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A Budding Crop of First Fiction
-- 01/10/2000

Like the flowers that bloom in the spring, these debut novelists hope for green results

Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves

Pantheon (Mar.)

Mark Danielewski, 33, can't pinpoint the exact origins of his novel, an intricate, experimental horror story about a house that is larger on the inside than on the outside, but he says that its structure--a Nabokovian mix of narrated story, found manuscript and footnotes--somehow allowed him to incorporate years' worth of earlier writing into one complex, intertwining, terrifying stew. "It was able to hold not just various story lines but also thoughts of mortality, ruminations on the chasm between youth and old age, riffs on the past, present and future. Also the concept of narrative involvement versus theoretical involvement, which have very different paths." It took as much as 10 years to write, including a full year of intensive work after being bought by Pantheon, during which time the novel grew 200 pages longer and transformed itself into a slightly oversized trade paper original with 700 typographically challenging pages.

Danielewski, who lives in Hollywood, got his first taste of fiction writing at 10. "I wrote a book about a New York kid who becomes a cocaine addict, beats up a cop and goes to prison," he says. "My parents were shocked. My father thought it was immoral. And a teacher of mine in Utah called it a dirty book [it had the "f" word in it]. After that it took me a long while before I would show my work around." At Yale, Danielewski studied English literature and got rejected from every writing seminar he applied for. Later, at UC Berkeley's intensive Latin program--two years' worth of language in six weeks--he learned to read Virgil, Catullus and Ovid.

Shortly after that Danielewski headed off to Paris for a year, living on almost no money and writing constantly. "Some of this found its way into the book," he says. Film school in L.A. followed. Then his father, an experimental filmmaker who had led the family to exotic locales around the globe, died. "That shook the foundations of a lot of things," he says. "I worked at a restaurant, tutoring kids, as a plumber--all the while writing. That's always been my source. I realized then I was going to finish something."

That knowledge was enough--for a while. "I wasn't intense about getting it published but thought it was necessary to try." Interest from agents and publishers was readily forthcoming. (He calls the entire story of finding a publisher "dull, simple, straightforward.") Following his signing with Pantheon, he got down to real work again. "I began a more substantial rewrite than anyone anticipated. Edward Kastenmeier, my editor, was phenomenal during this period. He was dealing with a pretty difficult writer. The book in the end was 200 pages longer than the one he had contracted for. The book is complicated. There are games being played. People may not get it on a cognitive level, but they will on an emotive level. There are special effects, color words--the word "house" is in blue every time it appears--cinematic effects. There is a vertical footnote, you have to read it down through the book. The book grew an index." At the end of the revisions, he spent three weeks at Pantheon helping to typeset the book. "At first they must have thought I was a nut, but they realized how seriously I took the book."

--Suzanne Mantell

Sales tips: Danielewski will tour to promote his novel, and is already lined up for pieces in Spin, Gear and Talk. Rock artist Poe, his sister, has written a song about the novel that will appear on her next album, a spring release. Mileage from a great quote from Bret Easton Ellis: "One can imagine Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Stephen King, and David Foster Wallace bowing at Danielewski's feet, choking with astonishment, surprise, laughter, and awe." And according to Kastenmeier, "There's no other book quite like this. It's a literate horror story. It plays with the reader's sense of what a novel is, what a book is, in a new and interesting way, without a CD-ROM or anything. It's riveting and scary. "

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