The Rumpus Interview with Blake Butler

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Blake Butler is the author of There Is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011), Scorch Atlas (Featherproof Books, 2010), and Ever (Calamari Press, 2009). He is the editor of HTMLGIANT, Lamination Colony, and No Colony. His writing has appeared widely online and in print, including in The BelieverUnsaidFence, and the New York Tyrant, and has been shortlisted in The Best American Nonrequired Reading. He blogs at gillesdeleuzecommittedsuicideandsowilldrphil.com and lives in Atlanta.

Blake intrigues me, in part because we’re so different but also because we have something significant in common—we love writing and talking about books and writing. Blake writes fascinating, dense essays that he randomly drops on us over at HTMLGIANT. Other times, he’s posting rap videos or a list of things he hates about writers or he’s posting long, conversational interviews with interesting writers. I often wonder what it’s like in Blake Butler’s mind because his thinking is always so wild but elegant and smart.

I cannot say I know Blake Butler but the respect is there, and I do know this—he is passionate about writing and words and making art in a way that few people are. That passion, at times, seems all-consuming. I think that’s why so many people are interested in this idea of Blake Butler, why he has cultivated such a dedicated following. Not only a talented writer, he’s also a man who feels words so hard he will, as he did recently, read an entire novella (Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence) for five hours, to an anonymous Internet audience, simply because the text demands to be read. That’s the kind of writer Blake is too, someone whose work demands to be read. His novel, There Is No Year, was recently released by Harper Perennial, and we talked about his massive book, the text’s creation, what his days look like, and a whole lot more.

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The Rumpus: Jackson Pollock once said, “Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was,” and Pollock also said, “My paintings do not have a center, but depend on the same amount of interest throughout.” I kept thinking about these two quotations, Pollock’s work, and your work as I read There Is No Year. When we think of novels, we generally think about a clearly defined story, something with a beginning, middle, and end, and those expectations are not met in your work. (That’s a good thing.) The writing feels confrontational and without a beginning or end. The writing demands a high level of interest throughout. Were these choices to create a demanding book intentional? Do you like to challenge your reader and what is the value in that approach of pushing the reader to engage more with your ideas?

Blake Butler: I don’t think it was intentional any more than waking up and getting dressed and eating something later is intentional. It didn’t just happen, but it also wasn’t really a choice. It was just a place where I am and am going, because the body wants something basic inside it and the means of getting that basic need become a mixture of routine and manifested trouble inherent in any routine. The reader doesn’t really have anything to do with it. Their time is theirs. I don’t think of it as ideas, I think of it as maps and color.

Rumpus: With There is No Year there was so much going on not only with the writing but also with the visual presentation of the words. The book is literally massive in every way. I was so surprised by the heft of it. As I read, I never knew what to expect from one page to the next whether it was the presentation of an image or a footnoted section or narrow columns of text or different page colors. How much input did you have into the book’s design and visual presentation? Is the design a significant part of how There Is No Year should be read?

Butler: The mechanical aspects such as the footnotes and margins and alignment shifts came out as part of writing the words. The words wouldn’t have come out that way if it hadn’t been inside the structure first. A lot of people have mentioned House of Leaves as a clear influence for this book, but really it wasn’t at all: the architecture is based on time and spheres more than it is a journey or some kind of plaything. It is skin.

The photographs were done by Justin Dodd of Harper. I told him I wanted some textual frames more than concrete elements, which could then serve as eyelids or places of breathing rather than a direct emblem. He generated a bunch and their placement was generated out of gut reactions mostly. The strobing effect of the darker pages vs. lighter pages was an idea my editor, Cal, had, and at first I was unsure, but as I toyed with mapping where the high and low points of light on the paper must hit, it kind of unveiled another machine inside the logic of the book’s structure, which again works to me not as a spatial element or whatever, but another buried brain intersecting with the other brains mushed in the book.

Overall, it was a process of both logic and intuition, blood and bone.

Rumpus: Is it possible for the reading experience of There Is No Year to be approximated in the e-book format? How do we preserve the kind of reading experience for a book like yours in these new digital formats?

Butler: I don’t really think about digital books. I don’t care what they look like. I hope the e-book of this book is a jpg of my dad and a bunch of machine code. You can’t preserve a reading experience for a machine nor should you try. One day they’ll probably have some rad things you can do with a computer book specifically, but as for right now, I’d rather not read than read on those things.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of attention paid to physicality in your writing, the body as a constantly decaying thing, bones, teeth, blood, sweat, skin, scabs. I also noticed this… preoccupation, for lack of a better term, in Scorch Atlas. You seem kind of merciless when it comes to writing about the body. What’s that about?

Butler: I don’t know, really. I just keep talking about it. I guess it’s the only thing left that is always right there. I never felt my body and I were the same person, so instead of writing about emotional relationships or like human interaction I write about flesh and houses, and each of those as the other. Someone told me once it was a cry for help.

Rumpus: I’ve read a couple reviews of There Is No Year that frame the book as a statement of some kind on the stultifying perils of suburbia, and having grown up in the suburbs, I can certainly see how There Is No Year could be read as a response, of sorts, to the lesser aspects of the suburban experience—the preoccupation with homes that are too big for too few people, homes filled with too much crap, families disconnected from one another, spending more time engaged with digital interfaces than with the people we live with, obsessive and excessive lawn care rituals, long hours at mindless jobs to make the suburban experience possible. Are you a child of the suburbs? Were you making a statement about the complacencies of suburban life with this book? Do writers ever really make statements when they’re writing?

Butler: I think the book could have been just as easily set in a house made out of mud. All places are the same place to me. I guess it is a red herring of sorts that they seem suburban. That’s fine, though. I don’t mind feeling in my mind one way about a thing and having it seem another on the outside of it. My idea of what happens in the book I think is sheltered by itself; mainly because I don’t remember writing it, but I remember editing it. I feel more like an editor of the book than the writer, and therefore the structure I see in it seems alien when I start talking about it inside my head, of what I think is really there. I imagine that happens a lot: that the statement of the book is more this kind of other skin in the supposed creator than an idea or posture of what it should do to readers. At least that’s what I hope. Really I think every book is always misread if it’s any good.

Rumpus: You wrote the book in ten days, or at least the first draft of the book, and chronicled the experience on your blog. What was that experience like, immersing yourself so completely in the creation of a thing? Is that process one you will try again? (Aside: I would have enjoyed the title, “I Am the Only Black God.” I would buy that book. I’m thinking sequel, here.)

Butler: It felt great, mainly because I don’t really remember it. It’s probably the most immersed I’ve been in a thing, in the way that the time spent inside it no longer seems to exist. That’s what I write for, mainly, I’m afraid: to delete myself. Since the writing of this book I’ve only got more into the idea of writing in such immersion, trying to get out of the way and forget the surrounding air as much as possible. I’ve become pretty insular as a person in a lot of respects because of it, which has affected my life in other ways. Sometimes it is as if the nowhere I go into when I feel I’m writing my best is eating away at the non-nowhere that encloses it. It’s not a bad feeling, really. I just don’t know where it will lead or end me up in another five or ten years. As for sequels, there are at least two other novels I’ve written that I think connect to this book in oblique ways; whether they become seen or not is another thought entirely.

Rumpus: The reviews for There Is No Year have been pretty outstanding. Do you read reviews? Do you care what people think about your writing? Do you seek “fame and fortune”? What is greatness to you?

Butler: As much as I would like to not read them, I do. Some part of me certainly wants to be liked. Another certain part of me wants to talk shit at the part of me that wants that all day every hour. That part of me fuels more of the creation vibe that the other, I think. Most of my forward impulse comes out of some want for self destruction, which only partially fits me as a person because in most outward ways, around other people, I think I seem pretty chill and easygoing. The duality of both wanting to topple the idea of the novel and fuck shit up on a grand scale while also wanting to crawl into myself and never talk to anyone again creates a weird mesh that both drives me to work every day and to want to cut my hands off every day. Greatness is touching the void.

Rumpus: What was it like working with Cal Morgan on There Is No Year? How much did the book evolve from the original manuscript you submitted to the book that was actually published?

Butler: Cal is a brilliant, thorough, and immensely thoughtful editor and person. The amount of time and thought he puts into each thing he does is a product of a machinic urge for diagrammatic perfection, which I tend into. I think he read the novel four to five times or something before he took it on and then read it I can’t even be sure how many times thereafter, working not only to get a handle on it at first, but then to approach it as both a puzzle and a picture. He actually mapped the book out scene by scene and sent it to me with the major moves of each and questions therein: not challenges or demands, but a set of observations that I could then use as tools. I actually ended up adding about 10,000 words to the book that served to make it only weirder and more expansive, rather than tidying anything up. The way he drove me to find those areas and moments in the book that I could take even higher ultimately served to make the book in my mind twice as effective in its goals as it had been, and what could you ask for from an editor but that. He’s the man.

Rumpus: The publishing industry seems pretty nostalgic or melancholy right now for lots of things—physical books, big advances, editors who edit—as if the golden age of publishing has come and gone despite all kinds of evidence that exciting things are still happening where books and writing are concerned. Do you find the nostalgia/melancholy warranted?

Butler: Things definitely seem different now. It seems like the last generation of the Writer as Famous Quasi-Celeb is over, ending in my mind with the late 90s wave of folks like Moody, Wallace, Saunders, Homes, Moore, Antrim, etc. With so many smaller places doing so many things, the face of the book creation industry or whatever you want to call it is just totally different, more socialist almost, with occasional spikes of attempts to make those big monsters again, but it just doesn’t seem the same. There are things I miss about that faculty for sure: I miss having these huge titles that I wait months and months to get my hands on, which doesn’t seem to be true anymore even of the authors I love; there is so much that it’s almost a constant feeding, and how can that not be different. At the same time I love that there are literally hundreds of books a year that seem to be doing their own thing, springing up in smaller fields but effecting the terrain in patches. It’s like a skin rather than a head. I don’t know which I prefer or where it’s going and I don’t think anyone can stop it, so I just work.

Rumpus: You’ve been billed as an experimental writer but that term can mean so many different things and often seems to be applied to writers who confound readers, even though I don’t believe experimentation and confusion are at all the same thing. Do you consider yourself an experimental writer? How would you define experimental writing? What kinds of experimental works have inspired you?

Butler: I don’t really think about it. Compared to some, I’m fucking John Updike. To others I’m babble language shitting out of a blue orb. I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. All writing is experimental because it’s just you and the machine. I don’t know anyone who has successfully outlined the process for fucking the machine.

Rumpus: What’s next for you on the publishing horizon?

Butler: I have a book length work of nonfiction about sleep and insomnia and dementia and suicide and masturbation called Nothing coming out near the end of this year from Harper Perennial. After that I have a lot of other stuff up my sleeve and we’ll see what happens.

Rumpus: What’s the first story you ever wrote?

Butler: I think it was about a guy who fell asleep in an airport bathroom and got put into a meat shredder.

Rumpus: A lot of writers seem miserable. Do you enjoy writing?

Butler: I write almost every day from about an hour after I wake up until right before dinner. Whether or not that is evidence that I like it or am not miserable, I don’t want to think about it. I just go.

Rumpus: You’re often discussed as one of the writers who eagerly embraced the Internet early on, and you have certainly created quite a following for yourself via your efforts and your editorship of HTMLGIANT. How did HTMLGIANT come about? What do you envision as the future of HTMLGIANT?

Butler: Gene and I started the site after mutually agreeing that there was a lot going on with online lit mags and people blogging and stuff and no real center source to it. I was reading 20+ personal blogs a day from friends who are writers, plus checking many journals and other blogs and news feeds, either through RSS or from going to the site manually. We thought if we put some like-minded if diverse people in one place and talked about books we like, it would automatically start to gather traction over time if we stuck with it, and I’m always amazed by the regular feed the crew we have puts together almost without provocation ever. It makes me feel good mostly, even with the nonsense noise that comes through, which is all part of the internet in the first place.

The future of HTMLGiant I hope is to keep doing what it does, keep growing bit by bit when we have new ideas and stay real to the center. I feel like there will always be people who are interested in talking about things and a forum will always serve a purpose. I think we want to do a lot more and have plans to do a lot more as we can.

Rumpus: You certainly have a lot going on, which seems to be true of a lot of the writers who are billed as writers who embrace the Internet. In 2009, you started a small press with Shane Jones. Is Year of the Liquidator going to publish any more titles beyond Kristina Born’s One Hour of Television? What compelled you to start the press?

Butler: Kristina’s book originally compelling starting the press: I knew as soon as I read it that it needed to exist, and Shane and I had tossed around this idea of publishing some small run books before, so as soon as we had this beautiful thing, it just put itself together mostly. I learned a lot from doing it, mainly that a press is a huge responsibility, with a lot of behind the scenes work that most people don’t recognize, and that’s fine. Putting a work into the world that you really love is worth whatever else it takes, and I think it’s a great experience for anybody to see how everything goes.

As for more books, I know Shane and I both want to, though time constraints and other things have kind of attacked the time I used for the press. I imagine one day we’ll stumble onto something else that inspires the same birthfreak as Kristina’s book did. As for now it’s just a door waiting to be opened when the time is right.

Rumpus: What’s the last book you hated?

Butler: Hmm, that’s a tough one. I don’t usually finish book I hate. If something is driving me batshit I’ll usually put it down and get it out of my house; I don’t like to keep things that irked me around. But there’s so much I already know I want to read that I don’t have to have that happen often.

I will say that I wish The Pale King didn’t exist. I didn’t hate the book, it is gorgeous writing, and as a huge Wallace fan, I had to read it, and it is a thing of certain light considering the circumstances, and it comes together in particular ways considering, but something just feels wrong in it. Something just smolders. I don’t know, I guess I don’t want to think about it more than that.

Rumpus: I’m curious. What does a day in the life of Blake Butler look like?

Butler: Wake up 10:30. Take a shower. Go to where I’m going to write, often my parents’ house twenty minutes north my home because I help my mom care for my dad these years. Make coffee, eat something very small, take coffee and water to the room where I work, close the door, sit in the dark. Work on writing or things like interviews on and off from 11 to around 5 or 6, with brief interruptions throughout of going for more coffee, small food, phone, gchat, looking crap up online, etc. Write until I realize I’m done for the day. Eat a sandwich or something. Drive home. Run 4 miles or stationary bike for 700 calories while reading. Then either go out with friends or stay home and work more online or watch a movie or read or generally fuck around until around 2 a.m., when I begin to think about going to sleep. Fall asleep closer to around 3:30 a.m. if all goes well. That’s usually at least six out of seven days a week.

Rumpus: I have driven through Atlanta, but I have actually never been to Atlanta. When I think of the city, I think of either Gone With the Wind and the city burning or Jermaine Dupri running around town, pelting his adoring fans with bling. Clearly, I have no rational understanding of the place. What’s Atlanta like for someone born and raised there? Have you ever run into JD or any of his pals? Is there a literary scene in the ATL?

Butler: Heh, Jermaine Dupri. I think Atlanta mostly forgot about him. He’s kind of joke here, at least to me. You hear more about Gucci Mane or Young Jeezy or Ludacris or Cee Lo or Outkast or Lil Jon. Andre 3000 used to come to hardcore shows when I was going to a lot of hardcore shows. I’ve seen Big Boi driving a couple times. There’s a lot of driving here. Everything is far apart: it’s like L.A. in that way, though not so sprawly. There’s a lot of bars. There’s a lot of people who play music, tons of shows every night. The summers are nasty wet hot. There’s snow like every three or four years. I try to stay inside a lot. The cops here don’t give a fuck unless you killed somebody. Downtown is weird because it’s super cut up into areas. Like there will be projects right next to expensive lofts, and people who live in the projects kind of stay where the projects are even though it’s the same street and nothing’s stopping them. It seems very condensed but not in a segregated way. Everyone is just kind of doing their thing. People are nice a lot. There are a lot of really shitty drivers. I mean they turn across double lanes without looking. They will hurry so you can’t get off at your exit. I hate cars. Some friends and I do a reading series here, monthly-ish. Usually about twenty people come out, and that is better than it used to be. It’s small but people care, when they care. I don’t know, I like the mix of being able to do something when I want to, but not feeling overrun. I like Southern people. They can relax and smile and call you sugar.

Rumpus: When I first saw your rap-related posts on HTMLGIANT, I thought, “What is this white boy going on about?” Then I realized the shit was serious for you. What is it about rap? How many times have you been asked this question?

Butler: I’ve been listening to a lot of rap probably since Dre put out the Chronic. Since then it’s been the only kind of music that really sticks with me, that I can repeat for weeks on end and not get tired of it. As a genre it seems to be the only kind that continues to innovate and work on both the body and the head at once. I like to dance like a dumbass and repeat myself and talk about killing people. It deletes something in me. It fills me up. It feels more emotional in that way, by deleting the emotion, rather than exploiting it like most other music. I still listen to a lot of other stuff, but rap is what I get the most out of now. I have 2×10″s in my trunk. It hits all through my chest.

Rumpus: What songs would you include on a playlist for someone who doesn’t really know a damn thing about rap and needs to be schooled?

Butler: I don’t know that I’d ever try to school anybody, but here are some random songs I like:
A Tribe Called Quest “Award Tour”
Project Pat “Cheese and Dope”
Lil B “Look Like Jesus”
Deltron 3030 “Madness”
Fat Pat “Reality”
GZA “Gold”
MellowHype “Loaded”
Madvillain “Rhinestone Cowboy”
Kool Keith “F U M-F”
Three 6 Mafia “Rainbow Colors”
Bone “7 Sign”
Young Jeezy “Lose My Mind”
Soulja Boy “30 Thousand Hundred Million”
Das Racist “hahahaha j/k”
Bun B “You’re Everything”
Quasimoto “Basic Instinct”
Makaveli “Against All Odds”
Cannibal Ox “Metal Gear”
Raekwon “Criminology”
Gucci Mane “Trap Goin Crazy”
Jaylib “The Heist”
Z-Ro “Screwed Up”
Goodie Mob “Black Ice”
Juicy J “Sell a Lot of Thangs”
cLOUDDEAD “Son of a Gun”
Outkast “Millenium”
Mr. Lif w/ Aesop Rock “Success”
Edan “Promised Land”
Busdriver “Note Boom”
Waka Flocka “Snake in the Grass”
ODB “I Can’t Wait”

Rumpus: What is one question you’ve never been asked that you’ve always wanted to answer?

Butler: Hi you don’t know me, but do you want to come with me to my bank and take all of my money out and keep it?

Rumpus: What do you like most about your writing?

Butler: Writing.


Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger forthcoming in 2017. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. Roxane was the founding Essays Editor and is a current Advisory Board member for The Rumpus. You can find her at roxanegay.com. More from this author →