American author Blake Butler reveals why Twin Peaks and Roberto Bolaño inspired his dark new novel, 300,000,000.
Let’s be clear: Blake Butler’s writing is not for everyone. His books are sombre, often sinister, and filled with unusual strings of syntax and mind-boggling stories that resemble nothing you’ve read before. In his latest, 300,000,000 – one of our top books to read this year – the author invents a serial killer, Gretch Gravey, whose malevolent persona infects the US like a plague, bringing about the end of everybody in America. We caught up with Butler to discuss the book and getting into the mind of a murderer.
What was the spark of this novel?
It was a low time in my life. I felt like I’d lost everything and was kind of living in a blind mania, though at the same time bored, unsure what to do with myself. A friend and I had a conversation about how many entertainments these days are centred around violent murder-cop shows and how flat the effect of it has become. He said I should write a book that blew all that out of the water, in so many words: the end of the murder story. That idea fit well with how I felt. I applied my energy, at first, in trying to outdo a book I’d heard a lot about around then, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which everyone was describing as this grisly, brutal masterpiece. I read the book and actually liked it, but it turned out to be nothing at all like what I envisioned from its reputation, so I decided to try to write out that imagined book, to max out all my powers and frustration into the ultimate thing I could.
How much research did you do into the behaviour and psychology of other serial killers to inform the Gretch Gravey character?
One of the things about the voice of the opening section of the book in particular is that it contains many voices stuffed into one voice. The narrator has this idea that the whole world should be condensed into a single body, until there is only one body in the world left, literally cannibalising one flesh into another over and over, which he intends to accomplish basically by infecting people with his persona, like a virus. Besides feeling like I had multiple personalities myself during this time, I got a lot out of milking the language of famous viral personas, in particular Koresh, Manson, Dahmer, Dahmer’s father Lionhel and Ramirez. For example, when I really wanted to change the condition of how I was speaking, I would take a sermon Koresh had given, chop it up as columns in Microsoft Word and see what weird sentences appeared. Then I would take that sentence and feed it into the voice already on the page.
You’ve rarely given characters proper names in your previous work, more often using their roles as names, e.g. ‘the son’, ‘the mother’. But the names in 300,000,000 feel quite significant.
In that I knew everyone who appears in the book was going to be killed at some point, it was important to give them names. Names of the dead take on a significance that feels much different than who they were when they were alive. As for Darrel, who in the book serves as a kind of figure, I thought about him the way I think about BOB in Twin Peaks. I don’t exactly know what BOB is, or even fully what he represents, but I know in that world his name is terrifying, kind of like a password to terror, and I wanted this book to be filled with passwords,
even if I am not sure even still what they unlock.
Dhs51, available at www.amazon.com.