Who Cares What You Think of the Book You Wrote: Blake Butler on 'Three Hundred Million'
New York Tyrant publisher Giancarlo DiTrapano asked Blake Butler to interview him about Butler's terrifying new book on a psychotic cult leader and the detective trying to understand him.
Welcome to Who Cares What You Think About the Book You Wrote, a semi-regular series where I flip the common reader/writer interview on its head and ask an author to interview me about the book they wrote. The idea here is that most people don't give a shit about the writer's "writing experience" and are more interested in what their reading experience will be like.
For this installment I made VICE columnist Blake Butler ask me some questions about his new book, "Three Hundred Million". The novel is about a psychotic cult leader and the police detective tasked with trying to understand him. It gets into your cells – in a good way. And then in a bad way. And then in a good way again. It's one of the most beautiful and terrifying novels I've ever read. What begins as a few high school headbangers suffering from boredom turns into a death metal jam sessions with ligaments of the people they've murdered woven into the guitar strings. The ringleader, Gretch Gravey, supplied the dope and all the children listened.
Here is Blake's interview with me about his book.
Blake Butler: After you finished my book, you posted a status update saying you were afraid to be in the same room as me again. I thought it was a joke, but the next time I came to NYC you were "out of town". Why are you avoiding me?
Giancarlo DiTrapano: That was a joke. We've slept under the same roof a few times, I believe, and it was mostly fine. But after reading this book and seeing what your mind is capable of, I'm convinced that you are much more twisted and disturbed than I thought you were. I'd still sleep in the same place as you again – I'd just sleep with one eye open. Or I'd make sure we had a third person there who you would kill before me, since I think we're tight enough friends that you'd at least not go after me first.
To let this book pass through you and to sustain it long enough to write it down and edit it must have taken some courage. The fact that you can dream up such things makes me think that you're only a step away from committing some of the shit in this book.
This is the first time I've ever referenced drug use in any of my writing. As someone who had never actually taken drugs besides alcohol, I wondered how that came off to someone who likes drugs a lot, like you? Do you think it's possible for a literary experience to ever approximate a similar state of intoxication?
In all honesty, I feel like you're the one friend and writer I know who might not benefit from some dabbling with narcotics or psychedelics. The places you go in your writing are so much further than I've ever been on any kind of mind-altering substance. But yes, I think a literary experience can get pretty close to describing it perfectly. In Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone comes close to capturing an opiate high. This passage, to me, is the literary equivalent of 30 milligrams of oxycodone:
And when she closed her eyes it was wonderful. She passed into a part of the sea where there was infinite space, where she could breathe and swim without effort through limitless vaults. She fancied that she could hear voices, and that the voices might belong to creatures like herself.
That being said, while I was reading your book I kept thinking about how I'd be satisfied with an afterlife made up of swimming through vaults of your language. I'm serious. Penetrating shit, man.
Speaking of penetration, why is there so much gay sex in this book?
This might be a question that you and your girlfriend should talk about together, but I'll give it a shot: When you are writing about the apocalyptic – murder, violence, rape, dismemberment, and incest – I think one is forced to include all kinds of sex. I mean, how ridiculous would it be if Gravey said "no homo" after all of his directions and commands? Gay sex was something that had to be in there, because gay sex is a part of the universe, and the universe is in this book.
Is it obvious I was drunk writing certain pages? I'd never written drunk before – at least nothing that I've published – but for a handful of pages I got wasted at home alone with the specific intention of writing through it, and it worked. Well, I know that you write, and I know that you drink. So I figured those two activities sometimes occur simultaneously. I think it's good. Drinking makes you confident and confidence is good – if not essential – to write with.
Do you think people will use that admission as a way to explain away the mass of language, which many assume is chaos? It's not chaos.
Why would anybody use that as an argument against the book? It's not much of an argument. Reminds me of this complete idiot in one of my college classes that asked why we even study Freud if he was a cokehead.
I believe you when you say it is not chaos. The American language that you applied to this is like some weird and modern biblical slang. I kept feeling like I was in church. I would read some, set it down, and when I'd come back to it, it was like I was coming back to a living thing. I almost expected a face to come pushing out through the pages.
I imagine people look for ways to explain away something that seems inexplicable. I am glad there's a face. What would the face look like, to you? Do you remember any dreams you had before or after reading?
The face would come out of the pages like that one that comes through the wall above the bed in Nightmare on Elm Street. Like that face, or the face of a small Asian girl. Or maybe even an elderly Eddie Vedder.
As for features, just tons of acne. Acne Vulgaris – layers of it, like I had in high school and college. I've been having some recurring dreams lately and I must have had them while reading your book. They are about me being reprimanded. Sometimes by a person, sometimes a faceless thing... A voice comes at me about all the ways I've fucked up, am fucking up, and will continue to fuck up. This book is honestly more like a dream or nightmare than my actual dreams and nightmares. Does that make sense?
They say a writer should die not a little but a lot during the writing of each book. Reading this, I can tell that you surrendered to it and devoted all of your self to the act, which is exactly what it takes. You might have shaved ten years off your life while writing this one, man. I read somewhere that Eugene O'Neill looked a year older every time he came out of his room while working on Long Day's Journey. I haven't seen you in person since you've written this, but I bet you look older.
It definitely took something out of me. I'm not quite sure what. What would a soundtrack to Three Hundred Million sound like to you?
The soundtrack would be like some undiscovered Pearl Jam deep-cuts from a bootleg box set with tracks recorded in a parallel universe where, instead of hiring on Eddie Vedder, the rest of the band killed Vedder. Then they used his ribs for guitar picks, laced his innards through the recording equipment, and played heavy, heavy shit until the cops came.
Or it would sound like the greatest band to come from the next generation of ISIS after they take over America, discover your book, and replace the Quran with it as their text. That's what I kept thinking reading this thing – that it was some kind of religious text. I think this book might fuck somebody up in the head someday. You're going to be older and get the news that someone has been killing people in the name of it. Can you imagine the absurdity? Someone killing another person because of a book?
But I finally understand why you never fuck with drugs. I understand why you have problems sleeping. I kind of feel sorry that you have to live with all this in your head. Hopefully writing all of this down purged your head of it. You know how they say the only way to get a song out of your head is to sing it out loud? Hopefully you sung all of this out.
Giancarlo DiTrapano is a longtime contributor to this website and publisher of Tyrant books, an independent literary press based out of Hell's Kitchen. He has never won a game of pool in his life. Follow him on Twitter.