Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski

Mark Z. Danielewski is in Germany to promote the German version of his book ";Das Haus – House of Leaves.” It is an intelligent horror-novel about a house that is on the inside bigger than the outside. At the book fair Mark has caught a cold that he is trying to fight with hot tea and hot chocolate in turn while we are talking in the foyer of a small hotel in Cologne. In spite of that, he is in a very good mood and charming. It is obvious that he loves his job.

Phantastik-Couch: „;House of Leaves“; was published 7 years ago. The German translation „;Das Haus” just got published. How does it feel to do a reading tour and to speak about the “;old” book again?

Mark Z. Danielewski: It’s strangely not that old a book. Because it came out in nearly a dozen languages I have always been dealing with it. For this tour I was asked to come up with some sections to read and this caused me to go back over the book. While I was doing this I found a section that I realized was prophetic about the book I was going to write next. So for me there are still moments of great discovery returning to something that I know so well and that is ";old”, but is still somehow living in my imagination as well.

Phantastik-Couch: How about live readings? Do you like performing your work?

Mark Z. Danielewski: I do enjoy it. It brings a different kind of texture to the whole experience. But I also recognize that reading aloud is a different type of thing, it is a performance or a semi performance. It is not quite the same thing as reading by yourself, late at night, one light on, falling into a world that is completely beyond your sofa and your walls – the limits of your boat.

Phantastik-Couch: How did you get the idea for ";House of Leaves”?

Mark Z. Danielewski: It was a long process. It was basically three years of writing sketches, poems and essays. One involved a family; one involved a first-person narrator. Another one was a series of essays on how I can use text. It was shortly after my father died, in 1993, that I had the idea of a house that was a quarter of an inch bigger on the inside than the outside. I realised that the family was living in this house, a young kid discovering the story of them. Then these essays on how text can be used in a semantic way were justified because we were talking about a house that is expanding and moving. So I could use these techniques. I could move the text where I wanted it and turn it. And then it was just seven years of bringing it all together.

Phantastik-Couch: Was it clear right away that this would become a book?

Mark Z. Danielewski: Yes, because I always wrote. I was always interested in writing novels. I was ten years old when I wrote my first novel. I went to school specifically to study things that would help me to write a novel. I majored in literature. I went to Berkeley to study Latin because I wanted to improve my understanding of language. All, because I was going to write novels.

(He is showing his right palm) You see that is my destiny line, right there. And this is one of the things why I always feel like I have been fated, because it is very strong, just goes all the way through. As much as it points to a destiny it also points to that my future isn’t free.

Phantastik-Couch: Parts of it were first published in the internet. Tell us about it.

Mark Z. Danielewski: In many ways the book could not have existed without the internet. I put it on the internet; that was back in 98. It was a big deal just to get a PDF made of the file and get it uploaded back in the day of dial-up modems. The Webpage-address I printed on business cards and went into bookstores and put them in books I liked. I hoped people would get interested in and think, oh let’s check out this website. And eventually there was a small community of people who read it.

Phantastik-Couch: What role does the internet play for you and your work today?

Mark Z. Danielewski: For my last books, there is a massive amount of research I have done on the internet. But I always start a story with a pencil and a piece of paper, outside of technology. It actually goes through all levels of evolution. It starts with old pencil and paper, and then it goes onto a computer, finally into a special sort of software. That is how I progress.

Phantastik-Couch: Because of the many footnotes and references, have you ever considered realising the book with hypertext?

Mark Z. Danielewski: Well, even back then, when I put the book on the internet I knew that the final book would be vastly different. You can’t understand these vertical footnotes, the page, on a screen. You wouldn’t understand the depth of the book. You would not actually experience as rapidly the flipping of the pages and things like that. So in many ways my book exists as a three-dimensional object and therefore it is perfectly unsuited for the internet.

Phantastik-Couch: Do you plan on making a movie out of ";House of Leaves”?

Mark Z. Danielewski: I get 300 offers a year. I am just not interested. It’s a book about the imagination. It is a book suggesting things, illuminating areas with your own mind. I am not against visual media. But the format of movies is so much driven by cooperations, the rights of it. In a way it kills the idea. It petrifies it. I could imagine a visual representation coming out of YouTube. There would be lots of tiny little fragments that you had to assemble. Maybe you had to determine your own order. But as a movie per se, no. If you want to see the movie, read the book!

Phantastik-Couch: Your book is compared to movies like ";Blair Witch Project.” Did it influence you?

Mark Z. Danielewski: No, the book was finished by the time it came out. But „;Blair Witch” was a happy coincidence. It probably helped sell the book in the very beginning, because people could say it is like “;Blair Witch”. There was a wonderful Belgium movie called „;Man Bites Dog” about a serial killer. I remember watching that. I was already writing “;House of Leaves” but it was still vivid, the way something changes when you are aware that the camera man is actually a part of the whole story and perhaps a danger as well.

Phantastik-Couch: Fear plays an important role in the book. What are you most afraid of and why?

Mark Z. Danielewski: Death. Because this is such a great life. I am afraid of not having enough time to finish what I want to write. If I am lucky enough I would like to tell those stories before I go.

Phantastik-Couch: Do you have the ideas for a story ready in your head or do they come while writing?

Mark Z. Danielewski: Writing is about control. But at the same time it is about letting go because wonderful things happen when you write. You don’t know what is going to happen next. You have to be out of control. If you control it, if you plan it, it becomes a dead thing. It doesn’t have a soul. It is a place where nobody lives. That is why I love to write. I want to know what happens next.

Phantastik-Couch: What is a day or writing like for you? Do you write regularly or spontaneously?

Mark Z. Danielewski: Oh, I work very hard. I get up early in the morning, around 5.30 or 6.00. Then I normally work out, have a good breakfast. Then I write for six to ten hours. Sometimes it will be only four hours and then I do research. Generally it is that way, five days a week. When I get back from this reading tour it probably will be six days a week, because there is a lot of work to do. And I love to write. I miss it. I want to go back to writing.

Phantastik-Couch: And when your writing day is done?

Mark Z. Danielewski: I go out. Have dinner with my friends. We’ll see a movie, anything. (He laughs). I get out of the house.

Phantastik-Couch: You have also written the books „;The Fifty Year Sword” and “;Only Revolutions.” Will they be published in Germany?

Mark Z. Danielewski: ";Only Revolutions” has been purchased by Klett-Cotta. It is a challenge, it is a difficult book. They want to publish it in two years time, but that is ambitious. It will eventually make it over here. I think by 2010.

This interview was conducted by Verena Wolf