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LAist Interview: Author Mark Z. Danielewski on 'The Fifty Year Sword,' the Written Word, and One of the Scariest Moments of His Life

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Novelist Mark Z. Danielewski is frighteningly good at what he does. His books have imparted an international cult following for their courageous and mind-bending subjects, experimental typography, and innovative approaches to story-telling. His first novel, House of Leaves, shook the literary world with its multi-narrative tale about a family that discovers their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. A work ten years in the making, the story imbues horror, suspense, daring uses of font size and page layouts, and boasts a haunting soundtrack by Danielewski's own sister, singer Poe. 2006 marked the release of the author's wildly ambitious novel Only Revolutions, an epic poem of two sixteen year old lovers traversing the country by car. The book was a National Book Award finalist—heralded for its inventive conception: the book starts from both ends, can be read infinitely (all the way through and back again), and requires one to manually rotate the book while reading.

In the interim between these two works, Danielewski released a book of poems and The Fifty Year Sword, a novella with a print run of 1,000 first edition copies. Last year, Danielewski's elusive work was commemorated by a live reading performance on Halloween night at the Redcat theater. This year, thanks to shadow-maker extraordinaire Christine Marie, sound designer John Zalewski, Harry Partch musicians and a whole new crop of tricks, the live performance of The Fifty Year Sword is back at Redcat—and we couldn't be more excited. We spoke with Mark Danielewski about the event, his love of literature, and the things that engage his mind's shadow-cast theater.

LAist: What inspired you to want to perform The Fifty-Year Sword live?

Mark Danielewski: I always recognized that it was this story of five voices, which had been cut to pieces and then stitched back together into one whole narrative. In the actual book, you see these colored quotation marks and they indicate that it's a different speaker with each quotation mark—and sometimes there are quotation marks nested within quotation marks, which reveal that there are two or three speakers sometimes—so in my mind, it was always a very acoustic experience. Initially, I even thought it would make a great radio show—

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LAist: Yes, last year’s performance had the effect of the old CBS radio shows, where authors like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell read live on the air, with accompanying sound effects.

Danielewski: And that’s how I imagined it; I immediately heard ‘radio.’ And then Steve Erickson at CalArts suggested that I do a reading at Redcat and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to gather five different voices and do it. As soon as that happened, I became interested in creating a background to it. And shadows just made sense—they could drift and move and melt and reform—and that’s really the nature of this story. It’s being told from five different perspectives and it’s being told with a great deal of distance. So we don’t really know how accurate that narrative is—which is very much like shadows, where you’re constantly trying to abstract what is the thing that makes the shadow. I think that’s the commandeering subject of The Fifty Year Sword. What really is the subject that is at the heart of this narrative? What really happened that night when five orphans gathered at the feet of a storyteller with a large 6-foot box that reportedly contained a very vicious sword?

LAist: This is the second year you will perform the story. What prompted you to do it again, and how will this year’s performance be different?

Danielewski: Well, we all had a lot of fun (laughs). On a purely selfish level, I think it was good for me to work with people who have very strong personalities and very strong opinions. Writing is a very solitary experience and so it was a great deal of fun to work with Christine Marie, who is the expert at shadows and John Zalewski, who is the expert at sound design. And it’s also much more inclusive. We can raise the money for juvenile diabetes research foundation and I could learn more about the Harry Partch Ensemble. And that was certainly an exciting opportunity to include those musicians. Redcat was game, and everyone said ‘let’s do it.’ Of course, in my mind, it was going to take far less time since it was the second year, but that was not accurate (laughs).

Some of the familiar shadow faces will be in the background and we have the musicians who play in the Harry Partch, and we have more actors. This year, we have a grave—that’s all I’m going to tell you. So, themes are being expanded upon. We wanted to make sure that the people who haven’t seen it before have an experience that really measures up to what that book is about, and then at the same time, provide a little extra, a little more fun for those who have already seen it.

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LAist: The event description reads “It’s a ghost story for adults who still remember what it’s like to wonder and fear like a child—to find confusion in the obvious, delight in strangeness and reason in the unseen.” What invokes child-like fear in you?

Danielewski: That’s a great question. I think in many ways, anxiety is the adult word for fear. We get anxious about health and bills and alliances and amorous relationships. But the most visceral fears always tend to be from that kid-like experience. For me, there is a little bit of pleasure in fear. I love having nightmares. I like horror movies.

I will tell you a moment when I was really frightened. It was when I was a plumber’s apprentice in Los Angeles. I had to make a crawl under an old Hollywood home up in the hills. There was a leaky pipe at the other side of the house and the water was sort of running down the wood beams, dripping everywhere, and it was muddy. It was a long crawl and I remember thinking, ‘ok, I can do this.’ But then the guy I was working for, who later turned out to be a heroin addict, said, “Hey, uh, just be careful of the Black Widows. You might see one.” Well I didn’t see one. I saw probably dozens—(laughs) and that means, in reality I saw probably three or four. But I remember crawling in maybe 100 feet, and I could feel the water dripping on the back of my neck. And I suddenly realized that I couldn’t get out of there. If I was being stung, I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t run. I could only go as fast out of there as I had come in. I remember feeling my chest cramp up. I started to breathe quicker and quicker. I thought, ‘Wow. I could really have a panic attack here. I am really fucked.’ I realized the only way I could get out of that was to focus, so I applied all my energies on the job at hand and that’s what got me through it. But I remember being really terrified. Just terrified all the way down, in every part of my body.

I am also reminded, at the same time as I’m telling this story, of how important that ability to focus was. In today’s culture, that’s an element that is not recognized enough. When people are embracing the distractions of our culture—whether it’s a text, a game, a phone call, an email, a little tweet or a blurb on some webpage—the power of those distractions are not strong enough to keep you from something that is powerful. And at some point, no matter what luxurious state you’re in, you will experience something that is incredibly painful—whether it’s grief from a death, from a relationship ending, an accident, disease, or pain itself. And if you are unable to focus, you will find no reprieve from that kind of hell.

That’s one of the great gifts of learning to focus. It’s one of the great gifts of higher education. It has nothing to do with the particular subject you’re studying. It could be ancient Greek, it could be advanced economics, but the point is it gives you an ability to focus on something and it gives you relief in other areas. And then, it grants you perspective on those other areas. It allows you to function humanely. So, I think, weirdly enough, that it was my education that has allowed me to get through particularly difficult times.

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LAIst: And how about child-like wonder?

Danielewski: The little subtleties that suggest the world is much, much bigger. As a child, it was always: this is the backyard, this is the garden, but, wait a minute—there’s something beyond it. I remember one summer when I was a kid, there was a pool that was completely green. It was just algae, and anyone could swim in it, but you couldn’t see to the bottom. My mind became incredibly inventive with that: there was a portal in there, strange fish—it was a Dr. Seuss story, really—and there were all sorts of things that were possible. Sometimes it terrified me, but it always fascinated me. I think I still feel that way; the one thing I would say about myself is that I’m very curious.

LAist: The Fifty Year Sword is, at least on the surface, a bona fide ‘scary story.’ What intrigues you about ghost stories, and do you have an all-time favorite?

Danielewski: Well, Moby Dick is one of my favorite scary stories (laughs). There’s a pale ghost of a creature out there and it evokes terror and fascination. I mean, I’ve always thought meeting a ghost would be fantastic. Think about all it would prove and disprove from just that one encounter. I am also a huge Poe fan, all puns intended (laughs). "Descent Into the Maelstrom" is one of my favorites. I remember vividly being terrified by "The Monkey’s Paw." I think it was the clock-like effect: there’s the first, and then there’s the second, and finally, there’s the third wish and what it does. Great literature—and I wasn’t being facetious when I said Moby Dick—is always a ghost story. It brings out the terror of this strange path that we all walk. Even David Foster Wallace’s magnificent Pale King. It’s hilarious, it’s about taxes, but you bet your ass it’s about death. And there are ghosts in that book. It evokes a different kind of terror that is very real.

LAist: Sensation is integral to your work—whether it’s the evocative typography in House of Leaves, the disorienting page layout in Only Revolutions, and now this live telling of The Fifty Year Sword; which brings sound and light into the mix. What is your process for recreating, or inventing, the profound sensory experiences found throughout your writing?

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Danielewski: I think it’s about being open to the various possibilities. We could look at this abstractly: if you are open to every single impulse that was out there, then you would be unable to process it all. It’s one way of practicing meditation: you choose to listen to everything. You listen to every ache and pain and sound and sensation. And there’s so much that, eventually, you find kind of the white noise in which you can breathe deeply.

I think over the years, I’ve realized that font-choice makes a difference, I think size type, I think the weight of the ink matters, and how the page moves. And, as a quick aside, I’m completely open to digital formats—and so then taking that into account, what’s the luminosity of words? And there is something curious which I’ve found as I become more and more focused on this, which is when you move to a literal image, it does tend to change your thinking. It shifts you out of that verbal experience and it becomes something else. So, I think, for me, the exploration right now is finding that fine-line between text and image where it doesn’t kick over into the image side of your mind. It actually still remains in the verbal, but it accesses the image without actually abandoning the verbal. That’s the kind of tightrope that I attempt to walk and that’s the challenge. And ultimately, my main process is: I sit down at my desk and I write, six days a week.

LAist: Being a novel writer can seem like a minority niche in LA, where film is paramount. What do you think about the literary scene in Los Angeles? Any favorite local literary spots?

Danielewski: Well I think the literary scene is very present. I think the longer you live here, the more you realize that LA is this vast place that contains many, many interesting worlds. It’s true that the film world dominates it, but I think the longer you live here, the more you see there are incredible elements in the art scene, in the food scene, in architecture, in music. Movies and television are sort of like the loud siblings at the table. I love Joe Donnely and Laurie Ochoa at Slake magazine and all of their readings. Then, of course, there are the bookstores I love. I love Vroman’s in Pasadena, Skylight, and Booksoup. And some of the things they put on at The Hammer are fantastic.

But as LA knows, the movie doesn’t exist in one place. It’s assembled on back lots, on location and further refined in little darkrooms somewhere in West Hollywood or Burbank and yet, when they’re done, they’re create this sense of physicality that this location is so important, but that’s not really the case. Just look at the food-trucks and the pop-up restaurants. It isn’t so much about a bar in LA as it is about a bartender who may be working at a given place for a few weeks. You can go to The Viper or The Whiskey, but you follow the music as it moves throughout the city. In LA, location is less important.

LAist: Lastly, what are you at work on now?

Danielewski: I’ve been working on this huge project about a little girl who finds a kitten. I’m working on Volume 8 now. That’s the only new information I’m going to give to you (laughs). I should finish Volume 8 by the end of this year and that is a challenge. It is a vast production and there is news that’s coming down the pipeline, but it will be officially announced soon.

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Photo courtesy of the author
The Fifty Year Sword performance will take place on Halloween night at the Redcat theater. For more information on the event, please visit Redcat.org. And for more information on Mark Z. Danielewski and his work, be sure to visit the author's Facebook page.

The Fifty Year Sword
Monday, October 31st, 2011 @ Redcat Theater
8:30 p.m. Admission is $20 for general public, $16 for students, and $10 for CalArts students.