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Literature : Interview

Blake Butler & Lily Hoang

by Zack Friedman

Magic, maggots, and the lack of conflict between tradition and innovation.

 

Thirty black-and-white ‘50s-yearbook-style photos of groomed adolescents are posed on the cover of 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers. Someone scrawled hearts and fangs and silly hats all over them with magic marker. The joke’s on the youth of the writers, and possibly the put-it-up-on-the-fridge-with-a-magnet pride with which some publicize their work. It may also be a way for some people known in part for being writers on the Internet to poke fun at the old-fashioned thing they are doing by making a book. (The editors are Blake Butler and Lily Hoang, of HTML Giant, There Is No Year (Butler), and The Evolutionary Revolution (Hoang), among other accomplishments.)

The stories within this book, though they vary a great deal, seem to belong to a certain aesthetic, though it’s hard to pin down exactly what makes it so. Perhaps it’s an openness to letting new technological forms influence narrative structure: I wanted to make an Excel spreadsheet organized by attributes of the stories and then Adam Good had to go and write a story that was actually a spreadsheet. Brian Oliu’s thinking about the physicality of the Internet in a story of IP addresses and distance, and Matt Bell about video games and narrative, through the Sisyphean, repetitive story of a game about rescuing a girl from an ape. The story in here that I thought of as the best relatively formally straightforward and character-driven piece, by Rachel Glaser, gets much of its strength from the way it shows how a lot of very 21st-century specificity gets blended into the consciousness of a listless gay medical student. Cover artist Zach Dodson’s story, which is in faux handwriting in a faux composition book, seems very much a reaction to the omnipresence of the digital elsewhere. But then again, so many of the stories deal with the fantastic, sometimes in surreal or allegorical ways, Robin Hood and Hephaestus pop up, and that seems like a whole different trend.

I emailed Blake and Lily over the summer, while Lily was moving from Canada to New Mexico (“I’ve been living around boxes like a rat for weeks,” she said) and Blake was “underwater,” possibly scuba diving in the mysterious seas of language.

Zack Friedman What do you think is meant or implied when writing gets described as innovative? Is this marketing copy (maybe this is rhetorically linked to the youth of the writers), or are there certain formal or thematic qualities worth describing in terms of newness that you want to make people take note of? Now it’s hard to generalize about 30(ish) writers, but are there any generalizations, even ones you can then qualify by referring to at least eight of the included writers, about what you see as innovative?

Blake Butler I’ve always preferred the term “innovative” to “experimental” for some reason, when you get into spots where you end up saying words like that, which yeah, pretty much mean nothing, because ultimately both are inherent in the act of creation, for the creator. But beyond that, there is a definite sense of some kind of energy or space that I think possesses the kind of work that is in this anthology. What I’m looking for as a reader when in this mode or whatever is really simple, actually, if still several things at once: I think I want to see something opening up as I am reading, both for me, as reader, and in the way the text itself seems to come into itself. By that I mean, the text is not inert. It had a body, and like anyone or thing inside a body, you don’t know your body, but you learn it and respond to it and change with it over time. For language, this can be an effect on the reader, but I think it also is visible in the flesh of the piece: that you can see the blood of it (the writer writing, if you want) both kind of making it up as they go along, in the dark, and also a control there, something inherent, that is both of them and from them, and not at all. A controlled chaos, to put it in easy language: something that seems to both invent itself and reinvent the mode it is being forced to come through at the same time. This all might sound blah-blah-y, but really it’s either there or it’s not. It seems like this energy is clear often from the first line or few lines of a piece: it blisters.

Lily Hoang Like Blake, I also prefer the term “innovative” over “experimental” or “avant garde.” I even prefer it over “conceptual,” but ultimately, when it comes down to it, all these words mean the same thing. Calling the anthology “innovative” is as much a misnomer as it is a warning: these texts aren’t “traditional,” except that they are. They’re all rooted in “tradition,” even if they don’t necessarily look or function the way a “traditional” text would. Here’s the humor though: they do. Each story/poem in this anthology is very traditional. They all contain narratives, even the shortest pieces, like the ones by James Yeh or Joshua Cohen. They all have characters and place and conflict. And yet, they’re also “innovative,” by which I mean they play with and manipulate some aspect of “craft.” When we submitted the anthology for publication, we did not include the word “innovative” or any of its synonyms. Starcherone Books, our publisher, added that descriptor, which is simultaneously accurate and flawed.

When Blake and I put the call our for the anthology, we asked for good writing. We asked for the best writing. And that’s what we got. We received provocative, profound stories. It seems impossible to find a trend in the writers or their stories. This anthology has range. There are traditional narratives with unexpected twists. There are Excel spreadsheets. Their commonality is that they impacted us as readers when we read them. If they didn’t hit us right in the spine, as Nabokov suggests, then they imprinted in our memory. Most of the stories in this anthology did both, for me, as a reader.

ZF I gotta ask you about how this thing came about, how you guys worked together, or bickered, or became emotionally distant toward each other, as editors and curators, and where that hilarious cover came from.

BB Putting this thing together, for me at least, as a reader, was really easy: the pieces lit themselves, selected themselves. I think Lily would probably agree with me, as when we sat down to organize the final line up, which we did pressed up at a table at a book conference in a very short time, we did not have to argue; we both had almost the exact same ideas about what belonged and didn’t. The work made you go, huh, whoa, I don’t even know why I like this really but I like it, and it gives me something, or it didn’t.

LH I almost wish Blake and I had some stories of turmoil about the editing process, but it was easy. But putting this anthology together was surprisingly easy. Like Blake said, we didn’t have any disputes. We sat down together, behind a booth at AWP, and in a very short amount of time, we went through every submission. We had almost exactly matching lists. It’s funny because before Blake and I met, I kept looking at my list and thinking that the pieces that I’d picked were too different, there weren’t enough commonalities. They were just the most memorable stories. It turns out that these two traits can make an anthology. Maybe that’s what ought to make every anthology, every publication.

A few months ago, someone was talking to me about the anthology. He joked that it would be an “HTML Giant” anthology. What makes this anthology special is that no matter what my or Blake’s affiliations are, the stories are compelling enough on their own to bypass what “name” is associated with them. There are a few authors in here who have never been published. There are a few authors in here with many books. Really, the name didn’t matter to us. The cover letter didn’t matter. It’s all about the writing.

The awesome cover came from contributor Zach Dodson. He offered to make us a cool cover, and that’s exactly what we got.

ZF Could each of you talk a little about your experience reading one particular piece in the collection where you recognized the energy Blake talked about, or where “tradition” and “innovation” intersect, as Lily discussed? Tell me about the blisters.

BB Sean Kilpatrick’s text “Gangrene,” like all of his writing, moves big trucks in me, for the amount of “work” (in the physical term) that has been compressed in every sentence. They seem almost offhand sometimes in their acting. “Several thousand maggots watched me / through a magnifying glass.” But then you begin to look at the words again (Maggots have an ability to watch? They use a magnifying glass to see something larger than them?) and the box begins to open again. But usually just as quickly as that sentence passes, silently drops its load, and takes a period, another sentence clotted with the same kind of simultaneously furtive and gaudy lyric comes. “I faked being wet for their entertainment.” Kilpatrick’s writing is able to take on a kind of supreme weight in this manner, while also feeling, in the way it transgresses itself again and again, violates itself, a kind of void that only in how it settles in the mind thereafter (whether distastefully or in languagepleasure, or some other wider feeling). His words seem to stick to my face as words first, but words that in truth are scales on a huge wound I don’t even usually realize I’m standing on. I come back to him again and again, sometimes just to read a single phrase, and feel fueled by that energy there. It’s a gift that actually, being an anti-gift, gives even harder. “Shake its hand, STAT.”

LH There is magic in every single piece in 30 Under 30. Sometimes, it’s subtle. Other times, it’s abrupt and violent and pretty glorious. And yet, the magic—whether subtle or not—comes across as natural, expected, right. I like that.

I’ll give you two examples of the variety of magic in the anthology. They are also two of my favorite stories. The first is Michael J. Lee’s “Last Seen.” Lee’s writing is sparse. There is very little description and a lot of dialogue. His story is an extended conversation between a mother and a son about another son who has been abducted by an old man and probably murdered. It’s dark, very dark, and had it been written in a different style, it might be read as a horror story, but instead, it’s a fairy tale. And rather than evoke fear, the darkness becomes a dark humour. “Last Seen” toes a tenuous line, and every time I read this story, I notice how close to the precipice it is, how just one nudge in any direction would make this story fail, but Lee deftly maneuvers and masters. His magic is subtle and powerful.

The second is Angi Becker Stevens’s “Blood, Not Sap.” Unlike Lee, there is nothing subtle in Stevens’s story. In it, a woman watches her oak tree transform into a man. He’s brown, like a tree, leathery. He is a tree, only human. The woman lets the tree-man into her home, gives him clothes and food and a sofa to sleep on. Eventually, she starts an affair with him. And then she falls in love with him. Or, maybe she loved him even before he was a man, back when he was still a tree. Doesn’t matter, not really, because either way, this is just another love story, only it isn’t. Stevens’s narrative nuances make this story provocative and sinister, beautiful and memorable, closer to a Greek myth than something written in the 21st century, and these attributes are exactly why a story like this should be in an anthology called 30 Under 30.

These two stories are also great examples of where tradition and innovation intersect. At their core, these are both traditional stories. They also both contain elements of magical realism. And yet, I’m uncomfortable using either of those terms to describe these stories, because they’re not traditional and they’re not magical realism. Despite the gulf between these stories (and there is a gulf: these stories are completely different, formally, substantially, stylistically, etc.), what unites them is a defiance against the real and a constant shoving towards making the impossible possible.

30 Under 30 is available from Starcherone Press.

Zack Friedman is a writer based in New York.

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