An Interview with Blake Butler - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Blake Butler

[Writer]
by Shane Jones
July 6th, 2020
Illustration by Caroline Corrigan
“People waste so much time wondering why, or what it means, or what is to be taken. Meaning isn’t meant to be condensed and processed like lard at a cheese farm. Meaning bursts through you, runs you over, leaves you for dead. Meaning is boring.”

Reviewers have labeled Blake Butler’s work as dystopian and violently surreal, but they miss how deeply personal it is. His first novel There Is No Year was written after his apartment was partially destroyed by a tornado. Much of 300,000, his next novel,was written at his parent’s house, caring for his father, completing edits while his father took his last breaths in a room down the hall. Alice Knott, his most recent work, is intimately tied and influenced by his mother who passed away last year, written while he cared for her.

There’s a dark cyclical beauty in how destruction, loss, death, is bound to his creative output—as one part of life unravels, a new one from inside weaves and grows. Blake’s work isn’t strictly the work of a surrealist interested in the texture of language, it is rooted in lived experience, and the unique vision that comes from it, from work to work, it is as gorgeous as it is terrifying; a portal one enters knowing the difficult mystery ahead.

A flare in American literature’s anemic sky, Alice Knott signals Blake Butler as our most imaginative writer. It’s a novel obsessed with destruction and creation, one that is as intimate in character study as it is physical in language. Roughly about the destruction of the world’s great art works and the life of a reclusive art collector named Alice Knott, it’s an infectious read — I found myself replaying scenes weeks later, scenes that I admittedly didn’t understand but had become attached to. It’s work that is challenging to the TV soaked minds amongst us and one that repels that kind of reader with an aggression glimmering in the sublime of a writer sticking to his artistic proclivities. 

What’s most powerful and exciting about Alice Knott and Blake Butler is that it doesn’t feel like he’s produced his best work yet. Reading him, following him online, speaking with him, you get the sense that here is someone still harboring his masterwork, someone who you believe in, someone with a future art of the highest standard.   

— Shane Jones

THE BELIEVER: Did Alice Knott begin with her character or with the concept: the world’s artworks being destroyed. I’m wondering if you remember first working on it because it has been a journey — I remember vaguely you discussing and working on it five or six years ago at least.

BLAKE BUTLER: 100% concept. I think I found a note to myself from like as far back as 2006 where I just wrote, “Corporation that buys and destroys art.” The first time I tried to actually write it, maybe like 10 years after that note, now dressed up with lots of other notes, that idea became one of like 10 ‘large scale’ ideas I was trying to force to weave into the structure of the book. Finished that draft and realized it was much too much, and threw it out, and started over. I think the only part that came through from that draft was some of the writing about the viral manner of the spreading of the impulse to destroy human creation. The first time I rewrote it, the character of Alice still wasn’t there. It was a man, like me maybe, and felt too loose, though I found more ways to shape the story in having narrowed the focus. Around that time, my mom started getting sick with Alzheimer’s. The name “Alice” came from her asking me if I like a book she’d heard about by someone named Alice. Alice who? I asked. Oh, any book by someone named Alice is probably good, she said. Then I understood the novel wasn’t actually only about what is being done to art, but what is being done to people through art, and around art, and what about art remains unseen. And I knew the narrator had to be a woman, in third person; this woman, found through my mom. Once I found her, I wrote the book again, and this time it started to actually become the book it is. 

BLVR: It’s your most intimate and tightly focused book and also, I think, has more plot than your previous works. The layers and depth is really intense to Alice, almost infectious, and I found myself thinking about the book not in specific terms but a feeling/vibe weeks later—like something I bathed in. I love that feeling. I think a lot of this has to do with how heavy and heartbreaking it all is, not just on Alice, but humanity and art in general. Did the plot points and development come out of the numerous drafts naturally or was that a conscious decision? I also wondered about the influence of your mother multiple times while reading. Did you ever read any of the book to her? 

BB: I knew early on I wanted this book to be different compared to my others. I felt intent on breaking a lot of my old habits–harboring in the unknown, the indescribable, space where language has more shape than characters or action, etc. A big inspiration to me as a model of purpose was The Crying of Lot 49, actually; specifically my remembering Pynchon saying somewhere that he wrote that book so that he could be understood more, and thereafter able to go even more wild. Then he wrote Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that changed my life. And yet Lot 49 is such an enigma, too, in a much different way; it’s got so many false floors, red herrings, devices that keep you in the terrain instead of trying to buck you, or not giving a fuck. I have often written from either or both of those later two modes. I know I can do that. And I had tried and failed to write more plot-driven novels in the past, and always failed. So I wanted to challenge myself to write something that satisfied both at the same time. It wasn’t easy, obviously; I had to write the book four times, and probably revised it from beginning to end another 100. The prose is still of me but it serves a different syntax maybe, one that I never could have expected to sit down and write, no matter how many times I think I know where or what I am. It’s still kind of a mystery to me, why one writes. I guess that’s how it kept me in it for so long. Honestly, it feels like another person, someone I could never be again. But all books are like that, I think. They can only be brought into the world a certain way. You have to listen. I’m learning to listen better, finally. Stubborn fuck I am, it takes forever. 

Mom never saw or read any of the book, though she used to ask me what it was about over and over, when she couldn’t remember what she said. Sometimes my trying to tell her about it changed the way I thought about it. Sometimes I just lied, and that was a way of writing, too. I don’t really show people stuff until I think it is entirely done, ever. I like to keep it in the trash compactor of my mind and let it turn. Without watching her brain become slowly erased, and having seen the same happen to her mother and my father, while she watched, this book would not exist. I’d trade it back if I could. 

BLVR: I have a habit of reading acknowledgments before starting a book and thought it was interesting you thanked other writers in that space (Jane Unrue!). Pynchon I can see, but in a totally different way—not sure he would lock down on a single character and get that close internally, he seems more playful even in his darkest stuff, yet there is something in the language and maybe attitude that comes across. The Crying of Lot 49 was a book I got as a Christmas present as a kind of joke when I was in my early twenties because he was labeled as so pretentious and difficult but I was shocked how weird and just plain wild it was, a guy just doing whatever he wanted and following his own trail. I’ve always seen that attitude in your work, this slant of not just creating a book but a real work of art no matter what the current reading flavors are, and this attitude comes across strongest in Alice Knott. 

The mystery of writing, or why one is doing it is always a lingering question. Thinking about your book, there’s a constant unraveling and destruction, with Alice herself and then the physical destruction of the art work, and now I’m thinking of you writing the book four times, editing it through 100 times, all while you watched your mother mentally decline, not to mention what was going on in the world over the course of those years. Destruction vs creation is constant here. And maybe the mystery is just this constant push forward in the face of entropy—Alice certainly has it, there’s a propulsion forward, and you have it as well obviously. How do you keep yourself going? You’ve said online “what you read is a code you put in your body that changes you,” and in Alice Knott the idea of a code comes up a few times. “I knew that every word I uttered wasn’t mine, but more a code I used to fuse my spirit to the world…” Maybe the idea is to put your code out in the world, one that you take very seriously and don’t want to show, don’t want people to ingest until you can’t work on it anymore.  

BB: I think I keep myself going by not asking myself why I keep going. People waste so much time wondering why, or what it means, or what is to be taken. Meaning isn’t meant to be condensed and processed like lard at a cheese farm. Meaning bursts through you, runs you over, leaves you for dead. Meaning is boring. I want to exist in the wake of experiences and orchestrations that haven’t settled on a meaning, or even a purpose. Sometimes I think our job here as humans is to create that which could have been created nowhere but in the very hell we’ve been brought into during our passage through oblivion, if for no other reason than one might get a face tattoo of every word they’ve ever said. Platelets in a mask. Bumps on arcane flesh. If I ever knew why I did what I was doing, I’d start doing something else. Everything else is entertainment. I don’t have time for entertainment. We’re all sick enough already. Now we must puke. And die. Maybe even actually awaken one day to what only can exist within a brain.

BLVR: Willem de Kooning is the first artist mentioned in Alice Knott (among hundreds) and he said he wasn’t interested in making a good painting, he never wanted pin it down. He was very much in demand of the experience and believed we were here to create. I think you function from a similar place of knowing there is an importance, a mystery, and just doing it. It’s interesting how Alice describes his Woman III:  “It could have been more powerful, more unspeakable; could have worked harder to be nothing other than itself, to exist beyond the confines of its conditions; at the very least it could have been more beautiful. And the same goes for you and I.” And she’s a character who experiences throughout the course of the book exactly what you just said: “Meaning bursts through you, runs you over, leaves you for dead.” 

My favorite part is when Alice is on the roof of the car toward the end. It’s so terrifying and beautiful and I can’t stop thinking about it. It also connects to what you just said: “…her only mind remaining all full of platelets, a humming mold allowed at last to come alive.” There’s such a weird connection between her and the outside world and the man-made interior of the car with the voice. Her only way to escape and to live is to risk her own destruction. Can you talk a little about this part? Do you have a favorite section? 

BB: That’s a hard scene for me to unpack outside of it. It was one of the last scenes that I wrote, way on down the line in the string of versions of the novel. Rather than add information to it, I would just point out that the physical terrain of the various landscapes in the book and how they operate and connect through Alice is vital to understanding not only Alice, but the mechanism that she has been made part of. The structure of the plot and the many subplots are meant to shift under the reader. Tiny details buried in the lattice often will reveal more, when nudged, than what appears to actually happen; facades that when turned or jimmied open onto spaces that not every experience of reading will produce. I think a lot about when Lynch released Mulholland Drive with a list of clues for the viewer to pay attention after. For example, “Notice appearances of the red lampshade.” Or “Who gives a key, and why?” Alice Knott: A Novel is a book that’s meant to be read differently than other books, perhaps, but it can also be read like other books. One clue, to this book, might be: “Whose voice is describing the de Kooning? Where are they?”

I don’t think I have a favorite anything anymore, in writing or life.

BLVR: That would be cool if you or the publisher released a full list of clues after the book is released. I wish more books even had the potential to do such a thing. I love the idea of the mystery and then the possible key later on. I’ve been doing this lately with the Stalker film, reading takes and what Tarkovsky had to say about it. But I’m not sure I really want the key. It feels more powerful just to be in the atmosphere of that film, and I feel the same way about your book—just being deep in the language and mood, the tone, is enough. And there is no answer.

What was the biggest change, that you can remember, between the many versions of the book and the subsequent edits? Is there something that stands out for you? And if you don’t have a favorite, what if you could save one work of art from being destroyed in the book and keep it for yourself?

BB: Maybe the biggest change was realizing I am no longer the person who wrote the book. I can’t remember when it happened, but suddenly I could look back on whoever that was and see things about what that person wanted and believed in and I can’t remember how to be that person any more or who they even are, or what drove them to spend so much of their life inside this made up world, struggling to define it and refine it, like I was sick with a disease, perhaps in a way more so than has happened with things I’ve written in the past. Not that it no longer feels true to me, but that I can’t even remember how I got there, how I lived there, in the person who I was and what came out of me and never why. It feels like working a massive puzzle made up of who you are and then realizing that you are no longer in the puzzle.

If I could save one work of art from being destroyed, I don’t know, my blood wants to say I wouldn’t save any of it, but in this exact moment with no way out I’d save the one I asked my wife to tell me the name of a painting she loved without telling her that I intended to make it disappear forever from a wall in a room that I made up, and she said Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Georgia Landscape. I’d like to lay next to that one on a bed for a while. Then they can go ahead and destroy it too.

BLVR: Do you feel changed by each book you write? Some people feel that way, that they’ve learned something in the creation or they come out of it a different person. I always assume these writers think they’ve come through to the other side as somehow better off than before. I’ve always felt just as lost and ready to move on. And just now Melanie brought in a big stack of books to put in my office (working from home Corona life) and a galley you signed and sent me of There Is No Year was in there. 2010 seems like forever ago. Just skimming through the complexity and depth of your sentences feels much greater now as present in Alice Knott. 

BB: Hard to say who is what when and how it moves around what is placed before it, much less comes out of it. I have changed more in the past year than probably the previous decade, if I had to measure, though I’ve been writing this whole time. A lot of writing doesn’t seem like the product of great change, but more like seepage from the wreck of the organism. Like pus that wants to live its own life. I try not to keep tabs on my pus. 

Maybe it’s more like finding new wings to the labyrinth. Do we ever get out of the labyrinth? Is that death? I used to think you couldn’t know anything about what comes after death. Now I wonder if that’s all there is to really know. Sometimes writing seems like death but you keep living. Either that or we’re not actually living. I’d like to think the dead can still be changed, though that would require accepting that life itself isn’t the endgame. Many seem to think that means that life is merely entertainment. But I do not feel entertained. I am searching for another form of feeling.

BLVR: The last we talked back in 2014 I ended by asking you a fairly generic “what’s next” question and you said you were having a really hard time writing anything after finishing 300,000. With Alice Knott there was an unusually long wait between the book being accepted and published—three years. Have you been able to get into a new longer project?  

BB: Oh, I have mental problems. I have written four more novels since Alice, and a novella; they just keep on coming out. I have spent so much time trying to rip my face off that the scabs of stilted time between the bursts of better passion just feel so much larger than they really are. You’re supposed to struggle to write, aren’t you? Though I wish you weren’t supposed to struggle to publish as much as you often do; I hope that’s changing. Publication is part of the process, surely, but it’s not the essence to me anyway; just another part of the game. Neither business nor pleasure fully ever; just the spiral, the long con. And though recently I have once again reached a new “I don’t know where I’m going next” phase—they’re always different, right?—I guess you have to welcome watching some new skin growing right back in over the old holes, so you can tear it off again. It would be such a wasteful life to just sit around and wait to be arrived. And so, instead, day in day out, there is the terror that nothing will ever happen again. No, please, let me, keep, my, terror? 

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