

Spivey: By influ­ence you mean some­thing outside?

But­ler: When I’m typ­ing I get into this mode where I’m not even think­ing about the words and I’m more think­ing about the rhythm or the sound of it over the mean­ing. And the mean­ing is derived from those things. In that way, when the story ends up hav­ing impact it seems sec­ond­ary to the way it was cre­ated. I don’t even think I wrote it. Some­times I’ll go back and read some­thing I wrote and be sur­prised at what it says, because I don’t remem­ber say­ing that. I can glean what it means from read­ing the con­text, but it’s like I couldn’t have thought that while I was mak­ing it. That hap­pens a lot with Beck­ett; a lot of the things that are more based on sen­tences and sound are just chan­nel­ing. Which can go too far. Some­times Beck­ett can be bor­ing, and deriv­at­ives of Beck­ett can be really bor­ing. When it’s just all sound. But I think that learn­ing to con­trol that mode without … another dual­ity, con­trol it without con­trolling it. Have it have some rel­ev­ance to a reader, and to your­self; con­trol it within that, but really let it come out of you without know­ing why.

Spivey: Sounds like a hard place to be.

But­ler: You just have to get in the mode. It’s more of being a con­duit, like con­nect­ing or con­nectiv­ity, rather than learn­ing the rules of writ­ing. Some­times I’ll feel like I just get in the zone and I can just keep going for a long time without even know­ing what I’m talk­ing about until I’m done. And then in revi­sion a lot of that will get fixed, because no one is per­fect as a medium — maybe people have been, but revi­sion helps that out a lot.

Spivey: When I write I want to get to where all I’m doing is revi­sion. That’s where I want to be. Do you like that first ini­tial draft? Is revi­sion a pain, or do you like the revision?

But­ler: I guess when I was doing my MFA, one of the big things was all my pro­fess­ors said, “Bust out that first draft,” and then you can revise it to death. That works, that’s a great model, but recently I think I’ve been more in the idea of get­ting it right the first time. Which isn’t going to hap­pen across the board. No mat­ter how hard you try to get it right the first time, it’s still going to get bet­ter in revi­sion. But the more atten­tion you pay to each sen­tence while you’re mak­ing it the first time … I’ve writ­ten things that were long and that I went through pay­ing atten­tion on that level and then didn’t even feel like I had to revise. Again, that’s a place that can be hard to reach and it cer­tainly won’t hap­pen all the time, but I think most of the best things I’ve writ­ten took me the least amount of time.

Spivey: How long did it take you to write EVER?

But­ler: I didn’t even mean to write EVER as a book. I was writ­ing stor­ies when I wrote it that I thought were going to con­nect even­tu­ally, but I didn’t really know when. There were four big sec­tions that I wrote pretty much straight through. I guess the whole book took about a month or a month and a half to write, but there wasn’t a lot of revi­sion besides really tacky things, like little minor details: the sen­tences I wrote on the first draft, prob­ably. Besides me being obsess­ive about the sen­tences, a lot of people wouldn’t have found errors in them. Even since then I’ve got­ten more into the idea of get­ting it right the first time. I think there’s a big ques­tion in writ­ing where people think it should take you a really long time, and it should be this labor of love and take you five years to write. Well, how many books took a week to write? Sure there can be flaws in that book, but I also think cap­tur­ing a cer­tain time in your mind, and get­ting it out in a cer­tain period has as much value as labor­ing over it, as long as it’s worth­while in the end to the reader or as an object.

Spivey: It seems like there’s a trend where writers are cre­at­ing nov­els in short sec­tions, and com­plet­ing novella or novel length works in just a couple of sittings.

But­ler: Last year I wrote a book in about ten days. It’s still the best thing I’ve writ­ten, I think.

Spivey: What is it?

But­ler: Right now it’s called ‘Where Am I Where Have I Been and Where Are You’. It’s not pub­lished; it’s being looked at in a couple of places, but I haven’t really pur­sued it that much. I didn’t really revise that much either. I wrote it in about fif­teen hours a day for ten days straight and then I was done. Jesse Ball was a big inspir­a­tion for that, after I read his first book Samedi the Deaf­ness, and read about how he’d writ­ten it so fast. The way he did it got me inter­ested in writ­ing things more quickly. I think that that’s some­thing — espe­cially with the pop­ular­ity of short books and books in short sec­tions — writ­ing books in short sec­tions allows you to go quicker and it’s more asso­ci­at­ive over the way books were built. Even when I’m writ­ing some­thing longer that’s not in short sec­tions, I con­tinu­ally get up and go away from the com­puter every five or ten minutes. Or I look at a web­site, check my e-mail or write an e-mail. I think that writ­ing in short peri­ods like that allows your brain to keep refresh­ing. As much as I like to some­times write in long sit­tings, I think there’s a real value to let­ting your­self take a breath every few minutes — as soon as you feel like you don’t know what to do next. You’ll write in a cer­tain mode for a minute and then you’ll hit that point where you think, “OK now what am I going to do?” If you get up and walk around, go for a run, or go in the other room and eat some nachos, or fuck­ing look at Gmail and talk to someone on there for two minutes; then when you come back and look at it again, it’s almost without hav­ing to think about it. The next idea con­nects itself. I don’t know what other people’s pro­cesses are, but I don’t think I could do it another way at this point.

Spivey: Is that a nor­mal day of writ­ing for you? Is fif­teen hours a day a nor­mal sitting?

But­ler: No, I was def­in­itely in a zone I hope hap­pens again, but that was rare. But I do spend a lot of time writ­ing. Basic­ally, on days that I write, which is most days, I sit down in front of the com­puter some­time between 11am and 12 and I don’t get up — well, I get up every ten or fif­teen minutes, or at least break my atten­tion every ten or fif­teen minutes — until prob­ably 6 or 7pm. So that’s eight hours a day, prob­ably five or six days a week. You’ve got to spend a lot of time sit­ting, even if you’re not doing that minute to minute sen­tence writ­ing you’re still … your brain and your uncon­scious is still act­ive. And I think the uncon­scious is, like I said for me, when I don’t know exactly what I’m writ­ing and I’m let­ting sound oper­ate. When you’re writ­ing and the mys­tery is find­ing out what’s going to hap­pen, hav­ing those peri­ods where your brain con­tin­ues to go without you act­ively work­ing on it — that’s the cake.

Spivey: So even when you’re not writ­ing, you’re writing?

But­ler: Essen­tially, yeah. Which leads it into a mat­ter of being a zom­bie the rest of the time. Some­times my girl­friend will say that I don’t seem like I’m there, or I don’t talk that much. I have to make a con­scious effort to get out of that space. When I’m not in front of the com­puter I usu­ally go run­ning, which I think is a great kind of refresher and is very con­nec­ted to the same pro­cess. Run­ning, for me, has always been a really great way to give my brain that dis­con­nect for a second, so that it comes back refreshed. Read­ing does the same thing. But writ­ing is always in the back­ground, espe­cially if you’re work­ing on some­thing exten­ded and you’re in the middle of it; I don’t think you ever stop think­ing about it on some level.

Spivey: This is prob­ably an unfair ques­tion, but what single work has influ­enced you the most? If such a thing exists.

But­ler: Well, the book that made me want to be a writer was Infin­ite Jest by David Foster Wal­lace. I used to read a lot as a child — a lot of Dragon Lance, Dun­geons & Dragons and fantasy books. Then I guess when I was six­teen I read all of the Beat stuff, and I was really into that. After that I stopped read­ing because I didn’t know what else to read, and I didn’t really have any con­nec­tion to the kind of stuff I read now. I think a lot of that is because high schools don’t have any idea how to teach teen­agers to want to read; they either just assign you shitty nov­els or teach them to you in a shitty way. So I quit read­ing, besides sporad­ic­ally. I don’t know where I then found out about Infin­ite Jest, but I asked for the book for Christ­mas when I was a fresh­man in col­lege, and as soon as I read it I just said, “Holy shit, this is what a book can actu­ally do”. I’d never read any­thing like it. I think that even if I read it now, it would have the same effect on me hav­ing read as much as I’ve read in between. It has the sub­lime; it has the sen­tences; it has everything in it. Even though I don’t really write like Wal­lace at all. I don’t think any­one can do what he did. As an inspir­a­tion and sub­ject mat­ter type thing, I also really like David Mark­son. I really like the way he phrases things and I like his sen­tences: the way he makes them not only sound and rhythm, but also say­ing things that can mean more than one thing, which I think is import­ant. He writes sen­tences that sound good, but they’re also more than they seem on the sur­face. I think that also goes back to the whole Lynch thing: the sub­lime, all of that stuff. It’s one thing on its face, but it leaves a lot of open doors; it leaves more doors open than it con­nects. As far as people who are alive and work­ing and con­tinu­ally put­ting stuff out, Brian Even­son is the one that I feel is prob­ably my biggest influ­ence. He gets the whole bag of sheer ter­ror and funny and cold, but put with feel­ing at the same time. All the dual­it­ies are in all of his stuff. Any­time I read one of his pieces, it’s like I end up feel­ing changed, even though it doesn’t have that human change in it that so many people want out of their books. I’ve never really under­stood that: they want the story to change within itself and come to a real­iz­a­tion. But Even­son does these things that make me feel like I’ve exper­i­enced some­thing. That’s the kind of stuff I’m most inter­ested in read­ing and writ­ing. I’m read­ing Evenson’s new book, Fugue State, right now, and I think it’s going to bring him a whole new level of atten­tion because the stor­ies in that thing are fuck­ing insane.

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