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Blake Butler: A Belated Primer

By Susan Tomaselli.

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“He could hardly think of what had been. He said his name over and over under horse breath to keep his mouth shape from forgetting, but soon even those familiar syllables went marred. His skin began to feel taut and made of leather. It peeled in layers. Itched his blood.”
- ‘Seabed’, Scorch Atlas

3:AM: Scorch Atlas is, as you told David Gutowski, “a novel consisting of 14 kinds of rain,” a collection of inter-related stories some of which first appeared in literary journals. When did you realise you had a book on your hands?

Blake Butler: I really had no intention of making a book when I started the book. I wrote each of the stories one at a time, drafting and then revising over and over until the story worked within itself, then onto the next. I believe the texts that make up the book were about 85% complete when I realized I’d been talking in the same areas and contexts all that time without fully realizing it, probably more a product of difference and repetition, obsession, playing, than setting out to reach a goal. I think I wrote most of the stories over about a nine month period, and then when I realized they interlocked I removed certain pieces that didn’t quite fit, and wrote I think one or two more that made the book more whole emotionally. The 14 kinds of rain, which originally in the manuscript remained as a list of rains in one story, not spread throughout, was suggested by Zach Dodson as a design approach: pairing each story with a kind of rain so that the pages of the story could then appear to have suffered through it. Figuring out how to arrange those rains is mostly what I think really makes the book work as a mesh. It’s nice to see those kind of elements come from influence of other media, viscerally.

3:AM: Something you said to Michael Kimball sticks with me: “I like repetitions that do not feel like repetitions: elucidations on the same idea that continue.” Is it fair to say this of Scorch Atlas? How much does the idea of repetition apply to your work?

BB: I’m a creature of habit, of inertia. I can’t help but stay centered and drawn to certain textures of word and image. Rooms and bodies. Crud and light. The trick is to trick yourself into talking about these things in ways that sound as if they are not repetition, but coherent and abstruse variations, circling a hole. I think a lot of the writing I enjoy is like that, where the words come out of something guttural, that you can’t shake or stop saying because it’s what’s in you. That’s a better version of the old crudline, “Write what you know.” I’ve never suffered through seeing my mother’s house sink into mud, or my baby get covered in mold, or dogs eating me, like what happens in Scorch Atlas, but at the same time I feel like those things are in my everyday, are in my blood. I know them without ever having seen. And so they are made.

3:AM: In Scorch Atlas the planet is fucked, people are rotting, their surroundings decaying. Would you say the dissolving landscapes are more a J.G. Ballard sense of apocalypse rather than Cormac McCarthy?

BB: Honestly, the word ‘apocalypse’ doesn’t occur to me when I think about Scorch Atlas. I don’t think of the book as the world’s end, or the end times, or the coming of something. I see it walking down the street. I see it waking up and drinking coffee and hearing cars go by the window. It’s, again, about light, and bodies, and intersections of those, the present, more than something foretold or forthcoming. The subtitle of Scorch Atlas, which only appears on the title page inside the book, is ‘A Belated Primer.’ Every hour is grotesque. In those hours, as those people in the book do, it’s more about finding a way around or inside the mud and fucked rain than it is fearing it welling up or coming down.

3:AM: Are there any direct, or indirect, influences on Scorch Atlas? What about Beckett? In Scorch Atlas you use an epigram from Malone Dies and, at times, Ever reads as a Beckettian monologue.

BB: Beckett is definitely someone I have spent a lot of time thinking about and will spend the rest of my life thinking about. He does more with sense and affect in sound of motion than just about anybody before and after him. Every reread is a new read, and those are the kinds of books my favorite kinds of books exist to be. Puzzles and lockboxes, collections of small doors. That people see any of him in my writing is a great compliment. For Scorch Atlas in particular, I sometimes see the book as the collision of everything I’d read before then coming out in one deluge. I’d been trying so hard to make something years before that, writing book after book in manuscript on my hard drive never getting it right. Then something in me clicked and these words came out. I can’t remember specifically doing anything but typing during that time. But certainly Marcus, Evenson, Wallace, Gass, Hannah, Barthelme: those texts are in my blood. More directly, beyond that backlog, I’d say I was influenced by my mother, by Mulholland Drive, by turkey dogs, by the alarm system of the school down the street from where I wrote most of the words, by my neighbor at the time who had Tourette’s, by lack of sleep, and my sister’s dog.

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3:AM: As a physical object, the design of Scorch Atlas is superb. Is the design of your books just as important to you as the prose?

BB: Books should be something to stare at. While everybody’s trying to figure out how to get shit on cell phones and in their computer, I’ll never be able to read something that doesn’t hold its own light. The paper and font and color is what you are staring at: it’s how the words are delivered. That can’t help but be an influence on the reading experience, especially in the matter of affect. I’ve been really lucky so far to have worked with two designers who understand the life of the book as object, of making something that holds the eye. From there it’s the language’s job to work, but getting people there by aura is a great gift.

3:AM: Considering your output — aside from your writing you edit both HTMLGIANT and Lamination Colony, and run Year of the Liquidator press — it’s hardly a surprise to learn that you suffer from insomnia. Insomnia is to be the subject of a non-fiction work. Can you tell us a little about that book?

BB: I was actually sleeping pretty well for a while up until I started getting deep into the insomnia book. Most of my life, though, I’ve had weird troubles, from the not sleeping (the longest I was ever up was 129 hours), to sleep talking/walking/eating, sleep terrors, and so on. The book intersects my experience with those textures of rooms influenced by the way the body changes when unrested, and the mind, and kind of begins to transgress that area by exploring different places that exist as loopholes and exits, like insomnia can. The book in some ways is a reflection of the way so much goes on at once, now than ever, with so much input, more sleeplessness than ever, more people on the earth than ever, more dead. I’ve had a lot of fun meshing things I’ve gathered over 30 years with odds threads in other objects: films, books, people, rooms, computer glitches, noise music, web marketing, masturbation, suicides, etc., and meshing it with a kind of history of the decay of sleep and attention. The book’s unlike anything else I’ve experienced, and I’m pretty excited to keep digging that hole deeper and deeper, until the page itself becomes a tunnel.

3:AM:Your next novel is already done. This is the David Lynch kind of mind” one, is that right?

BB: That’s what I referred to it as while I was making it. Lynch is definitely an influence on the book, (which will be called The Black Gazebo), particularly the first half of Lost Highway and all of Inland Empire. It has a different kind of humor and momentum from Lynch, though, and the way it builds kind of opens into a whole other terrain, but that air and color and sound that his movies has is definitely something I’ve always wanted to see inside a book more, in want of terrifying and mesmerism. I know it feels new for me, as object, and hopefully that stroke transfers over.

3:AM: Reading both Ever and Scorch Atlas, it strikes me that you spend a lot of time on your sentences, that you are not a get-everything-down-first kind of writer. Are you conscious of your style; that is, does the rhythm come naturally to you or have you spent a long time perfecting it?

BB: I feel like I’ve gotten better over time at getting it closer and closer to what I want the sound to be earlier on in the process. For years I wrote and labored over every inch of it, and ended up beating a lot of things to pulp, overworking it, resulting as I mentioned in a ton of dead novels that I’ll never do anything with, but also in that process I learned how a sentence can come onto you, more than you coming onto it. I definitely spent a lot of time in revision, and playing, teasing those sounds into their final form, but the closer I can hit to that rhythm in the first draft, the more powerful it feels in manipulating it later. No matter what, though, I always am constantly revising, playing, teasing, looking, less now to ‘fix’ or alter the sentences, and more to find holes in that, open them up even further, find things buried that I didn’t fully intuit the first time, making the object as a whole really get blown up into something larger. It’s like when you take a piece of paper, that has a fixed width and length, if you start tearing the paper like when kids do when they are bored, or making snowflakes: pinching it, balling it up, you can make this mobile-sized thing of all kinds of dimensions, little rips and hangy pieces of paper that in the end might look nothing like what that one flat piece of paper did, but a collage, an amalgam, a new object. It’s fun.

3:AM: Also, do you have to ditch much from your writing that you liked but don’t fit in with an overall aesthetic? Are there Blake Butler deleted scenes?

BB: I definitely cut and have ‘deleted scenes’ from everything I’ve written. Not necessarily because it doesn’t fit into my personal aesthetic: I can only ever get so far from what wants to come out, because I’m a circler like that, but more in paying attention to what belongs in the object and what doesn’t. Another trope is “Kill your babies,” and while I am all for baby destruction, that shouldn’t mean you don’t let yourself make wild and private, intensely personal things, but more that sometimes, as you are refining an object, there are things that exist there because they are integral to what you had to go through in the making, but they are not integral to the object. This can be tricky, because often the things I like best about a text are the ones that allow the reader to interact with the language inside their own body rather than always in the ‘fictional dream’ of the page, but knowing what is part of the skin of the book and what isn’t is something that just comes from the blood. There can be mazes, glyphs, puzzles, problems, errors, mirrors, trouble. Kill what is not meant to be there. Cleaning that muscle then also can allow you to find rooms attached to the text that you hadn’t seen were there, and add more. It’s become now that each time I revise I end up making the book longer, even as I cut and cut, because new things get wormed up in the clearing. That is for me the most magical part of making.

3:AM: I’ve read that David Foster Wallace made you want to write. Are there any contemporary authors that excite you, that make you glad you are a writer?

BB: I never think, “I am glad to be a writer,” not because of self loathing, as people often say when I say that, but because I often don’t feel I am the one writing when I write. I like no control, which is odd because in many other walks of life I can be very controlling. The place I am when I am writing is somewhere else.

If anything, though, I believe a long part of that furor comes from being so constantly turned on by other language. I read more and more every year, and it is fuel. Off the top of my head, of people in the midst of it right now: Johannes Goransson, Sean Kilpatrick, Derek White, Vanessa Place, my whole HTMLGIANT crew, Action Books, Dalkey Archive, FC2, Tarpaulin Sky, New York Tyrant, Ellipsis Press… on and on and on… we’re surrounded. And being surrounded. It’s warm.

“I learned to breathe in smaller rhythms. The incubated heat swelled so high outside you’d sweat forever, then more dust. Eyes encrusted. Nostrils clogged. One night, finally, the roof over my living room succumbed to all the weight. Somewhere in there, under all that dander, I often would regret I had not been.”
- ‘Dust’, Scorch Atlas

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Blake Butler is the author of EVER and Scorch Atlas (3:AM‘s Novel of Year 2009). His work has been published in Ninth Letter, Fence, Unsaid, New York Tyrant. He edits HTMLGIANT and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010.