Books In Conversation
BLAKE BUTLER, VANESSA PLACE, and CHRISTOPHER HIGGS with S. Tremaine Nelson
ONE (Roof Books, 2012) contains two original manuscripts—written by Vanessa Place and Blake Butler—cut up and reorganized into a final document by a third artist, Christopher Higgs. Chris, the architect of the project, provided artistic guidelines to the authors: write in the first person, the present tense, and structure the work around the themes of Discovery, Secrecy, and Escape. Blake focused on the concept of “exteriority,” while Vanessa explored the realm of “interiority.”Neither author read each other’s work before the manuscripts were merged into a single text.
In order to maintain the artistic integrity of the project, Blake and Vanessa were not allowed to view each other’s responses to these questions. Our email exchange, which appears below in abridged form, replicated Chris’s original role in the project, as he oversaw the edits and re-organization of ONE, cutting and pasting Blake and Vanessa’s manuscripts into a final product.
S. Tremaine Nelson (Rail): ONE is an aggressively experimental text. Are there artistic precursors you’d care to cite as inspirations?
Christopher Higgs: While I believe our project is sui generis, I can think of other artistic works that share an affinity with it. Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of Willem de Kooning; the collaborative word horde cut-up/fold-in work William Burroughs produced with Brion Gysin, Claude Pelieu, Mary Beach, and others; the Surrealist practice of cadavre exquis. Our book relies on certain constraints developed by the OuLiPo, or “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” (workshop of potential literature), and therefore [is] at least implicitly in conversation with that particular line of flight.
Blake Butler: I tried to pretend I had never read anything before. I wanted to feel 12. I thought of nothing.
Rail: Chris, how did you come up with this idea? Blake, Vanessa, what were your initial reactions to his pitch?
Higgs: It arose from questions about the boundaries and limitations of narrative, and of the distinctions between interior and exterior perspectives. In their masterpiece A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari propose that “The self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities.” I wanted to explore this idea.
Afterwards, other questions presented themselves, most significantly about authorship. Is an author the person who creates the words or the person who puts the words together? Is T.S. Eliot the author of The Waste Land, or is Ezra Pound? Is Raymond Carver the author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, or is Gordon Lish? In this 2011 interview with the Academy of American Poets, Kenneth Goldsmith claims, “It’s not about inventing anything new; it’s about finding things that exist and reframing them and representing them as original texts. The choice of what you’re presenting is more interesting than the thing that you’re presenting.” So, for Goldsmith, following Duchamp, to be an author now is to be a chooser or selector rather than a creator.
Vanessa Place: It sounded potentially pleasurable. However, this was not a deterrent.
Butler: I was ready.
Rail: The premise of ONE—pulling original content from two artists, mixed and arranged by a third artist—seems more established in the music world. Did any specific musical collaborations influence this project?
Higgs: Many works of art, music, and literature seem to share an affinity with ONE after the fact, but I wouldn’t say any of them influenced or instigated the creation of the project. Case in point, the work of Girl Talk certainly shares an affinity, but I wasn’t thinking about Girl Talk when I thought up the idea or when I was arranging the text. Likewise, Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, which takes The Beatles’s White Album and combines it with Jay-Z’s Black Album, certainly comes to mind. Not to mention all the other combos using Jay-Z’s Black Album: Cheap Cologne's Double Black Album (with Metallica's Black album), DJ Mike's Jay-Zeezer (with Weezer's Blue Album), et cetera.
Place: Cage, Duchamp, Satie, Debussy, Callas, Puccini.
Butler: I don’t like music.
Rail: Is ONE a mash-up or is there a better phrase to describe this form?
Higgs: This is a good question. Although I’ve just said I see affinities between ONE and various works of musical mash-up, I don’t think ONE is a mash-up because a mash-up, to me, is the process of combing two or more preexisting materials. Whereas, ONE is the combination of two new materials. Does that make sense? I mean, a mash-up would be if I took Vanessa’s Dies: A Sentence and combined it with Blake’s Scorch Atlas. The material for ONE is all new. So, yeah, we need to create a neologism for what we’ve done.
Butler: A mess up a wartime a big child a trauma huddle a piss a what now a look a why am I here a headlessness a box of lymph a piss.
Rail: Extended passages of Utterance 2 rely more on aural repetition than syntactical clarity: would you cite Joyce as an influence on this project?
Higgs: Syntactical clarity comes in handy when reading a repair manual or a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, but when it happens in literature I get sleepy. Aural repetition, on the other hand, can serve as a jolt, because it creates confusion and anticipation. Why is this happening? What does this mean or what is its purpose? When will it stop? Et cetera. In general, I’m not a fan of clarity. I prefer opacity. When it comes to art, I’m uninterested in understanding and totally interested in confusion. I’m also much more comfortable talking about affinity rather than influence, which has probably become painfully obvious. Joyce glows, but I feel like this project’s strongest affinities are with Gertrude Stein, David Lynch, and RZA. Also, maybe, Diamanda Galás, Alfred Jarry, Parliament-Funkadelic, and the Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici.
Rail: In Utterance 1, the narrator (or narrators) offer the following: "I shoot myself, and me too, in the center of our mouths." This called to mind the final passage of Fight Club. Was this intentional?
Place: I can't say.
Butler: I would never refer to Fight Club intentionally I don’t think, I’m not sure I ever thought about that thing again after I saw it, I don’t think I ever read it, but I also think that all texts contain all other texts so, sure.
Rail: ONE is overtly and consistently sexual. Two writers—allegedly without any personal interaction—have thrown text at each other in order to create a literary progeny. Is ONE, metaphorically speaking, most like: A) a casual exchange between strangers; B) a romantic moment of passion; C) drunken after-party hook up; or D) something entirely different (feel free to ad-lib)?
Higgs: I think it’s probably most like an artificial insemination between a robot and a ghost conducted inside a meth lab on a pirate ship.
Place: A glory hole.
Butler: I saw Vanessa briefly after we had agreed to do the project and I think were both beginning to write our parts and though we did not talk about the project we agreed that we were both doing our best to defend ourselves against Chris, and the other, to make it as impermeable as possible, even though we both knew that the intent here was to be permeated, which is different than penetrated. It might be the most sober-brained I’ve ever been while writing.
Rail: While reading the text, one is inclined to "guess" which writer's prose is which. When re-reading the text, are you both immediately aware of your own writing, or are there any moments when Chris cut up the text beyond recognizability?
Place: I am aware of what is not mine.
Butler: I haven’t read the text in its final state except a page or two at a time. I usually can’t remember who wrote my writing that has only my name on it and this was pretty much no different except that occasionally I could tell when it was definitely Vanessa, and sometimes I could tell when I wished it was me or wished it wasn’t.
Rail: Would you care to elaborate on the clause that appears in the text: "Dumb dicklicked days of backtalk, my mouth and someone else’s together purred." Is this just a friendly conversation between old friends?
Higgs: I can’t recall how much I manipulated that sentence. Sometimes I left entire sentences intact, while other times I ripped them apart and spliced them word by word. However, it’s a good example of how both Blake and Vanessa explored the concept of their duality, incorporating the knowledge that they are each speaking from one half of the assemblage.
Place: At least.
Butler: No, not friendly, not a conversation. More like walking down a hallway that doesn’t have a hall in it. I’ve never really felt aesthetic kinship with anyone, even despite the degree to which I respect and enjoy the work and personalities of others. I write alone in an unlit room facing a covered window for a reason.
Rail: Late in Utterance 1, some new "characters" appear called "the workers." Their battle cry reads: "Motherfuck your fuckhouse!” What is the source of these characters' hostility? Is this an overtly political passage?
Higgs: Political? No. A thousand times no.
Place: It must be.
Butler: Not political on purpose, at least on my part having typed that. I don’t know what the hostility’s source is. The men just appeared there as I was typing and the words appeared and then they no longer appeared. I think I like moments when I am typing when I realize that something in the text doesn’t want me there and pushes me away, which is part of how I remember feeling during typing. I like areas that continue to exist well after you have left them.
Rail: An interesting history of medieval law provides the narrative backbone of the text. Vanessa, how did you research these sections? How do they characterize the narrator?
Higgs: From my perspective, there is no backbone to the text. But I like that you locate a backbone there. The legal history element strikes me as one of textures contributing to the beautiful strange richness that makes our monstrous character even more sorrowful. It wakes and puts on its helmet. It remembers, as though it will eventually be tested, or else as though it wants to hold on, to desperately not forget.
Place: We are all bound by medieval law as it is the law of the father and the law of materiality.
Rail: From a legal definition, is the narrator insane?
Higgs: In the companion text to A Thousand Plateaus, entitled Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari present their preference for "a schizophrenic out for a walk" over "a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch" as the model of subjective experience, which seems a propos. Further, to follow-up from the last question, perhaps our character suffers from Korsakoff’s psychosis. I’m reminded (ha ha) of a line from an old Modest Mouse song, “I will remember to remember to forget you.”
Rail: Blake, Vanessa, can you talk about your revision process with your stories? Did you know how you wanted your sections to end before you started writing?
Place: There was no revision as there was no originary vision.
Butler: I didn’t know what I was writing until I wrote it. When I was finished with a draft I went through and edited mostly for sound or shape of sentence. I didn’t change anything about the arc, wherever it is. Now that it is finished I still don’t know where I want it to end.
Rail: Have the three of you met in person?
Higgs: Blake and I, yes. Vanessa and I, no.
Place: I don't recall.
Butler: I have met Chris and Vanessa both separately but never at the same time. Each time with each was in the public area of large hotels in states neither of us lived in, which seems entirely appropriate.
Rail: What would you like readers to know about ONE before reading?
Higgs: If you enjoy things that are awesome, you’ll enjoy it.
Place: It is everyone's autobiography.
Butler: My first thought was, “I am applying to dental school soon,” though no I’m not.