thechapbookreview

Christopher Higgs Asks Blake Butler Some Questions About His e-Chapbook Pretend I Am There but Very Little (Publishing Genius Press, 2008)

Conducted via email, April 2009.

HIGGS: I’m always interested to learn about other writer’s processes.  Do you remember the particulars of your actual writing routine at the time when you composed Pretend?  (late night, early morning, one sitting, many sittings, intoxicated, sober, by hand, on laptop, in bed, in kitchen, at morgue, etc?)

BUTLER: I think in this case I mostly wrote in the late evening, on my mother’s computer, when there was more light inside the house than out. It took two or three sittings mostly. I usually write in short periods of attention, i.e. I will write for 5-9 minutes of intense focus and then stand up and go get something small to eat or look at some shitty website, etc. That helps cause a kind of endless “refresh” in my head. In this case, I think I wrote each section fully and then quit in between. Some of the sections, I think primarily the letters from the narrator to the woman, were lifted from my blog when I would be typing deliriously. One of the letters actually happened to me.

HIGGS: I’m also interested to know if you can recall what music you were listening to at that time, what movies you were watching, what books or magazines or other things you happened to be reading that might have contributed to your frame of consciousness while composing Pretend.

BUTLER: I know right around this time Inland Empire came out. That was huge on me, in all walks. I don’t even know exactly what about it—so many people, even Lynch fans, hated it. But it had everything about his films that is important to me, and in many ways seems so much exactly what everyday life feels like: disconnected rooms, people’s heads distorting, monologues with no clear distinction, acts of violence, insertion. After typing that last sentence, I’d say that Inland Empire was clearly a huge influence on Pretend, and I ganked a ton from it. Just the whole fucking thing. According to my notes, I also read Norman Lock’s Grim Tales during this time, which I think says a lot: the brief bursts of strange, lapping everyday embedded with big black nails. So yes, now that you mention it, I didn’t write Pretend at all, it seems.

HIGGS: Do you recall what sparked Pretend?  A word, a phrase, an idea?

BUTLER: Like mostly everything I write, it was a sentence. In this case, the first sentence, though the spark isn’t always what ends up first, but in this case, yes, I remember clearly typing: After I sold my dick to the museum, I used some of the money to buy a Dachshund. I think that sentence appeared in my mind—simply appeared—and then I wrote it down in a blank email to myself and saved it on Gmail. That is what I do with most of my sentences that just occur to me in that way, in a rush, unless I am in bed, which is where many of them come, and then I either write them on my hand or on a little scrap of paper. Otherwise, my Gmail drafts box often has a bunch of random things in it. One of these, “Randall Sax Fucks Gods Mouth,” I’ve had for years there, which I think I’d meant to use as a title. I need to write that story. Anyway, in this instance I changed “dick” to “teeth” after I realized I was going to say this sentence to people.

HIGGS: Was Pretend planned out in advance and then constructed or was it more spontaneously created, or would you describe it as being the product of some other mode of composition?  And as a follow up, did you originally write it from beginning to end or did you write the parts and then rearrange them, or did you do something else entirely?

BUTLER: I didn’t plan, and mostly never do, with almost anything I write. Sometimes while I am working on something I will get ideas or sentences that I know need to come later, and I often notate them on a page or pages at the end of the document so that whenever I feel “stuck” or like I need a turn of some sort in the text, I go rummage among other ideas. Other than that, I don’t care for constructing in advance. I have tried to do this many times, including several failed novels that I wrote during my MFA time and prior to that, which all suffered in various ways, each mainly stemming from the idea that I only feel in the presence of magic when I am handling the or an unknown.

A lot of this, too, I think can be more palpably understood as “writerly considerations” via the maxim: if you aren’t surprised by your own writing, how the fuck could you expect anyone else to be?

HIGGS: Here’s a quote I pulled from your blog’s backlog, I wondered if you might elaborate on a few of the particulars:

“I finished a draft of what I want to make into an ebook today. It is about 3700 words in 14 short sections. Right now I like the title PRETEND I AM THERE BUT VERY LITTLE, which accidentally came out of an IM conversation with my girlfriend last night.” (1-7-08)

Particular #1: How come you knew you wanted Pretend to be an ebook?  Was there something special about the material that presented itself during the process of writing it or did you intentionally set down to produce something that would be an ebook?

BUTLER: I knew it was going to be of “chapbook” length I think, and to be honest I kind of hate paper chapbooks. They seem so fleeting and not quite there for me—though obviously it’s not a reflection of the words there contained. They just have very little aura, in my mind. That might seem damaging or crass to some people, but I honestly just don’t respond to the form that well, and can think of very few chapbooks for me that “hold up over time.”

Ebooks, on the other hand, last forever. Anyone can open them, anyone can have them, they are free, have so much more availability to design, and the amount of attention they get is just astronomical in comparison to print. An average chapbook run might be 100, whereas most any ebook, when it is accessibly placed, likely beats that in a single day of viewing. The stats are just ridiculously lopsided toward the web over the object: I think like 7000 people viewed Pretend in less than a year. Can you imagine selling 7000 copies of a chapbook, in endless time? Or even a real book on an indie level?

So, for Pretend, I knew I wanted it to be online, and I knew it wasn’t quite a story, and not quite a novella. Plus there are a lot of exciting places doing ebooks now, so I had planned to send it to those. Even in ebooks, though, I greatly prefer the HTML format, where all pages can just be clicked and there are no downloads, to the PDF versioning.

HIGGS: As follow up #1 to Particular #1, did you have Publishing Genius in mind at the time or did you come across it after the fact?

BUTLER: I think my original intention was to send it to Bear Parade, though it doesn’t quite fit their aesthetic. I think I knew that when I finished, but tried anyway, because I think I wrote it with Bear Parade in mind to some extent, without being able to control that it wasn’t in the vein of things they use, and sent it to Gene anyway, who confirmed it didn’t fit. Publishing Genius was my immediate next place to send, as I had read all the ebooks they had done so far, and really liked them, and liked Adam, and wanted to work with him. I never really sent it anywhere else (actually I sent it to One Story as a story for some strange reason, which they rejected, duh). And even though the format Pretend exists in now contradicts in certain ways my previous answer (in that it is print and PDF-viewer only, though through Issuu, which I now have mixed feelings about) I am really happy with what it became and how it turned out with Adam. He is doing really vital stuff.

HIGGS: Particular #2: How many drafts did Pretend go through before being published?  Did it change dramatically or subtly throughout the process—how, why, and in what ways?

BUTLER: It didn’t change very much throughout. I think I wrote the first draft, then edited it from end to end a few times, including changing the ending, which in the final version is much more open and powerful I think than it had been the way it ended before. But really, besides the ending, I didn’t change it much except on the sentence level after the first draft. Adam had some great small suggestions on minor things like that, rearranging of certain orders of sentences, but the order of the sections remained the same I think, and that is something I am a big fan of: getting as much right the first time, and then having future drafts, even when you have urges to change big flow issues, being more about editing syllabically and spatially, as opposed to narratively or otherwise. For me, great narrative and voice comes from great sentences, great syllables. So in redrafting, that is where my attention lies.

HIGGS: How would you describe the form of Pretend? Do you consider it to be experimental?  If so, in what ways?  If not, does it bother you to be labeled experimental?

BUTLER: I don’t really think about labels like that, even if the labels are “edgy,” and not just simple devices. I don’t know, I think the narrative does some things that other narratives do not, and has a voice that might seem newish, but at the same time it has some clear influences to me.

What is not experimental?

Eating breakfast cereal seems experimental to me. So does driving. But those both happen every day, if you are a cereal eater and own a car.

At the same time, you can call me anything you want. Except “poet.” Anything but that.

HIGGS: How would you describe the content of Pretend?  Would you consider it a work of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or both or neither or what?

BUTLER: I don’t know. My favorite term for anything with words on it and a spine is “book.”

People are too horny to say what is what and what isn’t what, and where is this and why. Why? Are they scared of things? Are they goners?

“Are you a poet?” “Are you an author?”

I have a dick, I know that much.

A lot of the time, with words, if something isn’t a little bit of everything all at once, I tend to get really fucking bored really fucking fast.

HIGGS: Do you see Pretend as arising from, or elaborating on, any particular tradition, literary or otherwise?

BUTLER: It might arise some from the tradition of Saturday morning cartoons, self-imposed mysteries in rooms you’ve been living in your whole life (like when I was a kid and would build machines out of balance beams and paperclips and plastic Smurfs), and maybe from wishing I was Roald Dahl but being confused with getting out of bed, and from being hungry a lot and from the Internet.

HIGGS: What qualities do you particularly admire about Pretend —& on the other hand, what qualities do you disdain?  (in other words, what do you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses in Pretend?)

BUTLER: In one way, I can be critical of Pretend in that it exhibits many of my most avenued devices: being that, there are habits of mine on display here, at least for me, that I can not, and might never, be able to get away from. I see myself repeating myself in most anything I say, I think.

Though, in another way, maybe that is what I like best about writing, and writers (if I have to say that word): that each person is a meat machine making their own brand of meat for others to put inside them, and there are things about that meat that you will never shake, and are what make you you, and therefore are the only thing about you that makes one set of sentences on white paper different from anything else, and therefore maybe worth for a little while remembering.

Between those two ways together, I am pretty happy with the things I am obsessed with, and my repetitions, and in this instance, the ways they came out of me sounding at least in some way to me new.

HIGGS: Looking back at it now after almost exactly a year since its publication, and thinking about it in terms of your writing career so far, how do you feel about Pretend as it fits into your oeuvre?  Sorry for using the word oeuvre but I must confess I like that word, plus I’m interested to hear how other writers think about their creations in light of, or in relationship to, their other creations.

BUTLER: I will always have a spot for it, I think, any time, in that it was the first piece of writing of mine that stood by itself on paper, and was something I had made. Even if it is “just a chapbook,” that experience is one of the ones that make the whole process worthwhile. Something you made. Something there. I also think that the ways I said certain things here are things I had been trying to say and had not been able to beforehand quite so, and won’t be able to say that way again, which is why I’d like to think, and maybe anybody with any words would, is why I said them in the first place, to myself.

In a way, too, the blood of Pretend is in the blood of EVER, certainly, perhaps even connected door-to-door, and is and will be in many other things I have written or will write. A lot of the time I like to see everything I’ve written as all part of one enormous, many-floored house, but that’s just me being happy sometimes with my mind.

HIGGS: Is the chapbook a medium you see yourself working in again?  How do you see the chapbook in terms of other literary forms?

BUTLER: Though the book as object will never die, I think the future of the chapbook is electronic. I think short, edible works available to anyone anytime is really important to literature, and to thinking. The quick rise of many places doing ebooks and other such things seems obvious, and refreshing. Plus it weighs a lot less, and if my house catches on fire, I’ll still have some shit left to read. As for myself, I never know what I am going to do again.

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  1. […] much good stuff here, including a list of presses, an interview by Christopher Higgs with that non-sleeping guy Blake Butler, my review of Matt Bell’s excellent chapbook; on and on and […]

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