Monday, November 17, 2008

Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens Interview Series: Blake Butler

Blake Butler wrote a story called We Witnessed the Advent of a New Apocalypse During an Episode of Friends. It is an awesome story. I published it in Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens #8. Here is an interview that Bust's associate editor, Jason Moore, conducted with Blake:

Jason Moore: Let's get started with something that immediately struck me about your work. I'm talking about your use of poetic devices, poetic language in your fiction. How does your reading and writing of poetry inform your fiction?

Blake Butler: I began with writing by writing 'poems'. Some common freakshow over the Beats, in particular, Allen Ginsberg, who slammed me against the wall. I read his collected poems back to back several times when I was fat, and I got fatter before I got thin. I wrote a lot of shit through high school and into college, trying to get a computer science degree. I was, and still am mostly, an awful poet, when I think about writing a 'poem as a poem.' Though I think, with writing, because it all comes down to the word, to the arrangement of words, you have to be in a semi-'poetic' mode to say anything at all. Most of the time when I read narrative fiction now that is more about the 'story' or the developing of the character or the ideas inside it than it is about the way those perspectives are phrased, how each word rams into the other one by one to build sentences, if it does not feel syllabicaly deliberate, I can't continue. I think at best, whatever you are writing, there is a balance there of language and content that when strung & struck together in some unnamed balance, is where the shit is. 'The shit.' Often people spend too much time thinking I think about 'what it is' they are writing, rather than just letting words come out. Recent people who have rung my bell as master balance are Eugene Marten, Ken Sparling, Stanley Crawford, and most every day, William Gass.

JM: Right, William Gass. I love him. He said something about how too much contemporary fiction lacks a performance and auditory sense. He said he tries to write for the ear. Something to be heard. I see the same thing in your fiction. From editing/reading you I notice some times you will bypass the clear word or phrase to achieve a musicality. Do you agree with Gass? Do you think fiction should be written "by the mouth for the ear"?

BB: I think I write 60% out of just rhythm. Though for me, it's more a mouth in my head than in an out loud mouth, because when I talk I mumble, and even more often I just would rather think. Too, people are reading inside their head, and so I write mainly I think from some kind of tremor that is up there. I will leave or insert words that have no meaning that I could want to explain because of the way they come off when I hum them. Then, if I want to be a son of a fuck, I could go look again and affix a meaning or reason why those words are there, 'what they are saying,' though really, that doesn't matter to me as much, because there is always something there. I believe in saying something without knowing you are saying it, because anything I've ever felt I've really said were things I did not think about and had no idea why I was saying them. When I think about what I am saying, I usually say really stupid or obvious shit. My girlfriend makes fun of me for it. 'Oh that would be awesome.' I say. Or 'That sounds good.' I don't think it’s an accident when you don't know what you are saying. It is combination on a level that does not require even intuition.

In the book I read last night, Ken Sparling's DAD SAYS HE SAW YOU AT THE MALL, which is amazing, there is a line: "If you think you can say a word, tell a person a single word, without telling the person everything you know, you are wrong."


JM: Yeah, I have that same problem of saying obvious shit or completely boring things like "definitely" or "sounds cool." You can have all these complex thoughts but in certain situations they stay locked inside. I mumble a lot too. Maybe it has to do with that. Or maybe we are thinking too much about what we are saying.

But I want to get your opinion on something I once heard Jonathan Franzen say. He said experimental fiction limits literature's potential for mass readership and sends a negative message that "good" fiction is difficult to read. Being someone who likes to experiment with words and ideas, what are you thoughts on this?

BB: I don't care. Jonathan Franzen has never written a single word that said anything to me. So why does he need a big audience? What is essential about what he is saying that it should be spread into so many people? He's competing with the sitcom. I would rather say more to less people. I would rather say things to myself.

Most of the time when I write I am writing to no one. To nothing. I don't mean that as a misnomer, or as some sort of qualifier for why one thing is better than another. I would rather be saying something that no one can claim to understand than something that housewives can get cajoled into buying. The funny thing to me about the Oprah vs Franzen snafu was that he was right where he should have been. He just got coy. I would like to make Oprah throw up into a bucket. I would like to impregnate Oprah with paper and then induce the abortion.

At the same time, though, I don't think writing intentionally for shock or in babble or to 'be experimental' has much value either. Again, there's some kind of line there, like in the mash between narrative and language, in which you can completely disrupt people's heads while giving them something to suck on.

People talk too much about what things are supposed to be instead of making them into what they are, I think. Usually when I start bitching about something eventually I think I think I wish I had just shut my mouth and put my words into something else.

Good fiction doesn't have to be difficult to read, but if I understand everything you are saying, if my head doesn't get opened up, I might as well be renting DVDs or asleep.

JM: I was checking out something you've been working on for a while, 2500, a series of stories written in lists. I saw something like that in some Donald Bartheleme pieces. What drew you to that technique?

BB: I started writing the lists as something to distract myself from a bullshit job I had at the time. I came in one morning and my supervisor said 'Good morning' to me and I wanted to throw up on his desk but instead I went to my desk and started writing the first thing that came out of my head. In an office, waking first thing, the lists just came out naturally, and gave me an ordered system to write in fragments while I was doing other things for the job. I had read Barthelme's 'The Glass Mountain' before that but it wasn't on my mind at all: it was pure function. I wrote them in my Gmail browser so I could hide what I was doing.

But in general, I just love lists. I tend to think of everything I write in list fashion to some extent. It probably comes from having first wanted to try to make things after reading Ginsberg, who is a list master.

I finally just finished the 50th list in the series yesterday. I have some more to do fix-wise before I'm done with the fucker, but I am glad to have an end in sight. 50 lists turns out to be a lot.

JM: So what is your revision process like?

BB: I guess it depends on what I am working on, but probably not. I tend to revise a lot while I am writing directly, in that, at least, I am careful with how I phrase things as they come out. I like to make a good sentence the first time, and spend time on it, which is different than what a lot of the advice I got in writing school was. They say, "The first draft doesn't matter, just get it out." Which can work, but I think then you are setting yourself up for a fuckton of work and probably a lot of shit to wade through. I'd rather do it well the first time, and I think in the vomit-write method you end up with a lot of stuff that masks what you are really trying to do. So, even though I often end up writing really fast, I usually have at least a decent manuscript when I am finished.

After that, I read through the manuscript over and over, adding or deleting, until I feel like I can read through it without wanting changes. Of course, the longer you wait between drafts, the more you tend to see, but at least with what I've been doing lately everything is of such a specific mind that I like to try to get it finished in the same stretch. That's another revision rule I'm not crazy about, "Write something, set it aside, then come back and see what sticks." I think that method works with certain kinds of writing, but often I want something that comes out of who I am right then. I also tend to increase my word count through revision, as I find more holes and openings in ideas I left half-stranded on first pass. I like the idea of expansion, finding little tunnels into sentences, and worming them open, making more.

I read an interview with William Vollmann once where he talked about his idea of revision being that he takes a sentence, and packs more and more into it until it explodes the way a kernel of popcorn does, with all these other surfaces and edges to it, that weren't there in the original kernel. That always stuck with me.

JM: Insect imagery recurs throughout your work. Do insects have any special metaphorical significance for you? Do any particular themes or ideas fascinate you or run through your work?

BB: I hate insects. I don't think about insects in metaphor. I try not to think like that when I am writing. I've said 'crap' and 'crud' and 'dander' and 'foam' and other things of that nature quite a bit throughout the stories I've published in the last year, though I am trying now to move off of that. To force myself to use other terms. Though I like the idea of things recurring. I think everything I've ever written is connected in some way, even in a designed way to some extent. Though I try not to think about things like 'scope' or 'significance' or 'themes' when I am writing. Or ever really. Ever ever.

I am trying to stop writing about babies getting destroyed or eaten or ripped to bits but I seem to have trouble thematically disregarding that.

I like candy and bubbles too I think.

JM: I want to switch things up a bit and get into editing. You're editing a journal called Lamination Colony. How do you approach editing other people's work? What makes a good editor?

BB: With Lamination Colony, I mostly only accept things I don't have to edit for content. Meaning, I really only edit grammar and punctuation errors, etc. I don't think it is my job as editor to change what is said. In other words, I don't take a piece of writing if I am not willing to run it as it is submitted, line for line (though I guess in rare exceptions I have suggested very minor changes, or cuts that make it stronger). I'd say at least 9 out of 10 pieces though are left entirely unchanged. With other things I've edited I don't do this, but in the case of Lamination Colony, I think this is the way that works best. Too often things are edited down to remove their quirks or to smooth out things that don't need to be smoothed, usually in the case of clarity, but I like some lack of clarity here and there.

In certain circumstances, I've even left in grammatical errors that would throw the reader out of the text, because I like to throw a reader out of the text in some cases. For example, in Sam Pink's 'i clipped a random picture from an obituary ate ate it...', the last line is 'one of the first things you have to learn is how to ties your shoes.' Obviously that isn't proper english, but I like the way it comes off, and I like how it functions at the end of the piece, as a semantic ejection. Whether or not Sam did that on purpose, I don't know for sure, but I am going to believe he fully did, because I trust a text as it is on the page until I am given reason not to. I think it would much less funny without the 'ties.'

Editing is a funny business. In this particular journal's case, I say, 'Let the monsters live.'

JM: I agree, to an extent, about letting the monsters live. Too much clarity, especially in surreal or bizarre fiction, takes away a lot of the power. N.O Brown said that surrealism is a "systematic illumination of the hidden places and a progressive darkening of the rest." And of course most surreal poetry/fiction is full of so-called errors, and there isn't much in the way of clarity. Do you think clarity is overemphasized in contemporary fiction? Just look at all the how-to write books out there. They're mostly about achieving perfect clarity. It's kind of an obsession with them.

BB: I don't think it is clarity as a whole that is overemphasized necessarily. Clarity of text is important, though I think moreso in saying it the way it should be said rather than in clarity of meaning. There definitely is too much reliance on 'knowing what is being said' and 'what is human about this text, what is the experience of it.' People misinterpret the question of what is relatable to in a text for the way it creates parallels perhaps, but I think even obfuscation is human, probably more human that clear understanding.

I watched an Andy Warhol documentary the other night where he said something along the lines of how people criticize films because they are too irreal for life, but in those films the basis of an emotion is displayed in an actually jarring palpable way, a way you can feel, whereas most of real life, when things happen, it is flatline, it is deadpan, the moment comes and goes. If I wanted to experience a fiction that simulates those big emotions in definitively connective ways, I would watch a movie or TV.

I read mainly because I want to be pulled into something like what is there when I am asleep. And for the same reason I enjoy dreaming, I enjoy fiction that leaves itself unanswered, or an answer buried in it, not simply systematically embedded and orchestrated and answered in all ends, with a specific purpose, not fake tits.

JM: This morning I was reading something from James Hillman's Revisioning Psychology. He was saying that our dreams tend to produce the most distressing images--perversions and disgusting images, fantasies we tend to shy away from while awake. He said "the worst images are the best." Is this irruption of the unconscious similar to what you were alluding to when you said "I want to be pulled into something like what is there when I am asleep"?

BB: I think so. I like images that erupt more of what they are and their collision than something orchestrated by a human mind, with intent. That's not to say there is no authorial design in texts that leave things unanswered, but more that it is something the author was not necessarily fully of aware of during the creation. Writing, and by the same ticket, reading, should be a process of discovery for the author and the person experiencing the text, I think. You hear certain kinds of writers talk about how the act of writing and reading is a 'contract between the author and the reader, and when that contract is broken, all trust is lost.' That's an awful way to think about it, I think, and dangerous, and suffocating. In many ways I think the author is just a vehicle and the text is something altogether of itself, that it is the text creating the author and not the other way around.

Searching for a waking dream state is probably why I get out of bed at all.

And yet even the term 'dream state' gets used to ill ends, such as Gardner's concept of the narrative dream, in which if you ruin the contract, you have destroyed the story. So many of my dreams are so shocking and terror ridden in me distinctly because I am aware of what they are trying to do to me, and manner with which they construct walls that seem both made of parts of me I know and do not know. I guess that's where the collision of the creative state for me is: on some cusp. Because I only ever feel half awake in the first place. Because humans are meat.

JM: Gardner, to me, took a lot of the mystery, terror and soul from the term "dream". As if dreams come from some rational space in the mind where everything is known, easy-to-follow, well-lit. I don't know about you but my dreams aren't always "vivid" or "continuous." Have you had any interesting dreams you'd like to share?

BB: Exactly. 'Rational dreaming.' Jesus christ. I just got an ad in my email inbox from Narrative Magazine. How fitting.

As far as recent dreams, they haven't been as violent lately. Usually my dreams are fairly brutal and seem to last for many days. I think this comes out of my usual pattern of shitty sleep, which has gotten a lot better in the past month or so.

Here's a calmer dream I like from many years ago, from the dream journal I unfortunately no longer keep:

I'm in an evacuated shopping mall, walking along the rows of unlit stores with a baby who does not seem old enough to hold himself up, but who nevertheless is able to keep right in sync with my every stride. He saunters like an experienced cowboy.

Together we peer in through various store windows. Each one is filled three-quarters of the way full with a cloudy volume of water, and is weakly lit by florescent lighting that exudes from the back of store. If I concentrate hard enough I can make out the presence of figures that hover just above the floor in strange scuba gear. They hold stock-still and stare back at me with frozen disregard, as if they are trying to avoid being discovered by some presence.

Whenever we come to a pair of escalators, I stand and watch the baby ride up one, and then down the other. He grins with a mouthful of fully developed adult teeth and socks me in the gut every few minutes.

Here is one more typical of me:


Mike Young said...

good interview

buy the magazine!!

Mike Young said...

everybody reading i mean: buy the magazine

brad, for obvious reasons, doesn't need to buy the magazine

Jason Jordan said...

What if we've already purchased the magazine, Mike?