Distilled Versions of Nasty Thoughts: An Interview with Halle Butler
I met Halle Butler at a reading we did together this past summer in Chicago. She read from an excerpt of Jillian, her first novel, which was published this past month by by Curbside Splendor. Her writing made me laugh, but there was something larger underneath the clever observations and dialogue, something troubling and complicated and sad.
Jillian tells the story of two co-workers who, throughout the course of the book, provide diametrically opposed examples of how not to live. Their misfortunes are comical but also intensely relatable, particularly if one has ever even so much as questioned the possibility of having a misanthropic way of looking at things.
We discussed the book, her history with screenwriting, and her favorite movies over the course of several days using a Google doc.
Juliet Escoria: Megan and Jillian have very different approaches to life. Jillian uses affirmations, goes to church, and believes that getting a dog will change everything for the better. Megan seems to hate everything, and especially to hate people like Jillian. Yet their lives are equally fucked–by the end of the book, it’s hard to imagine things getting better quickly for either of them. If blind positivity and relentless nihilism both lead to misery, which one is less doomed?
Halle Butler: Relentless nihilism might be less doomed because it’s rooted in reality, and because when you’re depressed and antisocial, you don’t really make too many life changing decisions. You just sort of wait for it to pass, or wait for something to happen to you, or wait to bottom out in a more private way. The idiotic, and very American, power of positive thinking requires you to act and to believe that just by wishing really hard, your actions will have a certain result. That seems slightly more doomed, to me.
But, I don’t mean to make fun of Jillian in the book, and I don’t feel personally judgmental of her like Megan does. I have sympathy for both of them. They’re both just taking cues from the world. Jillian didn’t invent positive thinking, she’s a victim of it. Megan is depressed, which is very real, and slightly out of her control. I hope they’re ok, but I have no idea.
JE: That was one thing I really liked about the book–you put both of them through a lot of shit, but it doesn’t feel like you were mocking them. Megan’s character is a more extreme view of how I see the world, so I felt like I understood her better. Jillian felt pretty unfamiliar to me, even though I was able to feel for her throughout. Is it similar for you, in that you relate more to Megan? What in Jillian was relatable to you?
HB: Megan is more familiar to me, too, for sure. She’s a distilled version of all of my nasty thoughts at 24. But I kind of relate to them both equally. With Jillian, it’s definitely different, but that desperation she has, her desire for basic comfort and support, her desire to feel useful and included, but then her total lack of follow-through and foresight feel pretty relatable to me. I relate to the scheming, too. I don’t do too much scheming anymore, but I used to be a total failed, lazy entrepreneur. I took editing classes at a business school, which didn’t pan out; I bought silk screens for a t-shirt business (I even registered the business, for some reason, but I was 19); I applied to a theater festival with an over-the-top description of an unwritten two-hour play and then had to pull out when it became clear I couldn’t write it, cast it, rehearse it and produce it in five weeks. The list goes on. In art school, I would have these grandiose ideas for projects and then put them off to the last minute, and then try to slap them together the night before critique in a complete panic. That feeling of fantasy plans met by immediate failure and defeat that happens to Jillian feels very close to home for me.
JE: So art school, theater–I know you also write screenplays with Jerzy Rose. How do all the different types of art you make inform each other? What urges does each fulfill?
HB: The screenplay I wrote with Jerzy, for the movie Crimes Against Humanity, fulfilled a totally social urge. We would come up with ideas for scenes together, and while I was writing I’d just be thinking, “Oh, god, Jerzy is going to love this,” and then I would watch him read it, and he would either laugh or he wouldn’t, and we’d go from there. Jerzy is a very funny and discerning person. There’s a touch of friendly competition to screenwriting, too (at least for me, I can’t speak for Jerzy). He wrote this amazing, tense scene between the two lead characters where they’re drinking coffee and talking about their plans for the day, and when I read it, I just thought, “Fuck, I wish I’d written that.” And on top of that, there’s the fun of watching the performers interpret the scenes. Screenwriting is a huge thrill.
I wanted to be a printmaker for a while, but I just wasn’t very good at it. That’s what brought me to art school. I like drawing and I still do it sometimes. I find it relaxing, like cooking or taking care of plants. The play thing never panned out, I was in a pretty deep Edward Albee phase for a while and just wanted to give it a shot. I have a few unfinished bad plays. One is called Thanksgiving Dinner. They all have very bland titles.
JE: Megan’s boyfriend is a web designer, who is friends with a bunch of people in similar professions. They all seem to think that what they’re doing is super meaningful and artistic–one of the characters likes to remind herself that she is part of a “cultural movement,” for example. Does their shittiness come from their profession, or somewhere else? (Do you hate graphic designers?)
HB: I don’t hate graphic designers. I appreciate a well designed book, for example, and I like pretty stuff as much as the next person. Just to, uh, get that out of the way.
I think the shittiness of the villains (Carrie and David) comes from a lack of struggle. I feel like they’ve been told they’re doing a great job since grade school–they’re the teacher’s pet type. This doesn’t necessarily make a bad person, but everyone is telling them that they’re important–they got cool jobs right out of college or grad school, and this small community is treating them with this local-celebrity deference. So, naturally, they act like they’re important, they believe their own hype. They’re smug. Making them semi-successful graphic designers, choosing that craft (or profession) seemed funny to me, since it’s the opposite of Megan. There’s a lot of control with design. It seems like a very calm and social craft, and it’s all about facade and making something seem appealing and approachable. Design is a feel good thing, and Megan thinks that feeling good is bullshit. I also think that Megan knows a lot about art and literature, and has an artistic temperament–working at a literal shit doctor was probably a misguided poetic gesture–but she has no output, no practice. So, to surround her with people who don’t have the temperament, but are constantly producing and succeeding felt potentially funny, as far as rants and observations were concerned.
JE: The “everyone is telling them that they’re important” as a negative thing that happened to Carrie and David makes me think of Bret Easton Ellis’s ideas about “Generation Wuss.” Do you think kids these days are a bunch of wusses? Do you think people need to suffer in order to not be shitty, self-absorbed people?
HB: I’m gonna say no and no, which might feel like a 180. I think people have always been wusses and had anxiety about their popularity, but it’s just so much more public now. One of my favorite movies, Diary of a Mad Housewife by Frank Perry, has this great character, Jonathan, who spends the entire movie stressing out about throwing the best cocktail party NYC has ever seen. He just lies in bed and worries about whether or not people like him, and what superficial shit he can do to manipulate people into thinking highly of him (the party is a disaster, and it’s delightful to watch).
This movie is from 1970, and Jonathan is a grown man, but if he were in his 20s and had an iPhone, he’d be a great caricature of what people think Millennials are like. I don’t think it’s a “kids these days” thing, that anxiety about being liked that Ellis is talking about, but maybe the internet gives us a kind of direct access to that needy part of our brains. I also don’t think that avoiding bullying people, or trying to make the world more inclusive, is a bad thing or wussy. I don’t know, this is a broad topic, but one more thing. I think that people who take things in stride just don’t make a huge stink about it (which is the nature of taking things in stride), so it’s very possible that Facebook–surprise!–isn’t that good of a thermometer for how real people in their 20s and 30s actually feel.
And as for suffering, not to turn on her, but I think Megan is acting a little shitty and self-absorbed in the book. I mean, I feel for her, but her suffering isn’t exactly making her a peach to be around, or turning her into some kind of insightful saint. If she’s ever funny or sweet in the book, those are just parts of her that are struggling to stay alive, and maybe they will, or maybe she’ll turn into a monster. Struggle sucks. I know sweet people who have been through terrible things, and terrible people who have been through terrible things. Failing doesn’t by default make you cooler, nicer, or more insightful. I wish it did. People are a mystery, and no one is ever one thing all of the time. I think that Megan is trying to add meaning to her suffering, but I don’t have an opinion on whether that’s good or bad.
Carrie and David are definitely a part of the “passive-aggressive positivity” that Ellis attributes to the wusses, though I would say they’re totally cutthroat, if a little toolish. Elena (Jillian’s church acquaintance, and a definite non-Millennial) is also passive aggressively positive. They are representations of The Man in the book.
JE: Besides Diary of a Mad Housewife, what other movies have had an impact on you?
HB: Todd Solondz is probably my favorite. Happiness and Life During Wartime are so good. At the moment, I’m really into Alien. The acting is so surprisingly low-key and it’s just absolutely gorgeous and terrifying, it really holds up. La Collectionneuse by Eric Rohmer is another fave. I love watching the the temper tantrums and weird pseudo-moral justifications, and everyone is so damn attractive and well dressed in that movie. These are just movies I like, though. I’m slightly worried to think of what impact they might have had on me.
JE: One thing I really enjoyed about this book is that you didn’t seem to give a fuck about making Jillian or Megan redeem themselves by the end of the book. Things are shitty, and both characters just make it shittier. I feel like a more timid writer would feel the need to make their suffering seem worth it–which, to me, feels like it would entirely erase everything that the book accomplished in the first place. It’s not a book my mom would enjoy, and that seems to kind of be the point. Was there any part of you that was worried about pleasing the mom-like creatures of the universe, the ones who would want a nice happy little ending?
HB: No way. I wasn’t worried about pleasing the same kinds of tidy, managerial people who force me to pretend that I like stuffing envelopes for a living. That would be a kind of madness. Anyone who wants a redemptive ending probably wouldn’t like this blasphemous, whiny, diarrhea-filled book, anyway, so why pander? But that makes the ending note of the book seem more planned out than it was. I was just following my gut. And I do give Jillian and Megan their own little sick power trips at the end. Not a happy ending, but a little something fun for them. I should also mention, just because you brought up moms, that my very own mother loved the book. But, she’s the woman who, when I was moping and bombing English classes in high school, gave me Grendel, Catcher in the Rye, and Tennessee Williams to read, and that’s some pretty dark stuff.