Q&A with Mark Z. Danielewski

mark z. danielewskiHow about a ghost story for Halloween? There's still room at REDCAT -- they just added a second show -- for Mark Z. Danielewski's spooky little tale, The 50 Year Sword. (REDCAT's on the 2nd Street side of the Disney Hall complex; shows are at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets $8-$15. (213) 237-2800.)

MZD's the author of the even spookier House of Leaves, about a house that's bigger on the inside than on the outside. (I still can't quite read it. Author and critic Lev Grossman tweeted just last week that "HOUSE OF LEAVES was the last book that made me sleep with the light on. I found it horrifying." So for now I stick to Only Revolutions, road trip, time travel, love story.)

50 year sword But on Sunday it's The 50 Year Sword, "a collaborative theatrical presentation of Danielewski's limited-edition, illustrated ghost story... an unpredictable evening of whispering voices and the intricacies of malice foretold and retold."

How did you come to write The 50 Year Sword?

It was a hiking story. I went on hikes and I wrote it in my head. I went on more hikes and rewrote it in my head. And then when I sat down to write, it all came out differently. Suddenly I discovered a seamstress, a birthday party and orphans. I even discovered butterflies which I'd seen on my hikes but never thought about enough to include until they weren't around anymore. The sword though never changed. There was always that blade which inflicts its terrible harm deep into the future.

I've seen it described as an adult ghost story in the guise of a children's book. Accurate?

It's a ghost story for adults who still remember what it's like to wonder and fear like a child -- to find confusion in the obvious, delight in strangeness and reason in the unseen.

Tell a bit about the collaboration with shadowcaster Christine Marie and sound designer John Zalewski...

My main job is to point out possible contradictions. Silly things really. For example, the Story Teller doesn't use a chair or the Harvester butterfly isn't blue. The rest is up to Christine. She's the Shadow Artist, a protégée of Larry Reed, and I'm happy to stand in the darkness she casts.

Curiously I just learned that she values Tai Chi when it comes to her shadow casters because it's a form devoted to moving slowly and seamlessly. Having studied with Michael Krubiner for a few years, I can appreciate how difficult such apparently easy gestures are.

I also smile whenever she mentions measuring tapes. The geometry of light requires a great deal of precision. Christine smiled when she found out about the construction of ONLY REVOLUTIONS. Both of us understand how even the whimsical walks hand in hand with the numeric.

John Zalewsk also understands this curious relation between numbers and mood. Cadence keeps coming up. Reiterations too. We also keep revisiting the importance of bringing out certain themes without over-literalizing them. Just enough to evoke gloom or love or the sharpening of menace. Both of us enjoy quiet references too. I'm fond of John's wit with a quick loop. Besides his name starts with a Z. You know I like that.

What I'm most intrigued by now is...

shadow caster ...how the reading itself will create this spatial dynamic between the three of us -- where John will work from the back of the house conjuring sounds and tempos while Christine will present her inspirations, some of them 40 feet high, from behind the cyclorama, while I'll be right there in the middle with the actors. We'll be far apart from one another. But if we get it right all of us will fuse and disappear into the story of a woman confronting the terror in mercy.

Of course whether that happens or not, only Halloween will tell.

Why the Netherlands release?

THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD was released simultaneously in Holland in both English and Dutch. Initially it was supposed to come out as a little chapbook celebrating the 60th Anniversary of The Busy Bee. The sword though took on a life of its own. The folio size grew, Peter Van Sambeek's beautiful art took up residency in those pages, the quotation marks thickened with the colors of fall. The next thing we knew a separate release date made sense and a limited print run made the most sense. With ONLY REVOLUTIONS on the horizon, releasing it in the U.S. at the same time made no sense at all.

I suppose eventually THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD will come out here. It's just a question of when and how. As a graphic novel was one idea. Puppets another. Maybe shadow art. Who knows.

What's the scariest movie you've seen?

Bambi. Mom gets shot in the beginning and animals start talking.

What are you scared of?

The absence of god.

What frightens you?

The existence of god.

Your twitter time stamp -- 11:11?

Where the antinomies of belief give way to a faith requiring no certainty.

How's Carl?

A creature of absolute and unforgiving wrath. And I love him.


More? Yes, more, at Chuck Palahniuk's site last month, at LAist in 2007, and, well, everywhere.

Shadowcaster photo by Steven Gunther

More by Veronique de Turenne:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed