I, a Novelist: An Interview with Halle Butler

Halle Butler (Photo: Jerzy Rose)

I, a novelist, met novelist Halle Butler in Chicago in May 2017. My girlfriend, also a novelist, was reading with Butler at a café in Logan Square. Halle was standing outside with her friend, a novelist, and they were smoking cigarettes. Butler had on a wrinkled button-down shirt from a thrift store, dirty sneakers, and jeans with holes in them. She seemed wry and friendly. At the time, I don’t think she was aware I was a novelist, but she as we talked, I couldn’t stop myself from referring to my debut novel, which had come out a couple months earlier. She smiled in a conspiratorial way, then told me she would have trouble remembering the title because she was already drunk. My girlfriend and I were hungry, so we went inside and ordered gumbo. Halle got up to read an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, The New Me (Penguin). She burped a few times, then announced she was a Granta Best Young American Novelist. Everyone laughed when her narrator admits she is “afraid of the taste of water.” I wondered, who is this Halle Butler person?

I wanted to become her friend immediately. This would be a good place for me to describe, in summary, Butler’s new novel, The New Me, but I hesitate to say that it’s about loneliness, alienation, depression, and friendship. I will say that I experienced waves of empathy for her narrator and her narrator’s anxiety sweat. The New Me is a bold and absurd work of comic genius that dissects social mores, neoliberalism, and consumerism disguised as self-improvement. In other words, Butler and I are kindred spirits and I’m so grateful to have become her friend (when she’s not making fun of me).

INTERVIEWER

First of all, thank you for writing such a beautiful, enraged treatise on living alone in an apartment in Chicago in the winter with one quasi friend and a terrible job. Where did this book begin for you?

BUTLER

I assure you the pleasure was all mine.

I wrote the first few chapters specifically to perform aloud—the intro/overture part, the train scene, the Tom Jordan part. I really like doing readings, but I felt like I’d never totally cracked the code for how to keep people from glazing over, which is definitely a common thing at a reading—getting and keeping people’s attention is really hard, unless they already know you—which, in my case, is often. So I tried first person, lots of potshots, language that would allow me to read in my “irate idiot” party voice. I like it when you feel like you’re witnessing someone interacting with their work in front of you, rather than some kind of self-conscious performance of a reading, if that makes sense. I read the first handful of pages of The New Me at Cafe Mustache in Chicago, in 2016.

INTERVIEWER

Everyone dreads talking about their writing process. Why does everyone dread this? What does an hour of writing look like for you? A minute of writing? Nonwriting?

BUTLER

Very few people have ever asked me about my process. I guess it’s a balance of trying to stay relaxed and attentive, right?

The first draft is typing casually, almost in a conversational way, responding to a series of ideas, seeing where that leads, paying attention to what feels natural, what’s funny, what’s sad, what’s stimulating, what passes the time. And then there’s editing, which is more like interactive reading, starting at the top, stopping when you need to make a change, then going to the top again, until you can read it through without anything standing out. It’s pretty simple. Sometimes it feels forced, but that’s no big deal.

I think Bukowski’s really funny on process. “So you want to be a writer” and “air and light and time and space” are really great diss poems. And I also really love Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, particularly the part about the cobbler’s elves. Do you know this book?

INTERVIEWER

I haven’t read it, but have heard of it.

BUTLER

It’s intensely comforting. It accurately describes the feeling of being inspired, of how you can work at something for a while and then suddenly everything clicks into place. Oh, it’s so good! When I want to feel reassured, I think about Lewis Hyde, and when I want to feel more “fuck you,” I read something like “air and light and time and space”. But they’re both about how you can’t really pin down or commodify the artistic experience.

Maybe artists dread the process question because it seems sort of beside the point or hard to answer properly. The answer is something like, I really have no clue what I’m doing, but I like doing it.

INTERVIEWER

Millie, your narrator, is isolated and lonely, yet surrounded by other people in her workspaces and her apartment building. Can you talk about the relationship between Millie and the city?

BUTLER

I wasn’t really thinking about the city as the source of the isolation. I was thinking more about where a drained, isolated person would turn for connection or advice—and I think they would google it. But the advice you get on the internet is the shallow, lifestyle kind, which feels like a coastal import. Or you turn to TV, which really blanks out your mind with simulated human interaction. We know that Millie has cultural interests: her parents are academic, she used to work at a museum, she’s interested in ballet and opera, she has philosophical thoughts. So maybe one of the ironies is that, of course, a person with these interests would want to live near one of the best museums in the world, walking distance from the Poetry Foundation, the Civic Opera House, et cetera, et cetera, but she just can’t seem to shut the fuck up and go look at some Cézannes. There’s something about the internalized Protestant work ethic going on there, that a pleasure can’t be enjoyed for its own sake, that it has to lead somewhere else—even if that somewhere is just a moral feeling. Millie has difficulty with this. And what happens to a person who, for years, has spent time developing their critical and artistic sensitivities, and then they lose the institutional support of school, lose their community after a break up, lose the opportunity to have a meaningful career as a result of scarcity and inertia, and find themselves in a cubicle? That person will naturally go a little cuckoo. I’m not trying to say that if only she went to look at some paintings, she’d be cured. There’s just a taint to everything.

INTERVIEWER

I’m interested in Millie’s hostility. In The New Me there are long, digressive tangents in which Millie examines and surgically dissects social cues and other forms of politeness. She’s an observer of the world around her, yet she doesn’t spare herself from this examination.

BUTLER

Hostility is definitely my main ingredient. It’s a muscle I’ve spent some time developing. But then there’s guilt and shame, too. I’m not sure exactly how to answer this. I mean, she’s kind of like a weasel in a bag—that’s not an expression, it’s just something to picture. She’s the weasel and she’s the bag. I don’t know, Patty. Maybe society is the bag. I’ve just had this experience of being really hard on myself when I’m sad, and then you know, I pity the poor soul who says the wrong thing around me, because I just kind of whip pan over to them and charge. Mentally, of course. They never know that now they’re a figure in my psychodrama. I think it’s very likely that the starting point for Millie’s hostility was a vivid sense that she was doing something wrong—and then when that became exhausting, she turned it outward. You know what I’m talking about, right?

INTERVIEWER

Of course I do. Your debut novel, Jillian, used the office as a space of rage, fantasy, and disappointment. What’s your relationship to the workplace, if there is one? I don’t want to assume…

BUTLER

I’ve worked mainly as a secretary or in customer service.

INTERVIEWER

I’m curious—did a specific experience from your workplace inform The New Me and Jillian?

BUTLER

The entirety of the experience informed both books. The number one thing people do not want to have to hear you talk about is how much you hate your job. It’s so boring. But it’s also the thing that you can’t stop talking about. All anyone can say is, like, Oh, wow, that sucks, or, more infuriatingly, Maybe you should stop thinking [read: talking] about it. So part of the fun for me was being able to wild out on how horrible and sad and lonely this kind of work is. It was a very complicated and indirect way to communicate that I’m sad and this sucks.

INTERVIEWER

In alternating chapters, there are breaks from Millie’s first-person narration where we enter the close third person of Millie’s supervisor, her coworkers, neighbors, et cetera. It creates this grotesque ecosystem of despair and sadness. These outside perspectives also offer insight into how others view Millie, which I think is brilliant.

BUTLER

It was a way to take a breather from the monologue and to confirm some of Millie’s suspicions.

They all have more than Millie does—goals, friends—and their concerns are all a little frivolous, so I’m definitely making fun of those characters a little bit. I wish I had a better answer, like, structurally my intent was to have those sections function as a break in the same way that one might take a break from something stressful by checking their iPhone, and since the iPhone and the internet are less intense simulacrums of interpersonal relationships, it made sense for me to not use first person, et cetera, et cetera, but that would be a lie. I was just trying to make myself laugh. Does that answer satisfy you? [Laughs.]

INTERVIEWER

Thank you for satisfying me, Halle. Speaking of the grotesque, we both as writers sometimes go a little too far in our writing in terms of describing bodily functions. How do you know when something is too much?

BUTLER

There’s a lot of anxiety sweat in The New Me—I think this is what you mean. I remember when I put it together that my sweat smelled worse when I was stressed out—I thought that was really interesting. Like a defense mechanism, like, Okay, everybody take three big steps back, because I can’t handle any more right now! Like a skunk, or those caterpillars that smell like almonds when you shake them. There’s something really vulnerable and pathetic about it. To picture Millie walking around the office smelling like an onion pizza—based on a true odor—just radiating distress in a way that’s bound to be interpreted as repulsive and sloppy … it endeared me to her.

INTERVIEWER

The title of your novel, The New Me, suggests a promise of reinvention. Could you say something about our culture in which a person is expected to better herself, whether through diet, fitness, plastic surgery, education, therapy?

BUTLER

With this book, these concerns were pretty internal. I often have this sense that there’s something wrong—I’m sad or I feel vaguely guilty about something, something’s just off. So I come up with a rational solution, for example, to eat well or to read a certain book that might stimulate me, because I can remember feeling good, and I associate those feelings with health and interesting thinking. But it can be hard to do the rational thing, because that takes a little will and a little energy—pizza and TV take no energy. So I say, Okay, I’ll do it tomorrow. But I don’t. And then I start to feel like I’m procrastinating, and then I feel guilty about that, which drains more energy, and as these feelings start to snowball, they become more ornate, they become related to my opinions of myself on an almost moral level, thinking that I’m bad, and the whole thing gets out of hand. It’s very baroque and emotional. Indecision and anguish over nothing. I think these feelings are pretty eternal—promising to be better, promising to be more moral, and then the difficulty of following through.

People know about this feeling, especially people who want to sell you something (The New Me, Penguin, $16). There’s a lot of snake oil out there, now and always, and I definitely have disdain for people who manipulate someone’s emotions and vulnerability for profit (audible.com, read by the author). It might be a distraction to think of this as a uniquely contemporary problem.

The idea that if you can commodify an experience, somehow that’s better, more useful, than pure experience feels really bogus. Walking is such a pleasure, but with a pedometer, the pleasure becomes monitoring the stats of walking, with the end goal of looking slimmer, so that people treat you better, et cetera. You’re cut off from the pleasure of walking. Or, I think about that company Moon Juice, which is focused on a holistic, sustainable approach to health, with all the trappings of a kind of spiritual-feminine connection to nature and the body, using mushrooms and herbs and things, but, you know, with products like that, what you get is the pleasure of the purchase. It doesn’t matter if the product lives up to its wild promises of reinvention. You already get to feel consumer relief and superiority.

I was thinking about the term toxic as it relates to people and friendships, and how that relates to self-improvement. Identifying and eliminating toxic people was kind of a craze in 2015, 2016. I’m toxic, I need to eat mushroom powder, my friend is toxic, I need to put up a boundary. I was thinking of Millie as a toxic person, but one with a very good argument.

INTERVIEWER

What would you say is her argument?

BUTLER

That to accept the world as it is, and to become soothed by conveyor-belt, good-school-to-good-retirement-home, status-seeking consumerism would be a kind of spiritual death.

 

Patty Yumi Cottrell is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. She is the winner of a 2018 Whiting Award in fiction and a Barnes and Noble Discover Award.

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