An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski
It was the book that fell off the shelf. That was the moment that terrified me in House of Leaves. Forget the demonic tunnels, forget the howls. It's the book that falls off the shelf that still makes me shudder. And if a writer can captivate me that strongly with just a few sentences, I will follow them for the rest of their career.
Mark Z. Danielewski followed up the sinisterly inviting House of Leaves with the almost entirely opaque Only Revolutions, a book that was nominated for a National Book Award but was derided by many as being completely unreadable. He's in a bit of a transition -- before he unleashes a 27-volume serialized book about a girl who meets a kitten, called The Familiar, onto the world, he is gifting us a novella called The Fifty Year Sword. It started life as a limited edition book in the Netherlands, and then became a performance piece for Halloween, and then it was brought back to the page with a lavishly and painstakingly illustrated hardback in the States.
It's a ghost story, of sorts. A story told on a strange night in East Texas. But the story only exists on the left hand side of the page -- the "sinister" side of the page, if you want to get Medieval about it. On the right hand side lie the illustrations, a mess of thread and embroidery, the pages torn and punctured. And every dot, every indentation, every emroidered quotation mark feels intentional, meaningful somehow. And while it's not the madcap joy of House of Leaves, it's got a beauty and a relentless darkness all its own.
I met up with Danielewski at the Texas Book Festival, in an Austin hotel lobby. He's more charming than you would think. More generous and more open, too. We chatted for about an hour about why he decided to set his newest story in East Texas, and why he can't just justify and set default ledes like every other goddamn writer in the world.
Danielewski, as we're sitting down: Are you from here?
I used to live here for five years. Iím back traveling, and coincidentally here for the festival.
Where were you before and where are you now?
Iím from Kansas, and now I live in Berlin.
Oh! Berlin. Is that fun?
It is fun.
What do you do there?
The usual Berlin things. Eating sausage and writing.
I was in Berlin. Six months now, maybe? I had spent two or three nights in Berlin. There were a couple amazing restaurants there. Berlin is changing. The old way of beer and hard bread that I remember ten years or twelve years ago is changing. Now thereís this nouvelle cuisine that rivals what any foodie in New York or LA can concoct.
Which is surprising, a little bit, because the German culture is still dismissive of pleasure a little, it doesnít know what to do with leisurely pleasure.
Yeah. And the proportions were very small. Not like hereís a ton of sauerkraut and a big beer. A little floret of sauerkraut which combined with some molecular foam...
I was in Italy and accidentally went to a German restaurant. It was 98 degrees outside and everyone in there was German and eating these big piles of sauerkraut with a giant pork knuckle on top. I just wanted to ask, ďHow are you alive right now, people?Ē
That is a great question that can be asked in a variety of circumstances. ďHow are you alive right now, people?Ē I want that on a t-shirt.
Have you lived in Texas? Because your story is set in Texas, so I wondered about that.
I have a strange relationship to Texas. Donít know what it is about this place. Iíve been through it bunches of times. I have to say Austin and Dallas were early advocates of House of Leaves. There was a lot of interest early on. I get questions now and then, of a snarky variety sometimes, ďHow do you feel about House of Leaves being so popular, these other books are not that popular?Ē Then I ask when they read House of Leaves, and they say a few years ago. What they donít realize is that when House of Leaves came out, there were plenty of people who said, This is unreadable, I canít get into this. But for some reason Texas has always embraced that kind of work. It has a tradition that a lot of people arenít aware -- Donald Barthelme, for example. Texas has the art world. And whatever you think of Marfa, itís still in Texas. Iíve gone to Marfa and seen the private cabins and Juddís minimalist work. Thatís drawn me to it viscerally, but I havenít really spent time there. East Texas is a whole other thing.
East Texas is a whole other state in its self.
Thatís what I kind of do, I realize. I vie against the old writing adage of ďWrite what you know.Ē Everything I write seems to be about what I donít know.
Right. I wouldnít exactly describe your books as realist autobiographical fiction.
You wouldnít? How mistaken you are! Itís only one night in East Texas. So maybe there was one night in East Texas that was very peculiar.
And people died bloody.
ďHow are you alive right now, people?Ē Thatís what The Fifty Year Sword is about.
Was there anything particular about East Texas that made you set the story there?
As you probably expect, Iím not going to answer that question directly. What fascinated me about that portion of the country the few times I passed through it, and actually talking to people from there because I have friends from Texas, is that strange confluence of dialect. How the English language is presented spoken. For me, it gave me a certain right to be less formal about the language, playful about the language. That helped pull me into the larger themes of whimsy.
[Here is an interlude when Danielewski and I order coffees and chocolate chip cookies from the bar menu, and Danielewski asks to have it charged to his room. Which room, asks the waiter? 610.]
To me: Please donít publish that. Although by the time this goes up...
Right, youíll have vacated. But then maybe the room 610 will become a pilgrimage spot. People will leave offerings outside the door. The hotel will never know whatís going on.
Black masses will be held there. Strange statistical anomalies will appear around the room.
So yeah, that location, and I donít want to limit it because there are other reasons, in terms of the musicality of the language seemed a perfect place for it.
Youíre doing a reading tonight in the cemetery, under an almost full moon. Are you reading from this, or are you doing something else?
Iím reading from this. And also what Iíve been doing is putting out requests for readings. And thatís been kind of fun. In half of the cities Iíll do requested readings from House of Leaves or Only Revolutions. I guess thatís strange for a writer to take requests, will you read this poem and then it turns out that poem has been tattooed into their skin. Then I figure, some question and answer.
This story started as a performance, though?
No, the writing started pencil and paper in 2003, so almost ten years ago. Then I worked on it, and eventually I put it in a drawer. Only Revolutions was coming out, and there was no way we were going to publish this before that. Out of the blue my Dutch publishing house said, do you have anything, because weíd like to publish a series of chapbooks for the 60th anniversary. I presented them with the story and they liked it, and I said, can we get some colored quotation marks, and they said sure, and then I said the typesetting needs to be a little this way. Eventually we left the chapbook aside and then it became this full-sized limited edition of 1,000 copies the first printing and 1,000 copies the second printing. That was it.
What happened was, the English version started to become highly collectible. And people were paying at times over $1,000. That doesnít even intersect my world. I donít get a percentage of that money, thatís the whole collectorsí world. People came up and said the reason the price was going up like that was because it was hard to get it, and some people other than those investing in a curious object wanted to read it. There was always this push whenever I did anything to get that published. ďWhen can I read The Fifty Year Sword?Ē ďWhen will you release it in the US?Ē
I began to investigate that. As pleased as I was with the Dutch version I knew it wasnít finished. I began to explore the possibility of making it a graphic novel. I did that with three artists and it never came to fruition. Then by that point I was really buried in The Familiar, the book Iím working on now. But then Steve Erickson, a marvelous novelist who wrote Between Stations, asked me if I would like to do a reading at RedCat in downtown LA. And I said sure, can I cast some actors? Because Iíd always wanted to hear the five voices. And he said, you can do whatever you want. With that invitation grew this thing with a shadow show and it had a clown in it and it had five actors and then we did that two years in a row. By the end of the second year I really figured out the layout of the book, how to typeset all the words and I realized as much as I loved the shadows of the stage performance, the story had to have thread. Thread and needles and paper and tears and stitches that came together and stitches that came apart.
This year we are doing it for the last time at RedCat, with a dancer from Cirque du Soleil, the gravedigger has returned, five new actors. Christopher OíRiley, a friend of mine, composed original music for this. And itís now on the ebook. Have you looked at the ebook?
No, I havenít.
I would recommend you look at it. We did something very special with it. We scored it, we animated the text, we included sound effects, it was an incredible translation project done by a woman named Lillian Sullam from Random House. You can get it on the Kindle and Nook, but itís all fixed layout. The iPad is the one that allows you to hear all the music. Once Chris got on board, we decided to expand it. Weíre doing the full performance in five cities. Thatís been a lot of fun, very successful, and an exciting way of exploring how text can live in a hardcover, in a staged reading, and even in this electronic form.
Iím really interested in the fluidity of it. Is it a different beast when itís being staged? Does it change at all, or do the actors stick to every word on the script?
They read whatís on the page, but itís probably closer to the book youíre reading now because the book learned about the tempo shifts by the way it was read, the pauses that came in. Those words that were all by themselves on the page came a lot from that performance. It does actually incorporate in its blankness the way someone reading it would emphasize or transition to another part. I donít know if I can really answer that question. I think itís a great question to ask the people who have seen it. What do they take away from it? That is the question thatís come out of this book tour. There is no answer. What is lost from the experience of reading the hardcover when you read it as an ebook? But what is lost from the experience of reading the ebook when you read it as a hardcover? All of that applies to the staged reading. I think itís a compelling inquiry because there are gains in the electronic format. And there are gains in the hardcover format. And there are gains in the staged reading. Itís between this triumvirate where we can see what really matters to people when encountering a book.
One thing I would say thatís difficult about this book, thereís a large audience thatís not equipped to read it. It tends to be an older audience. Younger people are more aware of image and text and how it plays together. But a lot of people could read The Fifty Year Sword without seeing it. The compositional values have derived from a great deal of time and focus. And yet there are people who just stick to the left page. They do not want to go over there. Theyíre just, oh, Iím going to read half of it here. And thatís fascinating to me. Really? Just because you can read through this in 48 minutes doesnít mean that necessarily youíve apprehended everything thatís going on. But I donít fault them, because itís also a question of training. You can walk into a museum and see a lot of people eating dinner in a tableaux, and think, oh I know what this is, thereís an important guy in the middle but whatever. Or, you can go in with a little history and a little understanding of the geometries, and you can see The Last Supper and see itís loaded with references and colors and meanings that are not available at first glance.
I think thatís come up with some graphic novelists that Iíve talked to. Trying to train the audience to read it differently than, okay, Iíll read whatís in this box, and then Iíll read whatís in this box. Itís an interesting relationship with the reader. Itís much different, I think, than just text page on the page. When you bring in images, the way the reader is going to respond to it is going to vary more widely.
Absolutely. You look at someone like Chris Ware for example, who is phenomenal. Sure, you can follow Jimmy Corrigan or story you want, but you also have to be willing to step back and look at the whole compositional frame of it, and look at the colors, and look at the juxtapositions of shapes. Look at how those elements combine to create, reinforce, perhaps play a certain irony against whatís happening literally. I think the thing is we tend to look at images as being easy because itís so quick to the eye. It grants us such an immediate, effective relationship with that encounter. And yet you can still read image, just like you can read text. You have to stop, you have to meditate for a minute about whatís going on, on the relationship, on the placement of things. Thereís a story there thatís being told.
What was the spark that made you realize thread was what was missing from the imagery?
Probably because the heroine was a seamstress. [Laughs] Itís all about thread, but for some reason I wasnít listening as carefully to the story from a pictorial point of view as I could have been. Thatís why Iím sympathetic to a reader who doesnít necessarily understand... there arenít a lot of examples where you can look at text and image and consider their aesthetic relations. Itís not like you get to practice it all the time. Even me, I was thinking why not, letís explore shadows. I think probably the way it happened was auditory. I started to hear how the actors would pick up the phrases and how they would create the sentences. They had to communally create the tonality of meaning to create a sentence.
So hearing the actors enabled me to see how to address how the text was set. In the Dutch version it was all left justified. And I wanted to do this thing where the sentence just ends and all you have to do is drop your eye and you catch the start of the next fragment. Your eye kind of falls down through the page. That was much more in keeping with how the words were thread together, how the sentences, how the ideas. And then, and how to enact that visually? The obvious thing is thread and I started experimenting with thread. And then eventually I struck upon using a sewing machine and sewing the piece of paper and allowing it to tear and allowing it to bunch up. Once I understood that I started buying lots of different colors of thread, lots of different kinds of paper, and one of the artists who had worked as a shadow caster on two of the productions, Claire Kohne and Regina Gonzalez whoís a seamstress.
They were still large pieces, and we couldnít scan them even though I ended up getting a large scanner we couldnít find a scanner large enough. And photographing was problematic because lighting it was really different. We settled on scanning giving us the most matter of fact presentation of the artwork. And then one of the fun parts was every time youíre sewing and the needles break, the clumps of thread were thrown to the ground. I donít know why but I kept saying, letís save these. My cat was wandering around, and the thread was collecting on him. And that turned into the endpapers.
How did Pantheon respond to all of this?
The design demands were nothing, but they knew I was doing it. I grew up with Pantheon in Ď97, Ď98. Iíve watched its culture of image bloom. They do some incredible pieces. Thereís some incredible stuff. Dan Frank, who runs it, has an open eye, an open ear for all sorts of things. He saw what Only Revolutions is. It was really more about, they loved the idea of the Nepalese binding, but on Amazon there would be a number of people who would claim it was a damaged book, and if that happens they suspend purchase for three weeks. I know, we have to say these people are our friends...
Very invasive friends. Need to learn some boundaries.
Pantheon was enthusiastic, and I know this is because of House of Leaves. For me, the questions come down to, should we use this glossy paper, which is going to hold the black better, or should we use a matte, which is going to present the text is a more lustrous way. It was that kind of detail. Matching the red thread that we were going to use to bind the book with the red on the boards, so the thread was a figurative thread as well as a literal thread, and I wanted that to float into each other.
The attention to detail in these books is incredible. It seems rare in mainstream publishing. Art books are one thing, and literature is another. So Iím wondering where this visual attention comes from.
My father was a great reader and a filmmaker. Important literature works were important to the familial culture. But so were movies, how they were composed, edited. What the intentions were. My father was a beautiful singer, so there was always a wonderful in tune melody that was permeating our home. He sang to his kids, every night.
My mom had an incredible visual sense. My fatherís sense of the visual was studied, but my mother had a keen sense of color, composition. She would take me to museum wherever we lived -- Spain, England -- and I would copy art. She would sit me down in front of a Picasso and I would copy it. I would really like to do that for my kids, actually. Itís a great way of participating with great art, and understanding how difficult it is, but also meaningful. It was Picasso, it was the Impressionists, it was Da Vinci, Caravaggio. The greats in literature. Plato, Homer, Shakespeare.
More recently you enter a space where youíve been spending so much time with the arts, thereís a more conscious way of approaching them. When I was working on Only Revolutions, I knew that light and landscape were important. So Iíd spend time looking at landscapes, at the Hudson Valley School. But Iíd also spend time studying Goldworthy or Turrell. Now for this piece it was looking at, thereís something of the sword. Itís a samurai sword. Looking at Chinese, Japanese depictions of those wonderful scrolls that tell stories of journeys. But even Indian art, which equally tells elaborate depictions of tales, but also Fontana, who cuts the canvas. Now I think itís just YouTube videos of cats.
Thereís always a moment in each of your books that is visual, and itís very arresting. It sticks with me. And itís a visual description, not an action, not a pretty sentence. With House of Leaves, itís the moment when the book drops off of the bookshelf that was supposed to be flush against the wall. In Fifty Year Sword, itís the mountain where the man realizes all the people he sees around him are versions of himself.
I love reading that moment, too. The multiplication of solitude, when you think youíre in a crowd. But I think what you are getting at is that itís interesting, because it is connected to what weíre talking about. Youíre describing something thatís an image but not an image. We have an image of a bookshelf. Itís built. We know the books are going to be flush with the wall. Suddenly, the image is controverted in our head. In the movie, theoretically, you would have to see the wall stretch. All of a sudden, everything has changed. The image, which is concretized, is changed. Itís the same with the mountain. Suddenly you realize, oh wait a minute, itís the same person all over the place. It twists your sense of the image. The place where I live in is between the relationship with image. If itís too much image, then it becomes a movie, it becomes a painting. If itís just text, it becomes a canonical way of relating a narrative. But if it plays back and forth, it tickles, it awakens parts of our mind all at once. It doesnít say, okay, you can go over to the image part of your cortex. Oh, you can go into the text part. Itís kind of lighting everything up. The quest is to light up your imagination.
Thatís where I become really kind of moral. Itís a moral issue for me. What I believe in is the moral issue of fiction. You canít get it in nonfiction. You can certainly get it in poetry. Fiction and poetry, they boister, they put into practice, they enliven, they enlighten the imagination. And it is out of the imagination that we can begin to comprehend what another feels, what another does. It is only through that action, and it is always active, it is never passive, that empathy can come about. And without that muscle in place, that imaginative mechanism, empathy perishes and our moral place within a universe of others suddenly just falls apart. Snip.
Itís interesting to hear you talk about the thought process behind the imagery, because what you do with the visuals of the book itself can be seen as a little control freaky. I mean, how would you respond to the story being taken out of context? Some bad bar band covers a Bob Dylan song, what does that do to the song itself?
I donít think Iím particularly smart about the whole thing, Iím just someone who decided to do what a bunch of people were thinking, which is, the font matters, the margins matter. There were a whole bunch of teachers who said, youíve got to use this font, youíve got to use this spacing. I was that intractable kid. Someone picked up on this awhile ago, this notion of quantum literature, and this describes where I like to live. Those variations make a difference. In classical physics those little perturbations donít make a difference. In classical literature, the font, the page, whatever, theyíre irrelevant. Thereís a wonderful gift in literature because it can be poured out of the vessels and just live in your mind and imagination. But thatís not to deny that these tiny little changes, the shapes, the serifs, the way it lays on the page, donít have an impact also. And thatís what I explore.
I see the works in translations. I spend a bit of time with my publishers and agents who the best translators will be and then I let go. And in some ways, with the ebook. Itís not a movie, itís a different art form, but itís an art form into itself. Iíve joked, but seriously, that there might be a new career in ebook director. Someone whoís really agile in designing a book, political and social enough to bring in musicians, and somethingís coming out of that. The music video came onto the scene and we realized we could do more than just point a camera at the artist.
Thereís no question that I like being in control. I like making decisions that are very specific. Part of that is my relationship with my reader, because my reader comes to the book and asks, why is this word by itself? Why is this word placed on the verso. And knows and can take some confidence in the fact that Iíve spent some time thinking about that. Out of this particularness comes its own aesthetic. Thereís no way I could write if I lived completely in this space. Thatís the main reason the books I write take so long. House of Leaves: ten years. Only Revolutions: six years. Fifty Year Sword: on and off, still 2003 until now. A lot of that is I go back and revisit. Weíd know my desire to control would grow pathological if I refused to publish. Because ultimately, thatís when you have to let go.
How do you think the serialization will change some of this? Youíll have to publish the beginning before you get to the end.
Absolutely. Only Revolutions is about two kids who are forever 16. They take a four month road trip, but pass through 200 years of history. And in that sense, itís an ego trip. Itís about the authorís ego trip. Itís about their ego trip. Itís about being aware on my sophomore venture, that it was about ego. It happens to every author on their second book, the fear that it wonít be as successful as the first book. I had complete control over everything. Vast amounts of work went into researching the various historical elements. And when I was done, I was done. It was like, I could retire as a novelist. So am I going to continue that? I decided no. I was in therapy. I was exploring things that were way outside literature. Taking yoga more seriously, tai chi, vacations outside of literature, listening to people, considering what else I could do. Itís pretty dull a revelation, but I needed more people. I enjoy being social. I didnít want to spend that kind of isolation again. It had destroyed two relationships I was in, and I ultimately felt, in this issue of morality -- the simple definition of morality for me is the relationship of one to another -- I realized what I was doing was living a life dangerously close to being immoral, living a life outside of relationship to others. I had to open the windows. Throw open the doors.
I started to work on The Familiar with that in mind, that I would need other people. Slowly they started to come into my life. It was kind of miraculous. Pantheon raised up their head and said, we want to be involved. Itís difficult for me, suddenly managing different personalities. The Fifty Year Sword was, hereís where I can really put this into practice and not just be philosophical about it. I created this atelier. I was art directing, essentially. I started off sewing myself at the machines and began overseeing it from more of a distance. It was challenging, but rewarding. That book for me thrums with interpersonal activity. The prospect of writing this huge book is exciting. If it was just my own, I donít know. That would be all ego. Now itís going to be a journey. It requires a fellowship. It requires a communal experience. Itís not whoís privy to the text, it expands beyond that. Pantheon has only bought ten books. Itís conceived as a 27 book experience. If readers donít come, it wonít get finished. It depends on others, this book. Weíll see what happens.
You're about to finish up this tour...
I miss my cat. People put up with me to get to Carl. Part of me thinks I don't understand cats, because the traits that people ascribe to cats that they don't like, like I was told quite formally and forcefully by Anita Perry this morning that they are dog people.
Anita Perry, the First Lady of Texas?
Yes. "You're a cat person, aren't you?" Even the governor noticed that. "We're dog people." I said, "Do your dogs hunt cats?" And Anita said, "Yes, they do."