Michael Kimball Asks Blake Butler Some Questions and Then Blake Butler Answers Them

Blake Butler is the author of EVER, recently released from Calamari Press and of SCORCH ATLAS (forthcoming Featherproof Books 09/09). His work has appeared in Fence, Unsaid, Ninth Letter, New York Tyrant, etc. He lives in Atlanta and blogs at Blake Butler. Brian Evenson calls EVER "a strange, visionary ontological dismemberment." Gary Lutz says, "Blake Butler is a daring invigorator of the literary sentence." I agree and wanted to ask Blake some questions about how EVER became EVER.

Michael Kimball: The first thing I noticed about EVER was a graphic element and I'm not talking about the artwork. The brackets, where did they come from and how did you decide to make them a part of the narrative?

Blake Butler: The brackets were added to the text after its germination. That is to say -- they were installed onto the text as a guiding structure meant for reading, in replacement of the guiding structure I put in place while the words were being writ.
Originally, I wrote the lines that fit together to make EVER within a numerical ordering system, cribbed from the 1, 1.1, 1.11 style used in Wittgenstein's TRACTATUS. Because I didn't know quite where I was going during the going, in the same way that I did not know I was writing a book manuscript at all -- I was more just hashing out big hunks line by line. The numbering system helped me, in my going, to develop the kind of enmeshed logic and self-aware lay order to the puzzle of the narrator's disrupted mind. It also helped, as I began to piece the larger manuscript together, once I realized it was one manuscript, to create whatever guiding structure of flow, however skewed, that the proceedings would contain. Pretty much anywhere there is a set of brackets in the book object was originally a line numbered on a line or on a page there by itself in the ms.
Once Derek White (the book's publisher) and I began talking about doing the book, we agreed that the numbering system was no longer necessary, but that there still needed to be a kind of visual framework that helped to lead the reader along through the narrator's mind. Derek, being, I think, a brilliant book designer, suggested we play with it as he laid out the pages, which was the exact kind of exploratory projecting that seemed in the spirit of the book. I'm not sure if he tried other methods first, but the brackets were there when I opened the original draft of the book's interior's first few pages. As soon as I saw the brackets I knew that they were what had to be there now to hold the texts, in that they operate in a very similar style of compartmentalizing and claustrophobia that the words themselves demand. They are as much at the heart of the book as Derek's art is for me, and without Derek, this book would not be this book.

Kimball: I like how the brackets graphically hold the text and the way the brackets maintain the hierarchy of Wittgenstein's 1, 1.1, 1.11 and the way you close all of the brackets, eventually. Could you talk a little about the hierarchy, whether you wrote with that in mind, nesting bits of story inside other bits of story, and what kind of reading experience it creates in EVER that might not be possible with the usual paragraph-by-paragraph narrative?

Butler: The nesting was really important, I think, to the way the narration tends to work down into holes inside itself, though, also, in the larger arc, continuing forward with what pretends to be the book arc. In this way, the hierarchy almost made the writing like a proof or a math equation, in that the thoughts laid order to themselves, and could be trolled among like climbing a ladder than extends itself over several dimensions at once.
I was careful, when using the numbering system, that where the encribbings happened (i.e. switching from a 1.11 to a 1.111) happened for a reason. A thought labeled with a 1.111 had to be an extension or elucidation of the idea in the 1.11 in a vertical sense, perhaps an 'intuitive mode' if there was that sort of elucidation to be made, where as a move from 1.11 to 1.12 would be a more horizontal, or 'rational' extension (among the skewings of the narrator's rational mind). A movement, then, from one whole number to the next, with all of its underlying nesting, would represent a larger shift in the narrative as a whole, a change of mode more radical or time-oriented than the encribbings. In this way I could also go back at will and tuck in any sort of outcroppings or insistences on the narrator (or the legions therein contained).
I really enjoyed writing in this way, it purred in the more mathematical side of me, the side that loves math and chess, while in the filling out of it, the meat, I could really space out and go bonkers, within a certain mode.

Kimball: I love the mathematical structure and how that is obvious just looking at a few pages of EVER. Was it written with those page breaks in mind? Did the manuscript have, in places, one line or one paragraph per page?

Butler: The majority of EVER was written in 4 or 5 large, stand-alone sections, which I think I had some vague intention of eventually combining into something larger, though not in the way that it eventually did. These sections were each written to open and close unto themselves, and each, using the numbering system I described above, started with 1 and ended at another number. Each line or set of lines had its own section, as demonstrated by the brackets, and, I thought, should contain its own aura that did not necessarily depend on what held around it -- though when strung together still formed some trajectory, however slight. Each time I hit a new whole number, which represented a change in the direction of the unfolding, I began a new page.
Other sections were random lines I'd saved as fragments in a folder without the others in mind at all, and did not realize they fit into something larger or anything at all until much later, though the great bulk were meant to be linked.
It was only after I realized all the pieces of the book were already there, and then went back and sort of collaged the pieces into the book ms., that I started breaking up the pages, mostly to create the flow. So, some of the page breaks were accidental and some were designed once I started figuring out the book as a whole. I did some amount of toggling around, rearranging, collaging, deleting, pasting, though I think the heart of the book was always there. The whole thing is kind of an experiment in having no idea, while also knowing just exactly.

Kimball: So how did you realize that the whole thing was one text?

Butler: I remember exactly when I realized. I was staying at my parents' house, the same house I grew up in. My own apartment was hit by the first and only tornado to touch down in downtown Atlanta, which rendered my home unlivable (I was asked away by police the night it happened, my front door stacked with rubble). My stuff was all in boxes packed by men the insurance companies had hired (I was not allowed to pack the boxes for myself). The room I wrote each line inside was the room where I aged from 15 to 19.
During the rebuilding of the buildings (a process they still have not completed, though thankfully I was able to return, almost right before EVER was accepted for publication), I stayed in a room at the back of the house, next to the room where my parents sleep. It had been my sister's room before she moved out, and what stuff I'd been able to dig out of the boxes for daily using was piled up in the floor along with whatever new things I'd bought or received while staying in the room with not quite anywhere to put them.
Most of the time I spent living with my parents I did not sleep at all. I would be up until 5 am, no matter what time I laid down, and woke up with the sun. I couldn't make my mind stop, was the problem, which is what drove me to keep writing, though I did not know quite what even what I was writing while I was writing, and even when I was not writing my mind would keep in circles, still making words.
One night, I was laying in the bed, around 5 AM, and I'd been jacking around for several days then, messing with sentences in other things -- in fact, I hadn't even thought about the pieces of EVER in several months. I'm still not sure what made me think of it then, and maybe this will sound ridiculous or framed, but pretty much all of a sudden and out of nowhere I sat up with the thought -- that there was a whole book hidden on my hard drive -- that what I'd left laying in pieces, and all I had to do was find it out. I got up and put on my underwear and went into the room with the computer and went to work.

Kimball: Do you think it might have been a different book if you hadn't put your underwear on?

Butler: Had I not been staying with my parents, and writing in the same room where my mother plays puzzles online to get tired in the evening, I probably would have stayed naked. I definitely think the presence of my parents in the house and being in that house during the creation affected the mode I was inside. Had I been naked perhaps the narrator could have had an orgasm at some point or had more of a body in my mind.

Kimball: I wasn't sure if you would answer that question, but I'm glad that you did. Now let's go back to something else you said. How did breaking the pages create flow? And are you talking about a narrative flow or a page-turning flow or another kind of flow?

Butler: I think by flow I mean the way it came out of me more than how it was then meant to be taken back in by someone reading. There wasn't much, if any, consciousness of 'guiding' or 'allowing the guiding' of the text. Probably more the flow was in the moment-to-moment channeling of one word after another. I spent a lot more time between words while I was writing EVER in comparison to most else I've ever written -- I stared a lot, dazed out, listened to nothing, made no sound -- which is odd, considering that I find the more time I take to write something, the more I have to fight myself to keep from over-orchestrating or filling too much in. My best writing, or at least the writing I like of mine the most, has almost always been those texts that just 'appeared' in me, that I sat down and start typing and suddenly they were there.
At the same time, though, I think EVER is even more removed in mind from trying to know itself than a majority of what I've written, and certainly what I'd written up to its point -- though I've spent many hours since then trying to extend that removal process even further, which has been interesting and fun. I also think that there is a clear action-level narrative flow to the book, if studded with bouts of the narrator's memory skewing. There is certainly a point of opening of time flux and a direction within it -- though the paths of that forward progression, on the narrator's part, are so mangled in her own mind or perception, that it seems even more disruptive. In this case, perhaps, the disruption is the propulsion itself.

Kimball: I love what you say about the "time between words" because I think you give that to the reader with the layout and the structure. We get that space and time as part of the narrative. I feel as if the reader enters the narrative in those spaces, those blanks. There are also quite a few moments in EVER where the narrator seems to be addressing somebody else (though we don't get the response of that somebody else) and sometimes those addresses seem to be directed at the reader. Could you talk about what you were after in those places?

Butler: I imagine you are speaking about the sections in the book where the narrator either begins to (a) repeat herself, as if in insistence, to both herself and to whoever it is she has convinced herself she is talking to, or (b) speaking in such a way as if to cull up out of that void she is addressing as if for some signal all her words are being in any way registered or addressed.
I think both of these impulses come out of a kind of alter-consciousness that the book took on from me during its making. I think I often was not sure why or who I was talking through or by or even to among the making, and in a lot of ways EVER seems like a narrator trapped inside an object, an object that both creates her and terminates her, and at the same time holds her in stasis -- all of which could be seen as a series of events that recur and recur and exist in static for however long the book exists, which by some accounts would be forever.
This is relatable, too, to the narrator's interaction with a book or set of books inside the book, which by her admittance, are full of what seems to be gibberish. Another book contains a door.
Perhaps the narrator's manner of referring to the reader is her way of asking the reader for help. For a way out of the book. For a different door, one that allows leaving.
Or perhaps it is the reverse of that -- a calling in, instead.
Or perhaps it is something else entirely.

Kimball: It may not be obvious, but that takes us to this question: Which was written first EVER or SCORCH ATLAS?

Butler: I believe EVER was written two or three months after I wrote the last story in SCORCH ATLAS, or thereabouts, and thus drummed out of one of those 'between periods' that intersperse themselves between focused writing projects, which are maybe also the spots in my current life where I experience the most acute feelings of directionless and/or terror.

Kimball: As you know, I read SCORCH ATLAS first, in manuscript, then EVER, the actual book. And I saw some overlap, especially in terms of setting and feeling and story, but they are such completely different books -- EVER uses so few words to create itself and SCORCH ATLAS so many (but they both do it amazingly) -- and I couldn't figure out which way you were going. I couldn't figure out whether you were taking things out (EVER) or putting things in (SCORCH ATLAS). [Note: If you want to get a sense of the difference between EVER and SCORCH ATLAS, you can buy EVER here and you can read a piece of SCORCH ATLAS here.] I kind of wanted to make sense of it as a progression, but now I'm guessing that these are simply distinct projects. Can you put this non-question out of its misery?

Butler: Funny, as when I was writing EVER I remember distinctly thinking I was putting much more into it than I had into SCORCH ATLAS. An act of stuffing the skin until it burst open maybe. It is interesting in retrospect to find that EVER seems much more minimal in phrasing -- though certainly both are fit with a similar set of teeth in that they are both born from muck and terror. In that way, every word I write feels like it is wrought from the same hull, more rooms in more buildings under more wrecked sky. I have often entertained the idea that everything I have made during a certain period of my mind thus far as all the same word repeated into an oblivion, and where in whatever arrangements of themselves believe they have snuck off from the others, they are really just another book inside a book inside a book, one that I will never finish writing, until I am finished writing. But really, to be more true, I think the idea at-large is of me sticking my hand into one big blister and pulling out different colors of rheum and phlegm and maybe vein meat or something each other time. One enormous mess.

(Michael Kimball's third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, was recently published in the US, UK, and Canada (website). The Believer calls it "a curatorial masterpiece." Time Out New York calls the writing "stunning." And the Los Angeles Times says the book is "funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking." His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the collaborative art project -- Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).)