Rewriting the novel: a Q&A with author Mark Danielewski


It's been more than a decade, but I can still remember the nightmares that haunted me while I read House of Leaves: the long, dark hallways that stretched to infinity; trap floors that dropped me into labyrinthine chasms that would make MC Escher tremble.

That book, written by Mark Danielewski, wove multiple narratives, hundreds of footnotes, and detailed appendices into a layout as dizzying as the haunted, shape-shifting house that House of Leaves was about. His follow-up, Only Revolutions, was a road novel of sorts that followed a traveling teenage couple. Its "hook" was that it told both characters' accounts concurrently on the opposite sides of a given page, and you had to flip the book every eight pages to keep things straight. Danielewski followed that with The Fifty Year Sword, which bounced between five narrators.

If you're looking for a light summer read, these books are not for you.

Neither is his next one — or, more accurately, ones. Released last month, the first volume of The Familiar is, in many ways, exactly what it had always been rumored to be: a "story about a 12-year-old girl who finds a kitten." In truth, it's much more than that, because the story of The Familiar will be told over 27 volumes.

In the first volume, Danielewski tells the story of "one rainy day in May" (this volume's subtitle) from the perspective of nine different characters around the globe. Three of those nine characters belong to the same family and serve as de facto main characters: the mother (Astair), the father (Anwar), and their daughter (Xanther, the 12-year-old girl).

mark danielewski the familiar

A page from one of Cas' chapters.

The narratives occupy chapters with pages that are color-coded in the corners, and each character's story is presented in a unique style. For example, the story of an LAPD detective is told with half-empty pages that resemble police paperwork. The story of Cas, a hacker type who is on the lam when we meet her, is told in such a way that its text (and the negative space it creates) forms a circle on the page, a constant reminder of the mysterious electrical orb she carries with her. Astair's story is told more traditionally but uses (likely over-uses, for some people's tastes) parentheses to translate the myriad thoughts running through her mind at all moments (like why Xanther started having seizures again (or why they even stopped in the first place (how will her younger sisters handle it? (and where are Anwar and Xanther anyway, they should be back from the pet store by now! ) ) ) ).

(Get it?)

By the end of 800 pages the needle of these stories doesn't move terribly far — it is, again, only about one rainy day in May. But what The Familiar does (wonderfully) is build the groundwork for each character, setting up for what's to come. Now it just needs an audience.

Mark Danielewski joined me by phone to talk about what goes in to a project of this size, what it's like to spend a decade working on it, and even the possibility of a House of Leaves movie.

Sean O'Kane: So there’s a lot going on in first volume of The Familiar that feels well-researched. You cover everything from coding language, to the behavior of LA gangs, to specific video game writers and whether or not they’d make good hires. Obviously you had a lot of time, but where does all that come from?

Mark Danielewski: A lot of living. A lot of it is research, and a lot of it is getting out of the house, getting out of the fast lane and actually just taking one of those strange exits and sitting down somewhere. For me, it involved going to Singapore, it involved talking to East LA gang members. I’ve always had an interest in technology, so just being open to those conversations with engineers, designers. And you know, making a commitment to this project over nine years ago, and at that moment, even though a lot changed, being open to what would come my way. Whether it was numerous conversations with Armenian cab drivers in Los Angeles, or actually sitting down with LAPD detectives a bunch of times in that interrogation room that you see on so many television shows and movies; sort of soaking in that environment.

Does that make it hard to know whether or not something belongs in the purview of what The Familiar is going to be, or what it is?

Yeah, and I think that’s where it moves beyond just writing into a more vocational way of living. It encourages a practice of being open, of listening, and most of all finding a way of being comfortable about being uncertain, because it’s impossible to tell at a certain moment. Now and then you get these little gems, but often things that suddenly are important aren’t recognized as being important until maybe even a couple of years later. Say you had a moment, and you were open to the vitality of the story that was being told, the word that was being conveyed, but you didn’t necessarily place it somewhere, and nonetheless, two rewrites later, suddenly this moment comes to life, and that’s how it happens.

I think the thing is you don’t want to over-insist, either. I’ve practiced tai-chi for a number of years — I consider myself a very good beginner [laughs] — but one of the phrases I’ve always loved is "four ounces of pressure." That’s all you need. If you’re positioned right, if you’ve practiced the form right, you in theory don’t need more than those four ounces. And I think the same way goes with the experience of writing this book. There are moments to exert pressure, but then there are moments to let that pressure pass through you. Because of its scope, and because of the amount of time that’s gone into it, the weight of it is this accretion of just smaller details. Pixels, fractals, building up into this rainstorm.

"It’s not about rapidly moving through plot."

That’s what I really loved about where Volume 1 ended, and the ride along the way. It’s a different tone, but it reminds me of the HBO show Treme, which is really about these little details of different lives, and whether or not they ever cross isn’t really the point.

One of the questions that I got at a reading last night was, "How do you know it’s 27 volumes? How do you know it’s that long?" And without getting into specifics of the number, the point is that at a certain moment this novel settled into the voice of those narratives that are concerned more with the lives of the characters — the life of the mind of those characters — than simply chewing through story.

Treme I haven’t watched, but I’m looking forward to [it]. But certainly one can think of like, The Wire, which is similar in the way it just slowly builds up this sense of the city, and the sense of the individuals that live there. It’s not about rapidly moving through plot. And once I realized that that was really where these characters lived, and how this story would unfold, then it became tied to a different pace, a different tempo.

I love when a space is kind of opened up. And that happens a lot with novels. People have begun to sort of expect novels to be around 300 pages, and to be paced accordingly. It’s important to keep pushing into new spaces.

The Familiar by Mark Danielewski

A page from one of Xanther's chapters.

I remember at a reading in 2006 you talked about how, to make Only Revolutions, you were laying out giant versions of the pages on your floor. Was anything like that done for The Familiar? Or was it a more traditional process?

No definitely not. [Laughs] I’m trying to tease on what the image would be but, Only Revolutions was so unto itself, the story of two gods who were very much oblivious of the world around them, and we were literally following them on their ego trip. When I was done with that I said to myself, "I never want to pass this way again." This was an experience that was too closed off, and despite being a study of the cost of narcissism it also inflicted in some ways those costs upon me. So I really wanted to open the windows and the doors, and that involved letting more and more people into this.

We just finished Volume 2 [of The Familiar], and there is now this kind of informal [production company] Atelier Z where where people are really working. The entire act structure of Volume 2 is mapped out, all the graphics were being tracked. We had various walls pinned with the chapter splash pages, tracing the graphics, the rainstorm, seeing the progression of how the words were being incorporated into those designs, what those words were.

It took a long time to figure out what the dog ears were going to be for each character, and sort of studying the characters on a textual level. And also discussing the parameters of what their colors would be, and how that would play out. And this is the part that was so difficult — not just in Volume 1, which now seems easy — but how is the cover design, how are those dog ear designs, how is all of it going to play out over 27 volumes?

But I really enjoyed that collaborative element, and even though I was constantly writing the book on my own, the ability to, in these 10 or 12 hour days, to shift gears for a couple of hours and step in as a kind of art director to work on certain chapters and certain visual ideas was thrilling for me. And some of it comes down to a lifestyle in some ways; you’re doing this work but at the same time you can reward yourself with a night out of good pizza and bowling, and find yourself in conversations about other projects that people are involved in.

Whether you like Only Revolutions or not, it’s so of itself and unto itself it really doesn’t care if anyone likes it or not. Whereas this book, the reader is very much like Xanther in scooping up this very fragile thing that may or may not be alive, that may or may not have a future, but has somehow called itself into existence, and into an existence that depends wholly on the rescuing hands of the future.

It’s almost, to me, opposite of House of Leaves, which had this almost mythical quality to it. It didn’t need readers, it was going to exist no matter what. But I know you’ve said in other interviews how The Familiar needs acceptance early on for the whole thing to continue.

House of Leaves is a different beast. It also finishes itself. But I wouldn’t even say that I’m the authority on the experience of [The Familiar] because I can’t really imagine Volume 1 just as Volume 1. I mean, Volume 2 is finished, 10 have been written. The universe of these characters sort of swims through my mind in a sort of holographic way.

It’s funny because I do know the book well enough to know that it doesn’t depend on everyone, it isn’t going to be for everyone. But it will be for those readers who enjoy the many layers, enjoy talking about the many layers. I think there’s a lot to be had about discussing the book’s connectivity, and that certainly would be the greatest success for me, if it did kind of encourage that kind of conversation.

You say you’ve had more help on this than previous works. Does it ever feel like you’re in the cast of a movie series like The Avengers, thinking "Oh man, why did I sign up for six of these? We couldn’t have done three and then an option?"

Well I can’t say what my publisher feels like, because they know as little as I do. [Laughs] And that’s the exciting part, because we really don’t know how this is going to come to life. In that sense it’s terrifying for a big company, but at the same time it’s also exciting because it’s something new. And in terms of the people that work with me, it’s not a cage. The windows are always open, the doors open — it’s not a career. So the only one that’s really signed up for those many, many volumes is the guy you’re talking to. And it can feel like an extraordinary long and liberating journey, and at times it can also feel like a punishing cage. I think if you’re willing to raise your head and extract yourself from the immediate distractions of the day-to-day, you realize that life is like that, too. In some sense, we’re lucky to walk the path as long as we walk. And at the same time, that can be bewildering if we find ourselves in moments of pain or unhappiness. For me, the book is life, and my life is the book. I have to make peace with that, and I do. Every, every day.

I can only imagine, even with respective successes in the past, there being apprehension when you bring an idea like this to the table with a publisher. But it’s also a publisher you’ve worked with, so there must be some familiarity and trust where they’re willing to go into a project of this scope, right?

You nailed it, and in fact I feel incredibly fortunate. I’m lucky to be working many of the same people that I worked on House of Leaves with. I happen to also have landed at the best place for this kind of stuff. [My publisher] Pantheon is incredible in doing graphic novels, and so they have an intense, intimate familiarity with not only printing elaborate, very color-specific, design-specific pieces, but as well as transferring it to an electronic platform. As you know, technology is constantly altering, so it’s difficult to find that one electronic design that can seamlessly move across various platforms, but Pantheon is invested in that and it’s exciting. For me, the ur-form is really the book, the codex in your hands.

This is the second book of yours to have an e-version, right? The Fifty Year Sword was the first?

Yeah, and because [The Fifty Year Sword] was so much smaller it was a real opportunity to kind of explore that. And actually it came with a lot of warnings, for me, because we did some animations, we included original music, and it was an enormous amount of work. I started to realize that in many ways it’s a different profession. For this one, because it was coming out simultaneously, there were certain limits on what we could do, and the point was just to represent it as clearly as possible.

The e-version of Only Revolutions will be coming out in late summer, and that comes complete with original music, over 300 road signs to help you along the way, and in many ways it’s presenting a book that’s not like the three-dimensional printed version. But it takes advantage of how one could read that book differently.

House of Leaves we would like to do, but it’s an even bigger project, so that will probably come later. But we’re angling toward it.

Even 10 years ago I remember arguments raged about whether part, or all, of House of Leaves should be made into a film. As you transition some of these works in different media, is there a line you know you wouldn’t push it past?

Not really. I certainly have laid down my own "nevers" early on and I pretty much stuck to that. There was always interest into turning House of Leaves into a movie. I think I’m at the point where, to be involved with a corporation like a studio that wanted to buy something, for me it just looks like a mess. If David Fincher or P.T. Anderson came to me and said, "Hey, I’ve read your book and I really want to talk about it," am I going to have that conversation? Absolutely. But that’s not something that’s, right now, on the horizon.

"Am I going to have that conversation? Absolutely."

I think the biggest thing — and it’s not really a negative — is that I’m committed to this project, and this project takes up almost every moment of my free time. To suddenly do something else, which would require ample amount of time, is simply not available to me. I don’t have the resources to do that. I’m with Xanther and her family, and that’s where I’m going to stay.