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Blake Butler

Blake Butler is the author of Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, There Is No Year, Ever, and Scorch Atlas.


"I am always looking for new writers like Blake Butler and rarely finding them, but Scorch Atlas is one of those truly original books that will make you remember where you were when you first read it. Scorch Atlas is relentless in its apocalyptic accumulation, the baroque language stunning in its brutality, and the result is a massive obliteration."

– Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody

"Blake Butler engages in a struggle worth witnessing. Amid the loosely woven threads that constitute his story, shards of crystal poetry strand the reader in wonderment. There’s something so big about Blake’s writing. Big as men’s heads. Each inhale of Blake’s wheeze brings streamers of loose hair, the faces of lakes and oceans, whales washed up half-rotten. You can try putting on a facemask made out of old newspaper. You can breathe in smaller rhythms. But you won’t be able to keep this man out once you’ve opened his book. Open it!"

– Ken Sparling, author of Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall

"Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas is precisely that — a series of maps, or worlds, 'tied... so tight they couldn’t crane their necks.' Everything is either destroyed, rotting or festering -- and not only the physical objects, but allegiances, hopes, covenants. Yet these worlds are not abstract exercises, he is speaking of life as it is, where there might be or may be, 'glass over grave sites in display,' and where we will be forced to make or where we have 'made facemasks out of old newspapers.' The sole glimmer of light comes in recollection, as in: 'a bear the size of several men. . . . There in the woods behind our house, when I was still a girl like you.'"

– Jesse Ball, author of Samedi the Deafness

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Scorch Atlas

An Interview with Blake Butler


Blake Butler needs no introduction, which means all I need to say here is that the following interview was conducted using Google Docs between August 10, 2009 and October 18, 2009, and it originally appeared in Keyhole Magazine in October 2009.

1. Scorch Atlas

MOLLY GAUDRY: Hi Blake. Thanks for doing this. What would you like to say, right off the bat, about Scorch Atlas?

BLAKE BUTLER: I would like to say that the first thing I wanted to do when I had the book in my hands is eat it. So I am going to. My plan is to eat one page of the book every day or thereabouts until it is all gone. Page by page, with sauces, maybe some candles. A bubble bath. When I am done maybe I will start with a second copy, if I’m still hungry. I am always very hungry. This book had been a long time coming in a way, and so now that it is here I just want it back inside me. I mean that in the best way.

MG: What would it mean to be “back inside” you, not literally?

BB: It would mean that now that it is an object and having removed itself from me it is a picture of my brain and shit and mindstate of that period, if not fully even back then controlled by me. It would mean that having seen the thing come out of me I would have as just as much relationship with it existing if I were (and am) to eat it and have it come through in my flesh, but even then it would shit right back out of me again if not quite resembling what it did the first time. At least then it would be a thing I could fully wipe away. All of this said I am very happy with the object as an object and my relationship with it is the same as it would be with my bed, which is equally to me known and unknown, ruined and not ruined, soft and full of bugs.

MG: There are some videos of you actually eating your book; the first page you ate raw, and the second you drowned in ketchup. I believe you’ve eaten a few more, though the videos aren’t up yet. So far, which pages have been the tastiest? Do you have ideas for future recipes?

BB: The tastiest was the most difficult one, which was the first. The very first page in the book is pure black on both sides, all ink. I didn’t think about it when I started with that one. I didn’t think about water making it easier either, so choking was involved. It was pretty good to taste that way. Since then I’ve gotten lazy. I’ve done some more but yeah, none have made it matching with that first black mass. I’d like to make one with a fruit cocktail and a tube of icing. I’d like to wrap some inside veal saltimboca and maybe one with human flesh fritters (I really do want to try human). When I get serious I’ll just take a straight up bite out of the book and break my teeth.

MG: Tell us about the design. It is a beautiful book — perhaps what I consider the most beautiful book on my shelf. Usually, one wouldn’t think that things of beauty should be destroyed, but in this case it makes perfect sense. Why?

BB: That’s all Zach Dodson. I’m still amazed by what he did. I had high hopes for the way this object would appear when it was finished, and he far exceeded those hopes. I’ve really never seen another book that looks like this one, and that is a blessing I can only continue to be thankful for. Each page in the book has a unique texture to it, handmade and scanned in. I feel grateful that even if the words in the book were shit, one could still sit and stare at this book and see something in it. It’s like batting with a quadrupled sized bat.

We wanted to destroy these books because they were designed to look as if they’d suffered through their contents, the rains and bugs and bloated babies and weird fire. It seems interesting that the books themselves appear destroyed in their freshly-printed state, and in going on and destroying them physically, they really take on that aura in full. If bookstores would stock books that were bloated triple sized with slick water and covered in dust and burned some and smelling of rot, they would all be like that, I imagine. I like the feeling of something that’s been beat. Some of the books I most remember in my life are ones I snuck wet out of ruined houses. One year when my friend’s neighbor’s house burned down, there was a bag of books out on the lawn. I fished a picture book out of the pile that had a shot of a nude woman on it. I had never owned a picture of a naked body. The book was covered in bugs and mottled and made mushy. I took it home. I think I hid it underneath some junk deep in my closet, and I would take it out and look at the woman’s hair and I would sweat.

MG: Without giving too much away, I love how your DIAGRAM piece functions, spatially, in this collection. This is an odd comparison, but I was reminded of the intercalary chapters in The Grapes of Wrath. I’m not sure I’ve encountered the structuring device in many other books. What led to that decision? Or, which came first: the DIAGRAM piece or the idea for Scorch Atlas?

BB: The layering of the storms from the DIAGRAM piece actually came about as a design element, thought up by Zach. His idea was to put one of the storms before each story so that the story itself could then be designed to look as if it had suffered through that storm. Though we ended up keeping that idea contained to the paper that the storms appear on, rather than throughout the book, but the effect I think was even more provocative in how it played out as an intermediary for the mood of the whole book. Because of the nature of that piece, as a series of storms that continually worsen in breadth and horror, it really for me added a sense of continuity and gradation that brought the book together that much more as an object than if the storms had appeared as the singular story, as it was in my original manuscript. I am really lucky that I had Zach and Jonathan on this project, as it was ideas like that that really took the book as a whole to a whole new level, beyond what I’d even imagined for it during its becoming.

As for which came first, I didn’t really intended to write Scorch Atlas as a book as it was going on. I simply was pounding out these stories, one after another, and only after I’d finished them all, the DIAGRAM one included, did I realize I had a full on manuscript. I think the only story written after I had assembled the book is ‘Want for Wish for Nowhere,’ which oddly might be my favorite in the book.

MG: I often ask writers to name their own favorite pieces, and many kindly refuse. Why is “Want for Wish for Nowhere” your favorite? And why did you write “oddly”?

BB: Yeah, having a favorite seems hard, and kind of stodgy. I probably change my opinions on how I feel about certain bits regularly, based on the way the mind changes and like if I happen to open the book and be in a bad mood and see it shitty, or find some error in how I’d phrased it, how I’d do it differently now. I kind of don’t like reading things in print I’ve made as I always want to edit them some more, which is less a result of not having edited it fully in the first place, and more of how flesh morphs the more you eat and listen. Then there’s the problem of going back and editing something you made a while back and then coming back even later and finding the edits you made ruined the original voice. I like concentrated phases of writing, concise eras: it’s got more value to me than the constantly affirmed ‘love labor’ of writing something over years and years. Why not get a picture of yourself in a moment? You have a lot more time to get old.

I realize none of that answered your question, which points to that favorites are fucked.

MG: Do you have a least favorite from the collection? Why or why not?

BB: Everything I write is my favorite and least favorite. I don’t think about it past that. Thinking too hard about one’s own writing as a mantle is asking to be shit on in the hair.

MG: I think Matt Bell and I are agreed that “The Gown from Mother’s Stomach” is our favorite. Have you received much feedback on this story? I’d be interested to hear some of it, if you’ll share.

BB: That tends to be the one I hear the most about, which kind of confuses me, honestly. I shat that story out in a few hours. Actually, I wrote the first sentence down on a scrap while I was asleep once, and found it, and sat down and wrote the first half of the story from it in about 45 minutes. Then that sat on my hard drive for about 4 months, and I came back and added the bit about the bear, then added the second half, about another 45 minutes. Then I edited it a few times. I think people like it because it seems to me the most contained. I’m not sure what else it is about the story that people respond to any more than the others, but I am glad people like it. Maybe it also kind of comments on how sometimes the least amount of work you put into something, the quicker it comes out as it is supposed to be, the more aura it has about it, and the more immediate light, maybe. I don’t hate the story, but if I had to go back to the above question, it might be my least favorite now simply because I am a contrarian.

MG: I feel compelled to share with you that I’m teaching Scorch Atlas in a sophomore-level Introduction to Literature course. I’ve learned that in this setting, as opposed to a creative writing workshop, it is absolutely necessary to facilitate the students’ discussion. To this end, I’ve given them handouts on plot, character, setting, tone, style, etc., and I was really pleased to discover that your book really works alongside these sort of generic questions (e.g. Who is the protagonist? What does s/he want? How does this complicate the plot?). How do you respond to this–the idea that your writing, which I think is so stylistically brilliant, also satisfies, or fits into, these rather traditional constraints? (If the stories didn’t do so, I think my students would be absolutely lost. I, and they, are grateful!)

BB: That is nice, that they respond well. I think everything has these elements. Even the most obscurist, language-oriented, symbol-laden text you could conjure would have these things in them, particularly if you are scrounging for them. Story architects itself. This is why I find it amusing when people, as authors, are so concerned about roadmapping these kinds of elements during the creation period, as if it has to be something they set up and intone, like some kind of wizard, instead of just letting it generate itself naturally, out of ideas, the way most days do, in life. I don’t understand, or rather, don’t buy, the notion that any one person can be so in tune and ahead of every reader that he or she must design and present these elements, however covertly, to their audience. It cheapens the fun, and you can smell it usually a hundred pages away, this kind of furtive bending, implanting. “This story has fake tits!” There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, I’m sure, but I’d rather not know about them. Let the magic be the magic.

MG: One of my academic interests is ecocriticism: the study of literature and the environment. Do you consider Scorch Atlas to have an investment in fate of the natural world? To what extent are the characters responsible for the downfall of their habitat?

BB: Honestly I’ve never been much of a nature person. I hide inside a lot. The dirt and air confuse me. Maybe I’m a bitch. I like clean pants. More than that, I think I am afraid of water and of mud. I am afraid of being ripped up into something. At the same time, I am fascinated by it. A lot of my natural interaction comes from dreaming: the way that water and mud is embedded in my blood.

I wouldn’t say particularly that the characters in Scorch Atlas are ‘responsible’ for the destruction of their surroundings any more than they are responsible for the destruction of any other element in air. Rot is natural. People are rotting. It breeds itself. It’s what comes. You can be as clean and progressive and protective as you want. Still. It does.

* * *

2. The Internet and Year of the Liquidator

MG: What is your relationship to the Internet and what was your introduction to online writing?

BB: My relationship to the internet is when my house’s computer started being able to talk to buildings outside of our building I began to masturbate using information that those other places would sent to our house’s computer. I am from the BBS land where I would use dial up to make my mother’s phoneline interact with adult servers so I could see women remove their clothes. Now the nudity on the internet is so clear you don’t need to look at it anymore.

My introduction to online writing was with what I think of as the first wave of strong independent publishing personas, including Eyeshot, Pindeldyboz, Haypenny, the Glut, McSweeney’s, and some other places. Part of me misses the days when that community was very small like that and yet seemed larger than it is now, as large as it is now. Without finding that, I might be still using computers to talk to other computers but they would talk about machine languages and databases. Jesus christ.

MG: Do you believe in Internet personas? Or do you think people are as they really are? Who are some of your favorite Internet presences?

BB: I do not believe in internet personas, I believe in personas. I don’t think people are what they really are. I do not believe people believe in their personas. I do not believe people are personas. I believe people are a mash of things mostly shit and a little bit of tickle and some candy if they are good people and I guess a little light. My favorite internet presence is Lorf Ben Undwadsensen who lives inside a subnet of Google and delivers the mail with his teeth.

MG: From personal experience I can say that you are very generous with your time. I had stumbled upon an issue of Ninth Letter, read your story “The Gown from Mother’s Stomach,” loved it, pulled up your blog, sent you fan mail, and you responded! And it was your blog that introduced me to online journals. I read your stories, I stayed at those sites, I read others’ stories. A world unfolded. I’ve always wanted to thank you for that. If not for you, there wouldn’t be me. Such a strange thing to say, but I know it’s true. Do you feel an obligation toward other writers? Or, why are you so nice?

BB: It’s not that I am nice. I am not nice really. I just really do enjoy words, and I get such pleasure out of words that I want to see more words and I want to do what I can to extend the pleasure I receive in the form of words to other people who also have the receptors for that pleasure and who have the same want in them to make words that I do. I get a bigger kick I think out of publishing and hyping other people’s work than I do spreading my own. Ultimately though it is about the reflex and the condition and I exist inside that condition more than I exist anywhere else, and so it is very natural for me to breathe and eat inside and around it, it is a thing I could not change if I wanted to. Not nice, a blood obligation. It is nice though maybe that it seems nice because that maybe means that it feels true what I am saying and I am not just a mouth.

MG: Tell us about Year of the Liquidator. I think we’re all interested in the long version.

BB: I’d always wanted to start a small book press. It was a matter of inevitablility. I think I get more pleasure out of working with other people’s ends than my own, outside the hemisphere of just writing. I was just waiting for the right time. When I found Kristina, I knew immediately her book had to be the beginning. Shane and I had thrown the idea of working together around for a long while, and when I sent him K’s manuscript, he had the same reaction: this is the one. So we committed to it, and the commitment pressed the birth. I am really excited about the prospect, and hope that things go smoothly enough that we can do a couple of titles a year. We are approaching it very calmly, and yet with great excitement, as we want it to go exactly right, to be a small, good thing that has an aura, and in the tradition of my favorite small presses: making book objects that might not appear anywhere else.

Not sure yet what we will do after the first book is finished. We’re kind of waiting to see how things go, and moving from there. Hopefully one day we can read submissions openly, but for now we’re moving one nidge at a time, and there’s already so much I want to do. Time is hard.

* * *

3. The Book Deals

MG: It’s no secret by now that you’ve landed yourself a two-book deal with Harper Perennial. How far along are you in these two manuscripts? And do publishing companies often sign deals for unfinished books?

BB: The novel is finished, other than minor tinkering and copy edits, and has been for some time. The deal was initiated around the novel, and the addition of the second book, which came up in discussing the contracts, was sold on a proposal for the idea of the book. I think that’s pretty standard, actually. I’ve heard of many deals where the second book was on spec. And especially for nonfiction, which is often I think sold on proposal. As for how far along the nonfiction is, I started work on it a couple of weeks ago, and it is coming very fluidly. It’s a book I’ve had in me for a long time. I feel excited for it.

MG: You now have an agent and a major publishing company behind you, which I’m sure includes a publicity department and such — possibly even eventual tour money. Does this relieve you of any burdens? Do you feel you have more time to write?

BB: I haven’t gotten too deep into feeling how it feels to be with a major house. So far it’s been as good as I could ask. My editor, Cal Morgan, is wicked smart and knows what he’s doing. I’ve felt nothing but encouraged in my vision, as surprising as it might be for such an odd book at a big house. I think Harper Perennial is really interested in pushing boundaries and getting new, interesting books out there. I feel blessed and excited to be a part of that. Still not sure about publicity matters, or touring support, etc., but that’s always been a backseat concern for me. I’m just happy to have a wonderful publisher for the books, one that will surely help me get my work to a larger audience, I believe, without compromising its essence in the slightest.

As for having more time to write, I’ve always had a lot of time. I make it my priority, and my freelance jobs have allowed me a great deal of fluidity. I’m lucky in that regard, that I’ve been able to maintain such a loose schedule for moneymaking around what I really love. Everyone should look into freelance writing online: there’s just so many ways to make a moderate amount of money that clears your work week enough that you can write from home. It’s much easier than it seems.

MG: What, if anything, is different?

BB: Well, for one, writing a book that has been already sold feels interesting. I’ve certainly never done something like that before, and while at first I was afraid it might feel weird having that looming, it’s actually been very freeing. I’ve always worked best with deadlines and schedules, and if anything it really is motivating me even more to be focused and rigorous and push myself to make something wild and good. It’s been especially nice in that up until a few months ago I felt like I’d wasted a lot of this year spinning wheels and slightly off-focused. I’m getting more done on the actual work than I have all year. Things feel strong.

MG: Your non-fiction is about insomnia. Is it about your insomnia? 

BB: It is about my insomnia, and insomnia in general, and also about obsession, and obsessing, which I believe has been the cause of a lot of my sleep trouble since I was very young. It is also about tunnels and masturbating and weird light and encryption and video games and film and fear.

MG: When did your insomnia begin? Is it constant or does it come and go? Any relationship to your creative output?

BB: It is a thing that has been inside me since before I was born and is still inside me now even though I sleep rather well most nights, this year. It had been unrelenting in the insomaniac form through various periods of my early childhood and especially in my midteens to late twenties, if studded in different places by errors in speech or moving or other brainwaves. It has an influence on creative output in that it is all through me at every moment and when I can control it best I am at my best, and when I can not control it it makes me feeble, but it is always in my flesh and I am always breathing it and without it I would not exist. In all of this I mean insomnia as an understanding more than simply the medical condition of not being able to sleep. I’m pretty deep in the midst of all this thinking right now as I am writing a full length text about the condition.

MG: What can you share about the fiction manuscript?

BB: It’s a full length novel in segmented scenes about a family who comes to live inside a new house and finds copies of themselves already there. There is also a black box on their new neighbors’ lawn that continues to grow in size. There are strangers who come to the house to visit wearing gloves. I think I thought of it as a novel in a David Lynch kind of mind while I was writing it, though it might feel totally different than that overall. It is also about consumption, young death, sleep action, tunnels, creation, weird light, haunting, disease, and death. It is a book I have been trying to get out of me for years and years now, and feels like the best thing I’ve ever written. I hope people like it.

* * *

4. Who is Blake Butler?

MG: Take a look around. Describe something about where you are, right now, that you haven’t really noticed before.

BB: There are patches of weird sparse hair on the skin below the knuckle of my pointer and middle fingers of both hands, but not on the other fingers or the thumbs. As much as I see my hands, I’d never seen that until you asked. I can almost count the follicles. Is it true that each hair is held into your body by little microscopic insects? Did I make that up or is that common knowledge? Those four fingers are the fingers I type most with. Maybe those insects wrote this book. If not, they should have. I’ll say they did.

MG: Tell us about Blake Butler as a kid. And as an adolescent? A high schooler? College boy? And now?

BB: I think I’ve always been the same person. People too highly rate the idea of mental change. I feel like the melding of an 8 year old and and an 80 year old, in a body of whatever age I am at any time. If I could have changed I probably would have done so by now. I will probably spend the rest of my life saying the same thing. I will get older. I will eat more. Hopefully I will go deaf.

MG: That seems an odd thing to say. You tend to be full of odd things to say. What are some of the oddest things you’ve ever said? (Maybe not odd to you, but odd to anyone listening in.)

BB: What’s the oddest thing I’ve said. I durno, man. Send me a tape recorder, I’ll give you hours of what I say inside my sleep.

MG: Where do you see yourself a year from now? Five years? Twenty-five?

BB: Hopefully I will go deaf. Other than that, I don’t see myself anywhere, even tomorrow. I don’t mean that morbidly, I mean that I don’t know and I don’t want to know. If I knew where I was going to be, even if I loved where that was, I would probably do everything I could to make that not occur. Again, I am a contrarian by nature, and yet when mostly around strangers I give in to others’ wills. The more I love a person the more mean I am to them often, I fear. A lot of the time I just want every day to be even more exactly the same as every other day than it already feels they are. What am I talking about? I have no idea.

MG: What are you talking about? I have no idea.

BB: Glorbbenbit pu-sis londum difdong, queebibbit andit ressmonblerrib.

MG: Do you have any pets? If not, why not? If so, what do you call them/it? 

BB: I’m not good at pets, I get bored, impatient. The same reason I’ll likely never have kids. My one true love as a pet is my Margot, a chihuahua, who now lives with my ex-girlfriend who gifted her to me. I miss my Margot.

MG: How about some more favorites? Favorite liquid?

BB: Urine while it’s coming out. Coffee in my mouth.

MG: Favorite vowel?

BB: o

MG: Favorite consonant?

BB: b

MG: Favorite air?

BB: Whatever air is inside my mother at any minute.

MG: Favorite human shape?

BB: Pleased

MG: Favorite sound?

BB: No sound

MG: Favorite hue?

BB: Black or fire engine red

MG: Favorite digestable?

BB: Money

MG: Favorite texture?

BB: Beckett

MG: Favorite shelter?

BB: No sound

MG: Favorite “recipe” of “ingredients” [that make up anything]?

BB: Masturbate in the shower until you are about to come then stop. Go wet into the bedroom and wrap yourself in a bedsheet, constricting just your arms and head. Lay down in the floor for 45 minutes.

MG: Is there a single book you’ve read more than any other? 

BB: I used to read Donald Barthelme’s Snow White once a year. So like 8 times of that, but I haven’t read it the past couple years. In terms of quantitative time spent with one book in hand it might be Infinite Jest, the book that made me want to work. I have read that book through fully twice and in bits and pieces many times and certain sections of it more times than I have read Snow White in full. In my mind I’ve been reading the same sentence in the same book for my entire life but it’s been a whole life figuring out what that sentence is and I still haven’t got it right.

MG: If you could have any combination of three superpowers, what would they be, and why that particular combination?

BB: I would like to cry money; I would like to be able to turn off sound and turn on sound, and make the sound into what I want the sound to be; I would like to be able to shrink people and grow people and throw people in the air largely and touch them and make them laugh. That particularly combination because it’s the sounds that just came out of my hands when I did not think at all about the question, which is my greatest respect for the question.

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