Blake Butler: Q+A

Earlier this week, Flavorwire ran an article I wrote on Blake Butler. The article was taken from a significantly longer interview with Blake conducted via email. As there were certain topics that, for reasons of space, I couldn’t explore too deeply in the piece itself, I’m including the Q & A in its entirety below. Enjoy!

Pretend I Am There, EVER, and Scorch Atlas all feature worlds that have begun to degrade. Is this imagery that you plan to continue exploring?
I’ve tried to not let my head in those ways, but it keeps happening. People are stuck on what is familiar, everyday. Degrading locales feel more everyday to me than the settings of most realist novels, where if sheets are dirty it’s because someone is fucking illicitly. I feel gross in most air. In a way it is comforting to be stuck in writing from those places, about those places. I would feel more scared of a world I’d written where it was not degraded, but posh. Or like, something. I should try that. So far I’ve yet to not.

Today I’m drinking tap water out of a red plastic cup, is that nasty?

The cover and interior design of both EVER and Scorch Atlas accentuates the mood and feel of each book. How closely did you work with the designer in each case?
In both cases I had some idea of what I wanted in mind, but not a fully realized thing. I was lucky in both cases to get to work with designs (Derek White on EVER, and Zach Dodson on Scorch Atlas) who not only understood exactly what I wanted in the vague-ass way I’d say it (like, “Man, I really want it to look like someone got this smeared across their head, and like some gibberish symbols, and candy.”) and take that not only to the level of what I’d wanted, but way beyond it. Both of those guys are super smart and considerate when it comes to the idea of the book as an object, and in doing so created houses for text that in the end take the text to a whole new level. It’s nice when a designer can take something higher than it had been previously simply by understanding aura and color and texture, etc. I couldn’t feel more blessed to have gotten such specific and extensive treatment. It makes the objects things I like to stare at even long after I’ve moved on from thinking about the words.

Recently on HTML Giant, you’ve been discussing the evolution of prose. Do you see a book’s design as inherently complementary to its language?
Leading out from the above answer: yes, totally. So much authenticity can be added or taken away from a text based on how it is presented. It’s just a question of pleasing the eye and the mind, and this is not to say that a text can’t be strong without strong presentation, but it sure as hell helps: not only in the moment, but in helping extend the longevity of that object over time.

This too is why I have always found it hard to write longhand over writing on a computer: something about seeing my words in longhand makes them come out, or at least seem to come out, strangled or gross seeming. On the screen they have that much more malleability and resonance, to me. It’s clearly a mental thing, but it seems pretty obvious that delivery can be just a valuable as the things itself. There are plenty of gross metaphors I could make here but I won’t.

And, with the hand-destroyed copies in mind: at what point do alterations to a book overshadow, rather than compliment, its prose?
Hm, interesting question. I think this entirely has to do with personal taste, which has been reflected in the various ways people have requested their ‘damaged’ copies to come in the preorder phase. Some people want blood and shit and food all over the thing, while others want theirs spared, or lightly toasted. I think it’s particular to the destroyed quality of Scorch Atlas as an object, once again, as the objective here was to make the book look like it had suffered its own contents. If the book were about bike messengers, or about game show hosts with meth addictions, it wouldn’t really do much for the book’s aura for it to come beat to shit. It would more just be an eyesore. Mostly, I like my books to come clean and perfect. I often even read books without bending the spine or pages much at all: I like them to look pristine. I have returned books I ordered from the internet on seeing them arrive dinged up. So it might be funny in a way that I am doing this to my own book, but I think, again, for the context of its aura it works, and even in a way makes the experience better. The beat-ass books to me look beautiful, and right, and how they should be. I wish that we could have sent them out to Barnes and Noble like that. Pee stink in the aisles.

Do you see the remix project and the hand-destroyed editions of Scorch Atlas as coming from a similar place?
Totally. I think our approach here was to make this book like a thing that got thrown into a fuck-machine, again like the contents of the book itself. So much in the book is mangled, ripped to shit, and rhizomatic, I hope, and it only seems right to take that kind of material and let it be done horrid, beautiful things to. It’s been really fun to see people taking those words and throwing them through mud and doubled lenses and weird veins of their own design. William Burroughs is one of my great heroes, and that these idea in some way approximate his cut ups, as well as the shithole he was found in during the writing of Naked Lunch, in a hotel with the floors ankle deep in mud and trash, I don’t know, it feels right. It feels like what I would have always wanted to happen: destruction and creation cycles or something. Power fun. Whee.

What qualities did you look for when selecting the remixes?
I was pretty blown away with the level of quality and wide range of approaches people used. For the most part, I tended toward things that either made me laugh for its audacity of form (Jon Cone’s Joycean meta-mashup particularly had my head spinning)  or for the ingenuity of the ways the words were approached (like Chris Higgs’s erasure of the entire book), or whatever. It was a big mix of fun and holy fuck. And humbling to see what people can do with the same bag of language. That they’d even bother with me is a huge treat and an honor.

Hearing you read EVER earlier this year shifted my perspective on it somewhat, reconsidering it as a kind of monologue. Are the rhythms of speech something that you think about when writing in the first person?
I’ve heard similar sentiments from several people, that the way I read the book out loud made it come together in a way they hadn’t necessarily gleaned from the text itself. I think you are very right to consider the book a monologue of sorts, as much of what is there is contained in the resonances of the language, what it doesn’t say, or what it nips at, more than the words themselves. I usually am very attuned to rhythm and timing and syllables when I am making sentences, and in the case of this book I think a lot of it came from the pauses between my typing as much as the typing itself. I spent a lot of time staring out the window between words while I was making them, and the way the sentences were arranged on the page also seemed to lend a lot contextually and texturally to the words themselves (as Derek so pragmatically intuited in his designing with the brackets).

First person is funny in that way, mainly because I think that in order for that mode to work, you have to earn it. You have to have a reason for a person to be talking to the reader directly, rather than just having the things be said. It’s more than voice, or characterization: it’s a tone, a mood, a parsing between the mind that is meant to be the generator of that language, and the way that mind communicates through paper. So much can be said without saying anything really, by attuning to the finer aspects of the way a language speaks: rhythm, grunting, silence, direction, in-jokes, white space, collision, accident, syntax, visual bumping, ouch.

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