«Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Danielewski (Take Two1) Remember those dire, pre-Millennial pronouncements about the alarming marginalization ...»
MZD: It’s nice to find out that some readers have tried that particular route. But of course, most people won’t read it that way. Many wait until the very end to read his mother’s letters. Some people never read them. An advantage to publishing her letters separately is that they offer readers a way to recognize alternate approaches to moving through House of Leaves. So some readers are going to The Whalestoe Letters by thinking, OK, I thought that House of Leaves had to unfold through the route I originally took but now I see I can travel through it in an entirely different direction. In other words, with The Whalestoe Letters not only are you not reading this material at the end or the middle or even a third of the way through a much larger work, you’re reading it at the very beginning. My hope is that at least a few readers will read The Whalestoe Letters and then decide to move on to House of Leaves. Those who do will be much more likely to feel some sympathy for and be more patient with Johnny because they have a greater understanding of his situation. Whereas I’m sure there are many people out there who have absolutely no sympathy for Johnny. They see him only as an LA club rat who likes to party and they just don’t want to hear about his escapades with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But a good reader starts to realize that this is a stereotype that has to be and in fact is being disassembled.
SG: Stripping away our preconceptions is just as important in the case of our responses to Johnny’s mother as it is for Johnny.
MZD: Right. You start out by seeing she’s been institutionalized for possibly committing some terrible acts and so you say to yourself, Oh, she’s a nut case. But if you keep reading, you realize that there’s a lot more to her than just another mad-woman-in-the-attic stereotype. The same thing applies to Zampanò. You read what Johnny tells us about him in the introduction and in his commentaries, and you’re probably thinking, who is this guy? he must be just some old nut. But eventually these little hints, bits-and-pieces of his history, start to shine through, forcing you to reevaluate him.
LM: The reviews and commentary I’ve seen so far nearly all have a few nice things to say about the letters from Johnny’s mother, but mostly focus on Johnny’s narrative and the way it interacts with the characters and events in the documentary film described in The Navidson Record. Strangely enough, though, there’s been very little discussion about the third person in that 3-character play arrangement you mentioned earlier—this fascinating and mysterious character named Zampanò who is, after all, responsible for creating The Navidson Record in the first place. It’s as if readers regard Tom and Karen Navidson, along with Reston, Holloway, and all the other characters who appear in the imaginary “Navidson Record” documentary as being “real” in a way that the person projecting all of this isn’t. To me, then, one of the key things we need to do in the book is to attempt to get a better sense of who this guy is, what sort of a person this guy is psychologically, what kind of an ARTIST he is, what his background and psychological make-up is, and what experiences he’s had that have led this lonely blind old man to write The Navidson Record. But how DO we get to know this? We get some insights from the anecdotes Johnny hears, but almost nothing first-hand, other than from the visual materials, letters and other texts in the Appendix. Ultimately, of course, the main way we get to know Zampanò is through this book he’s written, The Navidson Record, By the way, how do you pronounce his name, anyway? Zamp-ano?
SG: Wouldn’t it be pronounced Zam-pan-o if he’s originally from Europe?
MZD: I’d say you’re both right—it just depends on who’s doing the pronouncing. I mean, I would assume Johnny would pronounce it “Zampano,” whereas the correct Italian pronunciation is “Zampano.” Don’t be embarrassed about your difficulties with this. When you’ve grown up with a name like Danielewski, you quickly get acquainted with the concept of multiple pronunciations.
LM: But a native Italian would pronounce it... ?
MZD: Zam-pahn-o. Fellini sure as hell would have said Zam-pahn-o4.
SG: How did his character take shape in your imagination?
MZD: There’s a long and a short answer to this. Here’s a strange irony: I would say that in some ways Zampanò is my youth. I always had these massive journals chock full of madness and reverie while I was in Paris, or wherever I was living when I was traveling around Europe. Portrait of a Lunatic as a Young Man.
That's the short answer. Or at least a short answer.
SG: Some of the basis for Johnny’s fascination for Zampanò seems to be his mother’s influence. She offers him a mode of thinking that has much more in common with Zampanò than it does with the people he’s interacting with in Los Angeles. In other words, both Pelafina and Zampanò provide background that helps us get to know Johnny better.
MZD: I’d agree, although referring to their function as supplying “background” for Johnny’s narrative is tricky because you could also look at them as each being the background for the other. Whichever one you focus on will make the remaining two seem to recede in importance. In Johnny’s case, his history is provided by his mother and in some ways by Zampanò. But at the same time, Johnny’s presence in the mother’s life definitely helps you understand who she is.
SG: Perhaps the closest comparison to the narrative structure you set up here is the one Nabokov uses in Pale Fire, which has its own labyrinth of texts and commentators leading their independent existences and yet mirroring each other. Was that novel a major influence on the formal arrangement you devised here?
MZD: Considering that I have yet to read Pale Fire, I would have to say not enormously, although I was of course aware of what Nabokov had managed to do in the book. The more important structural influences came from the theater, especially Shakespeare, who remains unrivaled in his ability to handle numerous narrative threads and cross-commenting characters. Scholastic framing or footnotes, I don’t consider Readers who are interested in some of the implications underlying MZD’s seemingly casual reference here to Fellini may wish to consult the ZAMPANO entry in the Appendix.
particularly original conceits. Let’s not forget e, Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace5 (I’ll admit to being influenced by Wallace even though I haven’t read any David Foster Wallace, because I believe we are often just as influenced by writers we do not read as we aren’t by those we do). So the footnote format in itself is a lot less interesting to me than the issue of the content of those notes—of who’s responsible for creating them and what they tell you about that person—because footnotes become another lens through which the reader must look at everything. The problem is that it’s a lens many people don’t want to look through. It’s much easier for some readers to dismiss the whole thing by saying, “Oh, Danielewski is just making fun of scholarly work” and leave it at that rather than trying to work out all the math and keep track of all the voices, to say nothing of all the footnote numbers (which admittedly can get very complicated once you get into it).
SG: Speaking of which—could I ask you to tell me where the text for footnote 183 appears? I can’t seem to find it and have even begun to wonder if perhaps it might have either have gotten lost in the textual shuffle, or been omitted for other reasons.
MZD: Okay, just to make sure everyone’s getting this, the question Sinda has just asked is: Where is the text for footnote 183? Indeed, does such a text for footnote 183 even exist? Larry, you go ahead and ask the next question while I go ahead and find it.
LM: Maybe we could use this as a way to lead into the question of errors in HOL.
MZD: There are no errors in the book.
LM: I only brought that up because typos and other so-called textual “errors” often can be very revealing— I’m reminded of John Shade’s remark, “Life everlasting—based on a misprint!” MZD is referring to such works as Borges Ficciones, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. There is, however, a much longer lineage of this sort of scholarly apparatus being employed, going at least as far back as Swift’s brilliant Tale of the Tubb.
MZD: Eureka, I found it!6 The missing text for footnote 183 can be found on page 140. It was just a little hard to locate because it’s written backwards.
SG: Thank you, Mark! That’s a big relief.
LM: Your novel is filled with the same sorts of “dazzling coincidence which poets love and logicians loathe” referred to by Humbert Humbert in Lolita. One of the most unlikely of these involves the same reference to a “five and a half minute hallway” in The Navidson Record appearing in a letter from Johnny’s mother where she describes the incident she claims caused her to be removed from him. The presence of this and so many other unlikely coincidences seems to function in a manner similar to what we often find in Nabokov—that is, they serve as reminders to readers who have been paying sufficient attention that there must be a narrator controlling everything who is introducing these coincidences for some reason. … MZD: Why don’t we cut to the chase here? The real issue we’re circling around has to do with the question of whether or not the novel can be seen as having a single dominant voice creating all the others, and if so, identifying that voice. In short: who really is the originator of this book? As you have obviously realized, this is indeed a very important question—one you’ve managed to articulate in a very guileful way without directly asking it. But I’m not going to answer because for me to move further and further into the narrative details would require me to begin to deprive readers of the private joys of making such a discovery on their own.
LM: Fair enough. Having Nabokov go on record to clarify the mystery of authorship in Pale Fire would have made things a lot easier for me, but he would have deprived me of one the richest reading experiences of my life. Let’s move on to the issue of the role that horror plays in your novel. The many allusions and references you make to this genre, not to mention the central role which horror plays in The Navidson Record and to a lesser extent in Johnny’s narrative, all make it clear that you are very familiar indeed with this genre. Were horror stories and films something that you and your sister were drawn to while you were The EUREKA! entry in the Appendix clarifies why this footnote was so difficult to track down in the first place.
growing up? It can’t be just a coincidence that horror plays such a central part in your novel, or that your sister’s stage name is “Poe.” MZD: It was no coincidence! My sister and I have been very much involved in the American Gothic scene since our childhood, not just in our imaginations or from reading about it, but in the very literal sense of living it. The house my sister and I grew up in and where we attempted to live (and ultimately couldn’t live) was created out of great shadows, constantly cast by and filled with many very painful and dangerous resonances. Of course, plenty of kids grow up in houses with shadows, but most of them never get too freaked out because their parents can just turn on the lights, announce loudly that there’s nothing there, and POOOF—no more dark to worry about. But Poe and I realized early on that shadows were everywhere in our house, impossible to light and very, very deep indeed.
LM: To sustain this house trope for a moment, may we assume that this Gothic house your family lived in had secret rooms that were normally locked and which you and your sister weren’t supposed to go into?
MZD: Absolutely—there were many rooms we knew were off-limits and passageways we were too terrified to enter alone. Moreover, the spatial nature and dimensions of this house were constantly changing. One moment it was warm and proximal, and our father would be saying, “You’re wonderful!” You’re the best!
You’re going to be great artists, and we must make sure you go to great universities.” Then without warning, everything would get cold and dark, and the promise of the future failed. I remember when my sister was accepted into Princeton and I got into Yale, his reaction was, “That’s very nice, I’m so proud of you—but maybe going off to that place isn’t right for you, maybe you should go to the tech school here instead.” In many ways he was like the father in Shine—one moment warm, generous and funny; petty, vindictive, and hateful the next. He was full of these bizarre sets of contradictions that he never resolved—and that he probably wouldn’t have wanted to resolve even if he could because he seemed to thrive on them.
LM: Did your father ever talk about his experiences during the war or about what happened to him in the concentration camps?
MZD: Rarely. But don’t think for a moment he didn’t communicate to me and my sister the horrors of that world in other ways, ways which expressed its awfulness far more vividly than if he had sat around telling us war stories. His means of communicating this could be as simple as dropping us off at school in the morning and then making a big point about the fact that we should wait there for him to pick us up. Then he’d add, “Don’t worry about anything—I will be here to pick you up. Don’t be scared, everything will be all right. I will be here to pick you up. Don’t be scared.7” Well, once he was gone, my sister and I could feel the shadows creeping in. Both of us thinking, “Why is he so worried. Oh God, maybe he’s telling us he’s not going to pick us up--and if he doesn’t that means....” LM: Kids have no way to understand what’s brought on this sort of behavior by our parents--all we know is that there must be something they are trying to protect us from they won’t name. In your Dad’s case, that kind of response must have grown out of the chaos he had been thrust into during the war.