A Conversation With Mark Z. Danielewski

The author behind House of Leaves, Only Revolutions, and The Familiar talks about his affinity with the novel, and the way current events are shaping his current work

by Philbert Dy, photo by Renzo Navarro

Mark Z. Danielewski is the author of some of the most daring, experimental novels in the last two decades. He’s here in the Philippines as a guest of National Book Store’s annual Readers and Writers Festival. In this interview, conducted both over email and in person, the writer both rejects the novel and affirms his love for it, while talking about how current events are shaping the narrative of his latest, ongoing work.



Philbert Dy: Your work tends to involve challenging the form of the novel, in ways both conceptual and physical. Where does this impulse come from?

Mark Z. Danielewski: I think my impulse to create in textual and visual ways is common in everyone. I just refused to heed those who told me a novel couldn’t look like what I had in mind. And I suppose that refusal is just as much about creative endeavors as it is about the civic responsibility to defend the right of the individual.


PD: How much does the physical object of the book still matter to you?

MZD: Not a lot. I’m not attached to what we expect a book to look like or act like. However, the material itself drives toward a certain kind of representation. In the case of The Familiar, voice finds shape and place in pages and spine. The novel enacts a description of space and time that exists in the heaviness of each volume — just carrying one will make you stronger — as well as in their inherent lightness — the more you read, the faster you will read them. By the end, twenty-seven volumes will be a struggle to lift and yet you will already carry it, effortlessly. You will know by heart how abandoning materiality allows the freedom of thought to take flight.


“with one eye on your end, and one eye on your practice, you will never be able to practice fully.” I think it’s the same way. If you’re constantly thinking about the form that it ends up becoming, you’re distracted from the work at hand.


PD: That strikes me as a strange attitude for a writer, who in general are usually protective of print as a medium. Where does this come fromt?

MZD: I think the blunt truth is that I’ve gotten older. House of Leaves came out in 2000, so I’ve been doing this for seventeen years. Early on, of course, there was this sense of place by having a book that you imagined placed in a bookstore. When I was young and very poor, I would wander into bookstores, and I would look at these books that I love from authors that I admire and think “maybe one day my book will be there.” When you’re talking to a younger author, there’s that experience. But for me, that slowly evaporated. It’s sort of like someone who’s been in a long, meaningful relationship. When you’ve never experienced that, you’re tantalized by that first moment of falling in love; that rush, that euphoria. And it’s wonderful. There’s no denying it. But as you get older and you create something more meaningful with someone, you realize that’s really nothing. That’s not what matters most in your relationship. Love becomes something much more capacious and larger.


I think another element as well is that I spend a long time on my books. So, the end product is less significant. I’ve been working on The Familiar for eleven years. It’s not even complete; four volumes have come out, the fifth is coming out in a month, and I’m working on the sixth. So, its end result is the smallest part of the labor and love and the creation that’s involved in the project. The image of the object, the materiality, has given way to something else. I don’t think I’m that unique, but one sign of maturity is letting go of these adolescent attachments. In fact, all attachments, to tell you the truth.


PD: How very Buddhist of you.

MZD: There is a bit of that, without necessarily attaching it to a particular belief. I would simply attach it to a practice of being open to the world. There was something that the Buddha discovered, something that Christ discovered. There are lessons along the way, and we can open up to the fact that for us to experience the magnificence of the world, we can’t be tethered to certain ideas and certain prejudices. It’s from those prejudices that a lot of unkindness and cruelty and injustice can arise.


PD: But in putting so much thought into how your books are designed, there must be some concern in this digital age how your books might look as an ebook, or an audiobook.

MZD: Yes, but again I think it’s the wrong way to go about creating something. You don’t create something by looking at the end product. There’s an old martial arts koan I heard many years ago. A student asks the master how long it will take him to become a black belt. The master says five years. Well what if I worked twice as hard? Ten years. Well what if I worked even twice as hard? Forty years. And he goes, well why when I work harder does it keep taking me longer? The master’s response is “with one eye on your end, and one eye on your practice, you will never be able to practice fully.” I think it’s the same way. If you’re constantly thinking about the form that it ends up becoming, you’re distracted from the work at hand. I’m very open to…if the work suddenly wanted to become something else, I’ll allow it to become that.


This is really what The Familiar is about: you can sort of say “oh it’s about a girl who finds a cat,” but really, it’s about how we have a conversation with the sensation of time that exceeds a decade. Your lifetime might last somewhere around a century. You’re building a family, or starting a company, and it takes decades. And if you’re just on Twitter and Instagram experiencing these momentary things, you’re going to be deprived of how to understand something that’s in a much larger scale. Once you get to scale, form itself becomes less significant.


So let’s say readership doesn’t make it, but Netflix of HBO says let’s do the series and conitnue it in a film. Why not? Let’s say I figure out how to do it in terms of sculpture, and I make bronzes out of the last volumes, why not? If it avails itself to that form, of course.


PD: Then why start out as a novel at all?

MZD: Because that’s how it speaks to me. I love it as a novel. But at the same time, as much as I love it, I don’t to attach myself to that feeling, either.


PD: I imagine a serial story poses very different challenges for an author. What have you found has been most difficult about it?

MZD: The pace is relentless. I’m right now in the midst of Volume 6 while Volume 5 (the conclusion to Season One) is coming out at the end of October with a tour already set for early November. And Volume 6 is due at the end of December. Even now in Manila I have to work on the book.


PD: Did you go back to the classic serials for inspiration and guidance? Or is it really just the form of television that’s guiding the work?

MZD: Somewhat. A perusal of Dickens plus fantasy books and YA (the usual suspects). Manga too (Lone Wolf & Cub). Nonetheless, the emerging form of the television show as novel took precedent.


PD: What are your favorite television shows now, and how do they inform The Familiar?

MZD: Contemporary classics come down to The Sopranos, Deadwood (unfinished), Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad. More recently I’ve immersed myself in Better Call Saul, Fargo (the one-season model is interesting), Game of Thrones, and I’m looking forward to starting the new Twin Peaks. My interest lies mostly with those shows that aim for a conclusion wherein the story becomes of lesser importance in light of larger themes. For example, The Wire moves from police procedural to a brilliant analysis of how a municipality struggles to survive as that better place we want all cities to be.


PD: What is it like collaborating with other people on a novel, a traditionally solitary venture?

MZD: The work is still mostly solitary with the added exhilaration that here and there visual components or research offers at the least some camaraderie and now and then a friendship. That’s nice.


PD: Can you take us through the process of creating a graphic for The Familiar? And do the design elements influence the prose in any way?

MZD: The design goes hand in hand with the writing. Changing a font will change the voice of a character. Changing the character will alter the layout and so on. These days, because I am so far along, the characters themselves reveal new visualizations which in turn alter the narrative course. I know what will happen in Volume 25 but I also know that I might not know what will happen in Volume 25. Xanther’s forest, for example, was anticipated, but how that place grew out of hashtags and forward slashes came from her mind and of course from the ra(n)ging feline creature stalking the novel . . .



PD: What have been your most memorable experiences in researching the elements of The Familiar?

MZD: The novel constantly demands that I move beyond myself, beyond the me. I get to talk to engineers, travel to Singapore, engage with former gang member, detectives. Each volume presents a new set of challenges and adventures. They’re all exciting and memorable. The fact that there is so much left to write means that my visit to the Philippines could very well reveal a pivotal moment in a future volume. That kind of anticipation is always thrilling.


PD: There is a question of temporality. You’re writing a serial novel over a long span of time, and the world’s very different from just 2014, where the story is currently set. How much do current events factor into what you’re writing?

MZD: They do, and that’s the interesting thing. It’s the perspective I have on a particular time. Now whether the time changes through other volumes, we’ll see. But we all have that experience; in this moment right now, we are influenced by what happened before us, and what’s going to happen. We anticipate some things correctly, and we fear things incorrectly. We try to ground ourselves in the moment, but at the same time, we recognize that we cannot function without a certain amount of anticipation. Let’s build our buildings so that they can withstand at earthquake. It’s not happening in the moment, but we have to plan for a certain eventuality. These two things have to live in concert. I don’t want to deprive the time of the novel, 2014, of itself. But at the same time, the way The Familiar is created, it allows a kind of porosity. Events of the future can settle in its contours.


To simplify it, if I bring up Donald Trump in volume 6, it’s going to reverberate in a very specific way that I know. The character might say, “oh, Donald Trump is on The Apprentice,” and we’ll know he became this appalling president a few years later. That kind of thing will play in constantly.


PD: So what are you thinking about now with regards to current events? Is there something weighing on you?

MZD: (Laughs) It’s incredibly heavy and incredibly light. I’m sort of classically American in experience: my mother is from a family that immigrated back in the 1600s, and my father is an immigrant, so I have these two experiences from my parents. One signifies the longevity of the country that preceded the revolution, and the other embraces America as a means of reinvention and acquiring a new culture. For any great country to function, it needs to look at its systems. A great leader knows that he or she won’t be recognized for the personality that they impress upon their population. They will be recognized and remembered for the system that stays in place. We think of Nero as a fool, but Pericles of Athens as someone who engendered a system of democracy and changed the world. We think of Napoleon as a military tyrant, but we remember George Washington for serving one term and then leaving behind this system that has enormous meaning. What weighs on me is whether or not the United States will be able to pass this test as they have to absorb the leadership of someone who isn’t qualified to be in that role. But nonetheless, it’s an opportunity for the system of democracy to preserve this apparatus of freedom. In that sense, it’s terrifying, but it’s also extremely exciting.


People constantly come up to me and say House of Leaves scared me, and let me tell you why I’m scared. And I tell them, listen, what you’re going to tell me, is all about you. You’re going to reveal to me what scares you, because that’s the way the book is created. It creates a space for the reader to engage their fears.


PD: What do you see as the future of prose and the novel? Is this something you think about? How does prose compete in an era of blockbuster movies and television?

MZD: If anything, the novel anticipates the end of blockbuster movies and television because it presents an experience that neither can compete with.


PD: What is it about the experience of the novel you find so powerful?

MZD: What I’ve always done, and I stand by this, is I never underestimate the reader, and I offer an experience that you can’t get anywhere else. Reading a book is not the same as seeing a movie. I won’t sell the rights to my books. But text and the way I use images manages to evoke and explore feelings and thoughts that a reader can’t access anywhere else.


A simple example: one of the most common cheats in a horror movie is to just initiate a loud sound when a door opens or a shadow passes. It’s a way of teasing out a reaction from the audience, and it’s really unearned. Anyone can do it. You can say that shadow was scary, but it really wasn’t. It was just the loud sound, which everyone’s going to jump at. In a book, to elicit those feelings, it required a much more complicated negotiation in the way you think and the way you feel. That is always the quest of literature: where you encounter a world that is familiar, or strange, and then it becomes a mirror to who you are and what you’re feeling. People constantly come up to me and say House of Leaves scared me, and let me tell you why I’m scared. And I tell them, listen, what you’re going to tell me, is all about you. You’re going to reveal to me what scares you, because that’s the way the book is created. It creates a space for the reader to engage their fears.


PD: This question of forms is interesting, since you’ve openly stated that your books are informed by other mediums. Why do that at all?

MZD: In some ways, I think it’s easy way to describe what’s going on. If I tell you House of Leaves is about a movie, it’s going to be familiar to you, and you’re going to understand it. And if I tell you The Familiar is a 27-volume novel that’s about a conversation with long time, your eyes are going to glaze over. But if I tell you, it’s like a television series, it gives you an entrance into something that will ultimately will not be that. Even though it will elicit those things, it moves far beyond it. And maybe in some ways, what I write is a competitive tangling with these forms, to in each case say, “no, the novel does it better.” The novel can do this in this way, and it’s so much more than that.


So maybe in some ways, I really am a crusader for the novel. As much as I talk about being open to forms, and I do believe that, I really love the novel. I love its capacity to handle that which has no other place in the world. My affinities are always with the people that never feel completely at home. And these books are exactly that. It speaks to that individuality.


PD: What are you currently reading?

MZD: As I’m about to leave for Manila, I’m circling a few options. I’m about to finish Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 2 while circling The Vorrh by B. Catling, Incarceration Nations by Baz Dreisinger, Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, La Medusa by Vanessa Place, and Debths by Susan Howe. theMystery.doc also just landed on my doorstep.



Mark Z. Danielewski will have at Author Spotlight Event on August 26, 3PM, at the Raffles Makati, as part of National Book Sotres Readers and Writers Festival.