An Interview with Blake Butler
I. I read a story by Blake Butler ages back, maybe 2006, and I still read him now because in that story, called "Weight Gainer," one sentence reads "Electric meat." That line's been in my head for five years, and after that time I still think of it and go: right, yes.
III. I'm not sure what's useful to know about Blake to read an interview with the man. That he's from Atlanta? That he writes a lot? I don't know. Some of these questions started when we were at a table drinking together, and I was having beer and he was having gin and tonics.
IV. What's a little creepy about Blake is that he's public and knowable -- he tells shit in ways lots of people don't tell (scroll down to the second question). So it's a little hard -- there are things knowable about him (because he says something on his blog, or on HTML, or other interviews, wherever) that implicate the person who knows, because to know and ask betrays how much the knower's already consumed of this (relative) stranger. For instance: I didn't ask Blake about him working out, riding stationary bikes, because I don't know why, but I know he does work out -- because he writes about it lots.
V. What's to ask about riding stationary bikes anyway? It's a process inside another process -- your body's machinery gets calculated and mapped onscreen, in (in my case, at my gym) red blocky numbers. Actually riding a bike's abstract -- outside, sunshine, sidestreets, carhonks; there's a weird purity to biking at a gym. And lots of Blake's work works in ways similar to the way sitting -- still biking in a gym works: it's the same activity but made stranger, stripped cleaner, fit into other a different system.
VI. He answered the following questions. All questions asked were answered. Nine total.
True and sad: one of the search criteria used to get to Corduroy like 3 days ago was someone googling Blake Butler is Terrible, which I thought was sort of hilarious and awesome -- mainly because there's a handful of writers whose work I'm always yapping about, one of whose is yrs -- but anyway I guess the easy start q is: you're everywhere. You're somehow polarizing? Or maybe not that, but simply because so known and name-attached to much, you draw attention/etc. Does this shit even occur to you? Do you care how you're perceived?
It occurs to me at times: it has to, not because I seek it out or even actively pay it heed, but because of the countless ways there are available now to make it known some kind of personal or impersonal thing you would have before hid. The bonus of having a network run through machines is that people can spit and not feel scared, and that both allows a level of ease of discourse that leads fruitfully and to endless rummaging. Itís easy to get caught up in, and really Iíd never blame anybody for getting feisty. Iíve got a mouth and some hands, too. And sure, anything worth doing is worth taking some shit for along with any good that might come out: I actually sometimes kind of relish the bananas more than the relish. So thatís fine; if anything, it reminds you youíre just another person making along the way like everybody is trying to make. I like the idea of someone taking the time to type ďBlake Butler is TerribleĒ and see what comes up. Feels psychically lit more than it does ouchy. I also donít really feel like I have feeling anymore. Between growing up around friends who got as much pleasure talking shit and poking holes in things as they did playing video games, not to mention being in stupid bands and on loud stages and worming around for fifteen years in internet milk of lands like HTMLGiant, where you could mention a little kitten or some candy and have ten to thirty dudes shitting from the e-sky, I feel like thereís very little I canít take except with a grin, and actually heeding some of it, even if sometimes itís just people spouting out of anger or not having explored or given the right rooms or been ill aimed for it in the first place. I actually maybe wish there was something more to it to feel. I like messes and bass.
I'm not asking anything about insomnia. I scanned interviews with you so I wouldn't repeat much here + it seems like everyone asks you about this. Instead, I'd rather know how the masturbation is involved in the nonfiction book, if you're at all interested in telling (sorry for the clumsy construction -- how masturbation is involved -- was going to write about how it comes up but I'm not heaving meatballs that early/easy).
My main problem with sleep in the past has been not being able to turn the brain off, mainly from getting obsessed with something sidelong and gummy, like hands of poker or some comment I made on a blog; itís rarely the huge thing that messes me up. Iím kind of a creature of habit, where my routines and repetitions make more sense than anything else, even if they are based on a nothing: each year it seems like I add 1-3 new phrases I repeat all throughout the day to myself, itís a kind of comfort on par with being asleep while awake.
I guess in the realm of this I went through a phase, probably like a lot of people, where my mode of masturbation went beyond simply looking at porn and pounding it out. I would be awake for periods, and in particular this year I lived alone and began closing in on myself, where I began masturbating in sets of time that might go hours or a whole evening, getting done up in a kind of brain or fascination than simply trying to ejaculate. The ejaculation, like certain serial murderers say of killing, was the end result of which that ultimately was less the pleasure than all that leading up to it. Iíd last inside that moment and spend time and go around in my head and see things and think things that were more an area than an action: kind of like how writing or running eats my time now. I mean I still masturbate but you know.
The best part of acting or making for me is the mode inside it where time ceases to exist and you arenít even thinking but something else is. Itís a hole.
Also, finally getting off after all that sometimes lets you go night night.
You said something awhile back that's stuck- -- you said you didn't know anyone else who is doing what [DF]Wallace was doing, and I nodded and agreed, but then later thought: well, what the hell do you think Wallace was doing? Go all-out on this. For all the folks that love him, I'd suspect that lots of us who write because of him have sucked different nutrients from him -- and there's enough that it's 100% possible we're all taking radically different things each.
I donít like the idea of the writer. I think along with that term comes a certain level of romanticizing and ego making that isnít true of a lot of words, even words of creators I love. I donít think writing is an action taken, when it is done in the way that affects me; it is instead a kind of derivation of other light that rooms have but donít get and canít be photographed or rendered, and canít be explained in the tools of characters and plots and days. It doesnít work. For me then, even the most successful creators of language are just weapons or tools or amalgams or machines, but they arenít writers.
Wallace is a writer. He isnít doing what I just said above, even though that is largely the reason I read in search of. He does create something using the tools a writer is supposed to use, though he uses these tools almost against themselves, to teach them about the way they work as they are being worked on. By this I mean he is taking the formal method of telling you, the reader, something, though this isnít a story, though there are the elements of the story; it is not an affect of condition, though you do become gathered and risen in it, if you take it right; I guess Iím saying the sum of the parts are not only more than the parts but they are also ejected from the system in the moment of creation, resulting in these texts that get so deep and hard inside your head sentence by sentence not in the sound way but in the way as if the word as idea is a beginning and from there each further sentence is a breath into the head expanding.
How does Wallace accomplish this? Well, first, his sentences, though they are amazing individually as language, come from logic before all else: a logic based on not portraying or rendering humanity, but dissecting it as it happens, kind of as a philosophical and mathematical maneuver, but while still using the tools of language speaking. More plainly again, you are walking through a mind recursively operating on its own forward propagation, laying out a moment for you not as image or gesture or wayward lyric that falls upon its own light in consideration, but a light that experiences itself experiencing itself, and giving to you itself at the same time. Moments in Wallace often last quite a bit longer than others due to the way he proceeds inside that, kind of resonating with such intense care and wish to understand itself, even aware as he is that it isnít fully possible in language, but with the familiarity made not ironic but by turns humorous, poignant, and mathematical, etc. Maybe math is a huge thing in there: the levels of orchestration he uses, each with such a heavily wielded eye behind it, are operating with such care and precision and humor and inherent understanding that most people donít even begin to want to wrestle on a mental level as they manipulate their sentences or characters or whatever is the motor of their make. He just is working that much harder, in a different kind of way; he is literally transcribing time inside a confabulated mind he wants so clearly to enunciate to the center of it, in a way only writing as a time-paused creation can.
But itís even more than that: Wallaceís way of speaking isnít, I think, hoping to instruct you on who you are or how life works or what a wish is, etc., but setting up these massive tablatures of intricately rendered confusion and wanting and scenario that then compile themselves in the field behind itself as it continues. Itís not really a series of resonances or outcomes, like even a lot of clearly intricately rendered writing is. The detail and the level of wanting to cleave around this central something with such mass that it ends up splintering into so many forms of effect that what we see people carrying away is always different. But the center of him is him, and really a product of such a unique and immensely intricate way of going that I just think, I donít know, itís not repeatable. As intricate as moves by Saramago or Pynchon or Hempel or who have you get, thereís a kind of emotional calculus filtered by such a singular brain that what weíre in the presence of when Wallace is most himself is something like a specific sky or a moment, because it canít come that way again.
Thinking now of what all I just said trying to explain how I feel about Wallace and ending up with all that quasi-hyperbole even more so enunciates to me that what it was about him is a wordless thing.
I'm really, really interested in structure(s) in your work. Not just the design of EVER + Scorch Atlas: I didn't know you went to Georgia Tech, which is more a math/tech place, yeah? This is maybe not working. Look: your stuff's got houses, seems to be essentially to be about interiority/exteriority, not in the feely/noodly way, but literally: inside, outside. Stuff fitting and not fitting, and then new definitions of what "fitting" even means. Does this make sense? Can you touch this?
My earlier attempts at writing werenít prose or poems, but for computers. At like 9 or 10 I was a little nerd; I got sent to computer camp and liked it. I taught myself BASIC programming language at home. I wrote programs that drew my name on the screen, and I wrote programs that locked the computer (until you reset it), and then I began writing word-based role playing games, my own responses to having spent hours playing Kingís Quest or Might and Magic II; I liked roleplaying games, where you could acquire items and walk around inside the game without knowing exactly where you were going all the time, which seems different from a lot of video games now: you could conceivably go on forever in a lot of those old graphic interfaces just walking around and messing with shit and never really figuring out where you were supposed to be.
The games I liked best, in fact, were ones where there wasnít really an inherent structure but you could just go around gathering items and experience and killing shit and looking at rooms and acquire mass by what again seems repetition, though varied in such a way that it never seems routine. It was a life inside a machine rather than a series of missions demanded by the system.
So, inside that writing, when you are doing programming language, you are basically operating with two kinds of structure at once: there is (a) the code you type into the program, that runs the system, essentially talking to the computer to make it work your will so that (b) a desired product of language, which also must be typed out, inside the code, will be delivered to the user. There are all kinds of ways to make a single effect, some more efficient than others, and part of the art of it is discovering and establishing those logic loops in ways that build the world you want.
Now when Iím writing text I kind of think Iím operating as if Iím programming something rather than writing down ideas, though since that fundament in the logic systems, Iíve gotten even more interested in letting the machine speak more than me, in a way. I like to feel like when I am writing that Iím less trying to develop this dual brand but more trying to let the eye in the center of the organism that I had been speaking to when trying to create these silly games come up from where it lurks and instead come back out through me, almost like Iím being programmed in reverse. The most fun and I think success in doing something I find compelling has come the closer I can get to letting this eye speak, which requires letting a range of tools work without as much of my own control, and more the logic rising over. Such thing might come from sound, repetition, image, folding, error, trying to be asleep while awake, and so on. The form is inherent to the object, and the writerís job is to bring it through. We will always fail at this because we are flesh, but thatís part of the thing, too. There are always more things inside the thing and always more things beyond it, depending on which buttons you are pressing.
And rap. Talk what it is that rap does for you. As a far aside: this q's tied up with the other one, for me -- I like rap so much for the mathematic joy it offers, that insane numerical click -- Jay-Z rapping triplets over a 4/4 beat, unstressed words rhyming with hard stressed ones, etc. What's rap for you? Or any other music, really: I'm more and more fascinated by what writers are sonically putting in their heads.
Rap makes my head inside my head go quiet. I donít have to think beyond the impulse of the bass way up my back and the nast language in my cheeks and down my eyelids. I like how rap spreads rash cream all down the inside of my ribcage like something is polishing me so I can shut me up and start saying in the utterance nothing I would or am. I am one of the worst out loud speakers ever often, even more so the more I know whoever I am talking to. Rap like throbs my blood and puts time between place A and place B in a way that listening to other modes of music wants to eat you alive with. There is too much terror in music. Rap is terror music so terrored that it already ate you. It is the sickest and the most destroyed, and therefore the most cleaning as a thing you rub against because then in light itís just like Here I Am Being Around Here Again. It does a delete button on my mass.
Beyond just the texture of it, I think rap is one of the few forms of music that continues to innovate, even within the confines of the genre. Music to me is mostly dead. Rap is a mirror bomb. It makes this sounds fall out of you the way a gun would if you could put a gun through a speaker cone. I hope someone learns to do that.
Subwoofers are how I learned the most about being alive. Repetition not of going to the doctorís office or waking up or being on a phone and instead inside this electronic file fed through the car with the blood words all over it and talking shit and making messes on purpose because the messes are the door is like Crisco for the fat child inside my life beating bumps onto my skin from underneath it that I have to get out not because I have to make the thing but because if I donít press a certain amount of buttons each day, like going running Iím going to feel clogged and smashed against dumb and want to snuff it.
You seem one of the few young writers who have maybe some sort of notion of where you're going, not even piece-to-piece but overall, a larger scope, a sense of where you'd like to eventually put yr toes into certain water- -- maybe this is just because you said the books are doubling in length each time out. I'm not sure what it is, but it feels this way -- that you've got some aesthetic agenda or line of inquiry yr running yr hand against like barbed wire. Is that remotely accurate? Do you have some aesthetic agenda? Is there some where you're hoping to get to, regardless of transport machinery?
I feel like my blood has an agenda, not my lineage but the shit that fills me up, whether I want it to or not. Iíve let it latch on now, to this action, Iíve let it have its time brewing in there and hitting the walls of me and I donít think itís going to stop. Some days all I want to do is stop. But I canít. The writing makes me happy, it is maybe the only thing anymore, just the act of it, not the notion of going or the scope of it at all but just the doing it, the sitting and typing to feel the typing and the brain turning on and staying on because it doesnít have anywhere else to go. If you mean have I worked myself into a corner yes. If you mean do I know what Iím doing any day when I wake up no. If you mean do I think Iíll keep making things yes, I think I have to. If you mean do I think I would do something else if I could, I think I would. If you mean do I want to fuck the idea of the book in its face and spirit and change it by a shade of a hue in my own head at least and maybe long enough some hour to feel like showing my head in the day around people or being able to look the people I love in the eye or look myself in the eye, yes I do.
One of the things I like about yr stuff, and that I'd guess is appealing for lots of other folks too, is yr invitation to chaos, your willingness to let things you don't control come in and fingerfuck whatever you're doing -- even when you write about how you write, you talk about your fingers doing things -- there's a way agency gets pushed back, a way in which things simply happen, and the authority of stuff in your work is similar (storms, chaos). How and why is this so for you, if it is so, if this q's right? What is it about diminished or handed-over agency that you find appealing? There's crazed avenues to go off of on this -- the fact that writing's fundamentally an ego act, the I sitting at the keyboard + etc, yet once you get there you seem to grab something and put it in front of you, put yourself back.
Itís because I want to want to destroy something like myself. I have this feeling in me that comes, itís out of nowhere, itís from nothing, I donít know why, Iíve always wanted to want to hurt something, and I canít. I donít have the heart. I think it requires heart, though in a different way than what people call heart is. Maybe I am afraid. When I was a child all I wanted for Christmas one year was a plastic baby doll, it was all I wanted. I didnít get it for Christmas and there is a film of me as a child that year where I will not stop crying because I donít have the baby doll. I am see through in the image. I feel disgusted with myself for crying in the face of all I had. I remember wanting that doll only, though, because I had these feelings of wishing I had a real baby I could hold in my hand and crush it. I donít know why, it just welled in me. I donít know why Iím telling you this. I wanted the baby to crush so bad. I ended up getting the plastic doll for my birthday a few weeks after Christmas. I never hurt the baby. I never did anything bad to it. I still have the feelings sometimes. I would never do it. I feel this fury for nothing. I feel like I want to fight but Iíve never been in a fight and I donít like violence on the world. But I want to. Is that American. Is that human. I donít know. It seems everywhere. It seems so easy for people to enact this evil that is in us; even if we are good as a whole, there is a evil in us, I believe. I want to shit on everything. I want to destroy everything. At the same time I canít help feeling kind. I canít help fearing I would let my mother down, or something else. That fear of not being humble or good when I am alone at the day is strong enough to keep me from any of the evil I feel inside or around me as a shell, as noise, which inside of me it seems then become words.
Writing has only ever been the only way I could beat the fuck out of the child in my mind and actually do it and actually do it and not have hurt anyone but myself.
I ask all Midwesterners about location and where they're from, and it occurs to me I hardly ask anybody else stuff like that, even though location squats mighty over most fiction, so then: what's Atlanta to you? You grew up there, but now you've chosen to identify with it: why? What's it like, for those of us who'll never get under its covers?
I think all places are the same. I live here because my family is here, and my friends who I grew up with, and they make the space comfortable. If they were gone, I would maybe leave. Or I wouldnít leave. All the cities are these boxes and doors and streets with people in them. My hands and the paper and the machine are the same wherever I am. The food is always different but it always gets turned into energy and shit. Atlanta has some great rappers. It has, um, the place where I buried my dog when I was in third grade. It hasÖ a bed where I sleep. Itís like that. I donít know what I identify with.
What's the view out your window?
Tan grass, a thin island of greenage, more tan grass, two telephone poles strung up with wires parallel, the sidewalk, the street, the neighborsí fence and tan grass, the face of a forest. Cars keep going by in both directions but they move too fast in the slit between the almost closed curtains to see much more than a color. Oh, thereís this short blanched-purple tree thatís lightly shaking, and but the shadow gets mostly lost in the greenage.