Mark Z. Danielewski is the author of the cult classic, House of Leaves, as well as its companion novella, The Whalestoe Letters, and the poetic Only Revolutions. Danielewski is known (and loved) for his intense and emotionally impacting work as well as his use of unusual type-setting and beautifully convoluted burying of passages and codes within his books. We were able to sit down with him at this year’s Comic-Con and hear about his latest release, The Fifty Year Sword.
MZD: This is my first Comic-Con. I’ve been hearing about it for years and finally I did it. It’s such a sea of possibilities. Different tidal currents and you enter into different places. But I feel a little like I’m coming in much later. Like when I went to Burning Man for the first time last year. It’s sorta similar in a way, in the sense that it’s highly organized. The way it started was like a communal pit where everyone would deposit their effluence. But now it’s like a town with wonderfully groomed streets, you know, and it was a blast but I can’t say that I’m a Burner. And I’ve been talking to some of these people that have gone to Comic-Con for sixteen years now. It’s great.
A: I’m glad you’re enjoying it.
MZD: Yes. Pantheon has me here for The Fifty Year Sword. The Familiar is coming out in a few years. It’s a ways off. I’m writing this twenty-seven volume creature. I finished volume nine recently and on Monday I’ll start the next. Anyway, The Fifty Year Sword is probably what we should focus on because people can actually read it in October. There’ll also be a tour around the United States and for the last two years running, I’ve done a shadow show and a reading of The Fifty Year Sword at the Disney Concert Hall, so we’re going to do it for the last time this Halloween— we’re going to have two shows. We may do a version of in Seattle, and we may possibly do it in Chicago or New York. It depends. And Chris O’Riley who is a pianist who does arrangements for Radio Head and Elliot Smith and is also an NPR host for From the Top is going to be playing the piano with music that he’s composed and actors will be reading to it, so I’m pretty excited about that.
A: I fortunately got a copy of The Fifty Year Sword just before Comic-Con. It was really interesting. I liked it, though I wish it had been in color.
MZD: The final one that is coming out is 288 pages, it’s full-color, and has about 88 images. The heroine is a seamstress who is recovering from a divorce and she goes to this Halloween party and along comes the Storyteller and she ends up basically shackled to these five orphans and slowly but surely she realizes that the Storyteller is full of malice and the children are in jeopardy. A lot of it is how we stitch together stories and how they unstitch us.
To create the artwork you’ll see in the book, I started sewing paper and eventually I had two other people helping me and we were sewing endlessly in these big sheets of paper all sorts of colored thread that were very specific to the colors of the book—the quotation marks. That was a really challenging experience, how we created those pieces, and yet it was very exciting because it wasn’t just, “Oh, we’re going to illustrate the text.” For me, it was creating pieces that were integral to the text, so you see that even this piece [on display], which is towards the end, is all sewed paper with red thread. The text sort of interplays with all of that, and the book is going to be beautiful.
A: I figured it would be. I have Only Revolutions and House of Leaves— I’ve had them for many years. They’re both gorgeous books.
MZD: Yes, we even did the same thing as with Only Revolutions where we have a cover with an orange jacket and underneath we have actually this piece printed, but on a higher quality. And there’s going to be a special edition, just a thousand copies, that has a Nepalese binding and it’ll come in an orange box that has five clasps. The Nepalese binding is the stuff I really love. The spine is sheared off so that you can see the actual thread that binds the paper. We’re getting the thread red, so you’re going to have the glossy photographic images of that on the front and back and then you’ll actually have the red thread.
There’s a lot of play, too, with what’s thematically represented and what is actually literal. We have literal thread and literal cuts in the paper and, with that, you’ll have this image, this representation of it. And it’s that constant play, as within all of my books, between the story that’s told and the context in which that story lives. Because we all know that world around us far exceeds any story we can tell. So there’s that presence throughout the book that this is a representation of sewing, and that there are threads holding everything together… or are they? Language, which is amazing, is the purest form of all of that. The words, as soon as you put them in your ear, dissolve and immediately become a part of your mental genetics and that’s what’s really exciting for me.
A: So you picked “Chintana” as the main character’s name. And that’s Hindi?
MZD: There are all sorts of things. I won’t parse all the names because there’s a lot of fun, as you can imagine, with them and how they’re pronounced. She’s Thai, so the way everyone in the reading pronounces it is Chint-ahna, which is the way an American would pronounce it, but one of the actors we have is of Thai descent and she pronounces it correctly, which is Chin-tihn-a. And, of course, there are meanings to that.
A: And then there’s a misspelling of it, which looks like what you’ve done your previous works.
MZD: Yes, there are no misspellings. [laughter]
A: I figured. While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself, “Oh god, it’s like I’m reading James Joyce right now.” There’s definitely more of an awareness for me now of your work, after reading Joyce and going back to your books, how he plays with text.
MZD: Joyce is such a pleasure to read. And the specificity of his work. Something that seems like a mispronunciation can be a reference to The Odyssey. Especially in Finnegan’s Wake, there’s all this word play where you realize that “Oh, that sounds out the name of an Irish king or a river,” but at the same time it means something else. But you have to be as responsible as you can so it influences a text correctly, which is certainly part of The Fifty Year Sword. It’s not long, and to come up with that specificity and yet keep the playfulness of it and, you know, it’s sort of an eerie story.
What did you think it was finally about, or how did it live with you?
A: It was different. I usually review horror movies and, academically, I’m studying the memetic nature of fairy tales so, while I was reading this, I combined my horror-love with the fairy tale background. Going through that knowledge base and looking at the structure of the story that the Storyteller told Chintana and the orphans and how he used a lot of the classic motifs but still totally broke away from them in a surprising way… and I’m still trying to figure out what cultures that it drew from, if any. And it’s very Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Almost that kind of curse.
MZD: Coleridge is a good example. That’s definitely an influence. Poe, Coleridge, even people you wouldn’t think of as horror writers— Whitman and Wordsworth, are in there. One writer I would check out is Aimee Bender. Aimee Bender wrote The Girl in the Flamable Skirt—incredible use of fairy tales.
And since you write about horror, I think one of the things that fascinated me the most about The Fifty Year Sword is that a lot of art’s experience of horror and fear is about anticipation. The actual gorefest tends to be funny and maybe shocking, but the fear is always in that anticipation, so there is something strange about a story in which a blade inflicts its wounds on the fiftieth birthday and you’re dealing with kids. In a little way, you’re going, “Well, they’re still young, they’re still going to get a full life. So who cares?” Yet how terrifying is the notion that your life could be cut short at that moment, that some disaster will be there that would be known and certain? And what is that particular agony?
I think that horror is a wildly complex weave and yet when you start to pull it apart you realize that there are many different types of horror. Different shocks of violence and fear and incongruities in the way we negotiate our anxieties. I think the particular thread—all puns intended on the thread thing—that is important in The Fifty Year Sword is the fear and the anticipation of a certain death, a certain wounding, and how that’s really what’s at stake for people.
A: It’s interesting that it also calls back, at least to me, the things you do when you’re little that come back and end up killing you later. Little injuries, little damage, and that’s you stamped with your death date. Right there. That you achieved, you know, when you were seven years old. And then you’re gone.
MZD: And you know it. Why is it so important to protect ourselves from that? And it is, in a way. I was at a showing of Danny Elfman’s music and he was being interviewed by Elvis Mitchell and Elvis Mitchell had a wonderful description about the playfulness of Danny’s music, that it was a combination of menace and fate. I love that use of the word, “fate”. Because that’s what it is in The Fifty Year Sword, that expression. It’s fitting because, as soon as you’re fated, there’s a horror to that. You’ve suddenly been marked and what a weight that is, what a fear.
The Fifty Year Sword will be available for purchase on October 16th, 2012.