“Everything is true, nothing is permitted” An Interview with Blake Butler

by on Feb.21, 2012

[Notre Dame undergraduate Joe Wegener conducted the following interview with Blake Butler in connection with Blake reading at the Notre Dame Undergraduate Literary Festival last week. Part of the interview was published in the Notre Dame Observer, but I thought I would publish the whole thing here.]

Joe Wegener: So, first off, what are you gonna’ be reading at the Lit. Festival? Nothing, There Is No Year?

Blake Butler: No idea. I tend to wait to the last minute to figure out what feels right. Probably the fiction, as reading nonfiction feels weird in the mouth.

JW: I can dig it. Let’s keep talking fiction vs. non-fiction. Nothing: A portrait of Insomnia was published this past year by Harper Perennial. Your first work of non-fiction, yeah? What was the research process like? How did it effect the movement and pacing of your writing? I read somewhere that you wrote the first draft of There Is No Year in about 10 days. This must have been a little different.

BB: I thought I was going to hate researching because I more like to write out of mood and frenzy of sorts, and I thought that would maybe slow me down. Though I found the process of reading intensively about what I was writing about while I was writing about it to be actually very motivating, in that it provided constant stimulation and springboarding for the forward progress of the work rather than a thing I had to attend to first. With something like sleep as a subject, the research can be found almost anywhere: you find references to it in most anything you read, and that made a nice kind of web around the center of the idea. I kind of began with what I already knew about insomnia from my own experience and then moved outward from there in whatever direction seemed to intuitively make sense, with some places along the way I knew I wanted to touch. I still wrote the book rather quickly, as I still approached it with that same force I apply to fiction, though in both cases producing an early draft and then sculpting it intensely over time thereafter makes a nice mix of results somewhere between mystery and logic.

JW: Very cool. I love that you “like to write out of mood and frenzy of sorts.” In another interview, when asked about the spatial format of There is No Year, you talked about the “spatial constraints” as sort of shaping the story’s logic and narrative flow. It’s interesting that (in Nothing) you moved outward from your own experiences “in whatever direction seemed to intuitively make sense.” In this way, did you feel like you actually had more creative freedom/space with this project?

BB: I definitely felt that having the facts and experiences and emotions and ideas of sleep and consciousness surrounding my progress rather than just walking blindly into whatever sentences I was writing gave me a closer knit but also bigger kind of room to play around in. Constraints can be really freeing in this way, in that you don’t have to construct everything from the ground up, as you often do in fiction. I can quote Andy Warhol or mention him and then the book gathers the idea of him there, not to mention whatever comes around him. The nonfictional body gathers and consumes a lot in the process as you are going, I guess I mean, if you approach it the right way, which is certainly encouraging toward making even bigger spaces.

JW: Big spaces… HTMLgiant is a big, BIG space. The schizo literature magazine blog of the future, as I like to call it. It’s contributor-driven, wide-ranging, and totally fucking awesome. What is your role as editor like? Do you try to orient the site (its field of discussion, thought) in certain ways?

BB: I am glad you see it as shizo, that is exactly what I hope for from it, and what feels true. Early on I was active in the site mainly by getting people whose voices I thought would lend themselves well to such a state: mainly writers whose personal blogs I already read, that could then feed that energy into the field. I still direct the overall feel that way, and dunk my head in frequently enough to turn things ways I might like, though as a classical “editor” my policy for content is an inversion of an old line: Everything is true, nothing is permitted. Basically I like for contributors to have total open access, and to say things without the lens of having to pitch or explain themselves to an editor, or to have that editor wield their ideas on the ideas. It gathers a messy mass in that way, often self contradictory, sometimes loud. There are plenty of other places who do the opposite, so I’m glad to be in the midst of such.

JW: The “messy mass” – self-contradictory, loud, and almost always entertaining. It’s an awesome site. Let’s keep talking about online literature. One of the most popular posts on HTMLgiant right now is “Tao Lin’s Big Kid Book Deal.” In the post, Daniel Robertson writes, “A book published by Vintage will be seen, not just by critics that have managed to avoid Lin and maybe still haven’t heard of him, but also by mainstream readers, the Barnes and Noble shoppers who have definitely not heard of him and who read the Stieg Larsson trilogy.” Talk to me about the trajectory of online literature. Do you see more self-made, blog-popular types like Lin jumping into the mainstream?

BB: Things are happening, sure. I wouldn’t call it jumping to the mainstream, but more an expansion of the field. It seems obvious that the internet is reshaping the way information is delivered, and therefore how a thing like a book might work, and certainly there will be some crossover. I don’t know that it will change anyone’s tastes, but it will give at least some of them a chance to get confronted with a different way, which is good for people even if they don’t take to it. It seems like this will continue, as will the reverse of the previously large scale author retreating to the small press world. It’s tough to predict what will happen to books five years from now, much less than twenty, but as far as I’m concerned things feel to be shifting, spreading.

JW: It’ll be interesting to see what kind of lit. comes out of that “shifting, spreading,” as you put it. OK, so one last question:

It’s 11 p.m. on Friday night. You get a text message from your main man James Franco. He’s hanging out at a Motel 6 with Leonard Cohen (22 year old, Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen) and David Lynch. Early-90’s Brett Easton Ellis is on the way, he just has to “pick something up from this guy named ‘Screech’ on the corner of Mulholland and Encino but, like, don’t worry about it because you wouldn’t know him.” Together, the five of you will be found responsible for the death of pop-sensation Whitney Houston. What happens?

BB: We watch Leave It To Beaver reruns in easy silence

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Mark Pritchard

    How did the interviewee manage to keep from punching the interviewer every time he said something stupid like “I can dig it” and “totally fucking awesome”?

  2. Johannes

    What is it about these words that makes you feel so violent?

  3. Kent Johnson

    I wanted to ask Blake why HTML Giant would not have thought to at least link to Montevidayo or Salon or the Chicago Reader or the Santiago daily La Tercera when there was considerable discussion a couple months ago about the protest actions at the Poetry Foundation by the Croatoan Poetic Cell–especially given the fact that the PF was calling forth the cops and attempting to arrest and prosecute the perfectly peaceful protestors. In what way did this not qualify as something newsworthy for HTML Giant? In what way would this not have been something at least worthy of offering for wider consideration and discussion? Why it not have been most natural to offer a link to a very unusual feature article in a place like Salon about a controversial topic among poets? The omission seems just plain weird.

    I have noticed that HTML Giant is one of the most often linked-to sites by the PF’s Harriet blog. I hope this wouldn’t in some way help explain HTML’s noticeable silence on the shameful behavior of the Poetry Foundation. A few people have suggested this *does* explain it, that the quiet was merely another instance of protocoled Rules of the Game Lit-Field self-censorship. But I was wondering what Blake himself might say, if anything.

  4. Johannes

    I don’t know why Kent, but it is true that not every blog links to every post about every event./Johannes

  5. Kent Johnson

    That’s true. The Harriet blog certainly didn’t link to the coverage, either!

    Seriously, though, I understand quite well why most poetry blogs wouldn’t have wanted to touch the issue with a hundred-foot pole. Big Momma Poetry Foundation has a long reach now into the “post-avant.” So one must be careful, you know. Gotta play those cards with care…

    My point in asking about HTML’s failure of coverage under this post on Blake is that the blog does regularly link to Montevidayo stuff (where the PF events were well and nobly covered), so they obviously knew about the matter. And HTML is also *all about* unusual, newsy lit-news stuff. It’s their bread and butter. What could be more unusual and Field-newsy than a 100-million dollar literary behemoth calling the cops on young poets for peaceful Institution-Critique protest (at a Raul Zurita event no less, where Zurita himself later praised the CPC activists!)? Or that this organization sent two legal representatives to aggressively argue in court that generous jail time be applied to one of the “offending” poets at the most violent women’s prison in the country? Or, you know, what could be more newsy than that a publication like Salon magazine (along with a few other very prominent places here and abroad) ran a feature story about it? You’re going to tell me that HTML wouldn’t have linked to a Salon story on Tao Lin, for example? Of course they would have. True, one can’t cover *everything,* but sometimes omissions are not necessarily innocent…

    And that’s what I am saying here: I think the HTML Giant editors purposely chose to blank out the shameful PF events because they knew their Lit-pals at the Poetry Foundation wanted the issue as suppressed as it could be.