“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Manila,” I said.
“Is that Manila, or Metro Manila? We’re in Makati, now, right? What did you study?”
“And now you’re a journalist!”
To be clear, the author had brunch and I water — but it was sometime between breakfast and lunch and we sat across each other. Mark Danielewski, author of House of Leaves and the ongoing, 27-volume The Familiar, was in the Philippines for a speaking engagement with National Book Store. It was their second day in Manila, their first morning, and he hasn’t had breakfast. Being his first time in the country and not having had anytime outside of Raffles Hotel Makati, he seemed very curious about Manila.
“What’s a tangods? Tanga… tangod?” he asked.
“Tanod?” I replied.
“Yeah I read it in The Philippine STAR today, about some security guards that illegally held some drugs and they called them tanods…. Are they criminals?”
“No, but they could be.”
Mark is sharp in the morning, I gathered from this first exchange, and I figured I had to be on my toes to keep up.
“I enjoy reading the paper,” he told me. “There was a 17-year-old gynmast on the cover, and then the story of Kian Lloyd Delos Santos’ killing… it’s actually kind of like the way I write. The juxtaposition of many different kinds of stories.”
We just jumped from tanods to his writing style and I didn’t even see it coming. “When House of Leaves first came out, everyone thought it was so strange with all the stories happening in each page. But I thought it actually speaks to our time and I think that’s part of its peculiar magic that I could not speak to anyone about because I wrote it 17 years ago — no, actually I wrote it 27 years ago. But the fact that I am meeting young people now and they come up to me and tell me that House of Leaves is relevant is incredibly inspiring,” he said.
House of Leaves, published in 2000, was ahead of its time. If you have not seen the book (and seen here is just as crucial as read), it’s an interesting visualization of stories through text. There are paragraphs in a spiral. There are blank pages with cascading words. It’s definitely unorthodox storytelling to this day, but evergreen as well.
“How did you get to this writing style?” I asked, and told him he could finish his breakfast before we got into the interview; he insisted on continuing while cutting up his salad. “I think it was very much about not denying the impulses that I have that I think are very common to a lot of people. Maybe it’s like why young people continue to discover my books, because there is a desire for one who has creative energy to allow it to exist in many forms. Whether it’s tactual, image-based, three dimensional, sculptural… and so to encounter a book that said ‘I’m going to do both of these things, I’m going to involve all of these dimensions… is liberating,” he said.
I tell him about how I never finish writing any work of fiction because I get confused. “I tend to think in episodes, which I guess is an effect of watching too much TV,” I said. This often leaves me conflicted on how to move forward in telling a story, so I understood completely where Mark was coming from.
“Maybe that’s your style! Maybe you write like notes. Maybe it’s not like complete sentences. Why not? It’s a possibility. The secret to all creation is that you have to do it constantly. My wife got me for my birthday a sculpture class, which I love. Such a great time, and it was really exciting. The teacher was wonderful and he was a great sculptor, but he would get up every morning and draw for an hour with the pencil. Every morning he was drawing constantly, this sculpture…and then he would go on and do the sculpture. So if you want to write, you have to do it every single day, at least an hour generally four hours a day,” he told me.
Part of the reason I love interviewing authors, aside from being a sort of unconsummated author myself, is getting an insight into their process — because don’t we all wonder how anyone, in this day and age of constant distractions and connectivity, manage to write a book?
Mark writes up to eight to nine hours a day, streams of writing he calls “pulses.” This is where anything goes. A character can escape the plot, rebel, find his own way. The author merely documents. “There’s an infinite amount of points between zero and infinite, and there’s an infinite amount of points between A and Z, but the most interesting thing is that there is an infinite amount of points from A to B and even 1 to 1,” he said.
Mark is currently half-way through his 27-volume series, The Familiar. Volumes 1-5 is out, volume 6 comes out in summer of 2018, and in 2020, we see the end of the “season.” It’s been six years — he expects to finish sometime in the next 15 years. What — and I don’t like the interrobang, but what — was he thinking?!
“You’re going to have to make that commitment. I think that’s what The Familiar is about. It’s about having this conversation with the long-term commitment. Yes it’s about a little girl who found this cat. Yes this cat is very strange. Yes this cat has powers that exceed parameters of time. Yes there’s all sorts of different perspectives…but at the same time what it is about for a reader is engaging in a conversation that we have over decades.” How does that kind of commitment even work? He asked me if I was married. I am not. And that was the end of my contribution to the subject.
“Like in a long-term relationship, you can say, ‘You know I am a little bored, I want to go meet someone else, I want to go have a taste of that.’ Now a lot of marriages fail because you allow those impulses to come to you and then you assert them with power. They are really tempting and they’re always there. So it’s always possible, but the really strong relationships are the ones that accept these impulses and turn them in. This for me is a greater level of intimacy with a partner. How can I be more involved with her? It’s the same with the book — it’s is full of temptations. But isn’t that really part of the book as well? Won’t the characters suddenly be able to say ‘I want to go this way’? It’s a very human impulse, so instead of me acting on the impulse, let the characters act on it… and that’s where literature is born,” he explained.
“So you escape boredom by writing about boredom,” I said. “About boredom! Allow your character to be bored! Why not? It’s a very human experience! Shall we deny it within the context of our literature?” he said.
“You think the ice is okay?” he asked.
“The ice?” Apparently, he was worried about ingesting unwanteds. From tanods, to birthing literature, to the safety of Manila tap water. The man really does think of multiple stories on one plain. “Yeah, the ice should be okay,” I said.
“Should be okay!” he laughed. “Okay, would you have ice?”
And then he drank the ice water.
It’s only been two days since Mark arrived in Manila, and he already has gotten a lot of writing done. “I have to write on the plane. I have to write here. There’s that possibility of writing a scene that takes place in Makati, you know. I feel like the Philippines could work for The Familiar. This country could give birth to a thousand novels. It’s so rich and there are so many juxtapositions,” he said.
“What have you seen so far?” I asked.
“I seen this hotel,” he joked. But not really.
He’s watched a lot of TV though. “I just finished Better Call Saul, I’ve watched Legion. I watch Game of Thrones. We did Hand Maids Tale. Oh Fargo! I love Fargo! I saw Season 2 and 3. I have yet to watch 1. But one of the things I look at those shows is that, what’s very important to me, is that they start and they end. The interesting format of Fargo is that each one completes each season. So it is something to study structurally, for me. Because of the way it is conceived now, The Familiar, is just one arc, but would there be a way of creating sub-arcs every five books so that for someone who has not read volumes 1 to 5, start in volume 6? So I do watch series in that kind of light.”
Me to Mark, amused: “So you’re working even when you’re watching TV?!” Another interrobang was in order. Apologies.
Mark met a lot of his fans in Manila that weekend, although he doesn’t really like the word “fan.” “I just refer to them as readers,” he adds, “People have very intense intimate relationship with my books and my job is to really say hello and kind of really got out of the way. You know the greatest compliment that I was ever paid with was that there was this course being taught and it was called Faulkner, David Foster Wallace and House Of Leaves. I did not exist. It wasn’t about the writer, it was about the book…and I think for me that’s the greatest compliment. The more invisible I can become and the more the more in the forefront my work can be, I think that would speak to a good career, so at the end of my career, if my books are known more than myself, I would be extremely proud. I think that would be that would be an accomplishment I would be satisfied with.”
* * *
House of Leaves and The Familiar Volumes 1 to 5 by Mark Danielewski are available at National Book Store.
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