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.
Originally from Manhattan before his family moved to Provo, Utah, when he was 10, Danielewski's youth resembled a bohemian, artsy version of an Army brat upbringing. His father, the late Polish-born filmmaker Tad Danielewski, took the family on extended international adventures for up to two years at a time. Before he was 11, Danielewski and his sister Anne — the musician Poe — had lived in Ghana, England, India and Spain.
When he was 5, Danielewski's mother gave him a journal that he remembers vividly: It was red, with gold stitching and it had a metal latch and key to secure his secrets.
"She said: 'You can write anything in here, whatever you want, this is your private space,'" he says.
It sparked a life-long love affair with the physical form of books, which is as important to Danielewski as writing itself. His text often runs berserk on the page, in varying fonts and point sizes; page breaks are wild and deliberate; carefully placed blank pages speak volumes. "The Fifty Year Sword" uses what he calls "autumnal quotation marks," in shades of yellow and orange, to delineate its five narrators; its cover is perforated, as if repeatedly struck with a needle.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Seuss as well as postmodern authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme were inspirations to Danielewski. As were the poems of Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, which he considers great ghost stories.
"Fear interests me," he says. "'Moby-Dick' was a ghost story for me. It's this obsession, possession. Even the classics, like 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey' — these gods are ghosts walking the earth."
The 700-page "House of Leaves," about a house slightly bigger on the inside than the outside, featured photo collages and a parallel narrative embedded in the footnotes. "Only Revolutions," by comparison the more complicated book, was a time-traveling, teenage love story told in cryptic free verse.
Danielewski calls it "quantum literature."
"Those subtle differences that you don't notice — the shape of fonts, the colors, the pacing, the way text can get larger and smaller — amount to an extra dose of information, an extra layer of storytelling," he says. "But there is a kind of flirtation with madness because you can just disappear into the pixels."
Danielewski's next publishing project, "The Familiar," is no less unwieldy. He sketched out the internal world of the book "Lord of the Rings"-style and initially wanted to complete writing the entire series before allowing his publisher to release any of the 27 volumes. But, he says, "that's one ego trip I won't be taking." And yet he still plans to design and typeset the series himself.
Pantheon will begin publishing the first 10 volumes in 2014, in two five-volume "seasons," Danielewski says, not unlike a television series.
"'House of Leaves' remediates film," he says. "'Only Revolutions' in many ways remediates music. 'The Familiar' remediates television."
After "Only Revolutions" was nominated for a National Book Award, he says he could have easily accepted an advance to write his next book, a single volume. "I decided to walk away from the money," he says. "I realized I'd have been almost like a tenured professor, safe within these demands."
Instead, Danielewski wrote five volumes of "The Familiar" on spec. His publisher Pantheon was interested, but inking the deal took so long that he finished the sixth and seventh books before it was finalized in September 2011.
"I was having a mid-life crisis," he says. "I was doubting the whole thing. I was watching the culture shift, I was meeting people who weren't reading anymore. I panicked."
He wrote through the fear. "Things that are that important always put something at risk," he says.
"I don't know of any literary writer, ever, who's published a 27-book set to come out that quickly," says Edward Kastenmeier, Danielewski's longtime editor at Pantheon. "That's highly unusual. It speaks as much to the serial publications of Charles Dickens in the 19th century as much as it does to television shows of the 21st century."
Kastenmeier adds that Pantheon plans to release the books as rapidly as possible, perhaps one every few months, to generate water-cooler buzz. "This project is so innovative and unusual and we want to remain nimble," he says. "We're going to have to reinvent how we bring it to the marketplace."
So with "The Fifty Year Sword" now in bookstores and his next book deal stitched up, maybe this is the moment to ask the looser, more collaborative Danielewski over lunch: What's "The Familiar" really about?
"I can't say," he insists, shaking his head and dodging questions about its genre and characters by taking a bite of broccolini.
He admits that one of the characters is named Redwood. "But that's already out there," he says with a smile.
Is this notoriously hands-on author concerned about what the publishing landscape will look like, both in print and digitally, in 2014 when the first of 10 volumes is finally released?
Danielewski will say that it's a concern. The animation in the e-book of "The Fifty Year Sword," by way of example, works fully on the iPad but is more static on the current Kindle, he says. But ultimately, he's leaving the story of "The Familiar" open enough to morph with whatever digital publishing may bring in the future.
"If a new technology emerges, that's what the book will be about," he says, walking to his car. "Because it's in some ways about how we gather our identity within a changing landscape, culturally and technologically."
Then, just before he gets to his car, he reveals a little scoop about "The Familiar," clearly wrestling with how much to let go.
"It's about Los Angeles in some ways. It's set in L.A.," he says. "I don't think I've actually ever said that before."
"L.A. of the past, present or future?" this reporter presses.
"Great question. I'm not gonna say!"