Boston Herald
`House of Leaves' author turns reading and writing . . . upside down
by Stephanie Schorow

Monday, March 27, 2000

``House of Leaves'' is not your typical debut novel. So this can't be your typical author interview.

It begins by getting lost. This reporter is trying to find room 275 at a Boston hotel where a 34-year-old, Los Angeles-based writer awaits. She discovers that when she follows the arrows to rooms 265-280, the numbers go down, not up. She backtracks. She backtracks her backtrack. She finds a corridor she somehow missed. Or did she?

She has wandered into the pages of ``House of Leaves,'' a book about a house with a hallway to infinity, where space is both elastic and menacing, where fiction mirrors reality.

Actually, no. She finds room 275. End prologue.

I'd been warned about author Mark Z. Danielewski's blue hair. But it would be hard to prepare for the shock of that bristling neon blue atop a face with chiseled features and knowing grin.

Footnote: Fast forward to the END of the interview:

``The point is not to blur the relationship between truth and nontruth but to point out that truth is a tricky thing and it requires a deep amount of work and introspection to come across bits that are true,'' said Danielewski, who has clearly relished a meandering discussion.

``We can find truth. We just have to look carefully. Like the (expletive) hair. Nine dollars of dye, and it's amazing how offended people get. One of (my) points is to say, `Look beyond that.' ''

Truth is indeed a tricky thing in ``House of Leaves'' (Pantheon, $19.95), fast becoming a publishing phenom. The novel begins with a drug-and-drink-laced narrative by a tattoo parlor apprentice named Johnny Truant. Truant tells of finding a bizarre manuscript left by a blind man named Zampano which appears to be a long-winded critique of a documentary called ``The Navidson Record,'' something Truant is unable to rent or even verify.

In the movie, Will Navidson, a famous photographer, and his family move into a Virginia house only to discover that the inside of their home is bigger than the outside. Soon a strange hallway opens up to a vast dark world, prompting an arctic-style expedition with terrifying results.

Truant - whose story continues in footnotes - becomes increasingly unhinged as the house pulls Navidson into its grip; Zampano analyzes the movie's every nuance, with elaborate references to scholarly source materials, some real, some imaginary.

Danielewski, who spent 10 years writing the book, said he attempted to apply cinematic technique to print; the ``Labyrith chapter'' is a mishmash of footnotes, skewed columns and backward text, designed to slow down readers. The next chapter, which features just a few words per page, speeds them up. Other sections display print upside down or in spirals, forcing readers to twist and turn the volume. The word ``house'' is always in blue ink.

It's e.e. cummings meets ``The Blair Witch'' meets Stephen King, saturated with hallucinogens and hypertext. Demonstration follows:

The photographer decides to shoot Danielewski in the hotel lobby. The interview continues as we leave the room and walk down the corridor, Danielewski describing how 30 publishers turned down his manuscript, how he lived on the $15,000 advance for two years, how cool it was to be here right now since at first ``everyone thought it was going to be an odd little book.''

We stop. Dead end.

Danielewksi calls it a ``moment of revelation.'' We backtrack and
stairs. To the lobby where guests ogle the posing Danielewski, wondering, ``Rock star? Model? Famous felon?''

as Danielewski tells a complex story of typesetting traumas, how he flew out to New York on his own dime to help with production; how ``my agent had enormous faith in the book and . . . Did we go the right way?'' No. We miss
ed the corridor.

``I love the idea we get to a dead end!'' he gushed. ``And our real goal is an empty, anonymous hotel room. But the real goal is what we're doing right now.''

As the son of a documentary filmmaker, Danielewski lived in Africa, India and Switzerland before attending high school in Utah. He went to Yale ``where I was rejected summarily from every writing seminar I ever applied to.'' While writing ``House,'' he worked as a plumber, waiter, wood chopper and capuccino maker. His sister, singer/songwriter Poe, will feature songs inspired by the book on her new CD.

He swears ``House'' will not be made into a movie. He insists the book's typesetting is no gimmick; structure and narrative are irrevocably linked.

``I conceived of it as a dialogue, a discourse of voices,'' he said. ``There are many voices that are telling this one story and they talk to each other and they change each other.''

The structure reflects how people think - with asides, reflections, distractions. Thus, the reader becomes co-writer. ``If you don't want to read a footnote, you don't have to do it. You don't have to look in that room,'' he said.

Footnote: Ten years ago, Danielewski learned his father had cancer. On the three-day bus ride from New York to California, he wrote a ``confused, passionate'' story; he read it to his father as a kind of gift. His father, a man who devoted himself to his craft, launched into a tirade about the insignificance of art. ``He went at me with the fierceness of a lion. As a way of allowing him to maintain the position, I tore the whole thing up, threw it in a Dumpster.''

A few days later, after a soul-searching dinner with his sister, she handed him a folder. ``She had taped together the whole thing. `House of Leaves' wouldn't exist without her.''

Danielewski wrote his book years before ``Blair Witch'' was made, but he's asked why, like the witch, the house remains a cipher.

``The best way to answer that question is to look at the beginning of this interview where we are wandering around in the hallway and we're lost and we may not even arrive at an accurate map of where we've been, but the point is we have arrived somewhere in terms of our conversation.''

  Talk back to Stephanie Schorow.