Mark Z. Danielewski – Paper at the Cutting Edge of Fiction

Visionary writer Mark Z. Danielewski on stitching narrative threads, the joy of collaboration, why you'll never read an e-book of his work, and the loneliness of the young novelist

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 10 Jul 2014

Mark Z. Danielewski's visionary breakthrough novel House of Leaves, published in 2000, didn't so much re-write the rules of genre fiction as tear them up, burn the remnants and start over. A dizzying, challenging, often bewildering take on the traditional haunted house tale, and a fractured meta-narrative that unfolded, maze-like, through footnotes, marginalia and distressed, disturbed printing techniques presented in the visually-led style of 'Ergodic literature,' it was intended as a meditation on the concept of the labyrinth in fiction, and borrowed heavily from cinematic techniques.

A later novel, Only Revolutions, was a breathless, poetic love story, and a road trip through the American subconscious, which later inspired the album of the same name by Biffy Clyro. Last month, Cargo Press republished his 2005 novella The Fifty Year Sword, a mysterious, Scheherazade-like fireside tale with multiple narrators, their voices indicated by intricate lines of coloured thread stitched into the very pages of the original manuscript. Now Danielewski is in the process of writing his next project, The Familiar, an ambitious, long-form serial inspired by the surge of creativity in the world of television in recent years. Just as House of Leaves took its cues from film, and Only Revolutions from music; and just as The Fifty Year Sword was inspired by the folk tale, The Familiar will attempt to achieve a simulacrum of the long-form TV series “through the lens of a book.”

For anyone hoping to bag a discounted copy of any of Danielewski's work in e-book format – think again. His Ergodic novels operate at the cutting edge of printing technology, employing experimental approaches to typography, illustration and printing that bind his novels inextricably to their printed forms. Take The Familiar: “The electronic form will be explored, but the reality is that the electronic forms available are not really up to speed with what I'm doing,” he says. “Just a PDF file of volume one – and this isn't even a printable PDF, this is just so my editors can go over it and plan, and see how they are going to print it – crashed my computer. It crashed the software and the hardware. It delivered a PDF that was a quarter of a gigabyte in size. So even to imagine something relatively simple – there's no animation, no music or whatnot – that could actually be stable on an iPad or a Nook is impossible. It's just the nature of the graphics, and the way I'm using text; the way it all knits together if you will."

The 'knitting' metaphor could be substituted for 'stitching' when appraising the process that went into Cargo's new edition of The Fifty Year Sword. The main character “is a seamstress, she's just suffered from a divorce, she's trying to un-stitch the painful memory that is blotting her heart, but at the same time, she is trying to stitch back together her life,” says Danielewski. “It's also about how we need to stitch together our own narratives, and how frequently, as we speak, we assume that we are of whole cloth, when in fact, even our speech, the particles of our expressions, are stitched together from a vast array of sources, whether they're teachers, parents, or the legacy of our language.”

The novella has gone through several iterations, with previous editions being illustrated in some way, and even coming to life as a 'shadow play' at a theatre in Los Angeles, with Danielewski “conducting the actors with a baton” from offstage. This edition, he believes, is its most fully-realised version yet. “The more I worked with the text, and its musicality, and the literalness of the threads, I began to understand I needed to use thread,” he says. He experimented: “What's great about sewing paper, as anyone who works with thread and needle will tell you, is that the paper falls apart. It frequently clogs and jams the machine, it frequently rips up. So it was just constantly a delicate and at the same time violent experience – the needle would overheat, and shards of metal would spit across the room.” The Fifty Year Sword was “a personal turning point,” because “House of Leaves and Only Revolutions were so much about the self. That ideal and awful dream of the novelist – to get everything his or her way. Once I'd done that, I thought, is that really such a great goal? Is that really what you want? And I realised that for my own happiness, my own personal wellbeing, I wanted to include others.”

To achieve this goal of working collaboratively, he created his own 'atelier' – a French word for an artists' collective or workshop. There were “three people busily scanning and stitching and collecting pieces of thread; running out and getting new colours, or needles; exploring different papers... very much like you'd see in an atelier in Genoa, on an architectural project, or in a kitchen in Angoulême,” says Danielewski. It was “a period of experimentation,” and that led to just the kind of inspired improvisation he had been yearning to be a part of: “My assistant came in one day with all of these butterflies, and set them loose around the place, so that we were constantly reminded of these butterflies we were attempting to assemble through thread,” he recalls. This led him to consider “how novels, as important parts of our culture, stitch together a larger array of people, and voices.” In building his atelier, he built not just a unique novella, but a family of sorts. “The stitching was central to the narrative, but it was also the stitching together of a community,” he says.

It is this community aspect that conceptually drives The Familiar, too. A writer who has consistently engaged with his fans online, interacting with them via online forums dedicated to picking over the bones of House of Leaves, and entering into correspondence with fellow and aspiring writers, artists and creative types the world over, he decided to harness this power in the form of a serialised novel. “I thought how sad that the novel, which is such a powerful medium, always seems to argue against itself; about all it can't do and the little it can do,” he says. “The little that it can do is so impressive, but why not expand? So already, for The Familiar, there are half a dozen translators, graphic artists involved... Its origins, really, were The Fifty Year Sword, which was where I finally managed to break out of my own ego, and say, 'Okay, I need help for this.' Now, I'm not saying community's gonna work...” He gives a soft chuckle. “But it seems to be a valid exploration.”

Perhaps this desire for community and collaboration was a reaction to the typically lonely working life of the novelist? “A first novel is always a lonelier experience,” says Danielewski. When House of Leaves was published he was 34, and had been rejected by publishers; “rejected in writing seminars – I was verging on being that crazy guy who just keeps tapping away at his novel, which no-one had really seen,” he remembers. “It was a difficult period. The twenties are the hardest years for a young man. I see that now, in retrospect, and I certainly see it with other young men. It's a time when you are dispossessed of any fortunes or futures. Even though everything is wide open, it can be a really terrible time. I think women have a very difficult time as well, but it plays out a little differently, in terms of where and when that happens. So I think House of Leaves was tricky, because of that, and it is reflected in the story. You get that in a character like Johnny Truant. I can identify with that. But at the same time, there was the enormous liberty of saying, 'Fuck it, I'm gonna do what I want.'”

He values that first novel experience, an unrepeatable phase in a writer's career which, while challenging and lonely, also means you are “completely without expectations, or pressures from a larger commercial institution; without the pressures of getting older, living longer.” He laughs again. “It's not like I really pay heed to commercial pressure now – if I did, I wouldn't be writing the book I'm writing.” Now, his biggest challenge is “the drive not to repeat yourself, to not be derivative of a former work. To explore new phases, new voices, new ideas that aren't necessarily comfortable, or necessarily familiar.”

Are there any new narrative forms he sees emerging from the internet age, and with which he would like to experiment? He remains sceptical of the opportunities for creating new narratives online. “Those who are participating in a social media event, whether it's Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, have already been encased by a predetermined form, or frame,” he says. “So the question is, do we believe in the Mark Zuckerberg line? Is this the way you want to be? Do you want to play into that 'novel'? I'm not convinced of that. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to frame something.”

“That ideal and awful dream of the novelist – to get everything his or her way” - Mark Z. Danielewski

He speaks about the importance of 'the frame' in the sparse, spacious layouts of The Fifty Year Sword: “Those probably puzzling pages that are mostly blank do give way to something else the more you think about it, or the more you experience it. You realise this is also an experience of space, which is something constantly being denied to you on the internet. There is so much space online that the frame is constantly being packed for you. It's constantly filled with ads, little distractions, moving GIFs and whatnot.” This lack of space, because of a surfeit of space, is the challenge that internet-based narrative forms have yet to overcome. “I think the potential is always there, but what I haven't seen yet is the quiet, the space that's possible to demonstrate online.”

Some readers have noted that despite making his readers wade through reams and reams of additional, seemingly unconnected text (in House of Leaves), or having to decode narrative voices from coloured thread (The Fifty Year Sword), or his Lynchian blurring of characters and stories (in Only Revolutions), Danielewski is a writer who delivers satisfying, closed endings – somewhat rare in writers who employ such avant garde approaches in their work. Yet he is apprehensive about this reading of his novels: “I've certainly heard from people who want more resolution from the end of House of Leaves,” he says. “They would say that it hadn't reached an end that was satisfying to them. Certainly The Fifty Year Sword ends in a way that is a dramatic scene, but its true resolution comes from understanding; from peeking between all those anonymous voices, and figuring out what is really happening. It's a different kind of resolution. But I guess it's something I'm not resistant to – I don't think it compromises the form, necessarily, to have a resolution.”

He compares the twinned ideas of emptiness or lack of meaning, with fullness or resolution, to Tai Chi, which he has studied for years. “A lot of that involves the exploration of emptiness and wholeness,” he says. “I've been exploring a lot of the emptiness, or even the emptying, of form. It seems sort of silly to not acknowledge, or allow a bit of that fullness to participate in the narrative, especially after such a long, hard experience.” He chuckles again. “I guess I still like my dessert.”

Given the inspiration for The Familiar, which sprang from an admiration of TV shows like True Detective (itself a very Danielewski-esque piece), has he ever been tempted to try working in a writer's room? “This question – not to say that it can't be resurrected – has already come and gone,” he says. “To quote Ruhst from True Detective, 'Life's only long enough to be good at one thing... so you better be careful what you get good at.' I did have that experience, at 48, going, 'You know, this is what I'm good at. If I have a shot at getting better, at anything, it's this thing.' At this point, I am what I've been for a long, long time, which is a novelist and a poet. I think I'll pretty much stay there. But, you know, you never can say never – then the world suddenly bucks and throws you in a different way, and maybe you end up in a writers' room, and you say, 'Now I understand Dante's Inferno.'”

Given the hard work he has put in to make his works so definitively tied to the paper form, what are his thoughts about the future of the novel, currently beset by all manner of technological innovators attempting to soup it up, expand it, make it more like internet 'content.' “The novel is always going through a revolution,” he states. “As important as those terms, like 'novel,' are in our evolution, there are always revolutions going on, big and small. What we recognise as the important revolution isn't always the important one. In social circumstances, we may see it as a certain change of administration, when in fact the big revolution was the mp3 – the ability to compress files down into nothing and transfer them effortlessly.” He believes we are still reacting to “the way that changed our views on culture, and allowed for all sorts of administrative changes to take place.”

He strongly believes that “the changes on the novel are always contingent on the reader – then of course they come back, and are contingent on the author.” This dialogue between reader and author is a question he wants to explore, but refuses to reduce to a soundbite. “My exploration of this in The Familiar is the answer to this question,” he says. “It's a book that cannot be written without an audience.” Entering into a dialogue with his readers, Danielewski intends to shape the novel, guided in part by their feedback. “If the readership isn't there, if they don't want to participate in this form, then the only thing I can say is that this particular direction of how the novel could take shape clearly didn't work. And if it does, then we can start to say, 'Okay, it looks like there's life in the old form yet.'”

Proving that there's life in the old form seems to have been the defining ambition of his career so far, and with The Familiar, it is just possible that Danielewski has hit upon a new, thoroughly modern way to engage readers with his highbrow mix of genre fiction and experimental literature. “Even though I know the world, it's not just a regurgitation of a plan, or a playing out of what has already been established in an absolute and fatalist universe,” he says, clearly enthused. “As the volumes come out, and people begin to express their opinions, they will become kind of distant collaborators or co-authors of the experience. I'll be open to those kinds of input. A musical dialogue will take place.”

Of his poetry – some of which can be found in Only Revolutions and House of Leaves – Danielewski is something of a traditionalist. “My roots are very formal, having studied with John Hollander at university, and having read the poets throughout the ages, and early on writing villanelles and sonnets and stuff,” he says. “Poetry is a place where you can constantly explore an idea, a thought, a particularity, an emotion that has no place anywhere else. I think there's always been a satisfaction there, in its compression of a strangeness that reawakens us to the world. I'm paraphrasing Shelley, his quote about Romantic poetry, and how poetry awakens us from the familiar, so that we can see the strange beauty in which we are held.”

That 'strange beauty' is as much a preoccupation in his fiction as in his verse, with the status of 'cult' author being ascribed to him after the strong reactions from fans drawn into the complex, mysterious, endlessly un-spooling narratives of his novels. Asked if he is at all bothered about House of Leaves' greater fame, he is self-deprecating and pragmatic. “House of Leaves is the monster that keeps going – my little monster. I find it carrying out different conversations and relationships now, which are far beyond me. I've described it before as my kid, but the kid's grown up even beyond the teenage years, and now it really has a life of its own – I can watch from a distance, but I'm not as privy to those dialogues.”

He continues: “Only Revolutions is probably the odd kid, but it has deep, fiery resources – I'll get a picture of a woman's back, and she's tattooed the first page of Only Revolutions on it. Or, I had the wonderful pleasure of seeing and spending an evening with Simon [Neil], the lead singer from Biffy Clyro, and his wife – getting to talk about their album Only Revolutions, which was rooted in the novel. So certainly, those two examples are very strong reactions. Who am I to say one is weaker or stronger than another? They clearly had an impact that meant something in their lives.”

He resists the urge to tame or disown his “little monster,” instead preferring to let it lead its own life, free of the burden of being judged by the reactions of others. “I think probably, if we were asked to rate other works of art, or music, that were weak or strong in our own lives, we would struggle, we would hem and haw,” he says. “They play different roles – they are like different friends, different teachers that we encounter over the course of our lives.”

If Danielewski's novels are teachers, then they are the mercurial ones, the magnificent ones – the teachers who inspire with a casual phrase, who challenge with an abstract, mind-bending thought experiment, as opposed to a dreary essay assignment. As academics dissect and discuss his writing, Danielewski continues to teach by example – carving out a trail that can only be described on paper, but one that perhaps leads to the future of the novel by less circuitous a route than technologists might predict.

The Fifty Year Sword is out now, published by Cargo Press