«Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Danielewski (Take Two1) Remember those dire, pre-Millennial pronouncements about the alarming marginalization ...»
MZD: I’m sure a lot of my father’s behavior was shaped when he saw his entire world annihilated in the blink of an eye. One day he’s home and then in the next the Germans march in and everything’s over, brutally and deliberately—family, friends, all those things that had given him a sense of comfort and security and love. All gone.
LM: And the new world he now had to adjust to--the world of the concentration camps and the war, the violence and brutality—must have seemed utterly nightmarish.
MZD: And it was from that world-view that my sister and I both inherited a powerful sense of how terrifying the world can be. And you know what else? It fascinated us.
LM: The impact of those images seems related to the crisis of representation associated with postmodernism, the fact that we are increasingly inhabiting what Sontag refers to as “The Image World,” the seeming devaluation of the word as images increasingly become people’s main source of input about the world. And in House of Leaves we find numerous references, asides, debates and discussions about the See “DON’T BE SCARED” in the Appendix for Poe’s treatment of this motif in her liner notes to Haunted.
implications of people increasingly receiving their information about and understanding of the world through visual representations rather than through books. This shift that seems every bit as profound as the Guttenberg revolution that McLuhan talked about in that it is changing our relationship to memory and imagination—and even to reality itself. At any rate, certainly one of the aspects of House of Leaves that got me most excited was the sense that I was encountering an author who had obviously been influenced by and was open to visual influences, but whose commitment to words and print-bound books was even more obvious.
MZD: I would hope that my love of words—their meanings, their sounds and certainly their visual embodiment—comes through, as well as my sense that all this talk one hears today about the death of the word and the irrelevance of books and print is way, way premature. My reverence for books—for the power and flexibility of phrases unfolding on the page—is the reason why I’m not selling film rights to HOL.
Reading and interpreting what people say requires certain parts of your brain to create images, fire up colors, paint scenes, negotiate geometry and keep twisting all those things around in order to accommodate some sort of understanding.
LM: The move away from typewriters to word processors seems to be having an impact on writing today that some people are comparing to the impact that the printing press, and later the typewriter, began to have on writing practices. For instance, I’ve noticed that more and more writers are breaking up the linear flow of the narrative by using devices like footnotes and endnotes, glossaries, and other formal methods to deflect the reader’s eye from its usual left-to-right, front-of-the-book-to-the-end movement. You’ve already mentioned the endnotes in Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but a much more elaborate example would be the elaborate glossaries, endnotes, appendices and so forth that you find in many of William Vollmann’s novels.
When people wrote books on typewriters, the act of creating a footnote was very laborious, time-consuming work, whereas now, you can almost effortlessly insert footnotes, create glossaries, and—an example that has immediate relevance to your book—even generate indexes. Just the fact that it’s now so much easier to create footnotes or other textual “layers” seems to have encouraged writers to think of what they are doing less in terms of developing linear narratives than in presenting works which are “textual assemblages.” Anyway, do you think this shift away from the pen or the typewriter to the word processors wound up influencing your own composition process at all? In particular, did it perhaps allow you to develop this elaborate formal structure that you devised for House of Leaves?
MZD: This is one of those moments when I get to say, “HA! “ (please quote me on that accurately, with “Ha” being capitalized, italicized and followed by an exclamation point). And I say “HA!” here because I didn’t write House of Leaves on a word processor. In fact, I wrote out the entire thing in pencil! And what’s most ironic, I’m still convinced that it’s a great deal easier to write something out by hand than on a computer. You hear a lot of people talking about how computers make writing so much easier because they offer the writer so many choices, whereas in fact pencil and paper allow you a much greater freedom. I mean, you can do anything with a pencil! I even used a pencil to storyboard the labyrinth section in the novel, which was by far the most complicated thing to write from a design standpoint.8 SG: But wouldn’t you agree that word processors encourage authors to pursue certain formal possibilities that were basically unavailable to earlier writers because there was no practical way to implement them?
Irrespective of the book’s merits, it’s hard to imagine a commercial publisher ever agreeing to publish a novel like HOL simply because typesetting it would been so expensive.
MZD: There’s no doubt computers, new softwares, and other technologies play a big role in getting any book ready for production these days. They also make it easier for a publisher to consider releasing a book like mine which previously would have been considered too complicated and expensive to typeset by hand.
Yet despite all the technological advantages currently available, the latter stages of getting HOL ready for production involved such a great deal of work Pantheon began to wonder if they were going to able to publish it the way I wanted. So I wound up having to do the typesetting myself.
But I feel I have sidestepped your question, which I don’t want to do because it’s a good one. Look, despite my pencil pride, there’s no question that technology does have an influence not just on the production end of things but on the writing process as well; and I agree with you that we're starting to see longer articles on the Internet, with more endnotes and links to other materials, simply because there's virtually no limitation on page space out in cyberspace. In my own case, when it came time to get the manuscript of HOL ready for production, I could insist on certain things because I knew computers could handle them. So, for instance, Pantheon didn't want to include the index because they said it was too expensive—they said, “Oh, we’ll have to ship the book off to this company who will have to put everything on index cards.” So I said, “What are you talking about!?! Why don’t we just do this ourselves on a computer?” To which they said, “But we’ve never done that! We don't know how to do it!” And that was true. They hadn’t done it nor had I and as it turned out, for technical reasons too boring to go into here, completing the index was a lot trickier than I had expected.
LM: There’s a couple of unusual features to the Index included in HOL that might lead readers to think this is a kind of elaborate joke. For instance, when you go through the index of this book, you notice a number of words being indexed, such as “for” and other prepositions that would not normally be indexed. But upon closer examination, these words actually wind up having very specific resonances and significances for the novel--they’re obviously not just being included to mock the whole notion of indexing.
MZD: I’ve always been drawn to multiple harmonies, meanings and themes. Generally I try to at least work in triplicate. For example, if people treat the index as a joke, then great, they’re at least responding to one aspect. And of course there really is something funny about coming across fuck, fucker, and fucking in an index.9 Another function of the index, however, is to allow readers to trace the different contexts in which the words appear and even the frequency of that appearance. So if you come across the listing for The MINOTAUR and EUREKA! entries in the Appendix provide good examples of the sheer spatial complexity of the textual arrangements in this section.
See FUCK in the Appendix.
“for,” you don’t have to look up all the passages where “for” appears to be able to say, Wow, there's a prevalence of this word and here is a certain stylistic habit statistically represented with page numbers. The index allows you to suddenly start asking questions about books you normally wouldn’t think about in these terms. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an easy way to find out how many and’s appear in a Faulkner book or the King James? Or how many for’s appear in a Virginia Woolf novel? Do they vary? What do these signs of reoccurrence reveal? Maybe nothing at all, but it brings that question to mind. And to me any feature of a book that invites readers to ask different sorts of questions is valuable.
LM: Earlier in the interview you mentioned there were some theoretical issues involved in the impact that cinema has had on your work. What sorts of things did you have in mind?
MZD: The idea of how text might be placed on the page was something I’d always been interested in, probably due to all those discussions I’d had with my father about technical elements directors use to control the viewer’s perceptions. During my college days at Yale, I was already experimenting with different effects you can achieve by placing text on the page. By that point I had already studied the typographical experiments of people like cummings and even John Cage. I’ve always loved the way images insist on a certain sensibility, whether by Godard or Goya, Fellini or Blake. It wasn’t uncommon for me to wander into the library hoping to find any old book that looked different, and when I would find something, I was in heaven. I get the same reaction from looking at the Talmud or some scribbled bit of marginalia on one of Conrad’s old letters. Those bits somehow thrilled me with their sense of textual life, of participation, even of collaboration.
But as you’ve recognized, the visual experiments in HOL are mostly based on the grammar of film and the enormous foundation of theory established over the last century. There's a complicated craftsmanship involved in controlling the viewer’s perception. It’s a craft where details count. One of my favorite stories concerns Orson Welles’ unhappiness over the way the shadows looked in Citizen Kane.
They kept shooting them but the results were always too flat or too gray or too dull. Welles finally found some velvet curtains and stuffed them into the shadows to give them a deeper, richer texture. Hardly noticeable but there nonetheless—communicating a quality nearly impossible to grasp intellectually but easily appreciated emotionally. That’s why my response to those readers who complain about being confused by the look of certain sections in HOL is to gently tell them, “Don’t worry, I’m just stuffing shadows.” I should say intellectual engagement has never been my primary goal. Important, but not primary.
Rather I’ve always wanted to create scenes and scenarios which verge on the edge of specificity without crossing into identification, leaving enough room, so to speak, for the reader to participate and supply her own fears, his own anxieties, their own history and future.
LM: Which is also exactly what we see Johnny doing—interacting with Zampanò’s novel, which he uses as a means of opening up doors into his own past and the telling of his own story.
MZD: Absolutely. The way that Johnny projects himself into, or onto, Zampanò’s book shows how the text of The Navidson Record functions as it is being read and assembled by the readers themselves. Johnny even goes so far as to modify it,10 and the book permits that—in fact, not only is this permitted, what the book is really saying to the reader is, “Now you modify it.” That invitational aspect of the book at least has been very successful. I’ve received a lot of feedback from readers who have responded by telling me about their anxieties and why the book evoked these for them.. Even now, you two clearly have your own anxieties;
you haven’t yet told me exactly what they are, but you’ve been describing by way of a mood what makes you uncomfortable, and so the next question is, “Why does that make you uncomfortable? What specifically makes that sense of falling uncomfortable to you?” and right there you’re on the threshold of a whole series of stories that the book has allowed you to access but that are at the same time particular to you.
LM: A moment ago you mentioned that no one had yet pointed out anything or raised any issues about House of Leaves that you hadn’t anticipated beforehand. Could I take a crack at being the first?
MZD: Be my guest!
LM: It concerns the letter Pelafina writes to Johnny where she’s begging Johnny to forgive her,11 it’s a heart-wrenching, powerful letter whose visual design—all those repetitions of the phrase “forgive me” piled on top of one another—perfectly captures her anguish, obsessiveness, and guilt. My question is: did it occur to you while you were writing the text and creating the design for this letter that having it appear this way creates a problem for the reader in terms of its “authenticity”? Because what we see here (and this is true of several of her other letters) can’t be a facsimile of the letter she originally wrote—she would have needed a word processor to have written something that looks like this. The words might be hers, but someone else must have intervened and created this document which must be only a visual representation or interpretation of what she wrote originally—.