‘Sweet jewel, bro’: An interview with Blake Butler.

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{image by Anastasia Mouyis, excerpted from the essay “I Tried Really Hard to Play” appearing in Annalemma Issue Eight: Creation}

Chances are you know who Blake Butler is. He’s published fiction in nearly every lit magazine online and in print, he’s editor at HTMLGiant, and in April he released a new novel, There is No Year, on Harper Perennial. This interview doesn’t have much to do with those things.

Blake’s mainly known for his fiction but I’d been enjoying the nonfiction essays he posted on HTMLG, a lot of them having to do with art and life. I saw them as much more tempered, quiet and reflective than the intricate and mind-bending language he used in his fiction writing. The essays were like messages written in the dark, to be found by people also in the dark. So I asked Blake to write some nonfiction for Issue Eight: Creation and he came back with a piece about making up a role playing game while on a beach vacation with his family as a child.

We talked on Gmail chat about a lot of the ideas he brings up in his essay: role playing games (RPGs), meticulous obsession, solitude, art, writing, publishing, the purpose of playing games and, of course, creation.

Blake Butler: Hey Chris, I’m here whenever.

Annalemma: Hey man, you cool to do this now?

BB:  Totally.

A: Righteous. I’m totally unprepared, but I think that’s okay, let’s just start with RPGs. I don’t really know anything about RPGs, how would you describe them?

BB: I think my experience with RPGs is totally different than people who would actually talk about them, since I never had anyone to play with. I just kind of was tagging along in my brain with the idea but ostensibly they are games based on rules and numbers and you fill in the blanks but with nerd shit only.

A: Haha. So would Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons and Dragons be the main examples of what an RPG is?

BB: I guess the more traditional idea of an RPG is the D&D style, before computers could do interesting things with the format. Magic is more of an actual game game, cuz you are much more governed by the pre-established rules. Like in Magic, the innovation comes from finessing what is already set up as defined, because there are only so many cards and you can’t make up your own (unless you rule and play with people who make up their own, though that probably almost never happens). Whereas D&D kind of gives you a structure, how to define the world yourself, and lets you explore that world based on how you set it up, if still with certain concrete format ideas. I never really played real ‘d&d’ I just read the manuals and wished I could and pretended like I was playing with people and then I played like PC games like Might and Magic II and stuff that were more like video games, Final Fantasy style.

A: I’m familiar with Final Fantasy, I had a buddy who became obsessed with it. I could never get behind it though. It took too long to tell your character what to do and then have him execute a move. I guess I never understood the appeal.

BB: Yeah, I wasn’t really into those kind of games either. The path you had to execute to complete the game was too linear. I liked PC games where there were things you had to do to move forward, like goals that gave you certain rewards, but really you could just spend all day wandering around killing shit and exploring and never get anywhere real and still have fun and the game could go on forever until you died.

A: I think I saw something on facebook where you were talking about playing Magic online. I also know nothing about the Magic games except that I see people in the coffee shop playing it all the time. Is that a game you play alone? Or can you go online and play with other folks?

BB: In the flesh you can really only play with at least one other person, though I think I remember when I was a kid someone invented a solitaire version, though that seemed a stretch. And you could be so lame as to have two decks and play yourself, which would be about as effective as playing yourself in chess. Though I can’t say I didn’t do that a few times. And yeah you can play online. It’s super addictive there since you don’t have to find other freaks willing to play a child’s game as an adult

A: Haha.

BB: I quit playing online though because I was spending money to buy the same cards I had in real life and that seemed really idiotic. So now just hang with these three dudes and we drink beer and make fun of each other and play it, so it’s not so serious. Though we did make a trip to a local comic store a few months ago and that was fucking weird… I beat the owner of the store in my first match and he was literally talking to me in third person and also as if I wasn’t actually there while his weirdly hot asian wife stood watching him rubbing his shoulders until she realized he was losing and then she went in the back of the store to go to sleep.

A: Oh my god, you went to the nerd kingdom and slayed the nerd king. Well done, dude.

BB: Haha, yeah, makin’ nerds sweat.

A: I think I read an interview with you where you talked about all the lit mags you submitted to when you first started out and you equated it to a sort of game. What is it with writers and games? I think it has something to do with our brains being wired for obsessive and compulsive behavior, what do you think?

BB: Yeah it’s definitely compulsive to me. Makes it more of a palpable goal-oriented thing, which can be good for someone who is competitive in general because the whole writing thing is so abstract and aimless when it comes to the supposed ‘business’ side need(ing) a target or something. Like, I want to slay Black Warrior Review with my two handed broadsword.

A: Haha.

BB: So I will fashion a broadsword, then I get this little jewel to stick in my Inventory screen when I do slay it. ‘Sweet jewel, bro.’

A: Haha. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea lately, and I think it’s the root of a lot of frustrations for writers and artists, in general: Creating art is such a subjective thing that there’s no one’s ever going to be able to say “This is a definitively good story.” Or “This is how you write a good story” cause different people like different things. It’s not like business or sports or video games where you meet certain requirements and with a little bit of luck you are successful. It’s just this shapeless blob that you keep trying to throw things at hoping they stick. What do you think about that?

BB: Right, I think ultimately continuing to throw things at things is the key, and if pretending you are fighting wizards while doing so helps you do that, that’s cool. I think if you start to take that whole side of the process too seriously it will eat you alive and make you question yourself to death, and really it’s all just tiny items in the first place. The point is to keep moving and having fun and making shit that you feel is getting somewhere as a creation, and some things fail and some work and that’s all good process.

Hopefully you get to a point where you make something that you feel proud of and that you remember in a way that feels warmish if even ultimately whatever. Like the way I think about my time spent playing Might and Magic 2.

Because I think no matter what sticks on the outside, wherever you publish it, it’s all going to feel like shit if you haven’t spent that kind of time inside it where it feels like a place you were, rather than this weird object. But then sometimes it’s fun to just have some weird little objects you fuck with too. It comes together weirdly.

A: I think I know what you mean, like it would truly be wasted time if you beat a piece of writing out (that) you didn’t give a shit about or it wasn’t a part of you, but it fit perfect with this mag or that mag. More quality time would have been (spent) with something that’s more of a reflection of who you are as a person.

BB: Right, or that messes you up or makes you feel excited in some way at least. As a publisher it’s probably pretty easy to tell when someone is just dialing it in I think, yeah?

A: Oh hell yes. And 90% of the people are dialing it in. Or they just don’t know how to get in touch with that core of themselves yet. They’re still working through shit.

BB: Right, they might not even realize they are dialing it in.

A: Which is not a big deal, you have to start somewhere. But I really wish people would have some sort of idea of what’s publishable and what’s not. Exercise a little filtering, you know?

BB: Right, the rush to publish is definitely not the best. I mean, I understand it, I was hungry the instant I started writing too. But the more you throw away, the better you get, and the better it is when you start to put shit out there.

A: Right, I mean, I can’t really relate to that impulse to submit to 1000 different places, maybe because I’ve been editing longer than I’ve been submitting so I know the other side of it. But I’m very aware that most of the stuff I write should never be read by anyone but me.

BB: I definitely had the itch early on, because anything I do I tend to do compulsively. But I was lucky in that I pretty much came out of the gate trying to write novels, and you can’t really half-assedly publish a novel, or it’s much harder to anyway. So my first 4 or 5 things I wrote were novels that all got ultimately canned, and I learned from them without anyone really seeing what I was doing besides the agent I lucked into early on, poor guy.

A: Haha, I think that’s the beauty of writing as opposed to, like, stand-up comedy, no one has to see you bomb if you don’t want them to. But, I really like the idea of finding a (publication) you like and making something specifically for them. I try to do that and I like when people do it for me.

BB: Totally. You have to know who you are sending to, especially when it comes to short things. And the more in tune to that you are, the better it works for both sides

A: Right, to me that’s much more productive. So I once played video games for 36 hours straight, what’s your longest go?

BB: Ha damn, what were you playing? I really have no idea what my longest would be. Probably not very long, though I would sometimes play whole seasons of Baseball Simulator 3000 for Nintendo, which would take a long time. I doubt anywhere near 36 hours though. I tend to get bored with most games and want to turn it off.

A: I’m the kind of gamer where I buy one game a year and I don’t stop playing until I beat everything. I think it was something stupid like Crash Bandicoot or Ratchet and Clank for PS2.

BB: Do you drink mountain dew or something or would you lose track of time?

A: It’s just like, “I have to do this thing and I’m not going to be okay until I do this thing.” Same thing with all addiction. I’ve really had to temper down the game playing in the last few years, I keep it cool with some Wii sports when friends come over. Do you think playing games is a waste of time?

BB: I mean, fucking off is good. And I think you learn some kind of weird skill set or understanding maybe from games that let you dig into worlds. I feel like my understanding of how things work is furthered by having pushed Mario down tunnels into other rooms and eaten coins and shit. It’s good to interact with fantasies that have maps and secrets. The sports crap is probably just a waste maybe, but stats have secrets too, and so do memorizing weird button arrangements. So it’s probably got some push to it, though I have a hard time playing as an adult since I mostly feel I’ve gone through all that and now I’m just like squirting. But squirting’s i-ight.

A: Haha, I hear you. It’s like if you come out the other side and you get something out of it then it’s never wasted time. I think that’s a good place to call it, unless you got anything else on your mind.

BB: I think we did good.

A: Yeah man, this was fun. I’ll let you know when it goes up.

BB: Definitely. thanks man, was good to chat.

A: For sure, I’ll be in touch. Did you get that mag yet btw?

BB: I dont think so? No.

A: Okay, I put it in the mail last week should be there soon. Lemme know if it doesn’t show.

BB: Yeah my mailperson sucks. I’m sure it will. Excited to check it.

A: Yeah, I think it turned out good. Aight man, I’ll be in touch.

Click here to check out Blake’s essay in Issue Eight: Creation.

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