October 2006

Geoffrey H. Goodwin


An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski

Mark Z. Danielewski is part novelist, part rockstar.  His first book, House of Leaves, was a mind-bending haunted house drenched with film theory and footnotes.  It led to a reading tour with his sister, the singer Poe, where they opened for Depeche Mode.

Danielewski’s new book, Only Revolutions, is based on two kids he met who were begging for change. He’s described them as “penniless, impertinent, parentless and madly in love with each other.” Like House of Leaves, Only Revolutions has chiseled features, moves lithely and has dueling narrative strands that tumble into each other.

The 360 pages, in 8-page blocks, tell Sam and Hailey’s story as they meet and travel through time, with sidebars composed of historic notes that contextualize the action. Sam and Hailey find joy, even in the world’s tough times -- juxtaposing death with their love’s glee. Their travels get dark eventually -- with an ever more intrusive government and environmental doom looming -- but, at readings, Danielewski describes their beginning as “nice and sunshiny.”

Every aspect of the book, from stem to stern, enacts Sam and Hailey’s relationship. Even the two bookmark ribbons (if the reader follows the instructions, exploring the book eight pages in one direction then turning it around and reading eight pages from the opposite beginning) start far apart at the edges, touch, move away and then spread apart again.

Danielewski spent six years creating Only Revolutions, laying out some of the text himself with InDesign Creative Suite. He drove Sam and Hailey’s travel route in a convertible for research. There were even words, such as house, and concepts, such as houses, that are completely avoided and not allowed to occur in the book.

House of Leaves works its magic with interiors, ancestors and darkness but Only Revolutions is about getting out and exploring the sunshiny world, more poetic than academic. However a reader puts the facets together, Danielewski’s results are both visionary and brilliant, showing how he’s as gifted a dreamer as he is a technician.

In total, many would say that Mark Z. Danielewski’s books are unlike any others on earth. And enough codes, anagrams and twists are hidden in his books that they’re ideal for bibliomancy. He might be the only novelist whose text can stun at first glance. 

For that reason alone, and based on the many others, Danielewski has astronomical talent no matter how big the literary universe gets.  Please come to the Bookslut reading series on October 11th to hear him read and thank him for offering his genius.

Both Only Revolutions and House of Leaves have crisp moments where elements of the story become clear in unexpected ways, but Only Revolutions could be called more delirious and joyful, more playful and occasionally rhyming. How much of the shift was intentional?

HOUSE OF LEAVES literally and figuratively was about plot; about story. ONLY REVOLUTIONS figuratively and literally is character driven; egocentric and of course egodecentric.

Do you have any tattoos? 

My books are my tattoos.

What is a day of writing like for you?  Do you have organized rhythms or a schedule or is it pretty much full-tilt all the time? 

Up at 5:45. Workout. Meditate. 10 hours. 6 days a week.

Pantheon Books had to be confused when it came time to market your first book.  Since it continues to sell well almost seven years later -- even in a changed publishing climate -- did they loop back and encourage you to repeat yourself or were they supportive of Only Revolutions' new nowness?

Actually I wanted to write the sequel to HOUSE OF LEAVES. Where's Johnny?, who's Thumper doing?, the house now in China, that sort of thing. Pantheon would have none of it. They told me 2-colors was for sissies. What about 4 colors? What about precise line counts? word counts? They wanted to know if I'd considered ribbons. They hurled stacks of books my way. Milton, Wordsworth, Whitman. Italian philosophers. Tutored me on artists like Goldsworthy and Turrell. Challenged me to challenge concepts of story, landscape, drive. They never let up. Locked me up. Now and then they'd give me a little honey. I like honey.

Is it fair to say that, at times, you play with meaning?

Meaning is by definition what survives and one takes survival seriously by paradoxically not taking it too seriously by playing. The question then with OR is just how seriously or playfully I take survival?

Besides working on the audio version of Only Revolutions, what have you been listening to lately?

Danny Elfman's "Serenada  Schizophrana," "Lay Me Down" by Under The Influence Of Giants, and "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" by Death Cab For Cutie.

Have you ever felt like your postmodern or avant-garde reputation writes you into a corner?  Have you considered the chance that you'll want to tell a Straight Story like David Lynch -- stunning near everyone by making a G-rated Disney film with a straightforward linear narrative? Or have you just done that with Only Revolutions?

Thanks for providing punch-line and answer to your own question. Sheesh, I can be such a smart ass. Why don't we have more time for all these questions?

How do you know when a piece is complete?

Well, in the case of ONLY REVOLUTIONS, Sam & Hailey told me.

When was the last time you cried hard?

Let's just say I still have a really hard time reading the last section of OR.

Back to being distinctly different than most of what's out there, who've been some of your weirdest fans, or worse, the strangest tie-ins you've been pitched? Has anyone wanted to do action figures of Navidson or Sam or Hailey?  Comic books?

Wait, I want Action Figures! I want Comic books!

Is it true that House of Leaves, pre-publication, had you maxing out your credit cards, struggling to make rent and eating in soup kitchens?

Yeah. And with this book it came down to whether or not I wanted to buy a house. Didn't buy the house. What you got there in your hands now is the house, the barn, the farm, the whole thing. Complete with a couple of ribbons.

On the surface, Only Revolutions has less literary theory or built-in academic criticism than House of Leaves, being more concerned with the present, this moment, though it still has history's weight.  Is it crazy to call Only Revolutions a love letter to everything except The Creep?

That's nice. Though I probably wouldn't say a letter. Hailey & Sam don't write letters. Maybe a song? And probably to The Creep as well and even to Them. But I'm just guessing. You better ask Sam & Hailey. Though it surely is about love. Yes, it surely is about that. Yes. Love. Love. Love.