A Maniacal State: Berfrois Interviews Blake Butler
Blake Butler. Photograph by David Backer
by Shane Jones
When I first moved online with my fiction in 2006 the first name to repeat consistently in literary circles was Blake Butler. I remember those first days, clicking from online journal to online journal, from blog to blog, feeling inspired from what he was doing – publishing unique fiction in a variety of formats (lists, fragments, scattered words on a screen, long walls of prose) and I wanted to be part of what he, and many others, were doing.
Blake was the first person to publish an excerpt from my novel Light Boxes after dozens had rejected it. I’m not sure I would have kept going if it wasn’t for Blake’s encouragement. Many writers I’ve spoken to have had a similar experience, that in the years of 2006-2009 when a rush of writers jumped online, they communicated with Blake, and even if he didn’t publish their work in his journal Lamination Colony, he engaged with them in a literary and critical way. The more I think about it, much of the online literary community was spinning off Blake in these early years well before websites like The Rumpus, The Millions, and LARB, had staked their domains.
Much has changed in the past several years – from the closing of Lamination Colony to the opening and recent closing of his literary blog HTMLGIANT, to many of the first people in “the scene” landing major book deals. But what hasn’t changed is Blake’s ambition not only in his own fiction but in the literary landscape where he continues to support work he admires in a weekly column at VICE and actively on social media. His prolific output may be staggering from his own fiction alone, but he gives it right back in the support of others.
Blake’s newest novel, 300,000,000 is a big, violent, and beautiful creation. Think Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death finger-paint smeared with the American flag then cut up into triangles, squares, and hexagons. It’s a book that seems to push against everything being published at major houses today, a work that demands the reader to work hard at something obscure and physical, rather than accessible and cerebral.
I emailed with Blake – from my home in Albany New York to his home in Atlanta Georgia – earlier this week to discuss the publication of 300,000,000, the literary landscape, the recent passing of his father, and what’s next for a writer I not only consider a close friend, but an influence and inspiration.
There’s a growing stress on first person narratives, female writers/feminism, and in general, socially and politically conscious fiction. Do you worry that a book like 300,000,000 will offend readers, or worse, is arriving in a shifting literary landscape?
Is it growing, or was it always like this? I don’t put new emphasis on the desire of many to put practical, reality-based factors into play in a system of art that for me was always about blowing reality out of the way. There are training wheels all over the place, and there are holes. If I’m a hole, I’ll be one. And personally I’m glad to see the strikes against the brutal penises of old blowhards; if reality is your game you should at least not be a bro. Do I worry about offending readers, having no readers? I honestly don’t even think about it. I try to challenge myself to make something that would otherwise not exist if I did not exist. If anyone enjoys it, thinks about it enough to enjoy it or get angry, that’s a celebration. But it’s not the thing. Only time honors. Tumblr won’t exist in two years. MyRealSexLife.com will always out click poetry in the realm of not-yet-dead.
Do you identify with any group? Are you religious?
I am not religious in the churchgoing sense or probably even many other senses, though I do believe in god, at least where the idea of god could be some force that exists outside reality. I do not necessarily understand why any human would imagine an illimitable entity and then think they can have a relationship with it as a human. My spirituality is more like silence, which is holier to me than wafers and wine. I don’t believe in voting because I don’t believe in acknowledging the lesser of two evils, which are both to me still evil. I would probably be killed in war, though I’m ambivalent to violence often when left alone in front of the computer. In general I try to keep my actions and opinions faithful to a private moral stricture that is maybe entirely arbitrary but to me seems more functional than any label; space is elastic, there are no real rules, though I try to have as much faith as possible, both in people and in fate as it appears over time. For the most part all of this leads me to spending a lot of time in a relative fantasy land, more often offset than aligned, which I guess is how my personality drove me into fucking with books instead of math.
We communicated on a regular basis while you were working on 300,000,000 and I remember at some point your editor at Harper Perennial, Cal Morgan, sent you a 20,000 word document of edits and suggestions. How did the book change from the version you had and the final version after Cal’s edits?
It was 27,776 words, yes, all mapped into sections with page numbers and notations, including headers such as: What Really Happened?, Why Did It Happen?, Why Is Flood Trapped Twice?; a index of symbols and themes with a list of all pages interplaying into such themes as America, Cities, Corporations and Brands, Dementia, Flood’s Wife: Murder vs. Cancer, Getting Paid To Write The Book, Josh, Magic Eye, Money, Movies/Films/Tapes, S-shape, Seven shapes, Writing/Books/Language, etc.; as well as a long consideration of voice in the book and specific mechanics of the language; all in all it was like having a statistical readout on the last 4 years of your life, annotated by a brilliant eye who probably knew what was actually on the paper way better than I did by that point. Honestly I wrote the first version of the book, and more than 20 subsequent full drafts over three years, in such a maniacal state of relative emotional hell that by the time we got to the official editorial process I didn’t even know what was there anymore, and had to in some way begin again. A lot got deleted, a lot got added, the total framework was rearranged countless times, and most every sentence was interrogated until I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore. With Cal’s study, his intuition and willingness to enter alongside my manias, and ultimately his total faith in the text and my ability to go through another 30 full-scale revisions of the book during the nearly two years we carried on, I don’t know that this book would have ever been anything but a long death note to myself on some burnt out hard drive. Having someone hand you a map of your heart and persona and say, here are the questions that will lead you to answer that will make the whole thing ten times more powerful for those outside you is the greatest gift you could ever receive.
Your father was suffering from dementia during the writing of the book and he passed during this editing period. You’ve mentioned before you would write at your parent’s house, where your father was. Did his deteriorating state and his death affect the book in any way? And the hand of Cal Morgan, seems to me, almost fatherly in a sense – tough and loving and wanting to do everything possible for the book and for you.
Most of the time I was working on the book I was going up to my Mom’s to help her with Dad, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and needed constant supervision, daily care. I went up there and worked so my Mom could get out of the house, and so any time I took a break I’d go and check on him, interact with him, an increasingly surreal exchange. In some ways the state that took him over felt very similar to how I felt writing the book, and maybe it was a guideline of sorts; an actual madness, prolonged. I think maybe a lot of the rage in the book is channeled from grappling with understanding what was happening to him, and to those of us around him, not to mention my own troubles. I don’t think I could have worked anywhere else, as being around was like a time shuttle; there was nowhere else to be, during the day. And at night I would go home and spend time with Molly, my girlfriend, the appearance of whom had a wholly other sort of effect on certain stages of the revision; what forms of relief the book contains in many ways resolve through her, and from rallying with my sister and brother in law and mother to help Dad to the end as gracefully as his body would allow.
If I remember correctly, and I may not, I turned in the final edits of the book late in the evening at my Mom’s house on the day before my Dad passed away. He was bedridden for the last several weeks at least, in the final stages of the death process where the person no longer eats or drinks, and the last days or so felt very long, every breath of his possibly the last, and I remember feeling super insane at the computer, but in a calm way, typing in the very last edits then, and going back to sit with my family and him for the last time.
Honestly I thank my luck for my artistic relationship with Cal Morgan every day; there are few who would have given me the faith he has; he changed my life.
My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s and I remember the last days – how they hand over that little booklet with “dying instructions” that felt so alien and crushing. I’ve thought about this because it runs in my family, but do you ever think you’ll suffer from Alzheimer’s as well? Do you still travel to your Mom’s to write?
Mom has made a point to let me know multiple times that Alzheimer’s isn’t passed from father to son, though whether or not that’s true or verifiable, who knows. I try not to think about it, but it’s hard already to not feel demented and distracted by the world across the board, and probably the inability to recognize its happening to you is the most terrifying factor of it all. There aren’t many other ways I’d less prefer to die. It’s terrifying, right? Your whole life stripped out from underneath you, little by little, while those you loved try to hold on. I won’t waste time in the interim fearing it, though. If anything, it’s motivation.
It’s been really hard to get out of that habit of going to Mom’s, as for so long I did it without question, because I was needed. And I feel now that I need to get out of the house to do my work; to stay there in the same place where I sleep and eat to do this kind of work seems difficult to me, or has become so. But I just went under contract on a house, and will be moving before the year’s out into a new home, which I see as a chance to reset my path, do something new. I need that, because most days since finishing 300,000,000 I’ve felt I’ll never write another book again. I remain hopeful to discover otherwise, or to discover what another new kind of thing for me could be.
HTMLGIANT, a literary blog you founded in 2008, recently decided to call it quits. As an original contributor, I felt a combination of sadness, sentimental reflection, and relief because the site in the past year often felt dead to me, or that something had significantly changed from the early days. Do you think the site was suffering from interesting content or is there any specific thing you can pinpoint that made you want to end its run?
There was no real definitive impetus that made us want to end it; more like there has been a long ongoing train of effects, from the hellscape-like assault that populated much of the comment section, for which a lot of the reputation of the site got beat up in many minds, as well as a general feeling of the landscape of the internet changing. I mean, when we started it felt like there was so much to be done; we were younger and still fiery in the spirit for discussion and overflowing; the beauty seemed worth the bullshit. Not that that disappeared, but the center of the site in some ways slipped out from under itself, as people moved on and comment culture in general became spread more widely thin, and honestly I don’t at all get the feeling I used to from the internet; so much now feels so petty, ego-beating, click-bait-y, overrun. The body was alive but the spirit died. In the end Gene just texted me and basically said, “This isn’t fun anymore, no matter what we try to do it gets attacked, I don’t want to be attacked.” When that’s the case, it should be done. I love what was made and the time it was made in and what it led to for many people but at the same time I just no longer have the same kind of will, and would rather focus my fire on offline life, creation.
There was a fury of rape and abuse allegations concerning several writers associated with the site and some people connected the closing of HTMLGIANT with these allegations.
It wasn’t part of our reasoning for closing the site. Perhaps it contributed to a general negative feeling regarding the social arenas surrounding the culture, which for me has been growing less and less palatable for some time, but we wouldn’t stop doing what we do because of other people’s actions. It was a website, about art.
There’s a great line in Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction: “I have built the Cone, I was the first to build the Cone, no one did it before me.” While reading 300,000,000 I thought several times, “this is Blake’s Cone” in that you seem to pushing yourself harder and further than ever before and when talking to a friend of mine about the book he said something along the lines of “I’m not sure what Blake does after this book.” It just feels so big and exhausting. So what’s next writing wise? And will there be another literary site you’ll start up?
Bernhard’s cone is definitely something I have aspired to; the sublime object more infernal than yourself, representing something nameless and immaculate in its reflection of death as a state of being. To be honest my goal when writing the book was to burn out everything I had so hard I would have nothing left to live for. The last line of the book in the original draft was “The only way for me to complete this book is to kill myself” without a period. Part of the process of revising the book from that old endpoint involved me changing my life, my future outlook, my desires, so in that way the final incarnation of what is there is not only terror and murder but a state beyond that, beyond exhaustion.
And since then I’ve had a really hard time writing anything else, honestly. Which I think means that I have cored through an era of my life, and when I find the edge of the next era it will be different, and I am ready to be different. I’ve thrown away a lot through the last two years. Right now I’m kind of deep into something that is taking a much different set of skills and thoughts than where I’ve come from, much longer stretches between every word, and yet when I think about finishing it or what I would do with it I am more and more liking the idea of never ending, letting the world of the book continue to mutate on and on forever, through thousands of worlds. Or maybe I’ll get bored and start writing about lasers. I don’t know.
I hope I never take part in another website unless it’s pure joy.
Cover image Untitled, by Jindrich Štyrský, 1934
About the Author:
Shane Jones is the author of the novel Crystal Eaters, published by Two Dollar Radio. His previous two novels – Light Boxes and Daniel Fights a Hurricane – are available from Penguin. His non-fiction has appeared in: VICE, The Believer, The Paris Review, The Millions, Salon and The Rumpus.