By Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter
It is rare to interview two writers in one day, even rarer when they are almost diametrical opposites — even down to their animal preferences.
It was a muddy afternoon in Makati when BusinessWorld got the chance to interview two American writers at National Bookstore’s 4th Philippine Readers and Writers Festival which was held at the tail end of August.
And while this writer initially thought this was going to be a straightforward interview, what was made apparent during the first five minutes into each interview was the marked differences and similarities between these two authors: Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of the cult favorite House of Leaves, known for its signature — and often challenging — story of a man who finds the unfinished work of a blind man making a study of a documentary of a photographer about the titular House of Leaves whose dimensions inside don’t correspond to the dimensions outside; and Pierce Brown who wrote the Red Rising trilogy, about a dystopian future in Mars where people are segregated based on social class: the Reds at the bottom rung while the Golds sit atop the social ladder.
WRITER OF COMPLEX STORIES
After finishing the 10-year project that was House of Leaves (published in 2000), Mr. Danielewski has once again embarked on an ambitious journey and this time it will take him about 15 years to finish. The Familiar is a 27-volume series about nine people from around the world: a Singaporean drug addict, a 12-year-old girl from Los Angeles with epilepsy, the girl’s stepfather and mother, a Mexican gang member, a computer scientist from Texas, a Turkish-American detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, an Armenian-American taxi driver in LA, and an existentialist from Mexico.
The series, which started in 2015, will see a book released every six months — its fifth volume is set to be released in October. Mr. Danielewski, known for his multi-layered and often visual writing style, has described the book as being about a girl who finds a kitten and more.
“It’s a story about a little girl who finds a kitten, but it’s much more than that: it’s also a story… about having conversation with time. It’s about having a conversation with times that’s longer than a moment, a day, decades if it plays [as planned],” he said during the Aug. 24 interview at Raffles Makati.
“Because some of the most important subjects in our time must involve a conversation with a longer time,” he added, explaining that it is much like one’s understanding of environmental phenomena like global warming which must include an understanding of the long stretch of time before it happened to grasp the idea fully.
He thinks of The Familiar as being like a TV series and with the release of the fifth volume, titled Redwood, his first season is complete.
“I don’t think I realized it was going to be as big. I started in 2006 and, as I usually do, I don’t understand what the project is — I begin to understand the idea and how it works and then I begin to explore this idea. I thought it was a small island at first and then I realized it was a big continent,” he said.
Critics have likened The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May (Vol. 1) to James Joyce’s Ulysses as both stories occur in a single day, but Mr. Danielewski would rather compare his series to the 2002 US TV series The Wire which explored different institutions in Baltimore, Maryland and their connection to the law enforcement. The show, which ran for five seasons, was known for its interconnected narratives.
This writer pointed out the similarities between The Familiar and the 1989 Polish TV series, Dekalog by Krzysztof Kieślowski which had 10 hour-long episodes inspired by the Ten Commandments and featured different sets of characters in each while retaining a single character present in most episodes.
Mr. Danielewski said Dekalog was an early influence when he was crafting the book, but it has moved beyond that as the characters, though many are separated by thousands of miles, are interconnected though the connections are slowly revealed in each volume.
“The first volume is more difficult because it’s so strange: you have a Singaporean drug addict, a Latino gang member… you’re dropped in the middle of everything… and at the end, a girl finds a cat,” he said.
He explained that once readers have passed the hurdle of the first two books, in the third book, Honeysuckle & Pain everything will start to make sense.
And because of the scope of the entire book series is just massive, Mr. Danielewski said there’s a lot of planning involved in writing: he talked of his team and how they have a dry-erase board where they map out all the graphic details of each volume, as well as having many maps and taking a lot of notes.
“It’s like an architecture project,” he noted.
But what if for some reason the series never gets finished? He said he would grieve if it does not.
“It’s the risk I run with this project more than any other project: if The Familiar can’t continue, I will lose them,” he said, referring to the characters. “It will be like a death for me and it will require a kind of grieving I’ve experienced a few times in my life,” he said.
Yet it is that kind of risk that makes The Familiar worth doing.
“I love it. I love how it tests me; the way it requires me to be even more disciplined to write. The way it requires me to be more open, to get outside of myself — to talk to Latino gang members, to go to Singapore for more Singlish education,” he explained.
Mr. Danielewski has made his name creating hard books that cater to advanced readers, particularly in House of Leaves where the book isn’t straightforward and has a number unreliable narrators.
The book is also singular because of the way it was designed, with various chapters containing a single line on a page, having a paragraph printed diagonally, or having lines of random names on the right margins, which furthers the book’s oft-described claustrophobic writing style.
“When I finished [House of Leaves] and it was about to be published, my publisher, as much as they loved it, were cautionary about its outcome. Because they felt it was virtually unreadable in some ways and it would appeal to a small group of graduate students,” he said.
EASING READERS IN
While Mr. Danielewski is all about difficult books, Pierce Brown is anything but.
“He (Mr. Danielewski) likes creating that challenge… and that’s what he likes about it. And what I like doing is the opposite: I like to bring people in an easy way into a thing that does not alienate and a thing that isn’t very difficult to read and gradually increasing the difficulty as you go on,” Mr. Brown said.
His 2014 series, Red Rising, tells the story of Darrow, a Red miner who seeks to overthrow an oppressive government ruled by the physically superior Golds.
After his wife is killed for singing a subversive song, Darrow is physically — and painfully (think Gattaca by Andrew Niccol) — transformed into a Gold to infiltrate and demolish it from within, which he does at the end of the final book in the trilogy, Morning Star.
The Red-turned-Gold story does not stop there as Mr. Brown has decided to continue the story in a new trilogy, Iron Gold, set 10 years after the original trilogy ends. It will be launched next year.
“When I finished Morning Star, I felt there were loose ends I needed to tie up. There’s more of the story to tell because the story is… about the gray areas between black and white. It felt dishonest to wrap it the story up [that way] because what I want to explore now is what happens after the tyrannical government has been destroyed,” he said.
He added that what interested him was the power vacuum that comes after revolution and the roles the people who destroyed the previous structure would have to play in ushering in a new era.
“[I wanted to] explore whether the characters who overthrew the previous government were correct and so it’s a different theme,” he said.
This time, the new trilogy will feature four points of view (the previous one only had Darrow telling his story in the first person).
“Darrow is an easy character to write because everything he touches explodes. It’s very simple because he’s a force of nature. What I want to see are people who are not forces of nature,” he said before adding, “All three characters in the book don’t necessarily see Darrow as a hero and that’s really fun for me to explore and it’s more complicated and nuanced and so that’s the challenge of the Iron Gold series.”
Messrs. Danielewski and Brown have embarked on even bigger challenges with their new works but while Mr. Danielewski is a planner who maps out how every book plays out, Mr. Brown sees his more instinctive way of writing to be a more freeing endeavour.
“My books don’t look like what they should until the third or fourth draft. I figure things out along the way, tinkering and removing and, to be honest, it’s a bit more onerous and I’m trying to be like J.K. Rowling and plot things out so I don’t get much gray hair when I write it — but I’m more instinctive,” he said.
“It feels as though if I’m outlining, I’ll get, maybe, 13 epiphanies, but when I’m writing a book [as I do] I’ll get 200 epiphanies. [Outlining] can rob the kinetic nature of my books, and my books are really kinetic: they explode from scene to scene and what I want to retain is that element of surprise and not be too predictable or rote,” he explained.
Their differences might be glaring — especially when one considers that Mr. Danielewski is very much a cat fan (he is rarely seen without a cat shirt on) while Mr. Brown is a dog person (“My dog is the only one who can get me to stop writing [when I’m in the zone],” he said) — but there is a small measure of similarity between the two. The work of work writers has been described as visual.
Marc Snetiker of Entertainment Weekly said Mr. Brown’s Red Rising has a “cinematic grandeur” and that he paces his actions scenes for a slow burn and a hold-your-breath final act.
Meanwhile, the textual layout of Mr. Danielewski’s House of Leaves “deftly mimes the current derangement of house-space in the narrative,” according to Steven Poole of The Guardian. That and how he envisioned The Familiar as a multi-season TV series.
The similarity might seem small and their differences vast but what is apparent is how they both relish creating worlds which grow progressively bigger and how people from all over continually affect their ever expanding universes.