Apr/May 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Blake Butler

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Blake Butler is the author of EVER (Calamari Press 09) and Scorch Atlas (forthcoming Featherproof Books 09). His work has been published in Fence, Black Warrior Review, New York Tyrant, 52 Stories, and many more venues. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.


EG     Blake, I enjoyed reading EVER. The narrator's experiences in the room out of the room where ever she was felt familiar to me on an instinctual level or visceral level as momentary experiences or sequences from a dream or nightmare. Still my mind wanted to make literal sense of passages and create a traditional story line. I looked for sense making in passages like this:

[The door into the man's front hallway had a lock as large as my whole hand. The lock was darkly tarnished as if it'd smoldered in a fire. It had numbers scratched into it, shining slits cut in the smudge. The lock jostled in its turning—it would pop a little, kind of moan. If you touched it in the right condition, and applied a certain pressure, the house would open up.]

I thought hmm fantasy, magical realism. Then as I read on. Things were not literal anymore, I could not make any "real world" sense of them.

Is there a story line in EVER? What is the narrator trying to achieve? She was obviously going through something transforming. If there is no story line traditional or otherwise, explain the reasons for the way you wrote EVER and put it in context of a genre or style. Teach me something.

BB     Sure there is a story line in EVER. I believe there is a story line in all things, including gibberish. As a preteen I would spend hours (many evenings) with the reams of paper a dot matrix printer would spit out in error, covered in symbols and numbers and text. I fascinated myself with these items. Perhaps in this kind of projection I am alone—though the presence of other literary and visual and other artists currently making art now tells me I am not and yet, in the end, that doesn't really matter to me either.

I don't know what the narrator was "trying to achieve." The narrator, in what I know of her, does not know what she is trying to achieve. For me, the great pleasure of creation, in reading and otherwise, is in the search, not in the answer—and I believe that the search should extend beyond the pages of a book. The less I can know or physically consolidate about a text's intent is often how much more I find myself able to receive pleasure, and elucidation, from it.

At the same time, though, I believe it is, or at least can be, important to implant within the seeking a kind of intuitive sense that can only come from the kind of logic or progression that, as you mention, occurs in dream or nightmare. There is a certainly a brand of gibberish or anti-narrative that is capable of shaking off even someone like me, who relishes in unknowing, and so I think the trick, if one is interested in readers—which is by no means vital—or at least the kind of readers I am interested in having—when I can convince myself, after the fact of creation, to consider such—is to hope for in a text a certain mix of clarity in statement, line by line—i.e. I am not sure there are any lines in EVER that could not be explained trajectorially, as an English professor might ask their bored students to do, if need be—but also with a sense of constant unfolding and curve of expectation and perhaps magic, if you like.

I think there is a definitive story line in the book—the narrator begins in one place and goes from one to another in a fairly palpable trajectory I think, if laden with a lot of the narrator's own self-doubt, paranoia, disorientation, and confusion without the body of herself, which is a mind state I have witnessed certain specific human bodies go through. In a way, I guess, this is my attempt to figure my way into such a brain.

As for genre, style, tradition, I'm not certain, and not really very interested, to be honest. I call it a book.

EG     Can you verbalize what fascinated you as a preteen about the symbols, numbers, and text on the reams of printer paper, and in what ways did you make sense of the symbols, numbers and text?

BB     I'm not sure what I was looking for. I'm not sure I want to know what I was looking for. Maybe I was looking for something that was not there. Maybe I was looking for something that was there and would not be found. Maybe it was the process of looking that was exactly what I was finding. The point is: there isn't an answer. This is the difference between everyday and sitcoms—in sitcoms things happen in an orchestrated 'random' and then are explained away or laughed away or made understandable so that at the end the viewer can feel they have 'experienced' something 'full' or that there was something they could learn or take away from the whole thing. But that's not what the everyday is. The everyday is not an explicable package with a beginning, middle, and end. Even a person's life, with a full arc to it, a point where conscious palpable time begins and where it ends, is constructed, on a daily level, of moments that simply occur. I am not interested, as a writer or as a reader, in having simulacrums of supposed experience handed to me. I am not interested in having 'questions answered' or even necessarily questions asked. The minute that that child in me, looking through reams of blather digits for a code or puzzle or doorway actually finds the answer there embedded, well, fuck, what's the point of continuing thereafter? If I want a ham sandwich, I'll watch TV.

EG     I noticed on Calamari Press's site you have another book coming out. The form, the cover etc. looks old and I think this is intended. Do you consider yourself a book artist, a writer, a fine artist or none of these labels? I know you aren't interested in labels but bear with me. I am a person who likes to put things in context in a greater picture. I was also trained as a fine artist and so your whole process and concept intrigues me. Process is important in visual arts.

BB     I consider myself a guy with a lot of time who loves books and language and who spends all of my time (perhaps more than I should) in pursuit of the creation, both as a reader and a writer. I consider myself a guy who presses a lot of buttons in a particular order and bothers to send them to others to be read. The greater picture is: I think people are vessels or stimulus rods, and I am one of those.

That said, I love process. The more I can get into the incantative spirit and begin to feel that I am putting my finger in some kind of intergalactic light socket, or burial ground, or some other yadda spiel term, well, I guess that's why I get up in the morning.

EG     There was so much "messiness" in the narrator's world. Molds and fungus was everywhere. Why mold? Why Fungus?

BB     I'm not sure what makes me tend toward those words. That's what was coming out of my typing fingers during this time—and I'm not sure that it has stopped since. More likely, it's gotten much worse. One of the reasons I have historically not slept very well is that I can't seem most nights to keep my brain from thinking. A lot of the time, in rooms I have stayed in, I find myself caught up with who lived in my room before—what they did there, what they did while not there, what they said, thought, wanted, ate, who they talked to, why they talked to them, what they thought about doing but did not, what they would have done if they were me there, etc., etc. Most spaces, I think, are quite haunted, though mostly in a quiet way, that only will come into you if you allow it. I wish I did not allow it as much as I do. I like clean rooms. I like clean beds.

More in the context of the book, though, I think the narrator in this case is obsessed with what she has not found—what is there that she's allowing to go by unobserved. In cases of such obsession, one tends to fixate on the upcroppings of smaller presences that often go unseen. For instance, what is embedded on surfaces that we cannot see, what is welling up, what is continuing to haunt in our unawares, so on. Leave someone alone with their mind and body long enough and even the most benign surfaces might get loaded, I don't know.

Add to all that the constantly destructing state of air we live in, and the maximally rendered condition of it particularly in the narrator's description of the interior environment of EVER, and, well, the grime grows exponential.

EG     "Leave someone alone with their mind and body long enough and even the most benign surfaces might get loaded, I don't know."

I understand what you are saying. I am not sure most people are aware of their environment. I think people often repress awareness. That is why there are therapists and an interest in Buddhist Mindfulness meditation. What's your background, education etc?

BB     I am the son of a high school art teacher and a self-made entrepreneur. I learned my love for books from my mother not forcing them on me, but presenting them in mystery—she would bring home a bag of books she had bought and I was allowed to take one from the bag at a time, without seeing what was inside, and when I finished it I would be allowed to take another. The exhilaration of that, of sticking my hand into a portal I could not see in, caught me on fire and I read voraciously from that early age on. I think that the reading and the daily practice of writing over many years, as well as the influence of my parents being who they are, have been my greatest education.

As for scholastic junk, I got my BS from Georgia Tech and MFA from Bennington, where I studied with Amy Hempel, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Martha Cooley, and Virgil Suarez.

I would love to learn to meditate but I have too much inner noise, I think, and can't sit still for very long.

EG     You seem to live in the present moment when it comes to interacting with an environment. Have you written about awareness of other environments beside your room.

BB     I have found I am only most "on point" with my writing when I write in a very specific room, which is the room I grew up in. My parent live close to where I live so I often go there during the day when I can to write, and this is always where I get the most done. As a result, that monospace, it probably keeps a certain mode at least to some extent, alive in me.

My second book Scorch Atlas, which will be out this September from Featherproof Books, covers a much wider range of locales, though still very often finds itself obsessed with rooms and houses and walls and light. It is also very dirty. I like blood and mud.

EG     What comes to mind when you say you are obsessed with rooms, houses, walls and light are the settings or landscapes of traditional painters like Hopper or Monet. They painted different kinds of lights in different settings. I will think of you as a writer (you know I like to categorize) who is interested in light, in houses and other structures and blood and mud. Maybe you could have been a surgeon with this affinity for blood or a hematologist. Blood appears in lots of war, crime, and mystery stories, in titles of stories like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I get rooms in your story but not blood. Care to say anything?

BB     I am happy with the categorization in your mind in relation to light, houses, structures, blood, and mud. I feel strongly for all of those things and will probably continue writing about them for the rest of my life. I also like shit, babies, mold, layers, rash, titties, hair, teeth, junk, and crud.

If anyone asks me what genre I write in from now on I will hand them a piece of sandpaper with those words written in liquidated fibula.

EG     "Liquidated fibula." There you go again with those intriguing phrases.
What about light? The narrator was obsessed with light.

BB     Light both reveals and develops mold. If you are one who is searching, you might convince yourself you need more and more light to find it—though other moods or modes might suggest there is a truer, or at least different, way of finding things hid in the dark.

This narrator both knows and does not know. This narrator both wants and does not want. It's, like, one of those things, and stuff.

EG     "This narrator both wants and does not want." This is the way many of us feel. Feelings are not always rational or static. No matter how we try to mold them. No pun intended.

BB     Most days I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing, including now.

EG     That can be a good thing for a creative person, don't you think?

BB     For me it's the only way.

EG     I read many passages out loud for the poetic sound of words or phrases.

I'd sat so long in the slather.

[The next room was made of wobble. Magnetic tape streaming from the rafters, bifurcating blonde split ends. Cashed.]

I'd gone past numb and into neon.
The next room was made of wobble.

[ The walls, ceiling, bookcase, closet, clothing—all had also grown a little rind. It lined my lungs with each inhaling. I heard the insects nuzzled in, around.]

Did you consciously use words in unusual phrasing?

BB     I didn't consciously say things usually to be saying them unusually. This was the voice of the book as it was presented to me, as I came into it. When I am writing a sentence, it is a matter of connecting one word to another, utilizing rhythm, utilizing sound. When I am coming to a sentence I am often less interested in what it palpably means during the writing, and more how it sounds and feels inside the mouth inside my mouth. The meaning both constructs itself and comes preconstructed. When I get 'in the zone' (to use a less unusually phrased phrase), I find that the more I trust the voice inside me, wherever it comes from, and the less I try to interrupt it in the minute, the more successful I am with saying something that to me is interesting or new.

The whole process of editing, for me, is a manner of trying to get back into that original impulse, find where my dumb fingers and my dumb mouth have interrupted that pure signal, and fixing it, tricking it even, into being what it was meant to be from the very beginning.

I am trying to get better at saying it right the first time, every time, though I wonder if there was anyone who ever could, even Joyce or Beckett.

EG     What fascinates me about EVER is "that original impulse." I felt connected to the narrator's experiences, not the whole of it but small bits. Do you recall a line from Joyce or Beckett that you feel connected to that felt like an "original impulse?"

BB     This line from Beckett's Malone Dies is one of two epigrams to Scorch Atlas, and maybe one of my favorite sentences and images and ideas in all of words:

Caught by the rain far from shelter Macmann stopped and lay down, saying, The surface thus pressed against the ground will remain dry, whereas standing I would get uniformly wet all over, as if rain were a mere matter of drops per hour, like electricity.

EG     Please explain the use of brackets around passages.

BB     The original text wasn't written with the brackets. When I wrote the book I used a cribbed numbering system, line-by-line, very similar to the one used in Wittgenstein's Tractatus. I wrote the book like that initially because the way the words were coming out, and in the order they were coming out, felt like a puzzle to me, and I felt the more I could have control over them, as with list making, the more successful I might be in unlocking what was trying to be said. The numbering system helped me a lot to get the unusual flow of the voice in the book, and to construct the (ha ha) narrative arc in that way that seemed most logical to the mind state the book came from, in fitting the map together (though, as said above, the map is still quite submerged in and of its own making).

That said, once I was finished with the construction, the numbering system seemed unnecessary, though there still needed to be a way to help "pilot" the reader through the already very chaotic landscape of the text. I talked a lot with Derek White (the book's publisher) about how to devise a guiding system, more visual or intuitive than the numbers that would ultimately be more serving of the interior of the book.

The brackets, then, were his idea, each laid in place around the lines where the numbers came and went. The second he sent me the original mock up with the brackets in place, I knew he had nailed it, and that had to be the way. The brackets, I think, add so much to the way the book functions as a series of rooms and interior spaces, compartmentalized both in and around the narrator's mind and body.

I very much consider Derek a vital collaborator and brother to the colony of the book—not only for the brackets, but for his amazing artwork spread through out, without which the book would not be the book. There could not have been any other publisher for EVER. This is what it is.

EG     "The brackets, I think, add so much to the way the book functions as a series of rooms and interior spaces, compartmentalized both in and around the narrator's mind and body."

Yes, I see this. I did have a kinesthetic feeling that I was walking in and out of space when I read the book.

BB     I am glad that it translated in that way—I think without it the book would have gotten lost in its own skin sac and eaten its paper black, though a book full of black paper sounds fun.

EG     Have readers had many different reactions to EVER?

BB     So far it's been a very nice reception—though I think the book confuses people who don't read a lot of contemporary fiction. The old man at my work with the British accent who likes to talk about classics told me he'd give anyone who could get through it a dollar. Other family members have kind of looked at me strangely when peeking in the pages. Otherwise, though, in the audience that has come forth thus far online I have been really flattered and thankful for the kind words people have said about it. I feel happy just to be able to have a book with my name on it in the world. That is a nice feeling.

EG     May it happen many times for you. Do you think EVER is better read aloud or silently?

BB     That's an interesting question, and one I'm not sure how to answer. When I've read the book aloud it's felt so much different than the way it reads in my head, which I actually like a lot. It was composed entirely via inner head rhythms and never read aloud until late in the editing process, so I think ultimately its home is inside the body. At the same time, the book is in many ways about the passage of impalpable things to and from the flesh to air, so when I hear it read aloud, even coming out of just me by myself in a room, it makes my blood go blur a little. That I like.

EG     What are you working on next?

BB     I am as usual doing about eight things at once, as I tend to be slightly language-schizo and more than slightly obsessive. The main thing I've been working on for at least the last three to four months is a so-far very long novel I am currently calling Decade, which spans 11 years (one year occurs twice) and makes me feel insane when I scroll through it—it uses a lot of strange forms and building in and on itself as it goes along.

Besides that I also have a couple of other novels I finished last year, that I still tinker with in revision as I have been passing them around, as well as another book length manuscript that I am gearing myself up for an extensive edit of; a book of 50 nonfiction essay-poem lists of 50 items that I recently completed after several years of noodling; a book of poems channeled from the famous death row inmate Bobby Beausoleil; and a collaborative book written with the amazing Sean Kilpatrick that we hope to have banned in America before it ever sees the light of day. It is filth.

One day maybe I'll calm down. I hope not.

EG     May you achieve your dream of being banned in America. Is Bobby Beausoleil a real person?

BB     Bobby Beausoleil is indeed real, and still in prison, writing songs. Look him up.

EG     I hope you don't calm down as a writer.EVER made me think about the process and product of writing and creating books. Using words and images on paper holds endless possibilities. Please leave us with an excerpt from EVER you feel is quintessential Blake Butler.

BB     Okay, here goes:

Meanwhile, in the outside, during certain weeks the air would fold. The light comprising certain sections of certain rooms would burst or bubble. Strings of night might gleam of glass. The dirt would swim with foam. Sometimes there'd be forewarning—a small eruption, more luminescence, an ache or hum of heat in rising steam—though you couldn't recognize the warping till you'd lost a hand or head. I mean the sky could lift your skin off. The air would shift like some fucked puzzle. Whole bird flocks might be witnessed flying, say, into the ridge over the field of refuse stacked sky-high behind my house, and then those birds would disappear or become fire or melt away to sludge.


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