Small Press Conversation: Shane Jones and Blake Butler Talk about Books, Cats, and Being Called an “Internet Writer”Posted by Kevin Sampsell, April 30, 2009 4:46 pm 2 Comments Filed under: Small Press.
Shane Jones and Blake Butler have both recently published new books that have been discussed widely in small-press circles. Both Jones's Light Boxes and Butler's Ever are highly original, perhaps even "postmodern," short novels. Jones explores a world where the month of February stretches out for countless days as it wages a war on a town. Butler constructs a claustrophobic and hallucinogenic narrative of a woman trying to escape a house of memories.
Both writers have published a lot in literary journals and on literary web sites — often at the same time. They also have their own (Shane and Blake). I asked them to have a conversation about their writing and publishing experiences.
This will be the first of several small press conversations to come. Enjoy.
— Kevin Sampsell
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Shane: The other day, I was thinking about how I spent years writing bad short stories and thinking that I would never get a book published. It was just a dream that one day I would be holding a perfect-bound version of something I wrote. Now that I have one book out and another on the way, as do you, do either of us feel any different? I'm not sure I do. I might be a bit more confident. I just keep thinking about what I haven't written. I'm going to get a cup of coffee.
Blake: I had heard the "I don't feel any different" statement from people putting out books for years, when all I wanted was to put out a book. It always pissed me off. Because I did not believe it. And I still don't. No different? It's just not the case.
Now, is my life a living, breathing version of The Love Boat, where I could be broken up with by anyone, kicked by anyone, scratched in the face, chewed up, and still feel ecstatic to be alive because I finally put a book in the world (the way I imagined I would feel)? No, I don't feel that way at all. Every day, getting up and going to bed feels mostly like it always did. It's like wearing a new shirt.
But wearing a new shirt can feel really good. And I guess, at the end of the day, I feel like things are at least slightly changed. In the same way, maybe, that someone feels getting a tattoo. There's a slightly different air, and a stroke of thoughts, if no less day-to-day life, still at least a step deeper in something that's always meant a lot to me: books.
So yeah, I feel different, but I would feel different, too, if I drew all over my face in permanent marker and cut my hair.
Do you have any sense of that change? Like a little less uncentered? Even if still totally uncentered?
Shane: "Uncentered" is an interesting way to word it. I think, at first, I actually felt centered, or more confident and sure of things. Now I'm not so sure. I have a strong push/desire to produce more work. To just throw words out into the world. I'm trying to be as honest as possible here. Now that the first book is "out," other books will no doubt be compared to that one, which I don't like. "Well, this book isn't as good as his last..." But that really doesn't matter much.
Both you and I have talked recently about influence from other writers/artists on our own books. A friend of mine, the other day, was saying how he was writing Cormac McCarthy-like stories and felt bad about it, and I said, "nothing is original," and he kind of laughed and got uncomfortable.
I'm not sure I have a question. Do you have any pets?
Blake: I think I felt the same burst of confidence you mention, followed quickly by a return to the normal state of "every day I do the same thing." It's kind of a funny jump, like expecting for years to get baptized and then showing up and finding that they don't even use Jesus's blood, but Evian. Or something. I'm being sort of jokey, but that might be on par.
Sorry, something is wrong with me today. I had a pet chihuahua named Margot, who was the best dog. She went with my ex-girlfriend. Now, Heather and I have a fish I gave her for her birthday this year, a surprisingly active beta who has accidentally been dubbed "Mr. Fishy." He makes bubbles.
Do you find your writing influenced directly by what you happen to be reading at any given moment? I sometimes can look back at things I've written and see somewhat the trajectory of my reading list there, embedded.
Shane: Yeah, what I'm currently reading usually somehow influences my current story/project. If I'm working on something longer, I tend to think about it constantly. So, whatever I'm reading, I'll pick it up and, after a dozen or so pages, I'll start thinking of my writing while my eyes are still skimming the pages. It's an odd experience. Reading is like food for my writing. I find myself going through periods when I'm not writing anything and then realize, Fuck, I'm not reading anything, that's why.
I have two cats. One we call Monster. He's somewhat scary. The other one is adorable — named Charlie.
I'm doing a reading tonight. I feel strange about it. How do you feel about reading your work in public?
Blake:I think I like reading when the crowd is right, though, in the wrong crowd, it can feel like dentistry. It's a mixed bag, I think; you have to get lucky. I'm not sure I 100 percent know the full effectiveness of readings in the long run, except as an experience. It definitely doesn't seem to sell that many books that often, no matter how nicely the evening goes. But there's something about being somewhere with certain people. If I had a cat, I'd maybe like to read to the cat.
Do you ever read to the cats?
Let's talk about promotion. Book promoting might even be the hardest part of the whole publishing experience, to me, in that selling a book to the majority of people is like selling them a fucking car. It's like running in the dark, maybe. I am using a lot of similes so far in our discussion.
People call you and me "Internet writers" in certain forums, though I don't necessarily ride that term at all, and think mainly it comes from people not understanding the Internet as a tool. Have there been things you've done that you thought effective? Have there been things you would like to do but haven't, or are not sure how?
Shane: The short answer is that, yes, I sometimes read to cats. Any time we are reading in bed, the cat we call Monster comes up and starts hitting his face against the book until you read out loud. Man, look at me: I'm an Internet writer talking about his cat. How sad.
Book promotion is kind of tricky. Sometimes I like doing it, and sometimes it's just the worst thing ever. I don't know. I go back and forth on it, sometimes guilting myself into reaching out to more people online, doing readings, pushing more copies.
I think if you have a good book and it gets good reviews and people talk about it, that's probably the best kind of promotion you can get.
The "Internet writer" thing is just a label. I don't consider myself, or you for that matter, an Internet writer. I think it's because we both have blogs and publish online that some people call us this. But we also have printed stuff in journals and printed books, so I don't really get it. I do know that starting a blog was probably one of the most important steps I made in my writing "career." I became involved in a community of talented writers and it let me expose my own writing to a community of readers. And that's very important.
I'm curious — what are you working on now? I think I'm going to release an audio book for cats. It would sell a lot.
Blake: Yeah, saying "Internet writer" is about as arbitrary and misplaced as saying "typewriter writer." People so desperately want to name things.
What am I working on? I don't really know. I tend to spin for weeks at a time, tickling at little things and being mostly irritated with my time management and focus skills, until all of a sudden I get in a rip and plow through something six to eight hours a day from the point that it clicks in and the point that it is done. Right now, I'm sort of in between. I think I wrote what could be considered a "follow up" in the mind of Ever, though I'm not sure what will become of it. I finished a draft and am letting it sit there.
Otherwise, trying to make little things each day and push forward enough to not go insane.
I also have four other manuscripts that are sitting on my hard drive, waiting to be sent around, which I have found difficult to apply myself to since placing my first two books. That's been something you've been on top of. Would you maybe say something about the difference in feeling of sending manuscripts out now with your first book out versus how it felt before you had placed any? And maybe about how the comfort of having your first book placed affected your writing of projects thereafter, if at all?
Shane: I know when I sent my manuscript to Fugue State Press and then, shortly after, a poetry manuscript to Scrambler Books, I wasn't as anxious as when I was trying to find a publisher for Light Boxes. That process (finding a home for Light Boxes) just kind of consumed me for several months. I wrote more emails than I ever had. I felt a certain kind of pressure to have Light Boxes accepted somewhere, and I think, after being rejected a half-dozen times, then a dozen, then no one responding to my initial emails, I had the thought of "Oh no, this isn't going to happen." That's a difficult feeling for a writer, but also kind of exciting and new and necessary. It's just the nature of the process, I guess.
I felt some pressure to land another book after Light Boxes, but it was a different feeling. I was a bit more relaxed. And my poetry manuscript was solicited by Scrambler Books, so after trading a bunch of emails with the publisher and feeling good about the deal, it went through.
I think that writing new projects is the same as it has always been, and will continue to be that way. I imagine it's the same way for really famous writers, too. You're still left with your imagination and a blank page, and it's just as fun and difficult and strange a process as it was before.
Can you dig deeper into why you find it difficult to apply yourself since placing your first two books? And how did Featherproof come to accept your next book?
Blake: Maybe I feel less application in that the mania that drove me to have a book out has somewhat relaxed. I now know what it feels like, and that there's no rush. Jesus, no rush! Now, rather than sending things to everywhere I could find that had any sort of inkling of the kind of things I might do (as I did with Scorch Atlas, sending it everywhere that seemed even a remote fit, even when it likely wasn't). Now usually when I finish a manuscript, I feel like I often have a pretty good idea where I would like to send it: a couple places at most. So in part, it's my chilling-out some, and in part just knowing more what I want. Maybe it's better that way. Maybe I miss some of the mania. Who knows?
With Featherproof, long story short, I had read a few of their titles and really liked the style and design, and thought it would be a great fit. I sent the manuscript blindly to them during their open submissions with no previous contact of any sort. Several months later, they told me they were heavily considering it and that they hoped to get back soon, which ended up being almost a year later (which mainly related, as it often does with small presses, to funding and what's-our-future issues, etc.). So, it was a long wait, and there were several disappointments and a lot of anxiety along the way, but in the end it worked out, and I couldn't be happier, and if I learned anything, it's that: chill out, dude. Bust your ass, but also chill. Books are books.
Wrapping up, and in light of all that's gone down in the past year and in years coming, are you happy? Are you having fun? What else could happen? What else should?
Shane: I have to say that, yes, I'm very happy. Maybe it comes with age, but I do feel a bit more calm and mature and, I guess, comfortable in my own skin.I remember writing in my early 20s and just having that kind of complete "man-I'm-so-lost-here" feeling. It wasn't a bad feeling, but I really hadn't come into my own as a writer, or really, as a person. Sure, I'm still learning and will always be, and I do get anxious and excited and all that good stuff that comes with this life. It all feels very good, though. I feel lucky to be able to have the time to write and people — even if it's a dozen people (which it might very well be) looking forward to what's next. It's an awesome feeling.
Who knows what will happen in the future. What should? I don't know. I'm getting married in September. More books. More experience. The last year has been wild. I hope it continues that way for the both of us.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir