LAist Interview: Mark Z. Danielewski

Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions, House of Leaves, Canter's Interview

Over hot chocolate and chocolate-chip rugula at Canter’s in Hollywood, we spoke with LA author Mark Z. Danielewski about his latest novel Only Revolutions and got all worked up about film, freedom and fonts. He will be reading tonight @ UCLA, 5 p.m. RSVP here or call (310) 206-0961 to reserve a seat.

You were recently quoted as saying if you could live anywhere in the world, it would be Los Angeles. You’ve traveled extensively and lived in a number of great places…so what made you choose LA? I love LA. I love being able to go to a completely different type of restaurant every night, going to the beach, swimming, farmer’s markets, MOCA. There are so many things to do here – and there’s something great to being in a city that doesn’t house my industry, so I’m not pestered by those mechanics. Occasionally, I think, “Why don’t I just move to Chile for a few years?” And I still might. But I love it here. I have great friends here.

You swim on a regular basis – what’s your favorite stroke? I love butterfly. I love it. It’s exhausting, but there’s something about butterfly that is magical. If you get the rhythm right, the force of the stroke itself hurls you through the water and you have this sense of rising out of the water. So it’s ego and submission and ego and submission. It’s awesome. There’s also an ability to abstract it. With freestyle, you can’t do more than freestyle. But with butterfly, you can imagine that if I had slightly longer legs and a big fin, I’d be flying out of the water. If I could go even faster, I’d be a fucking killer whale.

Only Revolutions by Mark DanielewskiYou’ve written a pop song and performed on-stage during your sister Poe’s national music tour…any plans to do the rock star thing again in the near future? She also produced an album that was inspired by your first novel House of Leaves – any chance that will happen for Only Revolutions? What I’m tackling right now requires so much energy and effort and time. It’s impossible to do it all. As much as the imagination desires to write songs and create movies and to do all of it, to write one book well and if you’re going to do anything typographical with it, is so much more difficult. The publishing industry is not setup for the typographical stuff – you have to do it all yourself.

Last night she was playing some songs that are somewhat Only Revolutions-influenced. So it’s the same process as House of Leaves. I don’t know if she’s going to put out an album that is overly about Only Revolutions, but it is inevitable that we influence each other.

The House of Leaves thing was so organic. I would listen to stuff and think, “This is so cool.” Or she would read stuff and get inspired. I think we’ll eventually collaborate again.

Tackling a visual book like yours requires readers to make a choice about how they read it. Some may not follow the publisher’s guidelines of reading 8 pages at a time and then flipping the book over to read 8 pages of the other character’s story. How do you read it? It’s designed to be read in so many different ways. Even the 8 pages/one chapter that the publisher recommends is obvious. You could read three chapters. You could do four lines at a time. You could start looking at the history. Then I get vertigo about all the work I’ve done on it and then I have to close the book and go get a hot chocolate. It depends on your mind – maybe there is someone who could read it all and hold it all. I couldn’t do it, but I can understand the thrill of trying. It might be interesting to read Hailey and then put it away for a year and then read Sam. But you would never understand the ending if you read it that way…

You deal with history on some level when you read the book. If you decide to read the history columns, or if you choose not to read them, you have to deal with that fact. The characters are moving and are oblivious to history. History is enacted through them. They have no awareness of history. They have no memories.

On the walk over here, I was thinking about all the things that are not in the book. The words on the inside cover are all the words that are not in the book.

One of my favorite parts of the book, believe it or not, is that there is no book about a boy and a girl hitting the road. There’s Kerouac by himself. There’s Huckleberry Finn. There’s a father and daughter in Paper Moon. In movies, you get Bonnie & Clyde, Natural Born Killers, Badlands, Thelma & Louise. But the key is there’s always someone pursuing them. If I’d done that, Only Revolutions would have had a more plot-driven feeling. I’ve always loved that about this book...that there is no one pursuing them. They are the un-pursued.

We see. Very cool. But now I’m going to fuck with you a little. Because there is someone pursuing them.

The creep? Well…the creep is a straw man. There is someone that is definitely pursuing them to the bitter end. But I’m not going to tell you who it is. (Ed Note: Who, who could it be?)

When you were writing Only Revolutions, did all of this detail exist in your mind from the beginning or did it come later? The complexity of it wasn’t apparent to me at the very beginning. Yet at the same time, it was already inherent in the idea I had come up with. I knew I was writing about these two runaways and I knew I wanted to do them justice. I couldn’t limit them to “oh this is a story about runways in the 90s.” At nearly the exact same time I had that idea, I had the idea of using the book to manifest their relationship physically. I knew I wanted them to be apart and then meet and then cross.

Early on I wrestled with the idea – would they be two separate books? Would they be two columns on the same page? I then saw it in a more classical way and I came up with this Möbius idea and then it became much harder. I had no idea how hard it was going to be. Then I got to know them and it became much more complex. I couldn’t just let them go. Every time I closed a door, another opened.

One of the doors that I knew would be closed early on was guns. They were not Badlands, they were not Bonnie & Clyde, but I knew there was something terrifying about them.

If not guns, what? They are completely inviolate before the world. What is terrifying about them is that the world withers and shakes and burns to the ground around them, but it doesn’t bother them at all. They are so caught up in their affection for each other and their antics that they lose track. You may know people like that who are so involved in themselves they don’t see that they’ve just ruined a carpet with a flung glass, put out their cigarette on a pet, moved on and destroyed four relationships and they’ve only just entered the party, completely oblivious to what they’ve done.

So there was that exploration early on, but then it became specific. I wondered, “Can I go further than this?” It’s cyclical so it should be 360 pages. The original was 350 pages though, so then it was...do we make the font bigger? (Wide smile.)

All the words that didn't fit into the novel Only RevolutionsAre people finding things in Only Revolutions that you hadn’t anticipated? No one has come up with anything that I’ve not intentionally placed. It’s too early. I’ve only done a few readings of the paperback but by now more people have read it. I get a lot of “It’s so different from House of Leaves.”

A guy recently came up to me and said: “What’s your obsession with passages, man?” That’s not a bad summation of a lot of things. There’s the hallways in House of Leaves, and the game of allways (in Only Revolutions) echoing hallways in House of Leaves. His comment was fascinating; there is an internal passage in House of Leaves and an exterior passage in Only Revolutions.

Since House of Leaves came out, there’s been a proliferation of “experimental” work that plays with the visual aspects of text – Raw Shark Texts, The People of Paper, etc. Have you read this work? What do you think of it? Do you feel this is an approach that is now so mainstream you’re over it, or are you excited that others have taken your cue to explore text and the concept of the “novel”? How I react on a creative level when l’m writing is different. I’m always trying to trek out and do something different, something that hasn’t been done. Steven has been great and having a hat tip is nice.

We blew the doors off the barn with House of Leaves. There was so much work to figure out how to make that happen. So when other books came out and there was no recognition, what do you do with that? The truth is that House of Leaves came out in 2000. What came before is important to recognize and what comes after is important to recognize.

What is significant to me is that books continue to explore new avenues. That’s why it’s a great deal of fun to see what Steven Hall has done. To think, “Yeah, he did a good job on the flip.” Or when Jonathan Safran Foer used the reverse guy on the World Trade Center. I think, “Ah, that’s a good touch.” It works. One of the things I’m interested in is that all of these elements are in service to the themes and the story as opposed to being cute for its own sake and “Oh look what we can do.”

I think there is a general inquiry going on right now about the relationship between image and text. Can we survive on movies alone? They’re a lot easier. You can sit there and watch them. Films are passive, books are active. Is there a way to make image active and why is it important to be active? Obviously, you couldn’t do the butterfly.

Right now I’m working on something that has no textual shape. Yet already, I’m thinking how do I tell this in the most effective way? Should it be a book? Could it exist on a console? Could it live online instead? It has to serve the story and make sense.

You have a devoted following online from the OR message boards to MySpace. You even asked fans to participate in Only Revolutions online. This online/offline interaction reminds us of Walter Kirn’s novel The Unbinding. Is this an art form that interests you – anything you might incorporate next? Or is it old-school at this point, including hyperlinked text in print? What is next? A lot of Only Revolutions is interested in the mechanisms that are underlying things. Wow. That is an incredible line I just said. Let me have another sip of hot chocolate and try that again. It’s a sense of, can we get at the...what I’m dodging here are the words that drive people crazy but they’re probably good words: the grammar, the physics of things. We’re not talking about particular words but the relationship between words. Not the particular names of planets, but the nature of an ellipse and the effect of gravity on the orbit.

The thing about the Internet is it’s just an extension of a capacity that was already understood when the encyclopedia was being written, when Joyce was writing Ulysses. These were already hypertext novels. You had to click onto a certain allusion to get that it was from Hamlet to understand that Daedalus was Telemachus. All these things were there. What’s happening now, there’s a soldering of those cables. The Internet being huge now is just an extension of what was going on at its inception.

But now there’s another type of connectivity that couldn’t have been anticipated. So that’s the question. The properties of hyperlinking is nothing new -- even the most mundane books have a hyper-textual quality because you can go on your Apple phone and Google something if it’s a recipe book, for example. At what point are we really getting at something that is useful vs. just because you can? Only Revolutions is about technology, partly because no technology appears in the book. Nothing. No radios, no wires, no telegraphs. All technological process has been eradicated. There are not many books where you read and ask “What’s missing? What’s NOT in here?”

The audio book for Only Revolutions is just out and was scored by Danny Elfman. Since your book is so visual and relies on textual elements, how does this work? Or does the rhythm of your words take on another meaning when it’s spoken? I think most people prefer to hear it spoken. The quality of the book is so much about Sam and Hailey freeing themselves entirely from the constraints of the world. In a weird way, they demand being freed of the constraints of the book.

Yes, while freewheeling in nature, Only Revolutions is so structured. They are in some serious physical confines of a certain number of lines and a set number of pages, a certain way the book might be read…That was the point. It’s all about freedom. I wanted to see if I could I tie them up, every single day, and then follow how they were going to get out of the chain. The audio offers a freedom from those constraints. A lot of people listen to it and then go back to the book. They don’t listen to the whole audio, they use it as a key into the book.

What do you think of the recent spate of Only Revolutions graffiti? I love it. It is strange. The logo has an iconic power. I see it and I know that it’s Only Revolutions. There’s a history and characters and emotion and a longing.

Only Revolutions logo, what does it mean?Much guessing has ensued about the true meaning of the Only Revolutions symbol. We think it is a pause symbol, as in film editing. Or on a DVD player. Yes. The symbol. Someone told me the other day that when you pause, it means the thing is playing. When you press the pause button, it turns into the play. So when you see the pause symbol, it’s playing. Interesting.

You’ve spoken before about your desire to create work that challenges those readers who are looking for a challenge, who are up for it. Whose work challenges you? I recently re-read Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Incredibly challenging. It’s a classic and I needed a booster shot of something really good. Faust – such a compelling, relationship with the devil and power and old age. Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Heller, Morrison, Atwood to a certain extent, Kathy Acker, Ursula Le Guin. My background is classical so I will re-read Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy, Elliot, Pound, Wolf, Hemingway, Faulkner.

I love looking at Thomas Hart Benton murals of that period. James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy. I love Banksy’s maids & rats.

I saw 3:10 to Yuma and I enjoyed it. Do I think it’s a perfect movie? No, and I’m happy to get into the mechanics of that. But I did find it challenging, I loved the narrative twist of the shoot-out and how it’s not between the two characters you think it is. I want to see Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe even if it’s a disaster.

I think there’s a distinction: read Phillip K. Dick. Is he a great writer? Not per se. Is Jonathan Franzen a great writer in terms of his sentences? Yes. But conceptually, he’s not that compelling to me. The Corrections is a powerful metaphor and works with market theory, but at the same time, eh. But Phillip K. Dick is still out there and he keeps coming back for more. The twists that his brain got through are compelling, even if his sentences aren’t.

Let’s talk fonts. Your selection of fonts and the colors of those fonts are carefully, deliberately selected for your novels. The names of the fonts are important. Sans Serif was important for time in Only Revolutions. Readability is obviously a factor. The colors are probably more influenced by designers and painters, simply because there’s a specificity to the symbolic nature of colors. The gold (used in Only Revolutions) was a huge issue. (Mark then references the stained glass piece hanging in Canter’s. It reminds him of Sam and Hailey. Stained glass piece at right.) Sam and Hailey stained glass at Canter's

I’m on a bunch of font lists, like Emigre. The challenge is always is it readable? How sustainable is this font? Emigre just came out with this font, Matrix. I’m not keen on the name because it has too many associations, but I like it. Could you read 100 pages of it? It’s possible. I don’t know.

What I’m interested in is how fonts, aside from instant readability, can create a sensation that you don’t have to articulate but that communicates. In House of Leaves, its locative, you instantly know it's Johnny Truant, you instantly know it's Zampano, you instantly know it’s the editor.

I used Times New Roman for the newspaper-y authority it has. Courier is rough-drafty in nature.

In Only Revolutions, you used Spectrum MT for Sam & Hailey. Obviously that name has a lot to it and the font has a certain thinness that I liked. As the text got smaller and smaller, readability would be an issue. But it was my theory that by that time, the plot is slowing down and so it is sort of an aria at the end. That you would want to slow down and read it and you’re struggling to see. Which brings us back to who is pursuing them. (Ed Note: Who? Who is pursuing them? We still haven’t sorted it out.)

One of the choices I made early on was to give Sam and Hailey the same font. I was thinking of giving them each their own font, but it was too jarring. And they are twins in a way, they are twain. Could I find a sister/brother font that would work? In the end, it made more sense to just use color as the only way to tell them apart. But there is that confusion and I don’t mind that confusion at all…

Speaking of color…since you seem to be a fan of synæsthesia and your work in House of Leaves and Only Revolutions reflects a desire to color certain words or characters within words, what color would you have us use for the letters "L" and "A" for “Los Angeles” when we post this interview on LAist? Ah. A good question. That has to be your choice, but we could explore palettes. Los Angeles. It’s Turrell-y, it’s a certain blue. There’s a certain clearness in the air but then the deep, orange, burning sun. But then, there’s something gray and blue about Hollywood. The dust and light. But then this interview is taking place in Canter’s. So maybe beige and brown. Is shag a color?

Interview conducted by Callie Miller & Michele Reverte for LAist who decided that our deep orange sun + shag + the fires that burn as we type = an orangey naugahyde brown.

Photography by Michele Reverte for LAist