Halle Butler’s novel Jillian is a master class in discomfort. It follows the lives of two co-workers: Megan, whose frustration and lack of ambition contrast with her co-worker Jillian, whose upbeat disposition conceals an abundance of frustration and a life spent on brink of collapse. Butler follows these two characters through a series of bleak interactions with hostile landscapes, keeping things compelling throughout. I talked with her via email to learn more about the novel’s origins and the complex dynamic at its center.
The give-and-take between Megan and Jillian, and the way that their dynamic shifts over the course of the novel, make for a fascinating read. Did one of the characters predate the other?
Megan and Jillian are a pair, and I knew I wanted to write a book about co-workers, so no, neither of them predated the other. I did at first think the book would be entirely from Megan’s perspective, but then I randomly switched over to Jillian, and it was surprisingly fun and natural to write that kind of manic, denial-driven optimism, so I gave her more space. So, even though they were thought up at the same time, I guess my interest in Jillian’s opinions and reactions came second.
While the novel is largely told from the perspectives of its two main characters, occasionally it’ll showcase the viewpoints of others: Jillian’s neighbor, Megan’s boyfriend, and occasionally other characters, including a dog. How did you determine when you would move outside of the two central characters?
I switched perspectives whenever I got bored in a scene. It was just a way to keep things moving. The book is very light on plot, but I did want it to keep it fast. Being a little liberal with perspective was also a way to describe Megan and Jillian from the outside. The side characters, for the most part, are just thinking about how much they dislike Megan and Jillian. In that way, it’s also kind of a paranoid fantasy. When I’m feeling socially nervous, I tell myself “Yeah, but no one is thinking about me as much as I’m thinking about me.” But in the book it’s like, “No, your boyfriend thinks you’re boring and lazy and he’s plotting to dump you,” and “Sorry, but your uptight friend is actually fantasizing about murdering your son and setting you up for failure so she can have fun watching you suffer.”
The observations of the dog and bird at the end were just a funny (to me) way to broaden things out to this interconnected ecosystem of the city. The animals are ridiculously reasonable and grateful for the little things. They love work and progress and the life cycle, in contrast to Megan and Jillian who are in self-absorbed meltdown mode in the end. The animals maybe provide the only morals in the book, but since I didn’t want to moralize, I gave those introspections to a bird and an underwear-eating dog. Maybe there was some kind of subconscious Aesop shout out going on.
How did Jillian become the title character? Did you know from the outset that the book would be titled for her?
Jillian is the title character in a kind of symbolic way. It’s more about Jillian as a social object than Jillian as the main character. It has a lot to do with Megan’s feelings towards Jillian, and about how we sometimes choose people and things to hate to distract ourselves from our own shit. Calling the book “Megan” wouldn’t work at all. It would be too sympathetic and too judgmental at the same time. Like “Megan: A Tragedy” or “Megan: A Warning”. Like an after school special. Just doesn’t work the same way. For a while I was calling it “That’s Not My Personality” but that’s not a good title for this, for so many reasons. For a while, also, the word doc was called “Jillian belched and kept” because those were the original first few words of the book.
Both Jillian and Megan are deeply flawed characters who frustrate many of the people around them; they’re also both very compelling, in their own way. How did you balance the two?
Frustrating people are inherently compelling, if you think about gossip. We all have that rule-hungry cop inside of us that wants to point out when someone is breaking social code. That balance of frustrating and compelling is a big part of what’s going on in the book, especially with how Megan feels about Jillian. I guess the challenge is to make someone frustrating and sympathetic, to bring people out of cop mode and to get them to relate to things that disgust or annoy them. I guess the way you do that is to believe whatever your character believes when you’re writing them. When Jillian is buying dog food, you don’t think “fucking loser” you think “please work, please work, please work.” And when Megan is ranting about graphic designers, you don’t think “oh god, please stop talking” you think “she’s right, she’s right, she’s right!” Each character gets to make their own sincere plea. But since there are so many characters, and they’re all scrutinizing each other, the audience gets to cringe and judge in a way that the book doesn’t, if that makes any sense at all.