Books: The sunny side of a writer of disturbing prose

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionFebruary 17, 2013 

Blake Butler seems like a nice enough guy. In a track jacket and battered Adidas sneakers, he’s brightly energetic, smiling, chatty, easygoing. If you were ever tasked with casting the walk-on role of “college buddy” in a movie, you’d be glad to have his number handy.

But unlike any college buddy in any movie ever, Butler is the author of some extraordinarily disturbing books, remarkable for their number (he’s published five and co-authored two since 2009) but even more striking for their gorgeously stark prose, their bleak, nightmarish imagery, their kaleidoscopic array of mysterious and frightening incidents and their inexorable, dreamlike pull.

His writing seldom traces out a single, easily discernible storyline. Instead, it seems to accumulate, to slowly seep, like radiation, into your DNA. It haunts.

The New York Times called his 2011 novel “There is No Year” a “thing of strange beauty,” and Time magazine lauded the “klieg-light intensity” of his writing. Publisher’s Weekly hailed him as “the 21st century answer to William Burroughs.” Nevertheless, you might wish you could unread some of Butler’s work.

In an early scene in “There is No Year,” a family moves into their new home to find another family, exact copies of themselves, already living in its rooms, quietly breathing, wordless, expectant, staring, perfect replicas in every way except they have mold in their mouths instead of teeth.

When his books’ characters aren’t confronting sinister doppelgangers, they’re vomiting up birds, shaving their tongues or waking up entombed in hair. It’s singular, unforgettable writing. And it certainly gives his pleasant affability an edge.

“Every day I have to run, and every day I have to write,” said Butler. “When I get into something, I get kind of obsessed with it, and it’s the only thing I want to do.”

That obsessive quality has made him a reasonably fast runner and an unreasonably fast writer. He finished “There is No Year” in 10 days. His latest, “Sky Saw” (Tyrant Books), which was published last month, took a little longer: 30 days.

In it, individuals try to make their way in a surreal, disintegrating world. The novel opens with a horrendous tone that the whole world hears and which recurs throughout the story. “I was sitting in my room and the school across the street was having tornado drills,” said Butler, 33.

“Every couple hours you would hear this horrible, deafening noise. It made me so angry and uncomfortable, I think that’s what started that one. It tends to be simple things like that that get me going.”

Writer’s block has never been a problem for Butler, although insomnia is a persistent one. (He wrote about it in his first book of nonfiction, 2011’s “Nothing.”) And his books are just one part of his output.

There are articles, stories, columns, blog posts. He edits the online literary magazine HTMLGiant, as well as two journals, “Lamination Colony” and “No Colony.”

There’s his weekly column for Vice magazine, not to mention the small press he co-founded, and he estimates he’s written a couple million words in non-fiction about his hobby, poker. I’m sure I’m leaving something out: Butler himself admits it’s hard to keep track of all that he’s written, published and edited.

Given Butler’s talent and his unwavering daily compulsion to write, it’s somewhat surprising to learn that as a kid, he barely wrote much of anything at all.

Butler grew up in Marietta where he attended Wheeler High School. Initially he was drawn to music, playing bass guitar and forming a band with friends.

“We weren’t good or anything,” he said when asked the name. “We just tried really hard.” He first developed an interest in writing when an 11th grade English teacher played a recording in class of Allen Ginsberg reading his famous poem “America.”

“I was mostly excited because we had to get a permission slip just to hear it,” Butler said. “Just to hear someone talk! I was like, ‘What could he possibly be saying?’” After hearing the work, he made a few scattershot attempts at poetry. “It was really bad,” he said.

Butler’s earliest published work combined two of his early loves: music and the Internet. The 17-year-old noticed that the website All Music Guide, claiming to be a comprehensive encyclopedia of recorded music, was missing most of the DIY, punk and hardcore bands he loved. He wrote to AMG with a list of the missing musicians, and they hired him on the spot to create the entries.

But as in his later writing, Butler tended toward breaking with convention. Once he’d finished writing about all the bands he knew, he began creating fictional profiles, invented histories and fake discographies for imaginary bands.

“I don’t even know if they ever caught on — how could they know what the real bands were? But finally they laid off a bunch of people, and I was one of them. Maybe they suspected,” he said.

Butler eventually studied at Georgia Tech where he planned to major in computer science. But in his second year, he received a copy of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” as a Christmas gift. “I didn’t know fiction did those things,” he said. “That was like the high watermark of what I’d found. After I read it, I just started writing voraciously.”

He switched his major and graduated with the most liberal arts degree he could find at Tech, multi-media design, and then went on to study creative writing at Bennington College for his MFA. His writings accumulated, and he eventually published his first few novels with small independent presses.

His first book from a major publisher, and probably the one that has earned him the most attention, is “There is No Year” from HarperPerennial. It had its genesis in 2008 after a tornado hit Cabbagetown.

With his apartment inaccessible, he temporarily moved back in with his parents in Marietta. “I felt totally insane,” he said. “All my stuff was in boxes. My dad was in the early stages of dementia.”

Butler locked himself in his room and wrote the first draft about a surreal family. Pleased with it, he sat down and wrote the draft of his next novel “Sky Saw” when he moved back to his apartment.

“It was still manic,” he said.

He pauses to size up the word manic, making sure it still fits for a novel that takes 30 days instead of 10. “Yeah, I guess that’s kind of manic to be at the computer all day drinking coffee and not eating food.”

His writing has brought him modest financial success, enough to achieve what he’s always wanted: freedom, freedom from a day job, freedom from working for others, freedom to spend his days writing.

And he occasionally supplements his earnings with poker. When the mood hits, he drives to casinos in Tunica, Miss., and he’s good enough to come back from most trips a winner.

“A lot of it is reading people,” he said. “You also have to provide a profile of yourself by creating actions that make it hard for them to read what you’re holding. You have to be erratic, but you also have to be controlled. If you can do that, you’ll play solid poker.”

It’s true that a writer is not his work, but it’s still it’s hard to reconcile the dark books with this chipper “college buddy” talking poker strategy in a sunlit cafe. I mention to Butler that his writing had led me to expect a subversive, dangerous lunatic in the mold of William S. Burroughs.

Butler, ever the college buddy, so dedicated and obliging in all things, said he’d work on it.

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