With the U.S. release of The Fifty Year Sword, Mark Z. Danielewski, the man who has (successfully) argued the validity of colored text and careful font choice in the rather static world of traditional publishing, embellishes a timeless story with every possible manner of tactile sensation. A story told by five narrators. A story of violence and sewing, patience and retribution, kindness and something quite different. Thread becomes theme, in the chorus of the story, as well as the literal makeup of the book. Blood red thread seeps through the binding, there are blown-out needle-punctures in the dust jacket, to give you the effect he has so willed. If that wasn’t enough, Pantheon will offer a special edition with a first printing of around 1,000 that will feature Nepalese binding, and comes enclosed in a custom box with five latches, another tactile and mechanical reflection of the story itself. Some may immediately dismiss this as gimmick, but if you’ve read Danielewski’s previous books House of Leaves and Only Revolutions and were fortunate enough to put your hands on a copy of the very limited Dutch release of The Fifty Year Sword (De Bezige Bij – 2005), then you will likely identify with the careful and calculating hand that is at play with these seemingly minor, ancillary details. More importantly, you’ll see them unfold in a fractal of meaning that you wouldn’t think possible in something as innocent as a blue word, a timeline, or a stitch of red thread. The patient reader (and the inevitable re-reader) is so rewarded.
The stated purpose of our interview today was to discuss the upcoming release of The Fifty Year Sword to the U.S. market, a book that Danielewski says has changed very little in word count but has been reimagined as far as layout and how he wanted the space (verso/recto) to support the meaning of a text, to hold a stitched illustration, or to only occupy a few words to signal the reader to slow down, to really chew on these before stitching onward. Danielewski is no stranger to understanding how important white space can be to the gravity of the narrative.
Regarding the idea for a reissue in the first place, Danielewski states: “People kept asking about it, telling me they couldn’t get a hold of a copy, lamenting over the cost (note: copies have been reported to fetch as much as $1,000 on eBay) and so on. So the idea of a U.S release had been in the works for some time. I almost went the graphic novel route – I had been working with two or three graphic artists – but it never really fit. Anyhow, I was talking with my editor, and he said we couldn’t possibly do this once The Familiar (Pantheon; currently expected around 2014) started rolling out. In other words, the time to do it was now. Add to that a little market research, input from the REDCAT productions — people drove from Boston, Georgia, Texas…all over — just to hear this story read. So I got the green light and went to work.”
When talking about REDCAT, Danielewski is referring to the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, where for three years running, he has conducted an annual orchestrated sold-out reading of The Fifty Year Sword. The book lends itself to such a theatrically produced reading as it contains the voices of five narrators, sometimes together as a chorus, sometimes separate and arranged in more traditional narrative formats. Danielewski has employed shadowcasting performances in the past and this year will heighten the senses with original scores on piano as arranged by Christopher O’Riley of NPR fame.
Danielewski says, despite his love for the Dutch version, that The Fifty Year Sword, “allways felt unfinished” to him. There wasn’t the violence in the illustrations of the Dutch release that mirrored the story. So he set up an atelier, aptly named “Atelier Z,” where three people — as well as Danielewski — toiled, hunched over machines stitching hundreds of butterflies, swords, storytellers – all to illustrate and illuminate the narrative.
“I wanted to make sure the visual layout was in keeping with everything that was going on thematically and literally with the story. It’s about a seamstress,” he says, “even the rather poor Thai/tie pun, that the story is laced with all these blades that cut, threads that are sewn together that unstitch, unravel. So, I wanted to express threads of meaning, threads of a story – the kind of narrative stitching we involve ourselves with, memories, perceived narratives of our past, our preservation of beliefs about the future.” Danielewski takes a long pause here, “We scour the past to undo it and re-stitch it.”
Now it might seem a little more mainstream in the world of Danielewski, to rely on mere illustrations, but when you see them, you understand the understated necessity of them. They justify their existence brilliantly. Chintana (the main character of the story who attends the 50th birthday of her now ex-husband’s mistress, and witnesses the long black box that supposedly contains the sword of which the invited storyteller speaks) being a seamstress for starters. All the violence that comes with sewing, by hand or by machine — poking, ripping, binding, cutting, mating – so many wonderfully duplicitous concepts. The thread of a story five fibers strong. Again, this fractal unfolding of the meaning of the story becomes apparent as you really digest the lyrics of it, those written and those sewn.
Of the two subjects that invariably come up when discussing Danielewski’s work, we started with the first: e-book versions, which rather interestingly segued into the second: his thoughts on adaptations of his work, specifically the hotly debated adaptation (or rather his refusal to allow it) of House of Leaves for the big screen. Danielewski laments, “The e-book of House of Leaves has been postponed until the spring. Considering the difficulties of an e-version of The Fifty Year Sword, imagine trying to adapt Only Revolutions or House of Leaves from the printed page to a digital format? And for the first time since accepting the process of converting my novels from printed page to digital, I’ve become a little less resistant to the idea of film adaptations of my books. In porting my books over to digital format, I have to accept, as does the reader, that this is an adaptation. This is something different. The limitations of the media dictate this. Things just don’t align, they don’t translate across platforms. At least not in 2012. So you have to give up some design because of the limitation of the media. So how I’ve come to terms with this is that I tell myself I’m creating an adaptation. I’m interested to hear what people think of it.
“People who’ve had House of Leaves for 12 years now, when they read this digital version, what will their experience be like? How important was Bookman or Courier fonts [In House of Leaves, the voice of Zampanò, the “original author,” was set in Times. Johnny Truant, the man who brings the found writings of Zampanò to light, is represented by Courier, the editor’s notes in Bookman, and so on...] to the reading experience? I don’t know. It will be different, but it might not be bad different. It will evolve. It’s just so dense, I got physically nauseated just looking at all the data, salvaging the meanings that were there – just in white space and page stops – those meanings will disappear. Those came at very important moments, and the idea that those are going to reflow and change, well, that’s why I have to look at this as an adaptation.”
When asked about which loss is greatest, Danielewski, without hesitation, states that he is most concerned with the relationship between verso and recto, “The way of playing with that canvas, that experience of revealing something, how the graphic composition is related to left, to right. You lose that in an e-book. You are going to lose some compositional value So while some things will be lost, perhaps some new elements will be created or found. And maybe that’s an argument for making it into a series or a movie. It would invigorate certain elements.”
A game we had played during our last sit down that still finds a willing participant in Danielewski is the one about identifying what kind of kids his stories are. Danielewski said then that House of Leaves was a brash young boy and Only Revolutions was the misunderstood little girl. When asked about what kind of kid he thought The Fifty Year Sword has become, he was quick to answer, “He’s the little infidel, the little kid who’s going to do what he wants. He’s vicious. He’s Chucky.” And The Familiar? He retreated into another pause, “Let’s just say even Chucky will run.”
We last spoke almost two years ago to the day, at the same restaurant, with identical weather. Odd timing and coincidence seem to follow him around. He has special fondness for certain numbers, 27 being one, and for certain dates, such as September 15th. Having interviewed him before, and having read his other interviews over the years, I know he likes to leak out little bits of information leading up to the publication of a book. I hoped this was still the case. Danielewski did not disappoint When asked outright, what’s new (unfamiliar) with The Familiar (a 27-volume serial novel that Pantheon jumped on with an advance for the first 10 volumes) he smiles a tight-lipped smile, and looks away.
He answers my question by telling me of an experience that happened when he was invited to go to Burning Man last year, how he did a few readings there, but that he was there mostly to ask a question.
He wasn’t sure The Familiar was going to happen. He didn’t know if he had it in him; he didn’t know if Pantheon was interested. So after a few days of not finding his answers amid the thumping of 24/7 dubstep, he decided it was time to break out. He hopped on his mountain bike and headed out to the perimeter of Burning Man, a low orange-mesh trash fence. Looking back towards The City, he saw the sun just dropping behind the mountains. And in what Danielewski calls an “Old Testament moment” he saw the vanity of art, when mountains backlit by a setting sun dwarfed the little outpost in the desert, when dust devils danced in view, recalling “those pillars of fire like Pharaoh must have seen.”
With this image, he sat, he thinks it was even a lotus position, and asked his question. Is The Familiar going to happen? And like all big questions, answers thread their way to you, rarely from where you expect them, in this case, head on. Gradually gaining from dot to mirage squiggle to something representing a fellow cyclist seeking the boundaries of the party, a man on a bicycle rode right up to him. Out of all this space, he chose to aim right for Danielewski.
Younger than him, “Australian, I heard it in his accent” Danielewski recalls, “he asked if he was interrupting anything…was this a moment? I said, ‘Well now it’s a different moment,’ and invited him to sit with me.” The two exchanged stories, and Danielewski listened as this young man unburdened himself about LSD trips and vocational doubts. Then they exchanged names. “I said, ‘Well, it’s getting late, I gotta go…By the way, my name is Mark.’ And he said ‘My name’s Dano, but my friends call me Redwood.’”
All that his fans have ever heard from Danielewski about “Redwood” for the longest time, aside from the few mentions in House of Leaves, and various theories on his pretty deep discussion forum, was that it was “a story about tigers with stripes of ash.” Until he told us otherwise (pdf) a few years ago.
Danielewski knows I now know about the importance of Redwood as we sit here today, so he let me digest that. The significance of this name is that it was the title of the story ( a “bit” of something he wrote is how he refers to it, refusing to elaborate any more) he wrote for his father who was dying of cancer in L.A. – in fact it was the story penned on the three day bus journey from NYC, where Danielewski was living when he got the phone call. “Redwood” was the story that his father read, in his hospital bed, and turned to his son and said “you should get a job at the post office.” Fortunately, Danielewski (with the help of his sister Poe and some Scotch tape) rebounded from that and gave us House of Leaves. Authors “allways” incorporate something personal into their writing, but when it becomes this type of totem (his totem clearly being a cat, that cat clearly being born from a story about a tiger that served as a heartbreaking but crucial fulcrum for a young man’s life, relationship with his father, and writing career all at once) that reinforces its meaning with every appearance within his works, well, that is something rather significant, something a reader should endeavor to understand.
Danielewski continues, “So this was doubly chilling to me, since one of the characters in The Familiar is Redwood.”
And so Danielewski rewrites new stories by pulling old threads from previous epic tapestries we’ve come to love, taking us off into different narratives, notions, and theories – lessening the discomfort of change by incorporating The Familiar.
Finally, as I’m rereading my notes against the clock, I check my math and ask him what happens with the other 17 volumes of The Familiar, as Pantheon has only agreed to the first 10. Are they written? Could they possibly not take the remaining 17 volumes? And what happens to the reader, what happens to the narrative and the characters were such a thing to take place?
Danielewski responds, “House of Leaves was my remediation of film. Only Revolutions my remediation of music. The Familiar is my remediation of a television series. You aren’t guaranteed several seasons of a particular show when you pitch it to the network. Pantheon gave me the green light. So it’s up to me now to create 10 volumes that prove compelling enough that readers will want to read more, and the publisher will want to release the rest. The burden here is on me. That’s how television works. Let’s say so far, I’ve cleared the pilot plus a season.” Another smile, “Which as far as television goes is pretty good.”