Revolving around Danielewski

Mark Z. Danielewski, best known for his debut novel House of Leaves, came to Pittsburgh last week to promote his newest work, Only Revolutions. Appearing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers for a reading, discussion, and signing, Danielewski fielded questions, mostly on why he became a writer.

After reading a few short sections of his work, concluding with the very end of Only Revolutions (an action he told the audience tgat publishers ask their authors never to perform), he asked for questions from the diverse crowd. Composed of many teenagers and a few older couples — a mixture of hipster, post-goth, and more clean-cut styles — the crowd that had spilled over its allotted area, filled every chair, and stretched into the aisles.

The questions came quickly, touching on a variety of topics including Danielewski’s promotion of other authors’ works and the experience of touring. One audience member even asked him about an earlier appearance where he was said to have lost his temper, but he seemed not to remember the incident.

However, most of the questions gravitated toward the process of being a writer and the impact his own writings have had. When Danielewski was asked to concisely describe House of Leaves, he responded: “I just tell them it is a story about a family who moves into a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside.” This description, while vastly over simplified, does put forth the main premise behind House of Leaves, which, after 32 rejections, was published by Pantheon Books in March 2000 and almost immediately became a cult classic. To elaborate, House of Leaves is a book about a book about a movie about a house (none of which exist) with an inside larger than it should be.

One audience member in particular was having a hard time coping with the mechanistic qualities of Only Revolutions. This is a book that has exactly 360 pages, with exactly 360 words and 36 lines on each page. Each side of the book is the front: Reading in one direction, you are told the story of Sam; from the other, the story of Hailey. At the same time, as you read these two stories, you are presented with a timeline that runs along the center margin of each page, displaying events from history.

Only Revolutions is the story of young lovers Sam and Hailey who have broken free from the grip of time and are forever 16 years old. As their stories are told separately in the book, you cannot read them together, and a publisher’s note at the beginning recommends reading eight pages of one and then eight pages of another, flipping until the story is complete.

Danielewski responded to the question by answering that Hailey and Sam are trying to get free from everything, trying to escape history. Part of the experience for him as an author involved, in his words, “tying them up and watching them get loose of it all.” For Danielewski, the process resulted in a highly structured book.

But he added that, for both House of Leaves and Only Revolutions, the structure, the playful typography, the colored words, the format of the page, is always derived from the story he wants to tell. Throughout House of Leaves, the word “house” is always written in blue ink, a method expanded to Only Revolutions, where the letter “o” is printed in yellow or green, for Hailey’s and Sam’s stories, respectively.

To support such thinking, Danielewski told a story from when he was 10 years old, a writer even at that time. He said, “I guess there was a time I wanted to be an astronaut, and then an inventor, but I was always drawn to paper and pencil. We were moving around, it wasn’t glamorous ... but I remember always having a pencil and paper, and that was my world, and it had stability.” He maintains that to this day he always starts with pencil and paper, only later using computers to implement the structures of his stories.

Discussion later turned to the scholarship his novels have inspired. Danielewski claims to have expected much of it, including references to Freud, Derrida, Joyce, and Borges. A new wave of criticism, however, moves past what he had anticipated; it comes from technologists, including critic Katherine Hayles, who uses House of Leaves to highlight how our lives (and writings) have been influenced by computers, the Internet, and databases.

Danielewski claims he is quite a slow writer: 10 years for the first novel, six for the second. When he began the reading, he had to ask for someone to lend him a copy of House of Leaves because he wanted to read a short section from it, a section that he found immediately in the 700-page book. Though musicians sometimes forget lyrics to their art-topping songs at concerts, he didn’t miss a word in the poetic and stylized sections of Only Revolutions that he read.

It is understandable that the insights that people take from his novels do not surprise him. It is clear he plans and is deeply in tune with the books he has written. Throughout the discussion, he conveyed himself as a researcher and an author; he is educated and eloquent, and you can understand how this man created his stories. Because for Danielewski it is really about the work, the writing. “I really love to write,” he said. “It is what I do.”