«Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Danielewski (Take Two1) Remember those dire, pre-Millennial pronouncements about the alarming marginalization ...»
MZD: There's a theoretical element here that we can discuss later, but let me approach this first by way of another anecdote. My dad was a filmmaker who made everything from soap operas and documentaries to commercials and avant-garde films. There’s little question his passion for the cinema had a decisive impact on my own sensibilities. My father was originally from Poland and a survivor of the war. He was in the Warsaw insurrection and survived a camp. Liberated by the Americans, he first made his way to England where he was somehow accepted into R.A.D.A. (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) on the basis of an audition where he recited Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy without understanding a word of what he was saying! Weeks later he received a notice in the mail. It was a bill. Tuition due. That was his letter of acceptance. Possibly the only time a notice of money owed ever brought him a moment of joy. Later, as he told it, he saw Oklahoma in a theater, and decided right on the spot to head for this new world and reinvent himself in the bosom of a dream.
SG: This is sounding like one of those classic American immigrant rags-to-riches stories.
MZD: It was actually more of a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. My family moved around a lot during the years my sister and I were growing up because of the films my father was doing. He was constantly pursuing new projects and ideas in new settings; by the time I was twelve we had already lived in Switzerland, Spain, Africa, England, and even India for a little while when I was very, very young. A bit later the money dried up, and he wound up back in New York City directing soap operas. During those years it was not uncommon for my family to sit around the dinner table passionately discussing Borges, Freud, Joyce, Nietzsche. But my father’s greatest passion was of course first and foremost film; he was always bringing home 16 mm. prints to show us, projected either on the wall or on these beautiful silvercoated screens he eventually started to collect. The accessibility that people have today to films through videos and laser discs and DVDs makes it difficult to grasp the very special nature of the education I received growing up as a result of having those movies available to me. And, more importantly, the discussions these films inspired. If there was anything my father loved as much as films, it was talking about them, which he frequently did in such an articulate, riveting manner that his talks often seemed to completely supersede the films. So while I was changing the reels, discussions would ensue about what we had just seen, my father asking very pointed questions like, “What kind of political ideas are being presented here?” or “How has the director’s use of this lens or those angles or that film stock influenced the way the viewer feels? And how has the visual treatment of the central character affected our responses to this character? Who is the central voice here? What do we mean by “voice” here, anyway? How, for that matter, can there even be a voice present in a montage of silent images? Answer me!” Over dinner he might also discuss a film he hadn’t brought home with him—one he’d shown in a classroom or at a screening, which he would describe in great detail in a near state of rapture, providing a running commentary, even outlining the talks held afterwards. Then for the next hour and a half, the Danielewski family would sit around discussing a film not one of us had seen but which my father had so vividly recreated for us in our heads.
My point is that while there’s no doubt that I was immersed in the cinema from an early age, I was also immersed in the language necessary to discuss film. On numerous occasions my sister and I would later see a film which had been spun into our imaginations out of the enthusiasm of my father's words and thoughts, only to discover that we did not like the actual film nearly as much as the conversation we had had about it. Strange, eh?
SG: You’ve spoken in other interviews of another anecdote involving your dad that sheds some light on the background of House of Leaves—one that involved you and your father walking down a corridor towards a bullring when you were a child living in Spain....
MZD: That incident occurred during a period when my family was living in Madrid. My father was at work on a documentary called Spain: Open Door. We were only there for two years, ‘69-‘71, ‘70-‘72, somewhere around then. A brief time but very important to both my sister and myself. The title was an echo of a Rossellini film,3 but its main reference was to the way Spain was supposedly opening its doors to artists during the era of the Franco régime. The documentary itself was full of exotic images—shots of Salvador Dali painting on one of Gaudi's buildings with the entire cityscape of Madrid in the background, an interview with Rubenstein which never made it into the film, shots of Segovia, the classical guitar player, picking ethereal music in some dark, cavernous room, as well as other images of Franco, various matadors, and lots of other stuff. For the opening credits, a camera was mounted under a jet, and with time-lapse photography, all of Spain from the very north all the way to Gibraltar unfolded in just three minutes.
LM: But I understand that this film was never completed because your dad ran into problems with the Spanish authorities.
MZD: Right. After my father put all his heart, money and creative energies into that film, the Spanish government confiscated it because they had decided his take on things was unacceptable. So my father lost his film. He did, however, talk about it for years to come; as we grew up, we kept hearing stories and rumors that it still existed in some vault.
LM: This sounds like the mysterious-missing-film premise of Zampanò’s The Navidson Record.
MZD: Initially, I wasn’t aware I was drawing on this when I first got the idea for The Navidson Record; but the more I wrote the more obvious it became what an enormous influence Open Door was having on the novel; how symmetrical the story of my father’s lost documentary is to The Navidson Record.
LM: You’ve referred to this film as being “fantastic” and “incredible,” but I gather that’s mostly based on your father’s descriptions of the film rather than on what you actually saw as a kid.
MZD: The truth is I have no idea what was finally included in the film or if it was any good or not because I never saw it! I tried to track it down later on when I visited Spain, but I ran into a lot of bureaucratic difficulties; for one thing it seems pretty likely that after the original film was confiscated, it wound up being
re-cut and used for propaganda. Eventually I accepted that my quest was fruitless. The fact that Spain:
Open Door—this phenomenal documentary which survives in my memory, along with all these vivid images I’ve just ticked off—exists today at all is purely due to my father’s expertise in telling us such loving and highly detailed stories.
One incident I know for a fact was never recorded on celluloid was when my father took me on a daytrip to a bullfighting school outside Madrid. It was run by a family who also owned a ranch for raising I.e., Roberto Rosselini’s Rome Open City (1945), starring Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani, which many people regard to be his bulls, and after we arrived, my father showed me the area where the young matadors trained. To get there we had to go down into the concrete underbelly where the bulls were normally kept. On this particular afternoon there were no bulls around, but there was a smell in the air that made it feel like a bull might appear at any moment; and my father proceeded to show me how the bulls were released to run down this long dark tunnel we were standing in, and which my father and I began walking down, hand in hand, until it eventually led us out into the arena. If we went there now, we’d probably discover the tunnel was only ten or fifteen feet long, but the way my memory conjures the place, it was at least a hundred yards long and seemed to take forever to pass through. I assure you the whole thing was very, very spooky.
SG: Do you recall feeling your father’s presence there by your side as you were walking down that dark corridor? Was he trying to comfort you?
MZD: I seem to recall him trying to let me know we were safe, that nothing bad was going to happen, but that didn’t make the circumstances any less terrifying to me. I doubt there was really anything my father could have done at that moment to deflect my fear. In a certain odd way it must have been a very positive moment—father and son striding down this spooky corridor together, the father trying to assure the son that nothing bad is going to happen, the son having to confront this tremendous fear of facing this black bull with monstrously sharp horns.
I remember how dark and cold the walls were, and also how there was a light at the end of this tunnel. I was excited about reaching that light, because it seemed to promise safety, and so we walked and walked through that cold darkness, until we finally emerged into the sunlight, where I discovered the small arena with a dirt floor. There was a high cement wall and these red barricades, behind which the matadors or picadors or banderilleros could hide if they were in trouble with the bull. I immediately felt unsafe. But I was also thrilled. I began looking around and noticed now how the tunnel was nothing but a black maw threatening at any minute to disgorge a charging bull.
Again, I can’t really say for sure how accurate any of this is. What I do recall though with almost excruciating vividness is how powerful and frightening the whole scene felt, and how my imaginings of that place possessed and utterly terrified me at the time. It was a moment that gave me a primal, timeless understanding of the nature of terror. Afterwards, my father gave me a little matador costume as a Christmas or birthday present, so for a while there, I became a young matador trainee.
SG: The influence of women in the novel goes well beyond the letters from Johnny’s mother and her influence in shaping and nurturing his own love of words and books. I was struck, for example, by how many of the footnotes and critical references appearing in House of Leaves are attributed to women.
Irrespective of how aware you were in being politically correct in this regard, it certainly seems refreshingly enlightened to have so many female voices included here.
MZD: I would say their appearance is less a matter of conscious intent on my part than of generational differences about feminist issues—a sea change in attitude among male writers emerging today in comparison to those you might find during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I’m sure the response of some people who pick up The Whalestoe Letters is going to be, “Wow, that’s remarkable—but where did that come from?” The reality is that such sensibilities have been here all along.
SG: Some of this may indeed by generational, but I suspect your own mother and sister have had something to do with this...
MZD: No question about that. I was fortunate to grow up surrounded and influenced by two very powerful, independent women—my sister and my mother. And as a writer and thinker, I have been influenced not only by female writers and public figures, but by women generally—enough so that it would be more bizarre to think that I would write a novel without a major feminine presence. Certainly having grown up with such powerful male and powerful female voices in my life meant that to not include either would be to misrepresent the perspective I have of this world.
LM: We get to know Johnny and Zampanò in very different ways; while Johnny is given a first-person narrative role in the novel, almost everything we find out about Zampanò is acquired indirectly—through the anecdotes Johnny supplies about the women who read to Zampanò, the appendix materials, and The Navidson Record, which is by far the most important source of all. We’ll return to Zampanò later, but I felt that one of the justifications for including this large chuck of his mother’s letters in the Appendix is that they provide insights into Johnny’s background and personality—so we begin to understand the source of his scars and his fears, what has shaped (and deformed) his relationship with women, created his difficulties with intimacy, and so forth. Just as importantly, Pelafina’s letters also help us understand the source of his interest in poetry and literature, his love affair with language generally— his fascination with the sound of words, their meanings and etymologies, and so on. It’s undoubtedly his mother who instilled these things in him because she so obviously she’s a marvelous wordsmith herself—she’s a great poet, in a certain way.
MZD: Well, there are many ways to enter House of Leaves. Do you want to go by way of Johnny Truant or do you want to go by way of Johnny Truant’s mother? Johnny is young and “hip” (at least to a certain degree), which means that most younger readers will find his pathway the easiest, certainly easier than Pelafina Lievre’s way. But her voice is equally important, and for some readers her letters will prove the better path.
LM: They may be equally valid, but choosing one will necessarily affect the rest of your journey. In my own case, when I came across a footnote on page 72 indicating that readers feeling they can profit from a better understanding of Johnny’s past should consult the letters written to him from his institutionalized mother in Appendix II-E, I immediately did so. And once I finished her letters and returned to p. 72, several things had occurred. The first was that it was now much clearer to me that the author of this book had a much wider range of styles and voices than I had suspected up to that point. And second, throughout the rest of the novel, I was very aware that I now had a completely different perspective on Johnny Truant than I would have had I not turned from page 72 to Appendix E. I was quite literally reading a different book from the one most other readers would be reading.