Imagine reading a book that doesn’t read like any you’ve seen before. Imagine a writer who constantly tries to write stories you’ve never encountered before.
Welcome to the complicated world of Mark W. Danielewski, devoted agent provocateur of the printed page.
One only needs to notice how in one book, there are stories being told in the footnotes (2000’s “House of Leaves”). In another book, there is text the right side up and upside down on the same page (2006’s “Only Revolutions”). His current novel is planned to encompass 27 volumes (“The Familiar” began in 2015 and the fifth volume, “Redwood” will be out in October). His plots echo the page designs, layered one on top of the other.
All this means that Danielewski (pronounced dan-yel-lef-skee) is not for lazy readers. Danielewski, who was in Manila for the first time as a featured author at National Book Store and Raffles Makati’s Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, explains: “I’ve always worked according to one maxim, which is never underestimate the readers. I’ve always believed there were advanced readers out there. In many ways, I’ve stuck with that. I’ve always gone for challenging things.”
His favorite metaphor for his fiction is athletic shoes, where you start out with something generic and becomes more advanced and specialized the further you go. “That can happen with books,” he says. “Not all books have to be written to hit every single person but it can be for those people who are willing to challenge themselves.”
Danielewski has always been prodigious. He wrote his first novel, “The Hellhole,” at age 10. He has an English literature degree from Yale University. He’s also always been a bit different. “I was always looked at as a weirdo,” he says. “I was always on the outside. We moved around a lot, lived in strange places. The wonderful thing about publishing a book like this is discovering there are other weirdos like you.”
He’s also obsessed with cats. There are a multitude of photographs online of Danielewski, with trademark fedora, together with one of his two cats, Archimedes and Meifumado. He is always wearing a piece of clothing that bears the image of the said animal. “Sometimes you gotta have a cat to guard your back,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons I find this creature compelling, its history, its mythology.”
Cats also figure prominently in his books. In “House of Leaves,” the first narrator says, “the first peculiar thing were the cats” (they start disappearing). “The Familiar” has many characters, but begins with a girl named Xanther who finds a kitten—the books then stretch out to become the annotations of a conversation.
He typed his first novel on a Smith-Corona manual typewriter. “The experience of a manual typewriter had an impact on how I see letters and how they move across the page,” he says. It’s visible in his crazy text design, big and small. In “House of Leaves,” take note that the word “house” is cast in blue all throughout the book, cover and all.
When it comes to that book’s shifting narratives (and those of his other books), he compares it to music, pointing out he comes from a musical family. “For me it was more of an orchestra score,” he says of the plot in “House of Leaves.” “They counterpoint each other like different instruments which come in. That holds true for all my books.”
All this is part of his reimagining the simple act of reading a book: “That’s the heart of my literary project, it’s how people don’t understand that when they say, wait a minute, this isn’t the way I was taught to read, which is a prejudice of judging and accordingly impose a certain way of reading, so the books provide an exercise to be open to different ways and encounter yourself through the text and that can be very daunting to some.”
What has to be daunting is writing “The Familiar,” which, he points out, will require a decade to finish. The original number of books was 10, but creative changes necessitated more volumes.
It’s fortunate that Danielewski works hard. On the day of this interview, he had been working on “The Familiar’s” sixth volume between doing press and working out at the gym.
After the acclaim and curiosity his previous two novels have achieved, “The Familiar” seems to be the most conventional but, as it is with him, it’s not quite what it seems. In an age of bingeing, “The Familiar” forces readers to wait for each forthcoming volume.
“I don’t know if we’ll get to the end,” he admits. “Sometimes I can see myself get to the end. Sometimes I can see myself like ‘8 ½’ the Fellini film; this was a gesture of what might have been but we didn’t get there. It’ll depend on the readers.
If we don’t make it to the end, it will be a period of grief. I will have to the face up to the very real emotional consequence of this thing being unfinished. There will be no way to resurrect it. Unless I want to live in denial land, I would lose all these characters I love very much and will be unable see them to the end.”
The experiments and explorations Danielewski engages in reflect his background. “I came from a household that was very visual and textual. My father was a filmmaker. I was lucky enough to be born in a time when images were lighter, where you could put it on a disc drive. It made it easier to draw those images and capture them. I think in a different time it would have been frowned upon or even punishable draw images in the margins but people are starting to understand it made sense.”
From “House of Leaves” to “The Familiar” and whatever comes after that, Mark Z. Danielewski is touching something primal, ancient and yet discoverable. “I don’t feel what I do is particularly new. Young kids read the books and say, ‘that’s the way I read books.’ You’re not beaten with a ruler and made to choose, either you have text or the images. You can have both. Look at Basquiat. Look at how exciting that is. In a way I’m a product of my time and in another way I carry a dark flame for the unusual.”
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