Mark Z. Danielewski was at the King’s English Bookshop in my hometown of Salt Lake City last Monday, February 13th to promote his latest book The Familiar, Volume 4: Hades. I’m a fairly introverted person, so normally I’d want to go to an event like this, but end up chickening out and staying home instead. This time, I actually went and was glad I did. I joked with a few other people in line about how his books wouldn’t work in audio format and my hope that one day Kindle will have an option for an author to digitally sign eBooks the same way we sign tablets when using credit cards in some places. Hey, it could happen.
So anyway, he started by reading a few excerpts from his latest book, as well as a short bit from House of Leaves (if you haven’t ready this yet, you should; it’s fantastic.) Then he finished by answering questions from the audience. The venue was packed, so latecomers had to sit or stand in the next room over. However, this put them in the front of the line for the book signing later, so everything kind of evened out.
Danielewski said he just turned in Volume 5, so he was taking a small break from writing to go on tour. He jokingly referred to it as his “red state” tour since he was getting out of the New York/Los Angeles bubble to visit smaller cities across the country. He warned us if sales for The Familiar (which is going to be 27 volumes) drops, it will get canceled before everything is revealed, just like a television series that gets canceled before its time.
There were a few funny moments. Towards the beginning, he took a drink from a mug, then said, “I hope this is mine.” At another point, after someone in the audience asked a particularly long question about what has changed in society to give rise to visual literature, he answered with a single word: “Me.” At another point he was talking about what kind of sap do you want to make: happy sap or sad sap? Then giggled because sad sap sounded funny. Now that I’ve typed this out, I realize these jokes are probably the type that aren’t funny unless you were there. Well, what can I say, you should have been there.
His first two books, House of Leaves and Only Revolutions were very internal. He spoke about how he has less internal energy now that he’s getting older and he’s realized the energy to write now needs to come from without rather than from within. It’s a good idea to get outside yourself, open yourself up to the wider world, meet people who aren’t like you. Even get beyond humanity and try to write in the language of nature.
Someone asked if writing from different points of view other than your own was inauthentic, but Danielewski said it’s an exercise in imagination. You have to continue to push yourself. Writing from the point of view of a different gender, race, etc. won’t be entirely authentic, but you’ve got to do your best to understand others, not ignore them.
Reading can’t take the place of experience. It’s better to get out there and meet people from different cultures in person, but if that’s not possible, reading can simulate that experience to an extent. This is the reason he includes foreign languages in his writing. In real life, we don’t always know what’s going on. His family traveled a lot when he was growing up and he often encountered situations where he didn’t speak the language, but he realized you can still make friends with someone even if you don’t understand each other.
In Only Revolutions, Sam and Hailey get closer and closer together until they meet in the middle of the book, only to drift apart from that point. It’s 360 pages long with 360 words on each page arranged in 36 lines. After writing it, Danielewski asked himself if he wanted to keep writing books like that and decided he was being too internal and needed to start getting outside himself. (I’ve got to admit, I personally didn’t care for Only Revolutions, but hey, everybody’s sense of taste is different.)
What The Familiar is to the television series, House of Leaves is to a movie, and Only Revolutions is to music, The Fifty Year Sword is to the campfire story. His other books are obsessed with sources and contain footnotes and citations, but The Fifty Year Sword is a story in which we don’t know the source. It’s about the way something somebody says to you often doesn’t hurt right away, but can hurt you years later. It’s about self harm and how we have to forgive ourselves. He said there’s two different stories going on. There’s the surface level, but there’s also the adult version about what really happened to Belinda Kite. You have to look at where her cuts are to decode the real story. I actually haven’t read The Fifty Year Sword yet, but all this talk has got me interested.
Overall, the questions from the audience were fantastic. A writer in the audience asked about what Danielewski does when he gets an idea for a different story that doesn’t fit in with The Familiar. Danielewski said ideas might seem like they don’t fit at first, but can end up fitting. Maybe you’re writing a tree story when you get a butterfly idea, then you realize the butterfly is actually a leaf and fits into the tree story after all.
My notes are a bit jumbled, so I don’t know what the context of this next bit is, but I thought it was interesting, so I’ll just put it here. He said sometimes when you’re in a relationship, you might get an impulse to travel far away and later realize that impulse is really something else. You don’t really want to travel, but rather you want to avoid a conversation with your significant other.
Before heading to the back for the signing, he gave a hug to his former math tutor who was sitting in the front row. According to his math tutor, Danielewski was doing high school level math at age ten. I don’t know why I include this detail other than it stuck with me.
Now it’s time to end this post on a cliff hanger. Someone asked what the name of the cat is in The Familiar. Danielewski wouldn’t tell us, but said it will finally be revealed in Volume 5. Well, hopefully Volume 5 is out by the time I finish reading Volume 4, because otherwise, I’ll just have to wait to find out the cat’s name and who can wait? We need to know this cat’s name right now!