APRIL 19, 2019
IN HER TWO NOVELS, 2015’s Jillian and this year’s The New Me, Halle Butler has proved herself to be a capable chronicler of thirtysomething anxiety, depression, and life-happiness negotiation. Both novels focus on female office workers doing their best to compromise between the life they have and the life they wish they could have, even as they internally reject the structures put in place to achieve a given status. In The New Me, Millie, a 30-year-old office temp struggles to compromise between her dreams of economic security and the low-grade depression she’d have to live with to achieve such a goal. Struggling with this compromise causes Millie’s own depression to show through, and Butler’s nuanced handling of that is what makes her one of the more enriching protagonists to read about this year. In the midst of gearing up to promote her new book, Butler found time to email back and forth with me over the span of a few weeks. We were able to cover everything from generational labels to true-crime television in short, but brilliant exchanges.
ERIC FARWELL: Millie, like Jillian in your previous book, is emblematic of a certain kind of cheerful but aimless older millennial archetype. She desperately wants to improve her life, but lacks any real motivation to do so until it’s fairly late in the game for her. What attracts you to this type of protagonist?
HALLE BUTLER: I’m surprised to hear you compare Millie and Jillian! And to hear you call Millie cheerful. For me, they’re not connected in that way — as being similar archetypes. I think of Millie as an evolution of Megan, if anything. And for a 34-year-old character conceived in 2010, that would make Jillian Gen X. I think way too much emphasis is placed on generational titles, and this kind of tendency to label can walk people away from having a nuanced take on contemporary work. If you think about John Fante’s Ask the Dust, which was published in 1939, you have a character who is perhaps “longing for self-improvement” and “precariously employed” and “self-involved” or whatever millennial stereotype, take your pick, but to read that book through a millennial lens (something no one would do) would be to totally deprive yourself of the beauty of the book. I see Megan and Millie as confused idealists. They reject success through compromise. When Millie sees her options, for example assimilation into consumer culture as a way to find security, she balks and then tries to force herself to become excited by it. I don’t think she “desperately wants to improve her life” in any trite kind of way. I think she’s turned around, grasping at straws, doomed to fail if she refuses to compromise, and doomed in other ways if she does compromise. It’s a stalemate.
I think I often feel like, “What the hell am I supposed to be doing again?” So that’s probably why I’m drawn to writing about people who are making lamebrained decisions, or are pseudo-valiantly refusing to make decisions, or some combination of that.
One thing that you do so well in the novel is characterize not only the absurd difference between what Millie believes and what’s true, but also the superiority and nihilistic observations someone like her can armor themselves in as a way to duck responsibility. Yet, you don’t push those aspects in a direction that make her unlikable or frustrating. Is managing a character like Millie a tricky thing to balance, or is it easy to portray her because those like her seem so abundant in our lives?
Oh, the superiority thing, I’m sure this is a side effect of reading too much Greek mythology as a kid, and reading Alan Watts in my 20s. This idea that a person who is lousy or unimportant on the outside can contain something godly on the inside — temporary possession by Hermes or Athena or the universe, the holiness of thoughts, the idea that inside of your own skull you’re the ultimate authority through your power to observe. Any kind of playful, experimental, internal hubris is a great balance to being treated like a depersonalized thing at work, so it’s fun to write. It didn’t feel tricky. The complicated all power/no power arrogance is something I’m pretty comfortable with.
I wonder what you think is untrue in her observations. One of my original thoughts for the book was: “What if everything you’re worried about is actually true?” Your neighbors are plotting against you, your friends hate you, your boss is trying to fire you, et cetera. I was curious about what kind of intuition you should trust. When is your gut right, and when are you “overthinking”? From one angle, Millie is right about nearly everything — don’t you think?
I think she’s probably likable because I really like her. I’m basically like her lawyer, presenting her testimony.
I feel like Millie actually believes she’ll get the job, and the disconnect between her belief and what everyone else observes is interesting. Self-delusion is something we’re all guilty of, but seeing it portrayed on the page lends it both a comedic and sympathetic quality. I think if Millie were a film character, she’d conjure pity, but as someone we’re living along with for the duration of the book, you just relate and cringe.
I’m not so sure she actually thinks she’ll get the job. I think she’s aware that, in some sense, this is wishful thinking — but it’s wishful thinking for something she doesn’t want at all, which creates a feeling of dread and claustrophobia for her.
The absence of happiness and accomplishment Millie seems to feel is filled with episodes of Forensic Files. At first, it seems like she just likes the show because it’s an easy enough distraction, but slowly there are these notes of real rage and aggression that emerge in her own narrative. Even one of the later chapters, which details the unkempt state and odor of her apartment, suggests a sense of rotting that wouldn’t be out of place in a true crime show. I was hoping you could walk through how you decided to use the show as a way to crack open these other aspects of Millie’s personality.
I think I was drawn to using Forensic Files specifically for this idea of true crime being an easy distraction. That somehow someone might find it appropriate to “binge” (I hate that word in the context of TV) real stories of suffering and violence as a pastime. And I noticed that when I would watch Dateline or Forensic Files, I was experiencing boredom. I was interested in that as a background flavor, that kind of callousness and detachment through repeated exposure, and the desire to go back to content that was at one time titillating or frightening or compelling, and how the repetition of the form of Forensic Files can become kind of comforting and friendly to such a degree that one might stop seeing the content. Another thing I was thinking about when I started the book was maybe “apartment thrillers” like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, where the space of the home becomes antagonistic, so having this loop of violence and murder in the background, and her occasional thoughts of home invasions (Tom Jordan, Elodie and the dog walker, et cetera) fit that, too. Maybe there’s something about lack of safety going on there.
I also think it’s common to feel like you’re “in trouble” in some way when you don’t have a lot of money. If you’re worried about credit card payments, account balances, rent, your boss, you can end up feeling kind of criminal, frightened, angry, deviant. So, maybe, it’s partly Millie understanding, subconsciously, that she’s a bit of a social criminal in some ways. I know I’m not totally answering your question.
The existential patterns of thought Millie gets caught up in, coupled with her erratic behavior, suggest a kind of overlooked mental illness. When writing, was that something you wanted to raise the specter of, or consider in any way?
I don’t think it’s mentally ill to have existential thoughts, or any kind of philosophical thoughts. This should be the root of a healthy, inquisitive mind. What’s harmful is her isolation.
As a result of her isolation, maybe, I think she’s given a lot of value and meaning to the idea that she can see what a sham everything is. This is her identity, and I do think it’s very meaningful to her. It’s tragic because it doesn’t do anything for her — this identity of the judgmental outsider almost guarantees misery, but it’s all she has. (I also think this is where a lot of the depression humor comes from, since she’s sort of “friends” with her depression, if that makes sense.)
Obviously, she has very bleak thoughts, but it wasn’t my intention to make this a book about depression. To do that would put Millie at a distance, square her away with a label, which is definitely not what I was aiming for.
I should clarify: existential thought patterns aren’t a sign of mental illness in general, but I think of the scene where Millie is on the phone with her mother, and seems to have some kind of odd, dissociative breakdown about personhood and labels. This, mixed with her verbal commentary at the party, and the underpins of anger are what got me thinking about mental illness. I don’t think Millie is “crazy” or anything, just maybe overlooked, or doing a poor job of taking care and stock of her mental anguish. I think most people are like Millie at different times in their lives.
Sure, it would be stubborn of me to try to say that she’s taking great care of herself. From the perspective of writing her, I’m seeing her very much as a specific person who I feel a lot of sympathy for, rather than as a vehicle to talk about an issue. That’s what I mean when I say I wasn’t trying to raise any issue about mental health with the book. And yes, even Millie’s like Millie at certain times in her life.
As you’ve been crafting her, what has Millie come to mean to you? It’s not unusual for a writer to get attached to a protagonist, but has the value of Millie, or the realness of Millie, shifted as you’ve spent more time with her?
I’m intensely attached to all of my characters. When people want to talk to me about characters in Jillian, I totally forget I wrote it. Especially if they want to talk about Elena, my favorite. I’ll find myself saying, “Yeah, that part is hilarious,” or some variation, and then I feel embarrassed because I wrote it, and the appropriate response is something more along the lines of: “Oh, thank you!” Maybe the further away from writing a book I get, the better I think the book is. I definitely felt like Jillian and The New Me totally sucked the first time I read them — but now I think they’re pretty good.
In reading, I kept thinking about the opening chapter of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, or any section of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, which are very clearly drawn-out scenes. When you were developing The New Me, did you envision it in chapters that functioned as the easily imagined scenes you have, or did it have more grandiose plotting that you boiled down for pacing and plot economy?
I haven’t read either of those books, but I really liked The Woman Upstairs — I’m sure that’s no surprise. I write everything in order, each scene is in response to the last. I’ll have a few ideas for things that could “happen” in the book that I’m sort of leading up to, or keeping in the back of my mind while I’m writing, but I don’t do very much outlining (if this is what you mean by developing). I think when I got a little more than halfway through I did a retroactive outline of the first half, partly just so I could remember what I’d written, and have a shorthand list of scenes to glance at. I think, naturally, you have to have a kind of grandiose feeling about any project you start — like, “This is going to be the best book ever written,” which is, of course, impossible — and the writing gets better, flows more easily, once you stop caring so much about the outcome (in my experience, anyway). I knew I wanted the plot to be a slow deflation, things getting a little bit worse, a little bit worse, day by day, but other than that, I wasn’t too focused on structure — structural concerns for me usually happen in the edit. Most of (but not all of!) my writing and planning happens subconsciously, through doing.
The ostensible “antagonist” of the book, Karen the receptionist, seems no happier than Millie, but is overeager in her position to advance. In some ways, it’s easy to consider her as a sort of bizarro Millie, but not necessarily one that is more successful or correct than Millie. It’s tempting to read this contrast a sort of commentary on how ambition doesn’t always equate to success or joy, but I was hoping you could speak to what you see Karen’s function as in the novel.
I was seeing Karen as the villain. Her ambition makes her wicked — ambition almost never equates to joy, especially if your ambition is authority or status (even on a small scale). The scene where she’s thinking about what it would take, financially, to replace Millie is very heartless. She should just talk to Millie — but she has all of these money/status/title justifications for why she “can’t.” She’s treating Millie like a thing, a problem, not like a person — and she gets a small dose of this herself near the end. This kind of passive aggressive mindset/dynamic is really common in offices. People are overwhelmed and feel threatened and like they have something to prove, something to lose, possibly something to gain (even if the only thing they’re gaining is feeling like they’re not threatened, and have finally moved past the “proof” part of their careers), so I do feel some small sympathy for Karen. She’s supposed to be a threat to Millie and an illustration of a kind of office, ladder-climbing mindset — maybe the kind of mindset that Millie is “supposed to” have.
I know you spoke to the idea of labels earlier, but I still am curious about your specific feelings. You’ve been kind of labeled as the writer capturing the millennial experience, and I’m curious what you make of that. Do designations like that carry any weight for you, or make you feel boxed-in in terms of what you cover as a writer?
I feel like Millie is reacting to a lot of external information about what she should and shouldn’t do, feel, be, et cetera, and she’s comparing that information with the experience she’s having of being alive. There’s this great anecdote in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, where a Quaker is wondering if he should wear undyed, white fur and fabric. On one hand, he doesn’t believe he should wear dyed fabrics — they hide the dirt, it’s an embellishment to use dye — but on the other hand, undyed, white fabric and fur is in fashion, and he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s being vain or trying to look fashionable. He has a total meltdown about it. These are the kinds of things I like to think about — expectations versus realities, internal versus presentation, and how can one find or make meaning in their lives, when the experience of life is a rapidly moving target. If what I’ve written resonates with some people, I think this is a very lucky accident, and it’s very meaningful to me to be able to communicate that way. Also, on page two, one of the co-workers says something about looking like a hipster, which really dates the book to 2016 — this is how fast things move. I wasn’t thinking about millennials at the time, and I’d rather people approach the book fresh, respond to the content without any expectations, draw their own meaning (or not! that’s fine, too) from the direct experience of the read. You know, the same way you should approach life. [Laughs.]
Eric Farwell is an adjunct professor of English at Monmouth University and Ocean County College in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Esquire, Salon, GQ, Slice (forthcoming), Ploughshares, the Paris Review Daily, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Village Voice, Vanity Fair, The Believer, and Guernica.