Mark Z. Danielewski: “My books grant you experiences you can’t get anywhere else”

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Mark Z. Danielewski's books present new ways to tell stories. "House of Leaves" is filled with color coded words, "Only Revolutions" demands to be flipped over to read the alternating timelines, "The Fifty Year Sword" features hand-stitched illustrations, and "The Familiar" series is a story told through an assortment of textual and graphical elements in a kind of televisual, multi-season fashion. Photo by ALDRIN CALIMLIM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Best known for his verbally inventive debut novel, “House of Leaves,” Mark Z. Danielewski sure has a way with words. It is only fitting to ask him a question posed by one of his characters: “What words do you live by?”

I am among his audience during his speaking engagement at this year’s Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, the annual literary event hosted by National Book Store in Raffles Makati. He is on stage, flanked by a display of his books, to which he gestures with a knowing smile. “I literally live by these words,” he says.

“I would be doing you a disservice if I offered you some pat response,” he adds. “But I’m going to try, because I want to reflect maybe on where I am now. Because I started writing ‘House of Leaves’ over 27 years ago and it came out 17 years ago. So, I guess, the words that I live by are the words that come before words that are no longer words and can never be words.”

Words had been a topic of our one-on-one chat a couple of days earlier at the Writers Bar in the same hotel. As warm in person as he is brilliant on the page, he showed up wearing the same casual ensemble he would be sporting at his public event: a straw hat that gave him some likeness to a younger version of another Mark (Rylance, the Academy Award-winning actor), a T-shirt with an illustration of a long-whiskered cat, and a zip-up hoodie on the back of which were printed his own words, “And when we fell into dreams, our dreams asked questions and our skies, still singing, answered back.”

If only out of feline curiosity, I asked him his favorite word. “Today it’s subitize,” he said, referring to one of the words picked up by the young protagonist of “The Familiar,” his ongoing 27-volume serial novel. “An example of subitize would be, if I threw down a bunch of beans or pieces of rice, you could count them, right?” he asked by way of explanation. “But if I showed you a five on a dice, you don’t count the five dots — you subitize it.”

Similarly, you subitize Danielewski’s books. You don’t read them so much as see them, considering that they are the handiwork of a writer and a graphic designer who happen to be one and the same person.

Mark Z. Danielewski "I’m very much unlike a classical physicist, which is more like a classical novelist," says "House of Leaves" and "The Familiar" series author Mark Z. Danielewski. "I’m more of a quantum novelist. I’m interested in how these tiny perturbations have enormous influence on our understanding." Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

“House of Leaves,” a matryoshka doll of a story about a piece of academic criticism on a documentary film about a house that is bigger on the inside than on the outside, is filled with color-coded words, footnotes within footnotes, blocks of text in various orientations, and other postmodern embellishments. “Only Revolutions,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2006, demands to be flipped over — to be literally revolved — every now and then, as it alternates between the two narratives that make up the musical prose poem that runs through the novel.

The novella “The Fifty Year Sword,” which is packaged in a dust jacket riddled with holes as though pricked by needles, features hand-stitched illustrations to go with its sort of campfire story about a seamstress and the mystery of the titular blade. And “The Familiar” is superficially about a girl who finds a cat, but is actually about nine lives whose stories are told through an assortment of textual and graphical elements in a kind of televisual, multi-season fashion.

The fifth volume of “The Familiar” would be coming out in October, Danielewski excitedly told me, adding that he had been hard at work on the sixth. In a future volume, he said, he might mention or otherwise incorporate into the narrative the jumble of electrical cables that he had seen on the streets while stuck in Metro Manila’s world-famous traffic jams.

Mark Z. Danielewski Jessica Zafra with Mark Z. Danielewski during an author's talk and book signing at the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival in Makati. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

But for all the fragments and sentences that he had thought up and set down to form a more or less coherent whole in each of his books, there was one time during our conversation when Danielewski found himself somewhat lost for words. That was when I asked him about the different sort of wordplay that’s going on in the current political climate, where facts and meanings are purposely muddied and distorted every so often.

“The question that I have and I’m not sure how to answer is, ‘Why does it feel so reprehensible?’” he said after a drawn-out silence. “Partly because it’s just dumb, and I don’t like to use that word because it has an elitist fringe to it. But nonetheless, read Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ Read a few books, then you will quickly become aware that this has been done before. It is a ruse that has been carried on by snake oil salesmen, by crooked politicians.”

CNN Philippines Life talked to Danielewski about more than just words, including his unusual brand of storytelling, the allure of cats, and the role of literature in the grand scheme of things. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How did your penchant for unconventional storytelling come about?

I came of age in a time when images were more and more available. You didn’t just have to go to a movie theater. It wasn’t just three channels on T.V. There was an efflorescence of the internet and all sorts of things. And so I realized that images could be part of the story. But I’m certainly not the first. There are plenty of people who have done this.

Probably the only word that sort of has a stink to apply to me is “experimental.” I feel it’s a disservice to many writers who have been moving along this path — from the “Calligrammes” of Guillaume Apollinaire to the concrete poetry of the ‘60s to the use of images by W.G. Sebald. There’s a whole tradition. It’s just that my investment is that the narrative can move hand in hand to enhance textual exploration.

How would you classify your work?

For want of a better word, I coined the term signiconic to describe my work: sign plus iconic, text versus image. And it’s a combination of those. It isn’t text on one page and illustration on the other, but it’s how both kind of swim together. The experience and exploration of my work is very much how this relationship between image and text interplays.

You point out in your foreword to the Penguin Classics reissue of Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space” that language is both image and text.

That’s exactly right. I’m very much unlike a classical physicist, which is more like a classical novelist. I’m more of a quantum novelist. I’m interested in how these tiny perturbations have enormous influence on our understanding. For example, writing the word house but printing it in blue, as in “House of Leaves,” has a completely different meaning and effect. And it can be experienced viscerally in “The Familiar” when you’re reading house in black and then suddenly the word house appears in blue. It has a whole different kind of meaning. It can re-inform everything that’s going on in the narrative. There’s nothing to indicate that the narrative is so possessed of those kinds of elements and suddenly just the addition of a hue alters the emotional vibrancy of that chapter.

"Some books you read and you go, 'I’ll go watch the movie.' You don’t care anymore. That experience is available to you in a shorter, cheaper form. But my goal is always to grant you an experience that you can’t get anywhere else."

There is also an interesting relationship between each of your books and a different form of media. “House of Leaves” takes on film, “Only Revolutions” takes on music, “The Fifty Year Sword” takes on the campfire story, and now, “The Familiar” takes on the T.V. series. You call this remediation. Can you tell us more about that?

The term was invented by the postmodern literary critic N. Katherine Hayles. It basically means taking one form of media and putting it in another. So “House of Leaves” remediates film; in other words, it takes a film that is at least present in the eyes of the characters within the novel and makes it a novel. Music is remediated in “Only Revolutions”; you have to kind of play it yourself. Etc. etc. It’s just simply a way of looking at one form and moving it to another.

Having done this over the course of four novels, including “The Familiar,” the question you’re fairly raising is, “Why do it?” It’s because I think a lot about life in our lability of form, our liability to change. Are you going to stay, for instance, in the same career? At what point are you encaged by your language, by your familiar circumstances? And how do you liberate yourself from that? How can you change? So even what is enacted in every one of my books is this moving from one form to another. You constantly have in possession the liberty to explore a different form, even if it’s internal, even if it’s creative. And that’s what my books are about.

You can also stand by this claim that my books grant you experiences you can’t get anywhere else. Whether you like them or not, I don’t care. The point is getting an experience that you can’t get somewhere else. Some books you read and you go, “I’ll go watch the movie.” You don’t care anymore. That experience is available to you in a shorter, cheaper form. But my goal is always to grant you an experience that you can’t get anywhere else.

Speaking of watching the movie after reading the book, will we ever get a film adaptation of “House of Leaves”?

[Laughs] It’s looking grim, I have to say. I do occasionally take meetings. I get contacted by HBO or AMC. I haven’t with Netflix. But I’m not really interested in a studio acquiring the rights or offering something. If Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, or Christopher Nolan wanted to sit down and have a conversation, of course I’m going to have that conversation. But it all would kind of depend on how we would make that work.

I was recently approached to see if I would be interested in being a showrunner. Now, for me to do that would mean the end of “The Familiar.” There’s no way I can continue doing both. I already am the showrunner of “The Familiar.” I’m basically the writer and the creative director. I oversee the whole thing. It all takes time and effort. But interestingly enough, we have to see if there’s the readership for “The Familiar.” We need more readers, no question about it. The readers who are involved love it, but perhaps the Filipino audience will help this continue. But if, say, we only get to 10 volumes …

Because your initial deal for “The Familiar” is for 10 volumes only.

Right. It’s an expensive book to produce. But I would like to believe that there are the readers out there who want these books, who want material that challenges them. They don’t want to be middle-of-the-road. It’s like, in the old days, it was spaghetti sauce: one spaghetti sauce for everyone. And at a certain point suddenly people said: “You know what? I want something that’s a little better. I don’t want something that’s just homogenized, filled with sugar. I want something that is challenging to me.” I just compared books to spaghetti sauce. [Laughs]

Mark Z. Danielewski "I was recently approached to see if I would be interested in being a showrunner. Now, for me to do that would mean the end of 'The Familiar.' There’s no way I can continue doing both," says Mark Z. Danielewski, pictured here with his Filipino fans at the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival at Raffles Hotel, Makati. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

Especially with “The Fifty Year Sword,” you’ve long established yourself as a master of the simile.

[Laughs] So, at the end of the day, who knows? If we only could get to so many volumes of “The Familiar,” maybe it will literally — not as a simile — remediate to a show. And maybe at that point it’ll be like, “OK, let’s try this direction: What if we make it into a drama?”

In “The Familiar,” a cat plays a pivotal role. Cats have also figured elsewhere in your work, you have two cats yourself, and you wear a cat shirt practically all the time. What’s your fascination with cats?

Quoting Victor Hugo, who was quoting a friend of his: “God created the house cat so we could pet the tiger.” This was not just a glib statement that was repeated by Hugo. When you go to the zoo, or encounter one in a park or in the wild, you will recognize at once the exact similarities. It’s uncanny. You can see the same playfulness, the same predatory instinct.

Some people argue that cats are not actually domesticated.

Yes, exactly. That they had a culturally symbiotic relationship with humanity, but they were never domesticated. They learned to parley with humans, but they didn’t actually succumb. So for me cats do have this range of literary and non-literary resonances. By the way, I started writing “The Familiar” before cats became bigger than porn on the internet.

Throughout your work, I’ve noticed that you prefer a plurality of voices over a singular voice. Where does that predilection come from?

Well, I think you strike at the heart of one of my early sort of inspirations and contentions, which was with the monolithic voice. I understood that, as appealing as that was, to hear a singular voice frame the world, it wasn’t the world we live in. For me, it is a world that’s built out of many voices, many languages, many rhythms.

But then, I think what “The Familiar” approaches is: How do we give voice to that which will never have a voice, which is nature? How do we give voice to a cat, which will never have a human voice? Does it not belong in this society? Shall we carry out or continue a genocide against the biosphere that we inhabit? We are basically just the colonialists who plant the flag of humanity everywhere at the expense of everything else and ultimately at our expense. So how can literature begin to grant voice to that? The point is, we can’t continue to develop fiction that is suited for just one group. We have to allow a multiplicity of voices and colors and shapes into our literature.

"I guess, the words that I live by are the words that come before words that are no longer words and can never be words."

How do you approach such a massive project as “The Familiar”? What lies behind this ambition?

I think one of the simple answers is that “The Familiar,” as much as it is about this little girl who finds a strange and very powerful cat, as much as it is about nature, as much as it is about the animal, it’s also about how to have a conversation with something that will go on for decades. Think about it: The thing that people value the most is their life. Now, a life that’s blessed with good health and good fortune can last a century. So how do you have a conversation with a century? Where do you practice that? Where do you encounter that? Not on Twitter. Twitter is the exact opposite. Your social media feed is the exact opposite.

Sure, be on Twitter. But you should know when it’s too far, just as you know when you’ve been sitting too long or when you’ve had too much sugar. You have to understand that there has to be a balance. Part of the diet that I would recommend is that you engage with books like mine or others that are long, so you can practice engaging with the continuity of ideas and having a long conversation.

Literature is the great place where you can experience — emotionally, mentally and cognitively — that conversation. And what I realize with “The Familiar” is that regardless of where it ends up, how far we’ll go, is that it’s a way of encountering a conversation that is much larger than itself. If we can’t learn how to have that conversation, how are we going to have a conversation about climate change, for example? How are we going to have a conversation that will be capable of implementing change in our culture, in our vast differences, that could preserve our existence? If we can’t practice that conversation, we’re not going to be able to change.


Mark Z. Danielewski's books are available at National Book Store.