HANDWRITTEN: How did these diaries resurface?
BUTLER: When The Hearts of Men first came out, I was doing interviews. People would see my list of jobs on my website and ask me about them — any of the weird jobs I had. So I had to go back and revisit some of those memories. I was stoked when my agent met you. As luck would have it, we had just moved into a new house recently, so I‘d been looking through my notes. I don’t throw anything away. I had told my agent about the notebooks. Since then, it’s been a lot of fun obviously. But yeah, I guess I looked at all those jobs as fenceposts along my journey. I don’t dwell on them necessarily.
HANDWRITTEN: Is it easy to reconcile with, though?
BUTLER: Well, it's been coming into a tighter focus for me recently. In the fall, I was teaching a class at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
I don’t have a lot of experience with the millennial generation. I live out in the country. For the most part, I’m kind of a hermit. But I feel like millennials get a real bad rap. I don’t know. When I listen to older relatives talking about them, or about the result of the elections, it just sounds like everyone is blaming millennials. And as a result of teaching that class, I think I was talking about this project and thinking, if you’re in college right now, you probably don’t feel like you have the ability to take weird jobs or maybe travel. It just feels like maybe there’s all this pressure on them to always be, you know, achieving and getting internships and stuff.
That was never really a concern of mine when I was that age. I just thought all these jobs are going to somehow lead you somewhere and you just sort of have to relax and ride it, you know?
HANDWRITTEN: You could sense that from the entries. There were spots where you mentioned other jobs you wanted, or maybe ways in which you hoped to leave the meat packing facility.
BUTLER: That was weird for me, too, going through the journals. Seeing, “I’m hopeful for this interview.” There were a lot of interviews throughout the notebooks. Medical studies, even. What was interesting, too, about this time is that three years before these notebooks, my dad had a massive brain aneurism. He’s been in a nursing home ever since. About the time of his aneurism, my blood pressure went from being a healthy, late teen-person to ridiculously dangerous. So I remember that particular medical study I applied for. I don’t think I qualified because my blood pressure was so bad. But I could have used that money, being a medical guinea pig.
That was another interesting thing: floating through these notebooks and seeing at one point, I wrote a note about pickled eggs, which is a thing that showed up in my first novel, you know? Just these little ideas that were surfacing ten years before it happened.
HANDWRITTEN: What were you doing before the Oscar Meyer job?
BUTLER: I had a pretty good job through college. I ran a Bed and Breakfast that was above a bookstore. There were all sorts of famous writers that would come in. They would read in the bookstores and stay in the Bed and Breakfast. So I worked there throughout college and it was great. I got to meet writers. I never told them about my ambitions, but I remember meeting David Edgars and Colton Whitehead, and just kind of thinking, "Well these are just normal people. If they can do it, I can do it."
In the summer of 2003, I quit that job to go study conservation biology and ecological knowledge in British Columbia. I took out a credit card, kinda maxed that out, and when I came back to Madison, I couldn’t find a job. That’s a lot of what this first notebook is about. I had interviews but none of them went anywhere. When I got Oscar Meyer, I thought, well, I won’t be there forever and it paid pretty well at the time and it had benefits, so we’ll just do this thing. I don’t think I kept a notebook for the first month, probably because I didn’t feel like I was going to be there that long, you know?
I think I thought I would be there one, two, or three months at most, but it ended up being eight months in total.
HANDWRITTEN: Do you remember why you started writing in them?
BUTLER: I think what it comes down to is — and this is going to sound obvious, silly maybe — but it was amazing how corporate it was. There were days of corporate training, safety trainings, and corporate production meetings, and I think after awhile, I just felt like sneaking in a notebook to the plant was a way of undermining this corporate environment. I kind of loved seeing, I don’t know, how broken at times the whole thing was, and how weird it all was.