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More than just about anybody, it was Blake Butler who inspired me to reach out toward a larger literary community  with his blog posts, his journals, his books and stories. So, I am particularly thankful that Blake took the time to chat with me about his role as a writer, editor, and publisher.

Q: A few years ago you wrote a blog post on the idea of literary citizenship. I’ve always found it an eye-opening and inspiring post–in part because for a long while I believed that a serious writer or artist should focus entirely on creating art–somewhat out of fear of being distracted or writing for the wrong reasons and somewhat because for me writing was always something done behind closed doors and when my parents weren’t looking. Was this idea of being a literary citizen natural for you? Has being an active part of a larger group of writers influenced your writing and your idea of being a writer?

A: I don’t know about being a literary citizen, but the idea of being open to ideas and motions and building off of other people in not a creative way but an energy kind of way came naturally, I think. Primarily because of it being online, and that you could do it from home on your ass, which is conductive to me because I’m bad at being motivated physically to correspond as often, particularly about books. The main value the internet has for me is this way of being able to connect with people who like the same shit you do, so why not use it and build a kind quasi-structure in this way, like the way one would in a quest videogame. If anything, it’s a wish to destroy the ego that has often surrounded literature and made it seem like a classroom rather than the yard around the school.

One thing I’m particularly interested in and impressed by is that all of your output–from journals you edit and publish to fiction to non-fiction to things like tweets–seems to share a remarkable consistent and distinctively “Blake Butler” voice. Do you have a particular voice or tone you are looking for when you begin a journal or edit an issue? Or are you just accepting work you like or soliciting writers you enjoy?

As an editor I think the common element of what I want is that it be raw: that is, not sloppy necessarily (though sloppiness can be used effectively at times), but more so a concision of vision and power that kind of ignores why it’s being made or what is being made and instead is the thing itself. A lack of formality, maybe, though as well a formal tone can be used in the manner I most like. Something that burns, perhaps, or operates out of a destructive center, where destructive can also mean becoming larger than the thing itself. I like to not fully understand, and I like things that feel full already: if I have to make suggestions or edits or something, I’m less interested, even if the edits are copy-based: I like typos and weirdism and mess ups when they contribute to that center. It should almost be as if the thing were published before it were even written.

Do you have any concerns about opening things up too much? Maybe not for you, anymore, but for younger writers or writers who are working their way up. I mean, there are benefits to being obstructed, right? To having an authority at the front of the room saying “this is how you should do things”?

Yeah I mean it’s easy, particularly online, to come off sounding like a snot no matter what you say. I think particularly early on in typing into these places I would just blather off at the head however it came on, and even if I thought I meant it at the time, and even if I meant it all with the implied “no one really knows anything about anything I’m just a fuck,” it definitely can end up blowing up in your face or seeming like too much. No tone online means people will often assume the worst about you as a person, and I guess I’ve made splashy sounds that made others think I’m some kind of Mussolini in my mind when really I think everyone is the same person. So, the longer I’ve been around it, the more careful maybe I’ve become about knowing when is the right time to spout off, and when to just keep it to myself, or to return to the truest thing for me, which is just sitting quietly and listening and doing what you need to do in silence.

I can certainly see that as a common thread in your work and in the work you publish–and it was certainly something I found particularly compelling when I discovered it.  I wonder where that moment of perception happens that there is a beauty in mistakes and weirdisms. After all, as writers we spend so much time learning how to polish and being told to polish and reading the most polished type of writing.

Did this interest in and openness to ‘raw’ writing come from editing or was it something formed out of your own work or maybe another medium?

I guess it came from having had a certain kind of excited feeling about creation when I first sat down at the machine for years, and writing basically alone without these online forums much and just banging the buttons and working in a kind of nowhere of my mind. When I went to MFA school, and the more I was around the mind of a certain kind of literary journal culture, which I became obsessed with, I went through a phase of trying to ‘act like a real boy’ or something, to try to clean away what now I think of as my best strengths because they didn’t seem to fit this idea of what things are supposed to be, based on this very specific sect. And as the online world took off more and I started doing my own journals and finding more in my own original spirit of doing it for yourself and letting things fall where they lay, and just feeling way more at home and open and free in the original spirit of working in my own mind but now paired with this kind of open void spirit place where things both had no stakes and therefore had a totally different kind of brain to it, which thereby at the same time ended up turning me further inward, in my own work, and further outward, in the approach and in the milk of other people. So it was kind of just an inherent, fleshy reaction, like when one contracts a terminal disease, in this case one where the symptoms require, in my body, prolonged periods of sitting and staring into a light, and eruptions of control in the lymph and fingers.

Where is American literature going at this point, as an industry and as an art? Where do you see the future and what should our goals as writers, editors, and publishers be?

I have no idea where it’s going. I don’t see the future. I see a hole. Our goals should be to break shit without moving.

I think you’d run an interesting press. Have you ever put any thought into starting a press of your own and publishing books? And, building off of that, have you ever thought about publishing your own work?

Shane Jones and I put a book out together last year. Kristina Born’s One Hour of Television. (http://www.laminationcolony.com/LIQUIDATOR/born_ex.html). If I had more energy I’d do it again. It’s a good feeling. I don’t know what I’m doing with my mind anymore. I’ll probably end up publishing my own stuff one day, sure. I have a couple novels on my hard drive that wouldn’t probably come out any other way, but I’ll more likely just let them sit there and remain published only among the community of their peers: the jpegs and the spam. Every day I say things out loud I might do to see how it feels to say them. I do like 1 out 1,000. The one that is most inside the hole.

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Christopher Higgs is one of my favorite minds and a real hero of art and literature. His output is constantly invigorating and thought-provoking from his brightstupidconfetti  curations, his series of posts on HTMLGiant concerning the nature of experimental literature, his short fiction, and his tremendous novel The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney. Recently Mr. Higgs and I chatted about some of the implications of his April 14th HTMLGiant post What Could Small/Micro/Indie Presses Learn From the Concept of Transmedia Storytelling? 

Q: We’re coming at this from the point of view of publishing, so, would you talk a little about where you see the text itself fitting in with the rest of the media? Does the other media offshoot from the text (as in an audio book or a trailer) or is the text potentially conceived as just one piece of a larger project? Is there any concern that the print becomes the forgotten part of the equation?

A: Yes, I would imagine the text being only one node in the overall assemblage.  Since different media offer different strengths and weaknesses, I imagine manipulating or pressing the boundaries might yield interesting work.  For instance, perhaps part of the transmedia story “takes place” (for lack of a better phrase) on soundcloud, while another part takes place on flicker, another on youtube, another on tumbler,perhaps there are fliers or stickers that add to the narrative, which the producer would arrange to have posted in various cities across the globe.  At this point, the threat of losing the text is real, but only if you think of it that way, only if you privilege the text.  I don’t see this model working successfully if the text is held as sacred. It almost requires that the text share the limelight.  Since it’s NBA finals season, this has got me thinking about the difference between a team that relies on one superstar player versus a team that plays as a team. Transmedia storytelling is like the latter.  You have to think of the project as a project, a team, rather than think of the text as sovereign and the other stuff as extra.  Thus, I see the text and the other media working harmoniously as individual nodes in a nonhierarchical assemblage.  In fact, this model doesn’t actually threaten the text, it merely extends the definition of “the text” to include other media.

Q: The Jenkins hand out you linked to mentions “expanding markets” and “action figures.” He does so in the context of allowing the audience to participate in new ways, but it does seem there is a fine line between marketing and an interesting, exciting way of telling a story. Is there any concern about becoming George Lucas—where aspects of a book are written not out of some artistic impulse but where characters or events in the original texts are conceived by how well the spin offs will sell?

A:  Small press attempts at incorporating transmedia storytelling would need to negotiate the relevance of expanding markets and producing action figures.  It seems to me that expanding markets is a good idea for any level of storytelling: the larger the audience the better.  But as far as merchandising goes, I’m not sure that applies to small press ventures, although it would certainly be interesting to see how these might emerge.  As far as “becoming George Lucas” (that’s agreat phrase, by the way) it would seem to me that small press folks by virtue of being small press folks would find more creative and interesting ways to manage spin-offs rather than defer to them, in other words I imagine disallowing the marketing end to dictate the creative production as a general rule.

Q: Jenkins uses the examples of large, multi-narrative tales. I’m writing a novel now with a lot of vastness in it—time and characters and events— and I’m excited about the possibilities raised by this proposal of yours—but I wonder how you see smaller novels or novels that focus less on stories and events or even what people think of as a ‘literary realist’ novel fitting into this approach?

A: I think the possibilities and potential for imbricating experimental fiction and transmedia storytelling is vast – perhaps even greater than conventional, or as you put it “literary realist” work, because experimental work approaches the idea of storytelling differently.  If the narrative is fragmented to begin with that would lends itself to spreading across multiple medias, I would think.

Q: Have you put any serious thought into specific ways The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney could be translated into different media? It seems like that particular novel would lend itself particularly well.

A: Yeah, I mean, Ken [Baumann, publisher of Sator Press] and I tried to do a little of this transmedia stuff.  We made various cryptic videos (one, two, three), we made a cryptic website that appeared before the official release of the book, which is now the official hub, but before it had a bunch of strange messages and pictures and stuff that tried to push this mysterious “who is Marvin K. Mooney” narrative, we also tried to do this blog comment bomb thing where Marvin K. Mooney showed up in various comment threads, all of this in the hopes of building a kind of pre-release, pre-reveal hype.  Also, there’s the audiobook, which is more a performance piece slash re-imagining of the novel than your typical author-reads-text-quietly type of thing.  All of this was an experiment along transmedia lines.  But it came before I had studied any of Jenkins’s work.  And it came after the book had already been written.  To really succeed at transmedia storytelling, I think the transmedia element needs to be part of the original vision, needs to be part of the creation process from the very beginning.

Q: The focus of your post was on small presses so I may as well ask to what extent funding as a limitation in all of this? Especially with the smaller small presses?

A: Creative thinking trumps financial shortcomings 9 out of 10 times.  Makes me think of the independent film movement that caught fire in the 90s: these people with no money started making movies that embraced the fact that they had no money.  Clerks, Blair Witch Project, etc.  They didn’t let the absence of funding stop them from making important work.  Same should apply for publishing.

Q: Where does the idea of authorship fit into all of this? Is this idea tending toward a series of collaborations with equal say over a story? Or would a publisher potentially become the “producer”? That makes me a little itchy—does it make you at all itchy?

A: This is a good question, with a bunch of possible answers.  I could envision a project where the publisher serves as “the producer” in the sense of orchestrating the various media components, with a single author or multiple authors producing the individual content.  There could be some interesting multi-author or team-author work.  In that sense, it would require a different way of thinking about authorship.  On the other hand, although it would be super challenging for one author to produce all of the various media components of a transmedia story, perhaps that’s the kind of challenge an independent writer or publisher might best be suited.

Q: I know along with film and television that musicians like Trent Reznor and Radiohead have embraced creative thinking in this direction. I wonder to what extent  this owed to the fact that writers are, generally, isolated with their work whereas TV and film and pop groups are necessarily collaborative on many levels? As much as this is about thinking about publishing in a broader way should writers begin thinking more collectively?

A: Yes.  Exactly.  Collaboration holds possibilities beyond the scope of what a single author can produce.  Recently, I participated in a collective project called Pushcorpse for the print journal No Colony.  Sixty-five different writers contributed something like 100 words to a single story, and the final product is a stunning ensemble of riotously diverse voices.  That’s just one example, but what it signals is that collective work provides a different scope.  Look at the potency of collective websites like Plumb, or the one I write for, HTMLGiant.  Individual identity is not lost or even compromised by affiliating with collaborative projects like these, in fact, I would argue that the power of affiliation magnifies the intensity of the individual writer.  That’s the first hurdle to overcome: acknowledging that we don’t lose when we team up, we actually gain.  I know for many writers this seems anathema: giving up sovereignty.  Put another way, I think some novelists and poets tend to be novelists and poets rather than filmmakers or musicians because they get sole creative control over their creations.  This works for a certain model of creation, but as I’ve said, transmedia storytelling lends itself best to those who are willing to give up sole creative control and instead embrace the power of collaboration.

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underground library logoSo, those who’ve been tuned into my slew of projects and so forth over the years know about my crowning failure. It was called Underground Library. It was located at UndergroundLibrary.info. It was documented at HTMLGIANT. It had a blog at UndergroundLibrary.org, which I’m soon to forward to this new one.

A quick WHOIS search revealed that one Michele McDannold is behind this thing. And I’m going to do everything I can to support her, because what killed my beloved UL was a lack of support. We wrote up a user manual. We did a lot of things. The thing died because no one seemed to give a fuck. Or people were spiteful because I happened to own the thing. People can be petty. The thing had such great potential.

But there’s no need to look into the past. I’m really glad to have the whole notion off my mind; someone else is handling it. I can now focus on d//w without thinking, each time I go there, about the one that got away.

Let’s not repeat history. This is exactly the sort of thing that centers and grounds a movement; that helps it learn from its mistakes; that builds a better future for it. It bothers me a lot that you are rolling your eyes. It bothers me more that you’d have a magazine publish you, but wouldn’t do a fucking thing for it beyond that. Everything after “I,” in statements counter to that, is probably an excuse.

Sorry if I sound angry. I kind of am. At myself, for letting the domain go. It looks like she started this thing up right after ours died. What a beautiful internet!

The Literary Underground Wiki is located here.

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