Ask The Author: Isaac Butler

We published Isaac Butler’s great piece, “In the Heart Library,” in the March Issue.

1. What would you like your heart to be made of?

Given the history of heart attacks on both sides of family, probably adamantium, the indestructible metal that Wolverine’s bones are laced with in X-Men. Failing that, I’d say let’s make it out of notes played through a baritone sax, punctuated by a paradiddle on a snare drum.

2. How has theater impacted your writing?

Well, I became a writer because of theater when I started commenting on the art form and the industry via one of these new-fangled things called blogs almost a decade ago. But aesthetically, I think it’s both helped and hurt in some ways. I think because I am a theater director, I have a dramaturgical eye for structural issues and seeing how those choices can affect content. I’d also say I’m pretty good at writing hyper-real dialogue, at capturing the spoken voice. At the same time, it’s very very difficult to put the “audience” out of my head. Because as a director, you’re thinking about the audience all the time; a moment on stage that’s crystal clear in your mind that doesn’t read to the audience is worthless. But as a writer, when you’re drafting, when you’re generating, if you’re thinking too much about the audience/reader, it can really block you. Or, to remove the defense of the second-person, me. It can really block me. For me, questions of audience need to come in when I’m revising, not generating, or else I’m getting so far ahead of myself, I can’t see the thing I’m trying to make. And that’s a real struggle. I’ve also had to work really, really hard at developing descriptive prose because I’m just so used to focusing on how people talk and what that says about them as characters.

3. What would you like to have done with your body after you’re dead?

You know, I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately. I’m an atheist, and I’ve just hit my Jesus year and I’ve just started having all of those very-cliched Oh fuck I’m actually going to die panic attacks that everyone warns you about. To add to that, my wife’s family just suffered two losses– one expected, one very much not– that we’re still reeling from. We’ve gotten to see two funerals recently, and oddly it was like when we were getting married, how after each friends’ wedding we went to, we’d turn to each other and figure out what about it we liked and didn’t, what we wanted to keep for our own wedding. So, for example, we’re both now very emphatic about not having an open casket visitation. And, of course, there’ll be no gee-oh-dee at my service.

I’ve always said I wanted to be cremated. But now I actually think that if it’s possible to have my body donated so that someone can get some use out of it, that’d probably be best.

4. Where would you physically hide your secrets?

It’s weird to think about secrets when you’re in the midst of writing a long-form nonfiction narrative in which you are a character, which is what I’m taking a break from to write this now. I’m not a very secretive person. Some of that definitely comes from theater. But anyway, I’d love to hide my secrets in a hidden chamber. To reach it, you’d have to pull a book in a bookshelf that would cause the bookshelf to swing open, like on Scooby-Doo. And then, you know, you’d have this long torch-lit tunnel that’s somewhat Freudian now that I think about it, a long cavern that ends in a chamber like the Bat Cave, and there’d by a hologram of my disembodied head. The head would be giant, like the floating head of God in Time Bandits, and it would be telling my secrets. If you can hear this message, I’m probably dead now it would have to begin, because that’s how these things begin, and then it would detail the hidden shames of my life.

Hans Christian Anderson just put all of his secrets in a diary, which is how we now know how many times a week he masturbated.

If I were bound by realism, I would go by the hide in plain sight strategy and tear out sheets of paper, each one holding one secret, and distribute them amongst the books in my house people are least likely to read, towards the back.

5. Is your heart an empty room?

Hearts are such strange things, aren’t they? I mean, yes, my heart is largely empty if we’re talking about the literal, actual heart. There’s a lot of open space in there. There has to be so it can continue to keep us alive, so it can pump and pump. But of course, most of the time we’re thinking and talking about our hearts, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the innermost part of ourselves, where our souls reside. In Jewish tradition, the soul doesn’t reside there, it resides in the base of the spine. So, my heart or my spine-base or my head is very full, largely of people and of snatches of song lyrics, moments of melody, scraps of paper, little words by others, the occasional line by myself. To quote Morrisey, now my heart is full. No. It doesn’t feel empty in there.

Of course, the other thing that blows my mind to think about is that sound is, of course, a physical thing. So in a way no room is ever empty, except for those completely silent rooms that they have in a couple of laboratories. But in order to experience those, you have to be in them, so the room still isn’t empty. And because the inside of your body makes sound, they aren’t actually silent either.

6. What inanimate object would you want your voice to come out of?

I’m finding this question impossible to answer and I don’t know why. I think it’s because I have so many inanimate objects that already make noise in my apartment– musical instruments, a television, a computer, stuff like that. And obviously writing instruments are out, because hopefully my voice comes out of those in one way or another. There’s this antique dinner bell from my wife’s side of the family in our dining room. I think it would be interesting to have my voice come out of it, you’d have to get close up to it and then there I would be, dinging out of it. Either that or… there’s this painting in our hallway, a print that’s pretty terrifying. It would be hilarious to have my voice come out of that. I could scare people when they walked by. HEY! YOU! DON’T END UP LIKE ME TRAPPED BEHIND THIS GLASS! and then I could dispense life lessons. STAY IN SCHOOL! EAT LESS MEAT! STOP BEING SO SELFISH! Things like that.