By Terence Repelente
He’s just writing about a cat. “It’s that simple,” said Mark Danielewski pertaining to his ongoing series The Familiar in an exclusive interview with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. But his fans and critics would say otherwise.
Danielewski is an American fiction author best known for his complex, strange, and, some would even say, avant-garde writing. Though his second novel, Only Revolutions (2006) was nominated for the National Book Award he is most widely known for his debut novel House of Leaves (2000), which is considered by many as a cult classic. House of Leaves follows the story of a blind old man, a young apprentice working in a tattoo shop, and a mad woman haunting an Ohio institute narrate this story of a family that encounters an endlessly shifting series of hallways in their new home, eventually coming face to face with the awful darkness lying at its heart. Seems like your typical mystery/fantasy novel right? Yes, except it’s written unlike any other novel—unconventional and full of codes, clues, complex language, and more. It’s like the book equivalent of a matryoshka doll (Russian nesting doll). It’s an extraordinary reading experience, and the only way to really read it is by using a pen, a lot of post-it notes, and a journal.
But before getting all the fame, attention, and reviews—positive or not—House of Leaves went through publishing hell, according to Danielewski. “Oh yeah, it was rejected in 32 places out of 33. It was deemed “unpublishable and unreadable.” They told me there was no audience for it,” he said. But it eventually found home in Pantheon Books. “When Pantheon bought it I assumed they would publish it as I had intended it to be. I was like a screen writer hoping to transform all of my works to life exactly how I wrote it,” he said. “They said ‘no’ but they allowed me to regularly visit their office to help working on the design elements.” This is when, according to Danielewski, he did his magic. “Through the course of basically living in the designing office, I began to educate the people of the publishing house what was going on in the book and why it was written that way, and then they realized ‘oh this isn’t just crazy writing, this really made sense,’ that’s when they began to rethink and eventually gave me more design freedom,” he said.
When House of Leaves was published in 2000, although they saw that it was written with heart and passion, many expected that it would sell only a few thousand copies. It shattered all those expectations as it blew up and gained popularity all over the world. “It’s been out for 17 years and yet it still speaks to people who are much younger, which is very exciting for me.” For Danielewski, this book was a turning point not just for his career as an author but also for his views in life. “There’s an ineffable energy that this book captures, which continues to affect people and I have to humble myself before it. I used to think of myself as someone who is in control but now I see myself really different. I believe the good sale was just made by an unexplainable wind, which is not of my making and I am very fortunate that the wind keeps blowing,” he said.
Disciplined. That’s how he described his writing self. Danielewski said he gets up at 5:20 in the morning and starts his day with a yoga session or by hitting the gym, he eats a healthy breakfast, and writes until 6 or 7 p.m., and he does this routine six days a week. “I try to be focused and unfazed. I think that writing is just the exploration of a conversation. It’s about letting many voices into that conversation then turning it eventually into a novel. It’s about having a conversation with image, it’s about having a conversation with dissenting narratives, it’s about having conversations with languages we don’t understand,” he said.
Danielewski is a spiritual man. For him, the ingredients for writing a good novel can be found just about everywhere. Everything in the universe—from a grain of sand to an entire planet—can be seen as an inspiration. According to him, everything is connected in a bizarre and spiritual way. “When you walk along the streets you don’t really understand everything around you. We’re just talking and understanding on a human scale. What about the way the plants are talking with the atmosphere, or the way the waves are talking to the volcanic activity under the islands, or the lizards, or the ants, or the spiders, everything?” he said. “For me, it’s all about allowing that greater voice, which is incumbent upon us, to speak to you. That’s the direction I’m moving toward. It’s my way to make the human voice much more pantheistic.”
Mark Danielewski, along with the author of the famous Red Rising trilogy, Pierce Brown, attended the recently held Philippine Readers and Writers Festival at Raffles Makati. The three-day event featured bestselling international and local authors, as well as book signings, discussions, and panels on books, literature, and culture.