Mark Danielewski’s novels are not for the timid, or the fearful. From the groundbreaking bestseller House of Leaves to National Book Award finalist Only Revolutions, each book combines typographical experimentation—pages that read upside down, sideways, or at odd angles—with multiple viewpoint characters, creating an immersive experience like no other. His latest, The Familiar Volume 4: Hades, is just part of a 27-part magnum opus about a girl and her cat.
Danielewski discussed the book, his writing process, and more with a packed audience at Parnassus Books in Nashville on Sunday.
How do you keep your discipline, especially with projects on such a grand scale, and keep from getting bored by it?
I think part of it is, that’s my talent. I can be disciplined. I think discipline and habit is something you can cultivate… When you’re working on a long project, what you’re doing is kind of like taking little subatomic particles all around you and slowly bringing them together. It’s very easy to lose focus. It’s very easy to become like a little kitten, kind of pawing at little scraps of dust in the air. But the more you bring together drafts, understanding who your characters are, the more mass it takes on and eventually what happens is you find yourself in its orbit. It’s hard to escape. I’m caught in the orbit of these huge projects and it’s an absolute pleasure. If you really dedicate yourself to something, I think you find yourself more taken with what happens.
You used the word bored…It’s something to highlight for a moment, because when we feel bored it’s important to recognize that what we’re really feeling is fear. Boredom is just a secondary effect of fear. Now, it’s a low-grade fear and it’s built into our system… If we’re staying in a place where there’s no food or water and yet we’re not like perilously close to dying of thirst or starvation, there’s a mechanism in us that says, you know we better start moving around. So, often when we get bored—and it happens to all professional writers—that’s the moment when things get really exciting. Because you’re right to be afraid. Once you start to open that project up to all its possibilities, then it gets really scary, because then you’re getting out of the little shack of your idea, the little confines of something you can easily handle, to something far bigger.
The Familiar is a challenge unlike any I’ve ever faced. It’s so much larger. The characters in it go way beyond who I am and that’s the point. I have to be constantly open to what’s out there, wherever it may be. As soon as I feel myself getting bored, I’m like, “OK, what am I afraid of?” What door am I afraid to open and how do I move into that? So next time you feel bored, that means you’re on the right track.
What inspired you to write in a way that incorporates a lot of typographical design and challenges the way readers normally approach the task?
I think I was a bit of a brat to start with. You’re supposed to write between the lines and not draw pictures in the margins, but I like to cross the lines and drawing pictures. And part of it was luck because I was actually coming into a place where the technology was allowing me to play with typesetting, to begin to move text around. There’s a long tradition of it, going back to pop art, to concrete poetry, to the tablature of Rome and Greece…Also, my father was a filmmaker, so I was steeped in the language of how image works. We were constantly going to museums, so I studied art. I had an incredible intuitive flair for image and arrangement. All of these things seemed vital…both my parents manifested them. I saw them in the culture that I lived in, and I began to see a book as being possible in that way.
It’s also the way I see the world. In some ways, there’s something very artificial about the way we’re supposed to read a book. We’re expected to read so many words per page, follow this line…and by learning that discipline we can get through a lot of information, but that’s not really how our eye tracks. Our eyes track all over the place. We read signs, we see where we are, we hear things. I think what was so vibrant is this incredible kind of synaptic, alchemical creation that happens when words are put together. It’s something that film can’t quite do. It can’t quite address complicated ideas. It has to represent them in terms of image, it can provide voice but, it’s hard to follow a very difficult idea someone’s speaking to you… So it felt to me a book could really create an experience you couldn’t get anywhere else. I think that’s probably the gambit with everything I do. It’s can I offer you an experience that you won’t get anywhere else, in any other media form or any other book? Because otherwise, it’s not worth your time. This book is kind of more of the way I see the world and I think it reflects the kind of the music that’s out there…
In The Familiar, there are nine different characters and they have all sorts of different voices, languages, background…Whether you’re talking about Homer, Hemingway or Toni Morrison, there’s just this singular voice and it’s framed in a certain way. But my experience of the world is actually the other voices, the voices outside the norm. It’s the juxtaposition of that, that begins to create the symphony we live in. With the Familiar, it goes further than just human voices. But how do we find a voice for that which will never have a voice, which does not have a voice, like animality, the environment, etc.? So central to The Familiar is this question of the cat…How does nature revive us, how does it depend on us, how do we depend on it? That’s the growing voice we have to begin to hear through all the other voices. We have to hear the voice that has no voice.
How much research into other cultures did you do to capture their voice?
As a privileged straight white male to start writing about all these characters, there are all sorts of dangers…I would drive with Armenian cab drivers in Los Angeles, I would go to Singapore … I would talk with Latino gang members transitioning from gang life to a better life by removing their gang tattoos. It was time to get nervous around strange people. From an authorial point of view, it was a decision to get outside of myself and forget myself and embrace that which was strange. We do have to practice imagining other perspectives. It’s only through that, that we are going to have any empathy for the other. If we’re constantly realigning ourselves with the self, how are we going to begin to understand someone in a different position?
What is your writing process like and where do you get your inspiration?
I write six days a week, 8-10 hours a day. I don’t believe in inspiration anymore. Leave that for someone else. My approach is what I call the Jane Goodall approach to writing. You go to the jungle and you just sit there and you sit there every day at the same time and sit there for the same amount of time every time. And, eventually, you start to hear the jungle a little differently. Eventually you’ll hear the chimpanzees. And, eventually, the chimpanzees are going to start coming around and get closer and, eventually, they’re going to tell you their story, which, of course, are your stories, which are someone else’s stories. And you have treat that experience with great reverence and great discipline. You have to be there every day, because if you don’t show up or if you come late, the chimpanzees are going to throw shit at you.
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