What to expect from Mark Z. Danielewski’s serial novel


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Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of the mind-bending novel ‘House of Leaves’ and ‘Only Revolutions,’ a National Book Award finalist, is going where Charles Dickens went before: he’s writing a serial novel. ‘The Familiar’ is planned to be released in 27 volumes; the first 10 will be published by Pantheon, in 3- to 4-month increments, beginning in 2014.

‘They’re not like ‘House of Leaves,’ or ‘Only Revolutions,’ each volume. ‘Volume’ speaks to it being a little different from a standard trade paperback book,’ Danielewski said by phone Monday. ‘I can’t write something that takes months and months to read if we’re releasing one every three or four months. It’s possible that [our publishing] schedule could be accelerated. We’re constantly open to new ideas -- where will we be in 2014? Maybe digital releases every week, every few months a trade paperback or hardcover. The novel is designed to accommodate, anticipate various platforms.’


Danielewski was paid a reported $1 million for the first 10 volumes; he’s thinking of them as two 5-volume seasons, like a television series. How much the form should solidify over time, versus what he might do to be flexible to the way the story starts to form as it gets out in the world, is the ‘Lord-of-the-Rings’-versus-’Harry-Potter’ dilemma. ‘’Lord of the Rings’ was a set of books in which the world had been conceived before the characters were placed within that context,’ he explains. ‘There are other books that feel more performative -- ‘Harry Potter’ -- and there is this wonderful intrigue, a co-creating, a sensation of that with the audience as they wonder what is going to happen next.’ He’s been discussing those ideas with fellow Los Angeles writers Aimee Bender and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.

‘Aimee was in favor of not eliminating that performative element entirely,’ Danielewski says. ‘My intention is to write 15 volumes -- three seasons -- and then I will have a good sketch of the fourth and fifth. It is up to me to provide the books that make such a structure feasible and intriguing enough to gather readers for that voyage.’

‘The Familiar’ is built on the idea of a solid architecture, but it’s not set in stone. ‘One of the things that’s happening is as I’m writing -- I’m in the middle of Volume 8 -- I’m actually rewriting 1, and all the other volumes, as certain stylistic elements solidify.’

Danielewski is known for carefully creating the look and feel of his books, not just considering typography and structure but actually laying out the text himself. As he moves forward into the variable world of ebooks, how will his stories fare? ‘We will be releasing ‘Only Revolutions’ and ‘House of Leaves’ electronically in fall of next year. I feel each has its ur-text -- you can go to the hardcover and you can see the way I intended it to be designed and read. If it’s adapted for a Kindle, it will say it’s adapted for a Kindle,’ he says. ‘My interest is in how meaning is communicated via language, and I believe the shape, positioning, even the color of the language has an effect on meaning.’ ‘That goes against some of the more conservative teachings that I was exposed to in college, the beautiful idea that it doesn’t matter where the text is, the language itself will carry the music, which poured from the vessel of the page, will unfold in your mind and you’ll be free of that vessel. What I’m saying is the way it’s presented is important.’ He floats a comparison: if the conservative ideas of story are like classic physics, then his sense that form affects meaning is like quantum physics. ‘The quantum world says these minute differences do start to add up. What happens if you have one page of text that has specificity to it that’s rearranged for the Kindle, your iPad, paperback, hardcover. One way you could say the meaning is simply destroyed, or the meaning is re-oriented, depending on the platform. That’s an area that I continue to explore.’

In the coming months, Danielewski will be heading to Europe for the German release of ‘Only Revolutions’ and preparing the October release of ‘The Fifty Year Sword,’ a ghost story with shadow puppets and intermingled voices he has performed at REDCAT for the last two Halloweens, with hopes to find the equivalent theaters in cities for a performance-studded book tour. And, he adds, ‘’The Familiar’ is nonstop.’ There are only 19 more volumes to go.

-- Carolyn Kellogg