by HRM on January 16, 2012

Interview with Blake Butler, by Andrew James Weatherhead

I discovered Blake Butler’s writing by accident. I was walking down a street in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, which is where I think Moby lives, when I happened upon a box of books on someone’s stoop. Putting unwanted books out for people to take is common practice in Brooklyn, but what’s uncommon is finding anything worthwhile among the freebies. quotesYou can probably see where this is going. One of the books was a lot bigger than the others. It was a galley proof of a novel called There is No Year and it was by a person named Blake Butler, a name I’d seen on the internet but knew nothing about.

I took the book home and read it shortly thereafter and found it to be 400 pages of the best possible sentences.

Rare is the excitement of discovering an author as original as Blake Butler. In reviewing my favourite sentences I felt the particular nostalgia of not just wanting to experience the book again but wanting to experience the book for the first time again. Thus, I have eagerly sought out and devoured each of Blake’s other books – a novella, Ever (Calamari 2009); a novel-in-stories, Scorch Atlas (Featherproof 2009); and his newest, the memoir Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia (Harper Perennial 2011), which, as the title suggests, concerns the author’s insomnia, though is much more than your standard memoir.

Blake was kind of enough to field my questions about Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia, his latest book, in the interview below.

I want to ask you a broad thing to start: when and why did this book begin? I know you have a pretty good relationship with your editor and publisher, was it their idea to do this book or would you have written it anyways?
My editor at Harper, Cal, asked me during the process of signing up the novel I’d sent them if I’d ever thought about writing a nonfiction book. I think he thought about it because he reads HTMLGiant and knew I wrote nonfictional stuff on there. As soon as he asked I said I’d always wanted to write about sleep, and insomnia. I just kind of blurted it out. But I was in a particularly bad sleep way then, and have always had various kinds of trouble with it over the years, so it felt in me. I wrote up a two page proposal that sketched some of the ideas in the book vaguely and they saw enough in that to buy it. I doubt I would have ever sat down and written a nonfiction book like that if it hadn’t happened this way; it never really struck me to do so. I also think it would have come out wholly different, probably for the worst, if I’d written it not already sold and with a deadline ahead. I work best under pressure and with a goal in mind, so writing it knowing it was going to become a thing in the world put a whole different set of criteria in my mind, and I think ultimately upped my game in relation to it. It was also a lot of fun to totally change gears and get to write from a different field of feeling.

Did you have any input on the book design? It’s beautiful. I found out the hard way that it was glow in the dark and it really scared the shit out of me for about a half second.
Besides the layout of the text inside, it was all Harper’s doing. They are constantly brainstorming ways to make things stand out, which is a blessing. I felt unsure about the glow in the dark idea when I first heard it, but the way it comes across in the final object is subtle and I like that the book seems alive when the lights go out. I like that the book looks erased or something before that too.

How do you think working with facts, or in the realm of non-fiction, altered your process, if it all? Are the facts/sources/quotes in the book ones you’d been “stockpiling” from before this book started or were they in response to the writing?
I hadn’t been stockpiling the sources. A lot of the quotes came from things I read outside of my research while I was writing. I’d just come across something and stick it in where it seemed to fit, or incorporate it as I was going. Or I’d think of a book I knew had a similar mind to what I was after, and pick it up and read it until I found what I was looking for. I like the idea of research being more dynamic than just sourcing out the info. It felt more experiential to include things as they came, kind of sucking them up into the trajectory, which is also how I tend to approach writing fiction: things come onto you at a time because they are meant to influence or be bound into the other body, like factual ghosts or some shit. It was fun to play with them in that way and have different information shape the way I was talking around them. It felt like a mirror house with countless ways to exit, but only one that is mine.

All that said, I knew a lot of the sections of the book that I wanted to have in there before I started. Such as, I knew I wanted to write about my recurring boulder dream from childhood, and the 129 hours being awake, and I knew I wanted to write a kind of timeline of human attention and how that has affected how we sleep in general, and our consciousness. I also knew I wanted to lapse out of normal nonfiction territory and into something more between-worldy. Other things, too, I’m sure. Fitting them together along with the facts and the incoming ideas was a really fun puzzle to assemble.

Did you enjoy writing in the “memoir” mode? Are you interested in writing more from an autobiographical “I” or was this it for you?
It was more fun than I expected, really, though it helped to have all that other information to distract myself and others with, to keep the “I” tamed and not too selfy. I definitely have some ideas about other nonfictions I’d like to mess with, and the “I” seems interesting to me often in those, in that it brings a further layer to the information. So, with any luck, I’ll have some other things that come along, though who ever knows.

I’ve been following much of the press surrounding the book and one thing I’ve noticed is how a lot of people seem to come at you with their own little insomnia anecdote or bad dream they’ve had – and I won’t even lie I’m holding back my own revelations that would be gratuitous here – but I wanted to ask you how you feel about shit like that. I mean I guess it’s kind of a sign of the book’s success that it resonates so much with people but I’m sure it also gets annoying, right? Has anyone ever told you anything good?
I mean, everybody sleeps. And everybody has different relations to it, and different ideas about how it functions for them and in their life, so some amount of that mirroring is to be expected. And I like to talk to people about it; I find sleep and sleep-related subjects compelling, even dreams, which so many shit on. Though part of the idea that everyone has their own way is that in the end, you’re left with yours. All the solutions I’ve ever heard for sleep trouble, which are definitely never-ending, almost none of them have helped me, beyond being things I’ve heard. I think part of my sleeplessness comes from the fact that my stubborn-ass brain wants to send a fuck you to my body, or to defeat death by never shutting up, and so if someone says, “hey try this” my brain automatically tends to include that in the field of crap it runs over and belittles, which then adds more frustration and hyper-consciousness when in the face of another potential solution turned to zilch. So I try to listen, but also to remember that I am where I am, and what happens is going to happen.

Another thing about the press: I’ve heard you say that you’re sleeping better now than before writing the book… do you feel as if you’ve “beaten” insomnia or just temporarily assuaged it?
It always comes and goes. Sleeping better just means I’m not as often up until the sun comes up, wallowing in my bed waiting to pass out. It still takes me 1-2 hours at least after I lay down to click off, though that feels like a large improvement. Writing the book and having accomplished some things that I likely never thought I would or didn’t know how to approach has taken some of the mental pressure off, though really the level of want just keeps rising. You never beat it, it just lets you be for a while, maybe.

Are you a caffeine drinker at all or do you not even go there?
I drink a lot of caffeine, like 3-4 large cups of black coffee almost every day, sometimes more. When I don’t drink coffee, I get bad headaches. I’ve tried to wean off of it, but I just feel dead. I avoid energy drinks though, as those seem to hype up just the body, whereas caffeine gets into the brain. I drink a Monster and I feel like I want to throw myself into a wall or something. Coffee makes me want to work.

There are two moments in the book that are sort of burned into my memory: 1) the time you and your friend almost got abducted by those guys in the van, and 2) the time your mom found you as an infant speaking on the phone to a stranger for 30+ minutes. I don’t have a question for you here, but if you are willing to say anything more here about either of these two instances I’d be totally thrilled to read it.
That friend who didn’t notice the van guys is married now and has a kid, after beating some bad health problems. I see his dad sometimes walking through the neighborhood when I go visit my parents. He’s mostly bald and always stops and says nice things. It feels good to see him. I can still remember exactly what the light and the street and the part of my body I can see from inside a mask looked like that night when the men were crossing toward us. I go run in that neighborhood even now and then, right past the house where it happened, and I can’t not get a weird feeling passing through that air.

I think my mom saved the phone bill from the phone call with the stranger. She highlighted the call and has it in a baby book of mine somewhere. I’ve thought about calling it and seeing if anyone picks up, but as of now it’s just here in me.

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