Danielewski Returns With A Long, Sideways Look At 'The Familiar'

Danielewski Returns With A Long, Sideways Look At 'The Familiar'

6:46am May 11, 2015
On pages 68-69 from Mark Danielewski's The Familiar, Volume 1, the main character Xanther looks out the window of her father's car during a rainy drive.
On pages 68-69 from Mark Danielewski's The Familiar, Volume 1, the main character Xanther looks out the window of her father's car during a rainy drive.
Mark Z. Danielewski / Courtesy of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC.
  • On pages 68-69 from Mark Danielewski's The Familiar, Volume 1, the main character Xanther looks out the window of her father's car during a rainy drive.

    On pages 68-69 from Mark Danielewski's The Familiar, Volume 1, the main character Xanther looks out the window of her father's car during a rainy drive.

    Mark Z. Danielewski / Courtesy of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC.

  • Pages 628-629 in The Familiar, Volume 1. The colors on the upper corners of the pages indicate the character who is narrating.

    Pages 628-629 in The Familiar, Volume 1. The colors on the upper corners of the pages indicate the character who is narrating.

    Mark Z. Danielewski / Courtesy of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC.

  • Mark Danielewski is also author of House of Leaves and Only Revolutions.

    Mark Danielewski is also author of House of Leaves and Only Revolutions.

    Emman Montalvan / Courtesy of Pantheon

If you met the author Mark Danielewski on an elevator, here's how your conversation might go:

"What are you doing these days?"

"I'm writing a novel," he replies. "It's 27 volumes long."

"Wow," you might say. "What's it about?"

"It's about this little girl who finds a little kitten."

"Twenty-seven volumes, huh?"

"Ah, it's a very intense subject."

He's not kidding. The author behind the groundbreaking best-seller House Of Leaves is now releasing a new novel called The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day In May — and that's volume one of, yes, a planned 27. (Volume 2 comes out in October.)

Danielewski's novels are famous for "embracing the graphic," as he puts it, as much as they do the text. Pages often have just a few words on them. Different fonts and colors carry different meanings. In House Of Leaves, the footnotes eventually take on a life and narrative of their own.

The Familiar, Volume 1 begins by asking readers to turn the book sideways. From there, Danielewski's visual creativity doesn't relent for the book's more than 800 pages — though, he's careful to note, the word count is more akin to that of a 300-page book.

Danielewski sat down for a conversation this week with NPR's Arun Rath, who asked him to elaborate further on the plot.

"It begins one very, very rainy morning when a father and his daughter Xanther are leaving Echo Park [a neighborhood in Los Angeles] to go to Venice, Calif., to pick up a dog," Danielewski explains. "But other lives and other events that range as far as Venice, Italy, to Mexico to East LA, [with] hints of Egypt and Turkey and Singapore, begin to kind of collude and shape an alternate destiny."

To hear the full conversation, click the audio link above.


Interview highlights

On his characteristic use of typography and design

It's definitely a novel that embraces the textual as much as it kind of resists it, and embraces the graphic as it kind of resists it. And by putting them together, you begin to sort of tickle that part of the imagination that doesn't sit comfortably in one or the other and potentially opens up new vistas of understanding and experiencing the world that's within the volume and of course the world that's outside of the volume.

On the decision to make The Familiar 27 volumes long

I spend a long time on my books. House of Leaves took me 10 years. Only Revolutions took me six very solitary years. And this one has been in the works for nine years. It began very much like the little creature that Xanther finds as this tiny, sleeping, near-moribund thing, and then began to awaken in a way that surprised me. And I thought, it could be two books, could be three. But as the organization of the characters, the voices of the characters, the life of the characters began to possess me, then it acquired a certain pace. It acquired a certain direction, a certain arc.

I began to see that it was a much much larger work, and probably impossible to conceive had it not been for the sudden efflorescence of great television. Looking at the five seasons of The Wire or the wild speculations of Battlestar Galactica. Certainly Mad Men, certainly The Sopranos, certainly Breaking Bad. These visual novels that have come into our living rooms and bedrooms and they tell a story in much greater detail and with much greater patience.

And I began to see that it also made sense from my point of view as a creator, in that House Of Leaves was very much about a film, Only Revolutions is very much about music, and this is about a television series. Just a longform investment in the future.

And it is a book that requires, like a television series, an audience. This cannot be sustained by grants — which, I've never gotten one. This cannot be sustained by the publisher alone. If the readers don't turn out for it, if the ratings aren't high enough, this will not see a conclusion.

On how far ahead he has written

I have 10 volumes. But in writing the tenth, I ... understood intimately how to re-write the first. So now I'm going back and — it was literally a page one re-write for Volume 1, and Volume 2 was the same. We're looking at about two volumes a year, possibly three volumes a year.

So now I'm in the middle of ... finishing Volume 2 so it's print-ready for the presses, at the same time as I am now beginning to wade into Volume 3, as I am in the middle of speaking with you and getting ready for a tour for Volume 1. So it's pretty constant.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you met the author Mark Danielewski on an elevator, here's how your conversation might go.

MARK DANIELEWSKI: What are you doing these days? I'm writing a novel. It's 27 volumes long. Wow. What's it about? It's about this little girl who finds a little kitten. Twenty-seven volumes, huh? It's a very intense subject.

RATH: The first 900-page volume of the novel, called "The Familiar," comes out on Tuesday. And it's certainly intense. But beyond that, it kind of defies description, unless you're already familiar with Danielewski's previous work, like the bestseller "House Of Leaves." It's more like having a psychedelic experience than reading a novel - a bizarre multimedia trip. Luckily, I could turn to Mark Danielewski himself for guidance.

DANIELEWSKI: It begins one very, very rainy morning when a father and his daughter Xanther are leaving Echo Park to go to Venice, Calif., to pick up a dog. But other lives and other events that range as far as Venice, Italy, to Mexico to East LA, with hints of Egypt and Turkey and Singapore, begin to kind of collude and shape an alternate destiny.

RATH: And what I've got to explain, because, you know, we're talking on radio. Radio is usually very friendly to the word and to text. But not so much to this book, because this book has - it's a very visual experience. It's not just words. There are graphs, pictures, collages. The text itself modulates; the sizes change. There's typographical art - sort of like an E.E. Cummings poem. You're hitting people at every level (laughter) at once almost.

DANIELEWSKI: Yeah, it's definitely a novel that embraces the textual as much as it kind of resists it, and embraces the graphic as it kind of resists it. And by putting them together, you begin to sort of tickle that part of the imagination that doesn't sit comfortably in one or the other and potentially opens up new vistas of understanding and experiencing the world that's within the volume and, of course, the world that's outside of the volume.

RATH: When you start off, pretty much right away we've got to turn the book sideways to read it. So we're already kind of physically knocked-off balance almost right away.

DANIELEWSKI: Or finding our balance.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: So let's talk about this 27 volumes. What got you inspired to do something so long - to serialize a work like this?

DANIELEWSKI: You know, I spend a long time on my books. So "House Of Leaves" took me 10 years. "Only Revolutions" took me six, you know, very solitary years. And this one has been in the works for nine years. So it began very much like the little creature that Xanther finds as this tiny, sleeping, you know, near-moribund thing, and then began to awaken in a way that surprised me, you know?

And I thought, well, you know, it could be two books - could be three. But as the organization of the characters, the voices of the characters, the life of the characters began to possess me, then it acquired a certain pace. It acquired a certain direction, a certain arc and probably impossible to conceive had it not been for the sudden efflorescence of great television - you know, in looking at the five seasons of "The Wire" or, you know, the wild speculations of "Battlestar Galactica." Certainly "Mad Men," certainly "The Sopranos," certainly "Breaking Bad" - these visual novels that have come into our living rooms and bedrooms and they tell a story in much greater detail and with much greater patience.

And I began to see that it also made sense from my point of view as a creator, in that "House Of Leaves" was very much about a film. "Only Revolutions" is very much about music. And this is about a television series - just a long-form investment in the future.

And it is a book that requires, like a television series, an audience. You know, this cannot be sustained by grants, which I've never gotten one. This cannot be sustained by, you know, the publisher alone, you know? If the readers don't turn out for it, if the ratings aren't high enough, this will not see, you know, a conclusion.

RATH: Do you - so how far are you into this now? You have 27 projected. How far have you written?

DANIELEWSKI: Well, I have 10 volumes. But in writing the tenth, I began to - I understood intimately how to re-write the first. So now I'm going back and - it was literally a page one re-write for Volume 1, and Volume 2 was the same. And it's - we're looking at about two volumes a year, possibly three volumes a year.

And so now I'm in the middle of - I'm finishing Volume 2 so it's print-ready for the presses, at the same time as I am now beginning to wade into Volume 3, as I am in the middle of speaking with you and getting ready for a tour for Volume 1. So it's pretty constant.

RATH: When Dickens was serializing his novels, people used to send him suggestions and that kind of thing. Do you think you're going to get some useful feedback?

DANIELEWSKI: We'll find out.

(LAUGHTER)

DANIELEWSKI: I wonder. If, you know - if this continues, then perhaps I'll be lucky enough to get invited back and we can sort of discuss where we started here and what it looked like, you know, 3 volumes later - or four. We'll see.

RATH: Mark Danielewski's new book - it's the first of 27 volumes. It's called "The Familiar" and it's out on Tuesday. Mark, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

DANIELEWSKI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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