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Everything is true, nothing is permitted’

Guest Column | Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of an interview by columnist Joe Wegener with Blake Butler, one of the authors visiting campus for the Notre Dame Literary Festival.

Joe Wegener: So, first off, what are you going to be reading at the Literary Festival? “Nothing, There Is No Year”?

Blake Butler: No idea. I tend to wait to the last minute to figure out what feels right. Probably the fiction, as reading nonfiction feels weird in the mouth.

JW: I can dig it. Let’s keep talking fiction vs. nonfiction. “Nothing: A portrait of Insomnia” was published this past year by Harper Perennial, your first work of non-fiction. What was the research process like? How did it affect the movement and pacing of your writing? I read somewhere you wrote the first draft of “There Is No Year” in about 10 days. This must have been a little different.

BB: I thought I was going to hate researching because I more like to write out of mood and frenzy of sorts, and I thought that would maybe slow me down. Though I found the process of reading intensively about what I was writing about while I was writing about it to be actually very motivating, it provided constant stimulation and spring boarding for the forward progress of the work rather than a thing I had to attend to first.

With something like sleep as a subject, the research can be found almost anywhere; you find references to it in most anything you read, and that made a nice kind of web around the center of the idea. I kind of began with what I already knew about insomnia from my own experience and then moved outward from there in whatever direction seemed to intuitively make sense, with some places along the way I knew I wanted to touch.

I still wrote the book rather quickly, as I still approached it with that same force I apply to fiction, though in both cases producing an early draft and then sculpting it intensely over time thereafter makes a nice mix of results somewhere between mystery and logic.

JW: Very cool. I love that you “like to write out of mood and frenzy of sorts.” In another interview, when asked about the spatial format of “There is No Year,” you talked about the “spatial constraints” as sort of shaping the story’s logic and narrative flow. It’s interesting that [in “Nothing”] you moved outward from your own experiences “in whatever direction seemed to intuitively make sense.” In this way, did you feel like you actually had more creative freedom or space with this project?

BB: I definitely felt having the facts and experiences and emotions and ideas of sleep and consciousness surrounding my progress rather than just walking blindly into whatever sentences I was writing gave me a closer knit but also bigger kind of room to play around in.

Constraints can be really freeing in this way, in that you don’t have to construct everything from the ground up, as you often do in fiction. I can quote Andy Warhol or mention him and then the book gathers the idea of him there, not to mention whatever comes around him.

The nonfictional body gathers and consumes a lot in the process as you are going, I guess I mean, if you approach it the right way, which is certainly encouraging toward making even bigger spaces.

JW: Big spaces. The “schizo” literature magazine blog of the future, as I like to call it. It’s contributor-driven, wide-ranging and totally awesome. What is your role as editor like? Do you try to orient the site (its field of discussion, thought) in certain ways?

BB: I am glad you see it as “schizo,” that is exactly what I hope for from it, and what feels true. Early on I was active in the site mainly by getting people whose voices I thought would lend themselves well to such a state, mainly writers whose personal blogs I already read which could then feed that energy into the field.

I still direct the overall feel that way and duck my head in frequently enough to turn things ways I might like, though as a classical “editor” my policy for content is an inversion of an old line: Everything is true, nothing is permitted.

Basically I like for contributors to have total open access and to say things without the lens of having to pitch or explain themselves to an editor, or to have that editor wield their ideas on them. It gathers a messy mass in that way, often self contradictory, sometimes loud. There are plenty of other places who do the opposite, so I’m glad to be in the midst of such.

JW: The “messy mass” ­— self-contradictory, loud and almost always entertaining. It’s an awesome site. Talk to me about the trajectory of online literature. Do you see more self-made, blog-popular types like Lin jumping into the mainstream?

BB: Things are happening, sure. I wouldn’t call it jumping to the mainstream, but more an expansion of the field. It seems obvious the Internet is reshaping the way information is delivered, and therefore how a thing like a book might work and certainly there will be some crossover.

I don’t know it will change anyone’s tastes, but it will give at least some of them a chance to get confronted with a different way, which is good for people even if they don’t take to it. It seems like this will continue, as will the reverse of the previously large scale author retreating to the small press world. It’s tough to predict what will happen to books five years from now, much less than twenty, but as far as I’m concerned things feel to be shifting, spreading.

JW: It’ll be interesting to see what kind of literature comes out of that “shifting, spreading,” as you put it. So one last question:

It’s 11 p.m. on Friday night. You get a text message from your main man James Franco. He’s hanging out at a Motel 6 with Leonard Cohen. What happens?

BB: We watch “Leave It To Beaver” reruns in easy silence.

Blake Butler is the author of the novel “There is No Year,” the non-fiction

memoir “Nothing,” the novella “Ever” and the novel-in-stores “Scorch Atlas.” He edits HTMLGiant, a literature

magazine blog, as well as two journals of innovative text, “Lamination Colony” and “No Colony.” He lives in Atlanta.

Joe Wegener is a senior. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.