On a diet of black coffee, murder, and minimum wage secretarial work: A Conversation with Halle Butler

Halle Butler is the author of Jillian and The New Me. She has been named a National Book Award Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and a Granta Best Young American Novelist.


Sierra Dickey: I read that The New Me is in part inspired by “apartment thrillers” like Rosemary’s Baby. Can you share some of the works that fed into its making for you?

Halle Butler: Probably The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, which I read when I was 18. The narrator is a sadistic, homicidal maniac, and part of his “cover” is pretending to be dumb, which he has a lot of fun with. It’s very creepy. Definitely Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith, which is my favorite book, I think, and also has to do with mind versus presentation, and there are great, seamless perspective switches. Goodmorning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, mostly for its intensity and brevity and depressing shopping scenes. Also a pretty big Mildren Pierce fan, where humble plans go terribly wrong, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the gold standard for scary drunk conversations, and also has [spoiler] a death that is kind of a murder, but it’s not really either, because it’s not literally real. Also that part in Vampire’s Kiss where Nicholas Cage screams, “The tortures of the damned!” which is something my friend and I still no-context email each other.

For sure Forensic Files. I was reading a lot of true crime in 2016, too, right before I started it. There’s a book called Reasonable Doubt: Lust and Murder in the Heartland, which is about an axe murder of a family in Bloomington-Normal, IL (where Millie is from, and where she goes to visit her parents). The suspect was the husband. He made back braces and prosthetics, and used to have young women come over and…I guess take their tops off and “model” the braces for him. He would draw on their chests (by which I mean boobs) with a marker, too, for no real reason. I got pretty into that one, and I found a picture of him eating at Lucca Grill. (I’m from Bloomington, too, so this fixation was a kind of world-blend experience.)

For that slightly pretentious scene near the end, where it’s like, “Oh, the passing of time! the river!” I was having trouble getting it right—like, the very ending was either too bleak, or too glib, or not bleak and glib enough. I had it in my head that I needed a little scene right before it that would feel melodramatically euphorically sad, similar to how I remembered feeling the summer after college when I had no friends and would just walk around listening to Philip Glass, so I put on the first track from Solo Piano on a loop and knocked it out. This is basically like saying I listened to the soundtrack for The Hours.

I was also Googling a lot of stuff about work, depression, and friendship, and finding the advice very funny and kind of sad.

SD: When did you begin to publish writing, and what other kinds of jobs have you held in the past?

HB: I think the first thing I published was a novel, Jillian, in 2014. I’d been writing casually and then less casually since I was a teenager. I think I wrote Jillian in 2011. I’d have to check my Gmail to find out for sure.

My first job was at Van Atta’s Greenhouse in Haslett, Michigan. I really liked that job. You just water plants and talk to people. But yeah, I definitely just left that job one day—off into the horizon, no goodbyes (I was 17). I did a lot of retail in college. I worked at a stationary store, and I worked at a clothing store. I’ve worked at a doctor’s office, at a video store, I was (briefly and inexplicably) the assistant to a CEO at a large non-profit, I’ve taught summer camp writing classes, washed dishes, and I was a temp for three years. There was always this job on Craigslist for a urine courier in Chicago—you drive the pee from the hospital to the lab—and I think I still have my bombastic cover letter for that job somewhere. I always wanted to be able to hold out my hand for a firm shake and go, “Halle Butler, urine courier.” They let me teach at Columbia once.

SD: I am curious if Millie came to you before the plot [of the novel] did, or if you were thinking about the degradations of office life before you began writing her?

HB: Oooooh, I’d been thinking of the degradations of office life for quite some time.

SD: The book moves between two points of view. Readers live mostly inside Millie’s head but we get insight into her supervisor Karen’s thinking at significant moments. On a craft level, what techniques did you use to transition between the two women’s psychologies, or, how did you think about writing them differently?

HB: Karen is very forceful, sure of herself, she’s on a trajectory, and she gets comfort from that trajectory. She’s calculating—quite literally. In her first scene, she’s calculating how much money she’ll lose if she fires Millie. Millie doesn’t feel like she has control of her trajectory, so she spends the book mocking people for comforting themselves with what she sees as false goal-setting, ladder-climbing, an illusion of a trajectory. After a while of hearing Millie describe how gross this mindset is (and also how physically gross she is), we step into the clean sterile space of Karen—and, yes, she is pretty gross, but in an inverted way. Millie is in a really defensive posture, and Karen is on offense. It’s kind of advance versus retreat. I definitely have more sympathy for Millie, mostly because she shows so much vulnerability, so I almost feel like the part near the end, where Karen is mildly humiliated, was like throwing her a bone, humanizing her a bit. I wanted to walk up to Karen and slowly, gently tip her over. From a craft perspective? Writing is talking to yourself, so I was rounding out the conversation, maybe. These ideas about how to create meaning in life, how to find peace, how much force and control you should use, how much you should just “be yourself” (and what if “yourself” is something like Millie), how much of the struggle is situational and how much is internal, and what kind of mindset does well in a hierarchical office setting, what kind doesn’t—these were all fixations of mine.

SD: I love the juxtaposition of true crime (Forensic Files) and Millie’s desire for some kind of self-improvement. Does the kind of violent crime on shows like Forensic Files function as a metaphor for Millie’s desperation and anxiety?

HB: I feel like it’s partly about snapping and decision making. This is almost relevant to Karen versus Millie, too. Karen is more like, “Well, if I want to be with my lover and open up my own business, I just have to murder my spouse, collect the insurance, wait a few weeks, and then we’re good to go.” Millie is more like—is this weirdo going to snap? Partly it’s a way for Millie to have disdain for overt decision making. I think she comments on this once or twice. It’s also really numbing, watching too much of this stuff. Maybe the first episode or two was titillating, like the first time you say something really mean about someone, or the first couple of times you get really drunk, but too much of it, and you just don’t feel anything. She’s on a diet of black coffee, cigarettes, stale bread, beer, murder, and minimum wage secretarial work. Everything leading up to the job in that list is the medicine for dealing with the job, but it’s making her really tense.

The Forensic Files stuff was about the numbing thing, and turning her apartment into a place that was also hostile (because it always has this running murder commentary), and also a little bit about Millie’s mild deviancy. And I was watching a ton of Forensic Files (which is the real answer).

SD: While reading the novel I kept thinking about a plot arc I’ve seen on many true crime shows, where a character becomes so isolated over time that they reach a point of committing violence. Millie doesn’t become physically violent in the book but one worries that she could. How does Millie become so socially and psychologically isolated?

HB: Yes, totally! There was a version where Millie did become physically violent, but it felt totally out of the blue—because I think that so much of her anger comes from a fundamentally sensitive and caring place. Does that sound like a stretch? Or, I cared about her, and believed that she didn’t want to actually hurt anyone. And, also, the book is a bit about things that don’t “culminate” so much as play out in a very obvious, flat way, and how that’s a bit chilling, too. The blind spot.

I think Millie is pretty all or nothing. I think, for her, it’s similar to that idea that procrastinators are perfectionists. I imagine she has a huge fear of failure and rejection, which has helped her cultivate her judgemental attitude. If I can’t have everything, I’ll hate everything. Part of this is in how she tries to hype herself up for “making changes”—she fantasizes a little bit, makes some lists, pumps herself up a bit, but when it comes down to taking the plunge, she’s like, “Aaaaaah shit, I don’t actually want to work at a furniture showroom, do I? There’s something distasteful about this permanence, isn’t there?” And then she gets drunk and comforts herself by being this lordly judge of human stupidity. Same with everything—when Beth texts her back, she doesn’t respond. When her mom gives her a hug, she pulls away a little—but she’s been monologuing about how much she wants these bonds. She’s got a wall up. I think what likely attracted her to Sarah, her only friend in the book, was that Sarah was a complainer who liked to drink, so she thought, “Oh good!”—but Sarah won’t give her the space to make her amusing observations about TV shows or office politics, so that becomes another place where she has to recede and judge.

SD: I felt things strongly the entire time I was reading the novel, but Millie rarely makes reference to specific emotions. Instead we see bodily reactions: anxiety sweat, nausea, caffeine jitters, beer stupors, and bad hangovers, but little of sadness, fear, anger, despair, hope. Could part of her problem be her distance from her own feelings? Do you think that’s common in people today?

HB: Are you talking about denial and repression? Yeah, I think that’s common and very timeless, right? Millie’s very in touch with some of her feelings—disgust, anger, fear—all of the defensive feelings. The few times she cries, she makes fun of herself immediately—like, blah blah blah, yeah I’m sad, boo-hoo-hoo. She goes back and forth between being overwhelmed by her feelings and being glib about them. I’m not sure if the glib thing (which is part repression, part tactic) is her problem—it’s kind of the only thing she has going for her, the way she interprets and expresses her feelings. It would be great, of course, if she could find a good companion to share this stuff with. She’s pretty far from having that kind of friend.

SD: I found the biggest plot moment to be when Millie gets a cheery but ambivalent email from her temp rep and interprets it to mean that she is going to be hired. Everything changes at this juncture and yet it’s like nothing has actually happened: she received one email. The drama in this book is acutely internal. I felt panicked and claustrophobic spending so much time in Millie’s thoughts. I’m curious if you felt steeped in malaise or dread while writing her, and if so, how did you manage or respond to that?

HB: I thought writing the book was pretty fun. The scene in the bathroom, right after the scene you mention, where she’s crying and being really hard on herself, felt great. I was listening to that Prince song, “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” a lot when I was writing the book. The song is all about how he doesn’t understand why people don’t like him, and why they should (he has hot legs). I definitely finished that scene and put that song on and danced around, thinking about how that scene was like my version of hot legs that people might or might not end up liking.

The writing process was very permissive—it was like having a good companion to talk to about my fears. Totally cathartic. Sometimes it would bum me out, but I was going into it explicitly to get bummed out. To roll around in getting bummed out—to try to perfect getting bummed out.

The malaise came more during the editing process. I was editing it mostly while I was on vacation. I hadn’t taken a proper vacation in maybe 8 years, and instead of going out and enjoying myself, I was spending my days inside thinking about temping and shredding papers and reliving bleak ideas about meaninglessness. About halfway through the first edit, I was really just like, “Oh, for fuck’s sake! Why did I do this?” It felt like a funny punishment—write a book to free yourself from the pain of the office, spend your vacation thinking about the pain of the office. I got a little boo-hoo about it, but parts of it were funny. I liked talking to my editor about how many mentions of crotch smell were too many. A lot of it was absurd enough to me to be funny. I get worked up when I write, but I try to get some distance.

Doing the audiobook was pretty strange, too. I think I hadn’t realized how depressing the ending was. People had been telling me the ending was really depressing, and I’d been thinking it wasn’t depressing enough. About halfway through, the audiobook director said, “Oh, I feel so sad for her,” and I kind of rolled my eyes and said, “Don’t worry, she’s not real.” Like, what’s everyone’s problem? But then I almost started crying when I was reading the ending. Part of me was like, “Hey, wait a minute! Am I extremely depressed?” and part of me was like. “Oh thank god I like it.”

So, I guess it’s a balance of distance (detachment? that word feels ominously diagnosable) and engagement. I really like sad, bleak books and movies, so I’m pretty comfortable in that headspace.

SD: It’s clear that Millie feels that the tasks at the showroom are below her abilities and intelligence. I also get the sense that she feels they’re below her basic humanity. However, she flits between resisting their mundanity and embracing them because she’s grateful to have anything at all to do. Her context in the office is so destabilizing that it obfuscates how she herself feels about her situation. I have had jobs like this, and have felt similarly angry and desperate. Are “bullshit jobs,” like an assistant receptionist, vital to business functions or do they exist for some other arcane reason?

HB: I can only answer this on a human level, kind of adjacently. The best temp job I had was shredding all of the papers in a cramped, windowless room. It sucked. I mean, it was absurd, but the HR person I worked under was so, so nice, and she treated me like a human being. I’d hang out in her office, she gave me advice, she told everyone who I was and what I was doing, and they would say hello and thank me in the hallway. It was weird! And it’s weird that it was weird. The weirdest part was, really, that I could talk in my own way when I was at work—I didn’t have to put on a stressful act. It freed up a lot of emotional headspace, and during that gig, I applied for two jobs that I did want, got them, and felt pretty happy. One of my main fixations is hierarchy, and this idea that once you achieve something, it will solve your problems. This can be totally true, of course—I’m happier now that I’m doing work that’s more harmonious with my temperament, but I was nearly placid during that shredding job, and it helped me get my head in order.

But, yeah, also, assistant receptionist is a totally stupid job. She’s just sitting there. Basic income for all!

SD: A lot of Millie’s dilemma feels distinctly female. She frets over clothes, hygiene, and body maintenance more than I suspect a straight male would. Karen, the head receptionist, essentially cannibalizes Millie in order to gain a scrap more power and significance. Would you say that women like Millie, on the lower rungs of white collar work, are particularly vulnerable to manipulation and shame?

HB: I live in a neighborhood where I can tell you, for sure, a lot of straight males fret more over hygiene and clothing than Millie—and cannibalizing a colleague for a scrap more status, wellllll, that’s quite alpha, no? These guys would probably think Millie was an alien, a joke. People with desires are easily manipulated, and if you want a higher step on the ladder, you have a desire—enter Tony Robbins type stuff. The New Me presents a female version of this. She works in a kind of corporatized version of homemaking, the details are tied to the female experience, etc., but I think it’s pretty human.

As for the shame part of it, I have a notion that this might be kind of Midwestern. Where I’m from, it’s tacky and shameful to admit that you want more than your share. There’s the protestant work ethic, the passive aggressive fixation on rules, rules that aren’t always explicitly stated. So there’s a friction between that and this individualistic self-centeredness in the broader culture (oh god, these sound like platitudes, but I stand by them). I’m very Midwestern, and so is Millie. I do think there’s something to being satisfied with your life and doing your work, of course, but it can lead to a kind of slow-motion neuroses, a kind of hair shirt—and it’s also, you know, kind of tacky to want more (in excess) for yourself when there are people who have way less than you do. I’ve internalized a lot of this. I think the mention of the volunteer work Millie did, and the shame and anxiety surrounding her inability to help, which is tied to her depression, but which she interprets as her selfish impotence and weak sense of vanity, is a nod to a greater problem.

I think what’s female about this shame thing is the shame in thinking you can do something. I think the scene where Millie is telling Sarah that she doesn’t want to annoy her boss by asking for more tasks feels very female, very familiar.



Sierra Dickey

Sierra Dickey is a writer, educator, and organizer in Vermont. She reviews immigration and education titles for Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @dierrasickey.

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