Haunted language

Posted on April 9, 2008


Justin Dobbs interviews Blake Butler

Blake Butler is the author of a novel-in-stories, Scorch Atlas, currently looking for a home. He has writing in or coming out in Ninth Letter, Fence, /nor, LIT, Willow Springs, and others.

Justin Dobbs: What is the relationship between writing and ghosts? Or between ghosts and the cinema?

Blake Butler: I guess some people would say they write to get their ghosts out but I feel like I’ve accumulated more than I’ve shook. I feel haunted in my groceries, in the shower, while I’m sleeping, the files that I’ve deleted, every time my phone rings, seeing certain people, sitting certain places… my phone is ringing now. My hard drive is chock full of documents that I spent who knows how many hours on and will never see anything anywhere, thank god. What’s more a ghost than encapsulations of yourself that are not pinnable to anything? Where the fuck do these words come from? I have no idea. Every word you type someone has typed before you. Every word was invented or derived from someone who is now dead. It’s all haunted language. Not to be romantic. Just dead. Dead as hell. I guess. Cinema is, I think, haunted in a different way in that you’re not exactly using a haunted language, but creating one. Film captures a person in a moment that they’ll never be again. They’re dead the second the shutter clicks. Not to be romantic. Just dead. Dead as hell. I guess. Think of the history of cinema: all those dead people, all those histories and extra layers and weird nights fucking contained in the recorded body under the guise of some other character and held there for posterity.

JD: How does philosophy or poststructuralism inform your work? Or does it?

BB: I think I used to try to have a philosophy but the more I tried to train it, or to train myself around it, the more I found I couldn’t tie a knot. I’ve begun to think now that the best way to approach anything is to just sit on its face. Sit right on that fucker’s face and feel it lapping at you. Feel that tongue. Is it grainy? How many inches? Did they brush well? What’s for dinner? The more philosophy I read the less I feel like there’s anywhere I need to be. I feel more fond of the incidental. That’s not to say there’s never study: study the way the people cross in front of your car when driving through a parking lot. Study the way the animal moves when looking for a place to shit. The overheard. People will give you everything if you show up in the right moments or if you are standing at the right angle. I don’t know what I believe in many instances, though I believe there is something in me that believes it. I believe in several selves. I believe in swallow, not spit. I believe in one extreme or another. What wants to happen will. Post-structuralism wants to tell you that there’s no such thing as the absolute. I believe in absolutes but that’s my own ball of wax and I’ll keep them tucked tight in my panties, thanks.

JD: Can you describe a Lynchian moment from your life?

BB: A few months ago I stepped outside my apartment. My hair was still wet and I was holding a plastic bag that didn’t have anything in it. On the concrete outside my apartment there was a box. Inside the box there were muffins. I picked up one of the muffins and I smelled it but there wasn’t any smell. I started to go back into my apartment. I stopped and put the muffin down next to the box and then I pushed box into the street using the tip of my left shoe. I went back inside my apartment and locked the door. On the parking deck across from my apartment someone in a blue suit was standing facing away. I closed the blinds and looked again. My phone rang.

JD: I read on your blog about how Lynch’s movie, Lost Highway, was partly set in Lynch’s house. It is something that kind of creeps me out. Do you have anything familiar like this in your fiction?

BB: In one draft on the second novel I wrote (that draft I believe was called Skin-Smearer) I was a character locked in one of several rooms in the basement of a character named Escalator Kruntt (who had a brother named Elevator Kruntt). I tried to make it so that I was being forced to send notes to famous people for Escalator Kruntt from the basement. At one point later in the book I had my character drowned in a vat of several substances including peanut butter, Lysol, saliva, etc. I sent that draft of the book to McSweeney’s books and a few months later a woman who worked for them sent me a nice handwritten letter about what she liked about the book, but said that unfortunately McSweeney’s couldn’t release the book. Later I rewrote the entire book and deleted myself from it. That draft became called The Pupils of an Inflated Giraffe, and I change Escalator’s name to Donald. That was all true, that I just said now. It actually really was.

JD: Is there a cow outside your window?

BB: Hold on let me look. No there isn’t. Though I did notice that my neighbor let his dog shit in my yard again. I have a very small yard. Did I tell you about my neighbor? I used to think he had Tourette’s. He would make all these weird sounds, squealing and screeching, and mainly going WOO! WOO! every couple seconds, and then he’d start breathing all hard and making sounds like he was trying to bite himself and masturbate at the same time and usually he would have porn on in the background. I called the police on him one night when he started fucking his boyfriend on the kitchen table at 3am with the windows open and the shades up and both of them screaming like they were on fire; that after 3 earlier hours of screaming noise. Recently, after my 10th complaint to the HOA, he shut up. He doesn’t make much sound anymore, though I can often hear him beating the walls. And then, because I guess he was lonely for his sounds, he bought a dog to make it for him. He bought this little dog, a little dog that barks like something is squeezing its head, and it wakes me up every morning at 8am. It’s a nice life.

JD: Are you worried about little children taking over libraries?

BB: Yeah, come to think about it. Last time I went to the library there were all these kids beating at each other to try to get to the books. They wanted the books so bad. They were trying to eat them. It must be because they see so many adults around them reading and they wanted to be older faster so they can have tits and/or pubic hair. What they don’t know is that the average reader in America dies six years earlier than the non-reader. And is less happy all those other years.

JD: I’m in Seattle right now. What do you think happens in Seattle, writing-wise?

BB: I’ve never been to Seattle but I’d go there if someone bought me a ticket. If it’s anything like Atlanta absolutely nothing happens writing-wise except people sitting at their computers writing and sometimes they use words on the news.

JD: No culture at all?

BB: Atlanta right now is known for its “important” music scene, though really it’s just as dead here as anywhere else. Everywhere is the same place. Everywhere has the same people. I don’t know. I try to go out as little as possible. There are a lot of people here with haircuts. I have had the same haircut my entire life except for in third grade I experimented with a flat-top and a buzz cut. I looked ridiculous wearing both. In Atlanta everyone drives a lot and everyone is very angry and there are lots of bars that will take your money and there is nowhere excellent to sit. Unless you look really hard.

JD: The Believer. What have you got in there?

BB: I have a review of Yannick Murphy’s new collection In a Bear’s Eye which will be I think in the February issue. I say roughly 570 words about how excellent the book is. Which it is. I also am writing a short essay about the Christmas album Jingle Babies: Rock-A-Bye Christmas, which will be out in the music issue I think. You should Google the name of that record and look at the cover of it. It is most excellent. And rather Lynchian.

JD: Can you give me a complete plot summary of your book, along with an excerpt, a psychoanalysis of your characters, and an exhaustive discourse on the “difficulties” of writing such a thing?

BB: Yes. My book is about abortion practices in middle Taiwan, where young mothers are made to squat in public fruit stands with their pants down and yip like my neighbor’s dog until they are rendered infertile by their own sound. It is a very brutal and disturbing practice. I saw it once while I was on a ski trip with me mims and pips. We were sold shoddy ski tickets by a charlatan in a bunny suit. My dad will buy anything if you smile. Anyway, the main character in the book is a nurse practitioner whose main job is to stand holding the middle finger of this one young lady subscribed to abort. His name is Chuck and he has never seen himself in a mirror and he hates his father for leaving him at the Taiwan Zoo when he was young, which, if you’ve never been to the Taiwan Zoo, believe me, you’d understand. The book rotates between exhaustive stream of consciousness excerpts from Chuck during the nine day stand it requires to help Akisha (that’s the girl’s name) abort. Chuck, perhaps surprisingly, does not think in words that include the letter ‘B’, which is a trick I stole from a rather famous Taiwanese tome I most admire, titled Dahm-Vana-Ana Wee-Womp. The other passages in the book are told from the perspective of the child inside Akisha as he/she is being aborted. It’s all very difficult, obviously, and I expect to win several awards. The book is titled Dahm-Vana-Ana Bee-Bomp: A Sequel, and will follow the release of my other recently completed book, Scorch Atlas. I went through a long period of not being able to walk without my hands over my face after I wrote this book. I was not able to call my mother and I was not able to cry. It was very hard, this writing. Very hard. Please give me the award.

JD: Do you think Tao Lin will get famous?

BB: Tao Lin is famous. And deservedly so.

JD: Next time we interview, can you yell at me very loudly something about flowers and a dead widow?

BB: I’ll yell anytime you like, dear. I have a very loud speaking voice so a lot of the time people thinking I’m yelling when I speak anyway, which requires me to whisper when I really want to get something important across. My mighty yell might streak your loins.

Justin Dobbs lives in Seattle.

Posted in: Interviews