Profile: Mark Z. Danielewski
Due to some incredible amount of coincidence and luck, I find myself seated in the Berkeley, Calif. landmark Caffe Mediterraneum, opposite Mark Z. Danielewski. The author is in town to promote his much-buzzed-about new novel, "House of Leaves", a 700-page opus that uses narrative layering, multiple typefaces and typographical trickery to pull its reader through a horror/love story about a house whose dimensions are larger within that without.
My good fortune lies in the knowledge not possessed when I scheduled the interview that Danielewski, who lived in Berkeley for a period bookending 1989's major earthquake, used to sit and write in the Telegraph Avenue café. And some of this material eventually wound up in "House of Leaves." Even better, the author's reading scheduled for later in the evening has been postponed until tomorrow, which means that if I prove to be engaging enough, I can effectively keep Danielewski here all night. I decide to see what I can do.
"I studied Latin in the (University of California, Berkeley) summer program, and afterwards, I got a job in the California (movie) theater tearing tickets," he says, offering his Berkeley raison d'être.
"I remember that I would come here and order a latte and a large orange juice," Danielewski says, letting out a flood of memories as we step up to the counter to place our order.
After awhile, the young writer, who says he was "making nothing wearing polyester clothes" at the California Theater (a movie theater in Berkeley), found his finances dwindling. The large orange juice became a small.
"Then it was just a latte," Danielewski says, recalling how he used to dump a pocketful of change on the countertop, counting out his coins little-kid-style.
Now that he's back in the Bay Area for a pair of book-related appearances, Danielewski's publisher is picking up the tab. The author goes all out, adding a slice of chocolate rum cake to what was the usual back in 1989.
While enjoying his caffeine and citrus, Danielewski wrote. And wrote.
"I had this idea for a big book," he says. "And I hadn't figured out how to approach it yet."
The 34-year-old author didn't come up with the central idea for this "big book" until 1993, long after he'd departed Berkeley. He had no way of knowing then that the book would be 10 years in the making and would become his first published novel. Nor did he know it would be so successful, or that his younger sister, rock musician Poe, would create an album's worth of songs related to her brother's book.
Released last month in both hardcover and trade paperback, "House of Leaves" has already entered its third paperback printing. An unsigned copy of the already out-of-print hardcover has topped $100 on eBay, and it's still receiving bids. The book has been featured in media outlets as diverse as Talk, Gear, Spin and The New York Times Book Review.
Regardless of the hype, Danielewski says "House of Leaves" started out as a small project for his publisher, Pantheon.
"They paid a tiny advance for this," he says. "It was going to be a small run, maybe 8,000 paperback. No book tour. Nothing.
"And it just slowly developed. People read it. Some people got excited. Bret Easton Ellis gave me this incredible blurb."
What an understatement. The author of "American Psycho" spared no hyperbole when he said, "A great novel, it renders most other fiction meaningless. One can imagine Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Stephen King and David Foster Wallace bowing at Danielewski's feet, choking with astonishment, surprise, laughter, awe."
Which sums up the 709-page novel quite nicely. Set chiefly in a Virginia suburb, the book tells in epic fashion the story of the Navidson family, whose patriarch, Will, is a prize-winning photographer. The family moves to the suburbs to try out normal life, free of photo shoots in war-torn regions of the world. And free from trouble.
Until the family returns from a weekend trip to discover an extra room has appeared. An extra room whose dimensions indicate the inside of the house is larger than the outside. An extra room that grows and shrinks, alternating between full-fledged maze and empty closet.
Not surprisingly, Navidson's light and cheery documentary about the family moving into a new home shifts its emphasis to this disturbing new annex. And when it becomes clear that venturing inside the labyrinth will destroy his marriage, Navidson assembles a team of explorers to investigate for him.
That's when things go wrong.
Aside from the gripping storyline, Danielewski's novel stands out because of its shifting points-of-view, color type the word "house" appears in blue throughout the novel and innovative typography. Navidson's tale isn't a regular narrative, or even a simple meta-narrative. The main arc of the book is an academic critique of the "Blair Witch Project"-style film Navidson created from the footage shot by the fixed-point cameras in place in the house, as well as the hand-held units carried into the labyrinth by Navidson and the intrepid explorers.
The critique, which is written by a blind man named Zampanò, is footnoted and encased in the scribblings of Johnny Truant, a troubled-but-brainy drifter who stumbles across Zampanò's manuscript shortly after the blind man is found dead in his apartment.
Truant's footnotes, which appear among those of Zampanò and a group of unnamed Editors, range from dry commentary to translations and long accounts of events in Johnny's life, which indicate that the house has the ability to possess people's minds from afar.
Surprisingly, Danielewski meshes these disparate elements into a coherent, gripping novel.
"For me, [the book] was a combination of theater and music, I suppose," he says, explaining how he imagines ""House of Leaves"'" many different voices as resembling those of a musical.
"'The Navidson Record' is really the voice of Zampanò," he says. "Then there's Johnny Truant, who's another player, and there's Johnny's mother, who...is more pervasive throughout the book than most people recognize.
"The footnotes are more like a chorus, in some ways anonymous, but it some ways very tricky...a nagging voice that goes 'nyah nyah na na na nyah nyah na na na," and makes a little comment." He pauses. "I wonder how you're going to quote that."
For each of the book's voices, Danielewski uses a different typeface.
"There's a reason Johnny Truant's typeface is called Courier," he says. "Everyone calls...normal type or typewriter face, but it's Courier, and Courier's important because...(Johnny) is a courier of sorts." Danielewski adds that Zampanò's typeface is Times, the title page is Dante and the editors' typeface is Bookman.
"And the reason those names came about wasn't purely haphazard."
Perhaps Danielewski's greatest success, however, is the way he lays his text out on the page. "House of Leaves" isn't a straight, read-from-the-upper-left-hand-corner-of-page-1- to-the-lower-right-hand-corner-of-page-704 type of novel. The words go all over the pages. There are vertical footnotes. There is upside-down type. The number of words on a page ranges from one to several hundred. In many spots, you have to rotate the book to read it.
And while this may sound intimidating or seem intimidating when you first flip through the novel it's carefully paced to lead you slowly into Danielewski's world of colored words and cascading text.
"It's probably more daunting for someone to pick up the book and go, 'How do I read this?'" Danielewski says. "Once you actually start it," he continues, flipping to the beginning of the book, "this is very straightforward."
Moving a little further along, he says, "And then you get here, and you only get one, two footnotes." Continuing, "Slowly the footnotes start to grow, and slowly the tricks start to happen, but by that point, you're really figuring out how to read the book."
"One of (Orson Welles') main rules is that he never moved the camera when he was involved with exposition," Danielewski says, explaining the origins of his bring-'em-in-slowly style. "Whenever you hear what's being explained, the camera's steady.
"In, say, Touch of Evil, once it's clear that Charlton Heston is trying to follow Orson Welles, then the camera can move all over the place."
And "House of Leaves" does move all over the place, using layouts designed for, among other things, moving the reader along at a rate that keeps pace with the action in the novel.
For example, in Chapter 9, in which a group of explorers is just beginning to discover the maze's enormity, Danielewski fills the pages with two long, vertical footnotes, one of which is upside down. Similarly, a third footnote appears imbedded in the text inside of a blue box. There are so many distractions that the reader may find himself lost and confused, much like the explorers in the maze.
Similarly, when the action speeds up in Chapter 10, the novel reads as quickly as a children's book without pictures. Each page contains but a sentence or two, and the reader flips through the pages at an almost frenetic pace, matching that of the explorers.
"You could probably read it in, like, 10 minutes," the author says.
How does a never-published novelist sell this idea to his publisher? Danielewski says one of his biggest allies was time.
"The whole process (of publishing the book) took two-and-a-half years," he says. "And that aided publication of the book because people started to read it."
Similarly, Danielewski says the book's long incubation period was a factor in allowing him to do something no other author with a major publishing company had yet done, serialize the book in its entirety online.
"Three years earlier," Danielewski says, "I had posted the whole thing on the Internet...not for a glamorous reason.
"Friends wanted to know what this book was that I had been writing, and it was expensive to print out and ship across the country to someone who might look at it and say, 'Oh, 700 pages, I don't want to look at this.
"So I just found a crummy URL, all kinds of backslashes and forward slashes and tildes and posted it as a pdf file and said, 'Look, if you want to read it, you can get it online.'
"And eventually, some strangers (found the book)...(which revealed) how wide a range of readers there was out there that might not necessarily walk into a bookstore or read the New York Times.
"By the end, I said, 'You know what, I'd really like to put this back on the Internet.' It was a great experience for me, and this book was, in many ways, written with a reader in mind who was outside of the normal publishing/academia demographic."
You wouldn't know it from looking at his impossibly slick-looking book, but Danielewski has something of a disdain for the marketing that goes into putting out a novel. When asked if he considers himself a horror novelist, or an author who, for his first work, has written a horror novel, he discusses the traps of genre labeling.
"I don't consider myself a horror writer," he says. "(Though) I think anyone that deals with big questions could be defined as a horror writer. If you're Melville, if you're Hawthorne, if you're Emily Dickinson. If you're Nietzsche...and I name those names not to put myself in their company I'm just saying that you can pick a diverse range of writers who, if they really approach the deeper questions...are ultimately going to unveil something that's terrifying.
"I had one woman come up to me in a bookstore and say, 'You know, everyone told me it was a horror book, but when I finished it, I realized that it was a love story.' And she's absolutely right. In some ways, genre is a marketing tool," he explains.
"How do you move it to a bookstore, and where do you place it in a bookstore...It won't affect me at all, what I write next. If I ever write again."
So given this disdain for marketing and packaging, how to explain the slickly-put-together novel, with its color type and blown-in card touting a crossover album by a major label recording artist?
Well, the major label recording artist, is Danielewski's sister, Poe. Danielewski says they've always been close, and this collaboration was a very natural thing.
"She was my only reader," he says. "And she would read bits of "House of Leaves", and they would inspire her. And she would write a song, and then I'd listen to the song, and it would move me in a certain direction."
That the songs Poe wrote would eventually appear on an album seems only logical.
Danielewski says the blown-in card that seems like a clever marketing trick of Pantheon and Poe's record label, Atlantic, was very last minute.
"The card, for instance, was something where my sister and I finally just called up Pantheon and Atlantic and said, 'This is what we're doing. These projects have been involved with one another for over five years, and you really should do something about it,'" he says.
"This is a week before they're going to press...So they go, 'OK, let's do a card, and we'll blow it in.'
"So they start doing a card, and it's loaded with typos. So my sister and I are going over it...'Cult status' was spelled 's-t-a-t-i-s,' and we were like, 'You know, uh, that's not going to go in the book.'"
As to the type, Pantheon didn't exactly hire a hot, young whiz-bang graphic designer to put together Danielewski's quirky novel.
"We were heading for a train wreck, and (Pantheon) wanted to do it a completely different way or didn't want to do it," he says. "So I actually, on my own dime, flew to New York and set up shop. They found a freelance computer on one of the floors at Random House (Random House is a parent company of Pantheon), and I worked on it. It took me three-and-a-half weeks.
Looking at the book, it's hard to imagine how anyone could finish the magnificent task in three-and-a-half weeks, but Danielewski went in with a plan.
"The labyrinth section (the most complex section of the book) took, like, nine-and-a-half months to storyboard," Danielewski says. "So it was almost like a shooting schedule.
"I went in there and knew exactly what I had to do."
The end result of all the phone calls, sweat and credit card receipts (Danielewski says his work on the book was financed out on his credit cards) is nothing short of pleasing to the author.
"So that's pretty cool because now, obviously, there's a big book tour, and it's already in its third printing...It's beyond anything I could imagine, that I'd be sitting here and Cody's (a Berkeley bookstore institution, where Danielewski says he used to shop) would have nine, 10 copies."
And this chat with Danielewski turns out to be beyond anything I have imagined. While I haven't kept him seated at the Caffe Med table until closing time a Hurculean task that would have produced a six-hour interview I have managed to keep the author long enough for his driver to show up, surprised that he hasn't used the extra time he was allotted to cruise Telegraph, and perhaps stop in Cody's.
Danielewski buys us another 20 minutes and himself a bit of time to toodle around Telegraph. When it's all done, we shake hands in front of Caffe Med, bid a friendly adieu and head in opposite directions along Berkeley's best-known street. As I glance over my shoulder, the praiseworthy author walks up the street, his bright blue hair and worn-out jeans already blending in with the punks, poets, panhandlers and prophets who earn their livelihood on Telegraph Avenue.
(For a review of "House of Leaves," see below)