Q&A with Blake Butler, Nothing & There Is No Year

Post Author:
Blake Butler HTML Giant

Deeply unsettling, but strangely familiar. Those are the terms I always come back to when I think of Blake Butler's writing. HIs words and the images they evoke tumble together to create new worlds rooted in what's already here, a certain familiarity imbues the otherness to create the uncanny.

In Blake's newest fiction work, There is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011) the reader tracks a family in a house that makes unusual discoveries about their artificial selves and eggs buried in odd places, and just a general unraveling and decay all spaced unevenly and placed on ash-gray pages. Small glimmers of life among a heavy haze of uncertain doom. Sounds sad, but it's not: it's just true.

Blake also has a non-fiction book coming out in about a month titled, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia (Harper Perennial, 2011) in which he relays his own personal struggle with insomnia. Blake also manages the best Internet blog of the future, HTMLGiant where devoted contributors and fanbase dissect all types of crazy lit happenings. It's my must-read everyday for amusement and to find the best ideas about books.

Find Blake at his personal blog. Here are a few answers from Blake about his work.

From stuff I've seen you write or respond to, you're obviously into Deleuze & Guittari and their idea of the rhizome. What's your shortened version of that for readers that may be unfamiliar and what sway does it have in There Is No Year?

My basic functional understanding of the rhizome as D&G used it is a system in the image of a network of roots, with exits and openings all over it, that contains its information in a nonlinear, perhaps mazelike or anthill-ish sort of way. The content is transcribed over a body that has all kinds of nodes and openings and pockets and such, allowing users to each transverse it in so many numbers of ways that the experience of that body isn't uniform, and will vary in access, approach, experience, and so forth.

In a sense I imagine that is both how I see the book as a reading experience, and how it was written. Though I wrote it linearly, in the way it appears, scene A, scene B, to scene ZZ, etc., the way the information is expressed and how it works within itself and in transmission I think has a rhizome-like body. Each sentence can connect to other sentences in oblique ways, and they all are part of a larger system. I like that the book has a clear body but is scattershot in its dissemination of images and ideas, allowing each reader a different sort of experience based on their own methods of entry and access. There are parts of the system that are deeper buried, and the skeleton of the book is more like a skin than a bone.

There are also parts of the book I have buried in a way that might not allow them to be found. Puzzles in the puzzles that aren't necessarily meant to be directly handled. In a way, writing the book felt like coding a game, though a game that runs in blood and dirt rather than circuits.

Your description often involves a lot of raw and natural decay, like the dirty underside of the whole 'organic' food movement. Why is this breaking / decay / rotting matter for your stories and writing?

I think it feels hard in the world to find anything that feels genuinely undecayed. Even a child's toy right out of the box has the residue of the first touch to it, as well as the time in the factory, the components that had to be fashioned out of elements, the mental surroundings of other toys, the light in the Walmart where maybe you bought it. Rooms and food are maybe the worst of these, there is just so much that exists under the surface of those kinds of objects whether they seem extremely clean or not. That I dwell on this too much, and more rapidly the more I allow myself to start thinking about it, I guess is just symptomatic of something like the feeling of never being able to be fully asleep or awake.

The format of There is No Year: is that the way you wrote it? Or were those more editing situations? How do you judge when a space/aporia is enough or not enough?

Yes, the layout of the text and the page breaks and paragraph breaks and alignments, etc., are all how they were written. I don't think I would have written the words in the same way if they hadn't been placed into these spatial constraints. It allows the logic of the book to shift before I was even writing the words that symbolized the logic. Many of these specifications in appearance also pertain to emotional elements of the book that I wanted to be felt or sensed rather than elucidated directly. It's not meant to “look weird” or even mimic the experience of the energy drive that moves the plot forward: instead it is like hallways in a large building maybe, though not the hallways you are on at any moment but the ones that are surrounding you through the walls. I like the idea of being near something without knowing you are near it, and still having that affect your responses, your attention, and your general comportment. I also think that using those formats makes many readers think it is doing something different than it is, hence the countless references the book has gotten to House of Leaves, though really that book and its format had nothing to do with my own preoccupations. It's meant to work more as precursor to the language than as a feeling of motion on paper. I think my judgment was based entirely on my blood.

Which one had you been working on longer? Nothing or There is No Year? Have you done much non-fiction writing or did you find the process to be much different?

I wrote the original draft of No Year in 10 days from beginning to end, followed by a day of break, then 10 straight days of intense revision and addition, which led to the completion of the full major draft. Over the next two years, and again after working with my editor Cal Morgan at Harper, I played and revised and added at various stages, without trying to alter the body of the original movement too much (though I did add about 10k words of scenes in response to questions Cal posed about motions in the book, which I think deepened some of the tunnels and connected some passages that had meant to touch and didn't fully quite).

I wrote the original draft of Nothing in about 5 months, with the first full draft coming out around 130k words, which I then scaled back to around 70k, cutting loose ends and information that I needed to write out to get the body of the book fully on paper, but then could dismiss like scaffolding. I really enjoyed writing nonfiction, and being able to use research and other bodies of work to plug into my own machine, generating some modes of thinking I wouldn't have normally. Though ultimately a lot of the feel of the writing was the same in that I could feel what I was pounding at before I was fully there. For me, writing usually feels like a place rather than an act, a place where I like go and wander around and find little holes and buildings that hopefully eventually I figure out are a state, kind of from moment to moment like the way you wander in your sleep, in the midst of some kind of environment that reveals itself by shifting, if only really a series of shafts or close ups of the larger thing, which as you learn to return to it again and again, you begin to find the whole of.

Haven't read Nothing yet nor do I suffer from insomnia, but does insomnia function for you like drugs function for some people or alcohol? Or are those comparisons pretty ridiculous?

I think one of the major myths about serious insomnia is that it's debilitating more than anything. Often people will see I write a lot and then hear that I have sleeping issues and immediately assume the former is a product of the latter, though really when in the midst of that sleeplessness, it's hard to even want to sit at a desk, much less coherently type something. I think again it is more the residue of those feelings, and how you begin to see the world differently inside them, that then fuels another kind of understanding that you can respond to much more efficiently when actually well rested. How all that relates to drug use I'm not sure, though I do know that if I tried to write drunk more than in very specific measures, I'd be basically writing in a beepbeepbopbop language, even more so than I guess some people say I do sometimes already.

Do you ever want HTML Giant to be something other than it is? Or is it how you generally expected it to be?

I like the schizo nature of that website, in that it is at the same time often (to me) infuriating, inspiring, blank, overflowing, helpful, bananas, fun, ridiculous, etc. The people who give their time to put words up there are all important people to me, and I think too often some of the more wild or fun or spazzy stuff that happens there overclouds the bigger picture, but I also like that. I like an amalgam. I guess I wish people would relax more sometimes, but who's to say.