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Interview: Blake Butler

In Interviews on October 7, 2009 at 12:00 pm

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.

Ben Spivey is a writer living in Atlanta. His stories have appeared in Corduroy Mtn., > kill author and Unscroll, among others. He’s an editor for Warm Milk Press.