Interviews

Halle Butler: “Sometimes It’s Good to Put Yourself Through the Wringer”

Her slim novel 'The New Me' is a cathartic look in the mirror.

Reading The New Me is like looking in the mirror in really bad lighting — and in the sharp terror it offers, you find a heartening catharsis at the same time. Halle Butler’s latest novel tells the story of 30-year-old Millie, an existentially adrift young woman living in Chicago who drifts from temp job to temp job. When Millie is not wasting away at a designer showroom doing routine tasks under her highly-strung boss Karen, she’s in her apartment furiously binging gory crime drama Forensic Files. Suddenly faced with the prospect of a full-time job, Millie toys with the seductive possibilities of self-improvement, like a heroine of a 90’s romcom with questionable gender politics: go to that yoga class! buy that pencil skirt; demonstrate that can-do enthusiasm while you’re shredding Karen’s files! Even in the midst of Millie’s strained hopefulness, Butler’s incisive prose cuts sharp. Millie is, like us all, nominally an adult in a world that finds little dignity in adulthood.

I spoke to Halle Butler about the inspiration behind The New Me, the fatal lies of modern female self-invention, and why we all seem to be hooked on binging crime dramas.

Rebecca Liu

Tell us a bit about what inspired The New Me.

Halle Butler

I was thinking a lot about achievement and external value systems and work, and how my experiences with those things had been pretty isolating and disorienting. I was temping, which might be obvious. I’d been working on another book after Jillian, but it was a little convoluted and kind of a mess. The New Me started as a few pages of notes, rants about made up coworkers, hostile observations, things like that. I was going to do a reading, and I was tired of reading from Jillian and the book I was working on, so I cleaned up those notes, and after the reading, I felt compelled to keep working on it.

Rebecca Liu

One of the highlights of The New Me is how it grapples with mutual misunderstanding in a very real way. In some chapters we’ll see Millie reflecting on how her boss Karen is incredibly disaffected and strange. In another, we’re invited to listen to Karen’s quiet disgust with Millie. Sarah, one of Millie’s few friends, spends most of their time together talking about herself. What’s preventing these people from engaging with each other on a genuinely meaningful level?

Halle Butler

Man, if only I knew, I could write a Tony Robbins-style book! I think part of it is that everyone in the book is very concerned with how they’re being perceived. Millie doesn’t like Karen mostly because she thinks Karen sees her as a disposable idiot (this, I think, pushes her to act out a little, and prove her paranoid fantasy of Karen’s opinions–even if it’s subconscious). Karen’s main concern is being seen as an authority figure. She wants to be viewed as a leader, or a manager, but she’s incapable of just talking to Millie (and the way she tries to set Millie up for failure is pretty brutal). Millie’s criticisms of Sarah–that she talks too much about her job, tv, and money–is a reflection of Millie, too. She spends the whole book talking mostly about those things, and that’s all she hears and sees in Sarah, because it’s what upsets her about herself. All three of them are very stressed, mostly about work, and dealing with it in different ways. I think when a person feels vulnerable about their place or status in the world (not to be too grand about it), there’s a tendency to fixate on yourself (creating a narrative, in pop psychology terms). It can be pretty frightening to admit that you’re feeling vulnerable. When Millie tries to communicate this to Sarah and to Karen (in a smaller sense), the reaction isn’t encouraging–so why would she do it again? I think all three of them are very defensive and anxious.

Rebecca Liu

There’s a variant of marketable young femininity today that sells images of the relentlessly positive, conventionally beautiful girlboss who effortlessly masters her own professional and personal life. In The New Me, on the other hand, Millie floats from temp job to temp job, eschews the grooming standards of high-end designer showroom where she works, and spends most of her spare time watching a gruesome crime drama alone in her cluttered apartment. Karen, on the other hand, wants to be that girlboss, but is ultimately a bit of a loser. Do you see Millie’s own attempt to reinvent herself (buy that skirt, go to that yoga class!) as a critique of certain popular narratives about ideal femininity?

Halle Butler

I do. I even think she’s critiquing it as she’s doing it. There’s an element of “ok, I’ll dress up like a girl and smile and buy some lotion, but it’s not going to work!” To me, the idea of wanting to be the boss of someone else is very odious. Dominance and status, glamorizing wealth and the pursuit of money for its own sake (naturally we have to live, so we have to make money), this is all bad. It will stress you out, and it will make you feel like you’re failing, or it will make you feel like you have the right to plow through people to “get where you’re going”. I have only an atmospheric understanding of the girlboss, but when I see the notion on book covers and in magazines and online, my eyes do narrow with disdain. It’s no new discovery that women can be very competitive with each other, so there’s something counterintuitive about a type of “girl power” that emphasizes pursuit of being in charge (at the exclusion of the other “girls” who have been giving you “power”?–makes no sense!). And I am referencing the Spice Girls with “girl power.” If we’re supposed to be perfect, career oriented, politically savvy, health conscious, etc etc, all the time, working towards alpha status, then there’s no room for messing up–or, rather, no room to admit that you’re wrong, because this will jeopardize the persona you’re crafting/your goal of superiority. And if you’re not able to admit when you’re wrong, you can never forgive yourself for being wrong, and you can never really like anyone else, and then you can never really open yourself up to the bonds of friendship and community. But yeah, definitely, Millie is in direct opposition to Karen and her other colleagues in the book–her disdain for them (the pedometers, the perfume, the fast-fashion outfits, etc) is an indirect criticism of a certain type of ladder climbing capitalist-pseudo-feminism. Haha, or maybe it’s direct.

Rebecca Liu

I was struck by the persistence of Forensic Files in Millie’s life. Now, it seems like to “participate in the culture” today often boils down to discussing and dissecting the latest Netflix releases. And these shows themselves have most recently revolved around true crime, death, and traumatic apocalyptic hellfire. Why does Millie (and, really, we) need these gruesome stories?

Halle Butler

The first few times I watched Forensic Files, maybe ten years ago, I thought it was terrifying. Home intruders and murderers leaving little traces of themselves behind, the creepy intermingling of elements like hair and dirt and skin during these violent acts, the puzzle elements of detective work, the slow reveal of the story, all of it was really compelling and scary. But now I am 100% desensitized. These shows are really formulaic, and the formula has become comforting to the degree where I can watch it to fall asleep now. That’s really weird to me–so I was interested in a kind of desensitization as a flavor in the book, and I also wanted Millie’s home space to feel threatening, too, so the constant descriptions of violence coming from her laptop felt natural.

As for why people watch so much tv in general, I think it’s exhaustion. Most people work all day, doing something they’re not crazy about, and in that situation, all you really want to do is clock out, turn your brain off. Maybe there’s a participatory element in the longer true crime docs, the mini series, on Netflix? Like, you can be an armchair detective while you watch it? I’m not sure. I’ve liked horror movies and true crime since I was a kid. It can be fun to be scared and shocked within safe boundaries, like roller coasters. I think a lot of those Netflix mini-series are too long and kind of boring. I don’t have a great answer for why! I’m hesitant to give the obvious answer of “the last few years have felt pretty scary, so dystopian and violent thoughts are being reflected in mass culture.” Because that’s not really new.

Rebecca Liu

Your first novel Jillian, a story of two women who work at a gastroenterology clinic, was praised by the Chicago Tribune as “The feel-bad book of the year”. You’ve also previously expressed admiration for Todd Solondz, who is known for his biting misanthropic satire. To an outsider, this may seem counter-intuitive: why engage with anything if it makes you “feel bad”, especially if it’s got this kitchen-sink realism to it that reveals how our lives too may themselves be boring and sad? What, to you, are the hidden gifts of “feel-bad” art?

Halle Butler

Catharsis! If you can confront the emotions you’re repressing, feel them fully, move through them in a work of art or fiction or whatever, there’s a really light feeling afterwards. I’ve always preferred books that make me cry–that used to be how I identified a book as “good.” You listen to a sad song when you’re sad, it helps (if you listened to “Sunshine, Lollipops and Clovers”, you’re getting into Lynch territory–which could be interesting, too). There’s also something to seeing your own hidden thoughts and feelings reflected in a book. When this happens it makes me feel way less alone, especially if the feelings are bleak, like I’m connected to the human experience. Certainly there’s something to watching a Chris Farley movie when you’re feeling low, too, but sometimes it’s good to put yourself through the wringer.

Rebecca Liu

What advice would you give to women stuck in Millie’s position today, who are caught in a dead-end loop, overqualified for their day jobs yet compelled to express a can-do, relentlessly positive attitude to routine tasks?

Halle Butler

Oh man. I think the book is pretty skeptical of advice, particularly blanket advice give online, soooo, I’m really not sure if I even should answer this. Anytime I’ve followed advice from the internet, it’s felt weird.

FICTION
The New Me
By Halle Butler
Penguin Books
Published March 5, 2019

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