Blake Butler, the author behind There Is No Year, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block, which will be released next week (listen to Blake's episode). Until then, get to know him a little better with this Q+A, in which he talks about insomnia and New Kids on the Block.
You're known for having a serious case of insomnia and have said that you sometimes enjoy being awake during those late hours with "no phone calls, no moving cars, no questions, no bills, no light." Describe your habits during these hours. Do you spend all of this time trying to wrestle yourself into unconsciousness or do you accept the sleeplessness and do certain things?
Blake Butler: Usually, until about 2 a.m., I'm not even in the world of the idea of sleeping. I can't remember the last time I went to bed and fell asleep before that, even in high school, beyond anomalies. If I don't go out, I am usually still in the mode of the day being busy with typing crap online or talking to people online. I either read or watch movies or just try to parse things I hadn't done throughout the day, as most of the day I spend writing. It feels like the day, except it is quieter and I can focus on other things without the stress I feel before I've written for the day. By the time I get to lay down, it usually takes at least an hour of laying, trying to blank, before I actually nod out, though frequently even longer, and sometimes it never happens at all until the sun's up and I'm fried in the want to move again. I always try, though. As many years as I've been warbling in it, I still pretend each night like I'm going to lay down and just fall into nowhere.
When you do succeed in falling asleep, your dreams are pretty intense and "it takes years to move through them." What was your last meaty one like?
BB: I often find my dreams unparseable in language, except as fragments, as there seems to always be several dozen things going on at once. The thing I love most about dream space is the physics and emotional dimension of it: hyper senses and confabulated histories crashing into one another, most of which is often understood in the dream the way we understand ourselves as people when awake. So, often what I take from them beyond the resonance of feeling is an odd image or emotion, often the last ones in, as the mazes and tunnels and folding buildings and landscapes tend to eat each other before my waking brain gets to stick. Here are a couple of the last "meaty" images that I recorded on twitter after waking:
dreamending of huge woman in purple smock pointing up at god w/ left arm, screaming "YOU'RE NOT AS GOOD A COUNTRY ARTIST AS I AM"
8:35 AM May 3rd
dreamt i was taking naked drum lessons from serena williams until she stopped & opened a cabinet in her chest & i climbed in & died
12:59 PM Apr 26th
Judging by your creative output, your brain works in unusual and interesting ways. What early influences shaped your way of thinking?
BB: When I was really little, my mother read to me constantly, often books that "arent't for kids," like Twain, Dickens, Cervantes, Salinger. So I guess I got versed in some of the mechanics of those early machines before I had to meet them again in school and have them dismantled by too much logic and narrative-wanting.
Beyond that, I was constantly awake late as a child even, and I think being up alone in the house full of dark really stayed with me: I was always applying too many kinds of presences to everything, and was afraid of walls or switches or things at the window.
Also: sugar, finding a skateboard I could never ride in my neighbor's yard, forks, fabric, imaginary clubs, night terrors, water, talking walls, believing there was an elevator somewhere in the house, streetlamps through windows, blood on the phone.
What were you like as a kid growing up in Atlanta? Did you always want to be a writer or was there another dream?
BB: I was always trying to invent reams of people that didn't exist so I could talk to them and form clubs or battalions out of them. I was always going to war against nothing. My sister and I formed a bike gang that patrolled our yard and hid weapons and invented our own language and buried crap under the ground. I was always talking to myself. I was more shy around others, and in some ways that's still the same: I like to keep quiet mostly, unless I'm drinking.
According to my mom, when I was little I said I wanted to be a bricklayer, a cake baker, or an astronaut. Each of those seems more like writing than writing is.
What was your first concert?
BB: In middle school, my mom made me go with my sister to see New Kids on the Block. I liked New Kids when I was in elementary, but by this time I was talking shit about them and liked Metallica and Guns n Roses and yet I imagine there was something in me that still wanted to see NKOTB. A cheerleader from my gym class sat right in front of me and then told everyone the next day that I'd been at the show. Add NKOTB to already being the fat kid and, well...
What's the best book that someone has given you recently?
BB: Sorokin's Ice Trilogy. I actually haven't opened it yet, but just staring at it and imagining what is in there from the description and what I've manifested from that is giving me this weird bliss.
What's the last album you fell in love with?
BB: Man, I don't know anymore. Music doesn't fill me the same way it used to. I don't know if I've locked up or it has. Maybe Waka Flocka's Flockaveli or New Slaves by Zs.
If you could live inside one movie, which would it be?
BB: Fellini's Satyricon.
If you could visit any other time period and place in history, which would it be and what would you do there?
BB: I believe all places and times still exist. I'd probably just stand there and eat food and try to chill.
If you could invite 3 people (dead/alive/fictional) to your dinner party, who would they be and why?
BB: Pasolini, this particular woman I've dreamt of exactly three times in my life who appears inside a corridor of meat and who I know like I know me, and R Kelly.
You're known for being a prolific writer. What's currently cooking in your head?
BB: I just turned in a nonfiction work about sleep and insomnia titled Nothing, that will be out from Harper Perennial in October or November. Other than that, I'm trying to finish a novel I wrote 3/4ths of last year and left at a really weird spot, which is sort of becoming based on Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, and am also editing another novel about the end of murder, which is caused by murder.
Look for Blake Butler's episode of The Writers' Block next Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!