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Mark Z. Danielewski: The writer as needle and thread

Mark Z. Danielewski's innovative stitching of narratives hits a new level with his latest project, the 27-volume series 'Familiar.'

October 27, 2012
  • "Fear interests me,” says famously hands-on writer Mark Z. Danielewski, who has turned his ghost story “The Fifty Year Sword” into a Halloween night performance piece at REDCAT.
"Fear interests me,” says famously hands-on writer Mark Z.… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

The day the butterflies were set free in Mark Z. Danielewski's West Hollywood apartment, music was playing, sewing machines were running and swaths of fabric with carefully stitched illustrations for the new edition of his novella "The Fifty Year Sword" were strewn around his living room. He'd painted one wall with magnetic chalkboard paint for sketching patterns and thrown out his couch to make room for the friends who joined his literary sewing circle — though at times, he admits, it seemed more like a literary sweatshop.

Never had the solitary writer's home seen so much chaos, or so much life.

"We called it Atelier Z," says Danielewski, who, with Regina Gonzales, his assistant Michele Reverte and artist Claire Kohne, stitched more than 80 illustrations on a tight deadline. "We'd work long stretches, till 1 or 2 a.m. Michele's mother brought us butterflies — a big theme in the book." His 16-year-old cat, a Devon Rex named Carl, roamed the place, tangled up in loose threads.

And loose threads, physical and metaphoric, were everywhere.

That's not what many have come to expect from Danielewski, who is so famously controlling about his work that he typeset his debut novel, the metaphysical horror story "House of Leaves," at Pantheon's New York offices (to ensure, for example, that the word "house" would appear each time in chroma-key blue). He had readers of his mind-bending follow-up, the National Book Award finalist "Only Revolutions," flip the volume upside-down to track the dual narratives. He purposely misspelled words to play with the malleability of language. And, after making a $1 million-plus deal for 10 installments of "The Familiar," the 27-volume series he's in the middle of writing, he would reveal only this bit of plot description to the media: "It's about a 9-year-old girl who finds a kitten."

With "The Fifty Year Sword," a ghost story for grown-ups first published in Holland in a limited run of just 1,000 copies in 2005, and another 1,000 in 2006, Danielewski, 46, has opened himself up to collaboration. For the last two Halloweens, he's turned the book into a performance piece with actors and shadow puppetry, and is appearing again at the REDCAT theater downtown on Oct. 31, this time with classical pianist Christopher O'Riley, known for his interpretations of Radiohead and Elliott Smith covers. Recently, he's experimented more with letting go, even to the point of becoming decidedly unstitched in the seamstresses' lair his apartment became.

On a recent stop back in Los Angeles during his current book tour, however, everything about Danielewski seems carefully put together. Take his outfit: a straw fedora, his newest cat T-shirt (feline "Star Wars" walker), neat brown cords, laceless pink Converse All Stars, and hot-pink sunglasses dangling from his shirt collar. The look is literary hipster meets Comic-Con fanboy, which fits Danielewski's eclectic artistic existence: part experimental novelist, part performance poet and part highbrow/lowbrow publishing iconoclast, not only crossing digital and analog genres in his writing, but reinventing them.

Performing "The Fifty Year Sword" at REDCAT has helped Danielewski refine not only what the book was really about — myriad manifestations of thread as told through the story of an East Texas seamstress, five orphans and a mysterious storyteller bearing a long, tightly locked black box — but what shape its physical release would take.

"I wanted to literalize the thread that was figuratively present," he says by way of explaining all those stitched illustrations. In addition to the trade hardcover and an animated e-book, Pantheon is releasing a limited, $100 signed edition of "The Fifty Year Sword" that comes in a hard-shell case with five sword-like metal latches and an exposed spine featuring red-stitched Nepalese binding.

"It's about exploring the horror of delayed violence, and how we tell that story — an action that has a consequence years later," he says over lunch. "And ultimately, how we stitch the narratives of our lives together, our desires, delusions, fears and losses."

With "The Fifty Year Sword" so hard to come by until this month's new release — copies of the early limited Dutch edition sold for up to $1,200 on eBay — the story existed mostly on stage, in live performance. This gave it a quality of mystery, elevating it to cult status. In addition to O'Riley, who wrote an original score for the production, Justin Beach, last year's grave digger, as well as Cirque du Soleil dancer Ekaterina Pirogovskaya, will reprise their roles.

"It's the strings of the piano, the notes, the melodies — and the five voices — that thread [the story] together this time," Danielewski says.

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