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An Interview with Halle Butler

[Writer]
by Brent Katz
April 11th, 2019

“Can you think of experiences at work where someone’s like ‘Good job. Thank you so much,’ not in a hostile way? And you feel like you aren’t a piece of trash?”

Halle Butler’s Favorite Episodes of Forensic Files:
The Dirty Deed
All Butt Certain
Purr-fect Match
Dew Process
The Sniffing Revenge

A few days after the release of her second novel, The New Me, Halle Butler and I discovered that there are actually two restaurants in Brooklyn called the “Grand Canyon Diner.”

I had been a fan of Butler since her 2015 debut, Jillian—which led her to be named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, and a National Book Award “5 Under 35” honoree—and we became friends in 2018, after she moved from Chicago to New York. It wasn’t until this afternoon, however, that I realized she had a flip phone, and so no map application.

“In the canyon,” I texted.

“Me too i don’t see u” she texted back. 

We eventually found the right Grand Canyon Diner, and sat in a booth together drinking coffee so strong that, by the end, Butler felt “literally high.” We discussed how The New Me is one of those weird page-turners that, when you think about it, has little in the way of outward plot. To quote the book jacket, “Thirty-year-old Millie… spends her days working a thankless temp job and her nights alone in her apartment, fixating on all the ways she might change her situation.” She goes to work, watches Forensic Files on her laptop, and wears tights with holes in them. She covets and dreads a promotion from temp to perm. The real drama, in other words, unfolds in her mind.

And “drama” is putting it lightly. Butler has now gotten two novels out of trapping characters in dehumanizing offices, and contrasting their drudgery with the hostile thunder-and-lightning of their thoughts—what Butler calls “The Inner Scream.”

Both novels emit this scream, while steadily ramping up, a la Edvard Grieg’s orchestral piece, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,”—the gold standard of crescendoing insanity—which, at one point in The New Me, Millie recalls requesting from a violinist at the Lucca Grill in Bloomington, Illinois.

In another scene, Millie thinks of her friend, Sarah, (her only friend in the book): “The sound of her voice is like nails on a chalkboard. Like putting my hand in a garbage disposal. I feel like I might snap if she keeps talking. I can feel the beginnings of an insane, unbridled laugh stirring inside me.”

I asked Butler about her process, her flip phone, and how she uses fiction to “release the beast.”

—Brent Katz

I. Creepalina

THE BELIEVER: Our mutual friend, who moved into your place in Chicago after you moved out, described the attic to me where you wrote Jillian. He said that it had lots of stuff that previous tenants had left behind, including a mannequin with the mouth ripped out. Tell me about that.

HALLE BUTLER: That doll was called Creepalina. It wasn’t ours. We let some of our friends keep their stuff in the attic. This was my friend’s doll. I think it was a prop from an experimental horror movie—like a CPR doll, but the facial molding had been removed. No arms, just a torso and a head. I mean, it’s not—I don’t keep little dollies with their eyes exed out hanging around my writing desk. Not on purpose.

BLVR: But I think it’s fitting that you wrote Jillian in this gothic house of horrors.

HB: Totally.

BLVR: And you had a little curtain that separated your writing desk from that stuff?

HB: Yeah. I spent about a month cleaning that little corner of that attic. It was part of my pre-gaming ritual. I got that part of the attic ready, then I sat down, like “I’m gonna KILL THIS.

BLVR: So you get pumped before you write?

HB: Yeah, I do.

BLVR: Do you write physically quickly?

HB: It depends on the scene. The bathroom scene in The New Me where Millie is crying, like, “I don’t want a job, boo-hoo.” I was definitely writing that really fast. Some stuff was slower. But yeah, I try to get pumped.

BLVR: With Jillian, were you surprised after a month of writing, to suddenly have a full first draft of a first novel?

HB: No, because I had tried to write three or four novels before Jillian. One of them was this really complicated frame-story where a grandmother tells her granddaughter a story, and then you go back into the past, and it was this thing about cicadas, and passive aggressive roommates, and it was just way too ornate, and I couldn’t finish it. Then I started one where the opening scene is this girl on vacation with her boyfriend’s family and his little sister is making fun of her for not being feminine enough, and not wearing a bikini on the beach, and I just didn’t know what was going to happen next. So it was just 30 pages of that, and then, o-kaaaay, what next? And then I was writing a lot of experimental stuff, too. So I learned how to pick the idea that would sustain my attention throughout writing it, and part of that process was feeling comfortable letting in a little bit more direct self-portraiture, and doing something simpler.

BLVR: True, although, I notice that, in both your books, you shift POVs a lot, which seems like a difficult thing to do well. Like switching to the neighbors’ POV for just one chapter in The New Me.

HB: Well, I wanted to confirm that Millie’s right, that some of her paranoia about people is grounded. The neighbors do think she smells, and the neighbors are the type who “do what they’re supposed to”—they’re reading art therapy books, they’re making dinner together, they’re in a couple, and they’re thinking about their careers and stuff like that—but it doesn’t make them kind or empathetic, and it doesn’t make them satisfied.

So it’s two things: it’s seeing Millie observed by her neighbors, and seeing that she’s disgusting, but then also seeing that the neighbors are a little disgusting in their way—but trying to be funny or playful about it as a way to take a breather from the more intense first person parts. Also, the extra POV stuff, I’m feeling now, was a way to get away from the notion of the unreliable narrator. I didn’t think of this as an “unreliable narrator book,” and I feel like the extra POV makes that a little skewed. I wanted it be a little wonky.

BLVR: The long email from Millie’s boss, Karen, to the temp agency, complaining about Millie’s performance is so convincing.

HB: Those emails are so fun, because I mess up all the time. I do the wrong thing all the time, and I feel like I’ve received a lot of these stiff manager emails that say “You did bad, and this is how you did bad,” and so it’s fun to write the email myself. I love business language, and jargon, and the tone when its really polite and reasonable, but it’s also the shittiest thing ever.

BLVR: I noticed that line, “I’ve always related to love song lyrics in a different way, usually some kind of mourning of my relationship with myself, I don’t know.” How conscious are you that you’re writing a dramatic story which is more about a person’s thoughts than their interactions/relationships with other people?

HB: Pretty conscious. I feel like, in terms of relationships in The New Me it’s definitely conscious to illustrate that strained remove in friendships and work interactions. And also conscious not to have many men in it.

BLVR: The ex-boyfriend James is almost like a red herring.

HB: Totally. The idea of completion and reinvention in novels, with women, often has to do with them finding a partner—happily ever after. Which is just something I can’t write about, I’m not sure how to, or if I want to. When I talk to my friends, their concerns are mostly about work, or creative issues, or something more nebulous. Or, honestly, the relationships on their minds are friendships with other women. The interactions between the women in the book aren’t flattering, but I hope people recognize the weird undercurrents of competition and comparison and judgment—anxieties about presentation—as maybe accurate or relatable. That stressful distance that can happen. And then the guys are just on the periphery, yelling at the women over the phone. But I also feel like it’s not 100% gendered—like, I think everyone feels this way, to a degree.

But the Tom Jordan stuff, and the male neighbor, who’s kind of emasculated—it’s all maybe a little teasing. I really love the book Rabbit, Run. I think it does a lot of cool stuff stylistically, and it’s just so fun. But, then, with all the female characters, it’s kind of like “what the fuck, dude?”

II. Just a Real Dickhead

BLVR: Tell me about writing and editing Jillian versus writing and editing The New Me.

HB: I wrote the first draft of Jillian really quickly, in a month, but the editing took forever. I played around with it for two years. With The New Me, my circumstances were different. I was working more, and I had a lot else going on, so the first draft took maybe ten months, just a little shy of a year, maybe longer, but the editing process was super quick. Edits for The New Me were mostly structural, and then also, like, taming down some of the parts. The intro used to be a little more “off the rails.”

BLVR: Did you start The New Me right after finishing Jillian?

HB: I tried to write another book after Jillian, before I started The New Me. I had a lot of expectations for it. I thought, “It has to be 300 pages.” That was the quality of my expectations. I felt almost like I was doing a weird knock-off version of Jillian that was just bigger or something. It felt awkward. I wanted it to be like, “this is my good, long novel. This is my The Golden Bowl.” But it didn’t feel right. I finished the first draft, and I printed it out, and I read it, and I was like “This is bad. This is actually terrible. I would be embarrassed for this to be published.” And so there was a little bit of moping, and then I started writing the intro of The New Me, and it felt so much more natural. It felt like I had had to get to the point of not being self-conscious about expectations, and just work on it in a sort of more reciprocal way, interacting with text just because I cared about the text. You want to have that cocoon experience with what you’re working on. Instead of being like “Chapter 13, When things change…” I was trying to be intuitive.

I don’t look back and edit stuff until I’m done with the first draft, because if I read it, I will get self-conscious about it and stop. Whenever I talk to people who are having trouble moving forward on a project, it seems like they’re spending too much time fixing details. Have you ever done any figure drawing? This is my analogy. When you’re starting work on a figure drawing that you’re going to spend, say, a week on, you sketch it in really loose first. You don’t draw the foot, and get the foot really detailed, and then the foot’s in the wrong place. You have to draw the whole thing really loose, and then you go over it again, and hone it, and it’s more about layers. You refine it with each draft, and you can fix problems, like, if you know you have to ramp up the scene in chapter two to make chapter five make more sense, you can do that later. But you’re going to psyche yourself out if you keep peeking. No peeking! Otherwise you just have this beautiful foot, and it doesn’t match the rest of the drawing, or you never even get to the rest of the drawing.

BLVR: So you start the first draft because you’re drawn to a character or a situation?

HB: Yeah, mostly a character or a dynamic. I usually don’t get past twenty or thirty pages of a novel before knowing if I’m going to work on it or not, of the twenty horrible novels I’ve started, [laughs] of which two have been finished. I like to figure out who I’m writing about, and what they’re like, and once I’m at about page twenty or something, I might pick something that might happen at page 50, and just toss out these goal posts, or mile markers, as I’m writing, so kind of outlining on the fly, and then working towards the goal, but if I miss it, that’s fine. Then I recalibrate and set a different goal. So it’s a pretty organic process, but then the editing is a little bit more strict and organized. I’ll outline in the edit, and move scenes around. You need to have material before you can work on it, right?

BLVR: After reading your two novels, it feels like you have some ingrained, intuitive patterns and themes that reoccur.

HB: Yeah. I’m pretty friendly and open in the day-to-day, and I really value empathy and being kind, but I do have this part of me that’s intensely judgmental. Just a real dickhead. I have this kind of language in my mind, like running sports commentary, and I love talking trash with my friends, and it’s super natural for me to do that. So that kind of sensibility—of shit-talking, and then feeling embarrassed for shit-talking, and then just thinking about that social dynamic, that see-saw, and how judgment and hostility move from person to person—has always been on my mind, but I didn’t know how to talk about it until Jillian.

I think maybe that was the realization: that I should just be myself. It’s not dumb or embarrassing to write about an office. It doesn’t invalidate the work to draw from more literal surroundings.

BLVR: And to face these parts of yourself directly.

HB: The strong thing that’s being repressed. “I’m nice, yeah I’ll get you coffee. Wow, thanks for inviting me to your party” and just sort of like, [deep voice] This is how I actually feel.

BLVR: Put the lotion in the basket.

HB: Yeah. Put the lotion in the basket. Let the beast out. I think a lot of people feel that way, too, which is why it doesn’t feel like an assault, but like a fun thing to share.

BLVR: You are good at building up tension, like when Millie is spending money, thinking she’s going to get a promotion, and the reader knows she’s going to be fired.

HB: There’s this Patricia Highsmith book about writing, called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, and I was reading it, and I was like, “Ok, dramatic irony. We’ll know that she’s not going to get the job,” and it felt kind of revolutionary to me, even though it’s super simple. I don’t know if I can do anything very blatant with plot, it’s just sort of like: she doesn’t want the job, but she’s resigned herself to taking it when she’s offered it, and she’s gone through all this emotional fanfare, “Oh, it’s like a spiritual death.” But you know she’s about to be very embarrassed. That was just such a compelling mood for me to spend time in.

III. This Version of Pac Man You Can’t Lose

BLVR: I find the ending of this book depressing.

HB: Me too.

BLVR: But it’s like, okay, there’s not going to be anything redemptive, in terms of good things happening to the characters, or them overcoming anything, but there is something redemptive about their story being told with so much humor and life.

HB: It’s perspective. Maybe the thing that can keep the ending from being Michael Haneke-level depressing is that we don’t know what’s going on in her mind completely. She might have some amusing take on it.

BLVR: Her boss thinks that because she doesn’t have plans that weekend that she’s a loser, but the reader doesn’t just think that.

HB: Originally her younger supervisor couldn’t remember if she had kids or not, and then felt embarrassed about bringing up kids, but I was told that was a little too much [laughs] and so then it turned into “weekend plans.” I agree with the softer touch.

BLVR: Were you funny as a kid?

HB: I think I was the classic kid who thought they were the funny kid in the class, and who did a lot of grandstanding, but then nobody else thought I was funny, so I was then humiliated by my own idea about myself as this funny performer or something. So I think my sense of humor evolved into just being like “I am humiliated all the time.” Which is where I think most humor comes from. Being depressed can be really funny, if you recognize how dramatic you’re being.

BLVR: You use the word “operatic” at one point.

HB: It’s definitely a word I use in conversation when I’m making fun of myself. I’ll describe my feelings as “operatic.”

BLVR: They’re very cathartic books to read. Did they feel cathartic to write?

HB: Yeah, I don’t think I’m doing art therapy. I like literature, and that’s what I’m trying to do, but a couple months after each book is done, I kind of move past the preoccupations that motivated it. It is like a purging, in a cathartic way. I’m looking at repressed moments of my experience and bringing them up, and shaping them into something. It feels good. Particularly, the way Megan [in Jillian] is so upset with her friends for thinking they’re artists. “You guys aren’t artists!” That was coming from a place of insecurity about my own identity as an artist. I worked past that and, yeah, all my friends are artists and that’s cool, and so am I. That’s something I value.

BLVR: You’re interested in the self-care stuff. You make fun of it, and also show how it helps Karen a little. Do you meditate?

HB: I’ve done it. I like the Meditation Oasis podcast. I can’t do it without the voice guiding it.

BLVR: I believe in it.

HB: I believe in it, too. I think it’s good to clean out the brain.

BLVR: I think it’s the only hope. Except for maybe that controversial new antidepressant nasal spray.

HB: I did this thing when I told my doctor I didn’t want to take antidepressants, and he put patches on my head and had me play this version of Pac Man you can’t lose. You just keep eating the dots, and it’s supposed to simulate the part of the brain that lights up when you’re succeeding and doing everything right—it’s this way to recondition your brain for positive thinking, I guess. I feel like the idea is, we so infrequently get these experiences where someone says “Good job.” Like, can you think of experiences at work where someone’s like “Good job. Thank you so much,” not in a hostile way? And you feel like you aren’t a piece of trash?

BLVR: In most jobs I’ve had, the only time the manager or boss says anything is when there’s a problem.

HB: I think that’s maybe why everyone’s depressed. Because we live in this constant state of “you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” and the only way to make yourself feel better is to do the transformation thing—make yourself in shape, and really healthy, and sanctimonious, and try to be in charge, and try to be the one who is making other people feel bad, because it’s so hard to dissolve the situation and just feel good.

BLVR: Tell me about not having a smart phone. I always sensed you don’t like texting, though I don’t even know what that has to do with it.

HB: I don’t like texting because, like, you sent me a text earlier today that was a long string of question marks, which I think was probably an emoji. And sometimes when I get a text on my flip phone, I click on it, and it disappears, and then I have to do the T-9 thing, where you have to tap the number multiple times to get the letter, and so it’s just hard for me to text.

BLVR: This is circumstance or design?

HB: It’s circumstance that I am pretending is design, like all of my life [laughs]. I lost two iPhones in a row and then it was like, “I just can’t do this,” so I took an old flip phone to the Sprint store, and asked them to turn it on for me, and they opened up the battery pack in the back and it was totally dirty and dusty, and the lady wiped it on her jeans and said, “Alright, whatever you like, darling.” When I’m feeling more normal maybe I’ll get a smart phone and download Instagram and start posting cute animals again.

BLVR: You’ve taught creative writing workshops. What stories do you assign your students?

HB: I’ve assigned the “Magic Umbrella,” Rachel B. Glaser’s story, the first one in Pee on Water.

BLVR: You and her write great party scenes.

HB: Her party scenes are the best. It’s so funny. I feel like Paulina (from Glaser’s novel Paulina and Fran) is such an outer space alien when she’s observing things. “That weird thing is going on in the corner, I’m going to do it, too.”

BLVR: She also has that hostility, which is so satisfying to read.

HB: Yeah. I feel like her hostility is gentler—there’s such a freedom to her writing that I find really inspiring. She’s very funny. I would be less afraid to meet Rachel than I would be to meet me.

BLVR: I think you might be scariest on paper.

HB: [Laughs]

BLVR: Without having to talk about the content of it, are you working on anything now?

HB: Yeah, finally after my seventh attempt. I was going to do an Easy Rider road trip kind of novel, that was also kind of Dante’s Inferno. Obviously, I didn’t do that. That’s kind of convoluted. I cycled through a lot of attempts but now I’m doing something I feel pretty good about. It doesn’t feel like doing a parody of myself. I can’t talk about it too much or I won’t finish it, but I’m pumped about it.

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