«Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Danielewski (Take Two1) Remember those dire, pre-Millennial pronouncements about the alarming marginalization ...»
Mark Danielewski: In 1990 I was living in New York City doing odd jobs and making very little money when I learned my father was in the hospital in Los Angeles. At the time, my father and I hadn’t really seen or spoken to one another for a long time, other than a few sporadic phone calls here and there; it would only be years later that I recognized the severity of our estrangement, with its dull, persistent throb of fear and memories. But there was no question I had to go see him once I heard he was dying of prostate cancer, which had begun affecting his kidneys enough so that by the time he was admitted to the hospital he was on the verge of kidney failure. Without the means to buy an airplane ticket, I went down to the Greyhound Bus Station and got myself a seat heading west towards Los Angeles. By the time I climbed aboard I was so wound up that I couldn’t sleep a wink, so I began writing a piece in which I tried to articulate what my father’s mortality meant to me. It was a long ride—three days, two nights; four days, three nights; I can’t remember; day for night, night for day—I just kept scribbling, steadily, furiously, writing on the move, at various bus stops, jotting things down at night with a little flashlight because the light over my seat was broken. And by the time I stepped off the bus, I had this bit of writing called "Redwood." That was at least one beginning of House of Leaves.
Sinda Gregory: You’ve referred to “Redwood” as a “piece” and a “bit of writing”—would you describe it as a short story, a meditation, or what?
MZD: It was a bit like a novella in some ways and more like a screenplay in others, but it’s hard for me to fit it into a category,2 I wasn’t concerned with a specific narrative structure or a set of grammatical rules.
Basically, it was just an outpouring—a means of articulating this torrent of conflicting emotions I was feeling about my father. My sister met me when I finally reached Los Angeles, and we went home and looked after my father until his cancer went into remission. At that point I presented him with my story—as a gift. His response was unbelievable, full of rage—outraged, I think, by the audacity that I had written something so passionate and so focused on him. And so he applied all his years of intellectual edge and shredded me, going on to describe how useless art was, demanding why I didn’t just go get a job at the post office! Well, I probably should have expected his reaction, but I was just devastated. My first response When later asked to clarify the nature of the specific content of “Redwood,” Danielewski declined to elaborate. He does, however, provide clues in House of Leaves about the nature of “Redwood” and why his father responded so angrily when it was read to him. One of the textual “bits” which Zampanò never incorporated into The Navidson Record, for example, appears to be a
crucial clue in this regard:
Redwood. I saw him once a long time ago when I was young. I ran away and luckily, or no luck at all, he did not follow me. But now I cannot run and anyway this time I am certain he would follow.
(“Bits,” Appendix B, HOL 547) afterwards was to attempt to eliminate myself from this equation. I was an affront to my father’s will and my father’s place in the universe, and so rather than challenge that will and that place, I would sacrifice myself. And I did exactly that; the closest thing to suicide I can think of— I tore up the manuscript of “Redwood” into hundreds of pieces, flung them into a dumpster in the alley, and spent the next few days in a kind of emotional coma. Ripping this thing apart in this Dionysian manner was a violent act but certainly not one inspired by joy and wine.
A few days later my sister and I got together for dinner and began going over all that had happened, attempting to reassemble the emotional fragments, trying to put these recent events into some kind of perspective, including the toll the illness was having on my father and how that had influenced his response to what I had written. But no matter how much we thrashed this stuff out, the numbness didn’t really dissipate. Then my sister did something that still chokes me up when I think about it: she presented me with a manila folder in which I discovered “Redwood”—intact. She had gathered up and taped together all the pieces. This rescue of what I had impulsively destroyed allowed me to see that I could keep writing. It was like a Greek goddess coming down to breathe fire again into my lungs, saying in an awful whisper “Go now, go get Hector.” A life changing moment. I doubt I would have continued to write had she not rescued me that night.
LM: You said House of Leaves originated with “Redwood,” but in what sense? Did you later incorporate parts of it somehow into the novel, or are the connections more abstract?
MZD: What became part of House of Leaves and what did not is a complicated issue. It is not exactly accurate to say that it “originated” with “Redwood” in the sense that “Redwood” directly anticipated what I did in the novel. It was more a matter of “Redwood” having a certain spectral presence as I began my formal pursuit of the novel. This came about due to another incident that occurred immediately following my father’s death, about two-and-a-half years after I’d first read “Redwood” to him. During that time I’d been Although this is pure speculation on our part, it seems likely that this passage, with its dark association of Redwood with a going to film school at USC, and was actually beginning to put down roots here when my father’s prostate cancer returned with a vengeance, metastasizing throughout his body, finally destroying him in January
1993. Following the funeral my sister and I opened my father’s will and discovered he’d left instructions for his ashes be scattered among the... redwoods.
SG: That really is spooky!—like something out of a horror film. Were you ever able to figure out if he had made this redwood request in his will before or after you had read him your story?
MZD: We never did. Dad was certainly wily enough that I wouldn’t put it past him to have recognized his first take had not been OK, and then to use the request in his will to have his ashes scattered in the redwoods as a way of having his voice speak to us, to me, from beyond the grave, so to speak, to let us know he had reconsidered. I’ll complicate this even further by saying that it is only having done what I’ve done and published what I’ve written that makes it now possible for me to come to this interpretation that my father had accepted the story that he couldn’t accept when I first read it to him. But at the time, it just seemed like one of those strange coincidences. Sometimes I think the best plan is to plan on a little coincidence.
Not long after my sister and I returned from the redwoods, I had an image of a house that was a quarter of an inch bigger on the inside than on the outside. At first I couldn’t tell if this image contained a story, or was just a footnote to a story, or a poem, or maybe something else entirely, but the image persisted, keeping me company as I continued writing, until finally after what had been years of pushing ahead blindly with no clear direction (all this, bear in mind, having started in the late 80’s at an inn in Vermont: character sketches, scenes, theoretical essays on film, odd monographs on the unseen), one night, completely out of the blue it seemed, I had one of those flashes of recognition that every struggling artist dreams about, and I suddenly found myself saying “Oh my god!—all the characters I’ve been working on live in this house! And all the theoretical concepts that I have been wrestling with are represented by this house!” My unconscious had showed me how all the threads of meaning I had been considering—all these riffs I had about memory, nightmarish avenging father figure, is probably a fragment drawn from Danielewski’s original “Redwood” text.
death, art and life, youth and old age, the nature of fear, and so on; as well as all the storylines I had been so entangled in—could be compressed into one icon.
LM: How much of the specifics of these tangled storylines eventually made their way into House of Leaves?
For instance, at what point were you already working with the narrative materials that would later go into The Navidson Record or Johnny Truant’s story?
MZD: As I was saying at the outset all I had was a wild array of ideas and impulses—characters, dialogue, a bunch of essays concerning how cinematic grammar might be applied to text. Intuition instructed me that these were all part of a larger whole, but I had no idea how they might be related on a narrative level. For instance, I knew I wanted to explore how text could be used cinematically long before the Navidsons entered the picture. Likewise, it was only after I did a great deal of writing that the Johnny Truant character finally cohered.
A kind of footnote here concerning some of the methods I used to make these different parts finally come together under the roof of one novel. House of Leaves has been praised as a wonderful “experimental novel,” but really it would be unlawful for me to accept such a description. Anyone with a real grasp of the history of narrative can see that House of Leaves is really just enjoying the fruits of a long line of earlier literary experimentation. The so-called “originality” claimed by my commentators must be limited to my decision to use the wonderful techniques developed by Mallarme, Sterne, B.S. Johnson, Cummings, Hollander, etc.,.etc., and of course Hitchcock, Welles, Truffaut and Kubrick, and so on.
Consider Citizen Kane. What Welles accomplished there certainly had an enormous impact in suggesting ways cinema might develop into great art. But the wonderful fluidity of motion in Kane—the texture of the images, the tight symmetry, and so forth—owes a great deal to earlier German expressionists like Fritz Lang. Orson Welles simply came along and said, “I really like what Lang and others have been doing, so let’s use it—but let’s also try to improve it.” Which is exactly what he did. Similarly, House of Leaves is really not so much an experimental novel as it is what comes after the experiments. I simply said, “Okay, I can place text this way on the page, so it has that effect. And I can use the shape and design of text not just to conjure up some static visual impression, but use it to further enhance the movement of meaning, theme and story.” LM: House of Leaves seems incredibly self-conscious about the influences it has absorbed. There’s the sense here of bravura that you find in Pynchon and Nabokov and Coover of a writer who is not only aware of a staggering array of styles and sources of info, but who has fully assimilated them into his own personal vision.
MZD: It is probably fortunate that I live in an age in which “self-consciousness” isn’t a bad thing for an author. As a fiction writer, being as self-conscious as I can possibly be would seem to be a very positive thing. By that I mean a writer who’s aware of what she or he’s doing, who knows enough about what’s been done to borrow what’s needed while avoiding merely repeating what’s already been borrowed and done before—and who can somehow display this awareness in a manner that avoids destroying the narrative or seem too much like, “Hey kids, look what I can do!” I don’t mind admitting that I was extremely selfconscious about everything that went into House of Leaves. In fact—and I know this will sound like a very bold remark, but I will say it anyway since it remains the truth—I have yet to hear an interpretation of House of Leaves that I had not anticipated. I have to yet to be surprised, but I’m hoping.
SG: On the other hand, the degree of digestion that seems to be going on in a book such as House of Leaves makes it a difficult, even intimidating book to encounter on a critical level.
MZD: And I hope it’s intimidating! It would never occur to me to apologize for having written a book that critics might feel at least somewhat intimated by. You know, I’ve heard quite a few people say they sense a certain amount of antagonism in me towards critics, but quite the opposite is true, really. I wanted to write a book that would raise the bar, something that people would feel deserved to be approached with the kind of respectful wariness and willingness which all great art demands. I wanted it to announce, “Look, if you’re going to interpret this in an scholastic way, you’d better be ready for the long haul!” And I do feel confident that engagement will eventually happen, and I am honestly looking forward to seeing what finally comes out of it. Encouraging a critical engagement with my book—that was at least one challenge I set for myself.
LM: Did footnotes always play such a prominent role in the formal arrangement of the novel?
MZD: Pretty much so, yes. Having the book proceed as a kind of dialogue between different characters was something I determined early on, and in fact it was the theatrical mode that dominated my thinking about how the book would unfold. One reason I was borrowing so heavily from Shakespeare was that I was drawn to the kind of discourse surrounding the same kind of theatrical families I myself had been raised in— the kind of thing you find in Eugene O'Neill, for example. Part of my involvement also had to do with the excitement I felt about my own family scene—I was going to my father's workshop and actor's studio, my mother was an actress, and so I was constantly exposed to a sense of living in a theatrical world where performers played.
I was also very aware that I was creating something akin to a vast literal theater, one the reader could use to project his or her own histories and anxieties. There are many different ways to describe what is happening in House of Leaves, but I myself have always looked at it as being basically a three-character play. The footnotes just expanded the number of characters who could participate and interact with this main narrative.
LM: What you’re describing seems to have grown out of some of the theories you were trying to work out concerning film and its relationship to text. Could you talk about your background in film and the various influences that the cinema has had on the novel?