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Powell’s Q&A: Mark Z. Danielewski

What follows is a conversation between the book designer Peter Mendelsund and the author Mark Z. Danielewski.

Peter Mendelsund: Before we get into a discussion about the package for your new book, The Fifty Year Sword, I'd love to address some larger questions about the future of the physical book... OK?

One of the things I like about you, Mark, is that you embrace all formats. You are obviously invested in the book — the actual, tangible artifact — as well as being (from what you've told me) yea-saying about the opportunities presented by the ebook and other digital forms. Even more importantly, you seem to be interested in exploiting these forms, graphically, to their utmost extent.

book page

What do you see on the horizon for books — for text? Most people seem to describe the future of the book as a single, evolutionary line: the physical book being replaced by the virtual. Is this a view you subscribe to?

Mark Z. Danielewski: The move to digital is inevitable. Just as we moved from the walls of caves to canvas and plasma, we will leave the page. Not to say the page will completely vanish. Banksy proves that with his return to urban Lascaux in every city.

Wall Paintings

I still like to grab a hunk of charcoal and scratch away on my publisher's walls, but I admire Hockney too for drawing beauty out of an iPad.


Much of the dialogue these days concerns what we gain with ebooks — and there is much to gain: ease with duplication, storage, portability, carrying out searches, quoting, linking, researching, editing, of course, maybe even creating mash-ups, possibilities not yet imagined, enticing possibilities — but you and I are in a position to give voice to what will be lost.

The way many tablets automatically alter fonts, for example, or authorize the reader to select from a limited list, disregards a tradition, centuries old, of designing and carefully selecting a type design. And it's a tradition not born out of constriction and control, I think, but expression and the aesthetics of sense and beauty. We both know how much time goes into designing a book. Personally, I go through hundreds of fonts before choosing one. And that's just the start: margin size matters (put that on a T-shirt!). Folios. Colors, of course. Not to mention how the book as an object sits in the reader's hand.

hand in paper
open book

Only Revolutions — in the way the two protagonists move through the book, getting closer and closer until they physically meet in the center, or come as close as they can to meeting, only to slide past one another, farther and farther apart from one another — made use of the three-dimensionality of the codex. That particular experience will be lost in any e-version. Maybe it's worth it, but in order to understand worth we first have to account for cost.

How is meaning altered if a book is typeset in Legacy instead of Garamond or Minion? How is meaning altered if word density is constant? If ink color is uniform? If there is no cover?

That's one big concern I have: covers. I love covers. I love the communication of colors that goes on between strangers reading on a subway or a bus or in coffee houses or on some elaborate campus at some even more elaborate tech company, where else?, on a shooting range?, a landfill, stop laughing, a prison yard?, a strip club?, wearing a T-shirt stating Margin Size Matters? Don't F*ck With My Kerning?, but seriously, what happens to covers? Tablets don't support them (or at least don't display them for others to see). Websites selling ebooks typically offer tiny icons as opposed to lovely, large figurings of content. More so than text, I sense covers are imperiled. Do you agree? See a new way they can adapt to a new world of battery-powered reading? Or here's an ugly one: Will covers even be necessary?

P: [Long, dramatic pause] It's an important question, and I think they will be necessary: though only for physical books. Like you, I don't believe that physical books and their attendant covers will disappear entirely. The market for them will change (it will, of course, shrink significantly) but I would say that physical books, and specifically of the kind that you, Mark, have produced over the years — books which take full advantage of their corporeality; books which don't cede the authority of the author over word density and typeface; books whose meaning, as you put it, is organically tied to the physical medium, tied to the inherent drama of ink on paper — these types of books will be more important than ever. Not to mention that we will want, going forward, a bounded, immutable, personal object to be a vehicle for, and a memento of, a great reading experience.

book with writing
David Foster Wallace's copy of Ratner's Star

So: yes to the survival of the physical book and thus the physical cover.

This Book Must Not Be Destroyed

But that being said, most of our reading will be done digitally, without a doubt.

And that being said: digital "covers" are not "necessary," like, AT ALL.

In fact we are all much, much better off without them. They are a misguided form of nostalgic thinking. (This, from the cover designer?) We read differently when we read digitally. We digest, curate and collect, manipulate, and share text differently in the digital realm. I would even go so far as to say that we read at a different rate, and with a different cadence when we read on a device as opposed to when we have a book in our hands. The big benefits of digital text (the ones you pointed out: speed, reproducibility, searchability, interactivity, etc.) are only diminished through the imposition these old, skeuomorphic models: pages looking like they are "turning," digital "bookshelves," "covers..."


eBooks don't need a "face" on a digital device any more than each of your emails or folders or Web links need a "face." I believe that people only still crave this "face" because the transitions that need to take place, culturally, aren't yet complete. We are in an awkward intermediary phase. A reading adolescence. And we still cling to what's comfortable — we still want to imagine certain digital entities as objects. But this is a cultural anxiety rather than a considered position.

A supporting anecdote: This morning I was cruising Twitter, when someone recommended an interview with an author on a blog — so I clicked through the link and read the interview; which itself had an embedded link to another site related to the author's work, which I visited; which referred to a book the author had written that I hadn't read; at which point I went to download that book on Amazon and all of a sudden there was this "book jacket" thing, an image, a thumbnail, a jpg, and this was the first moment in the entire text-driven process that felt jarring. Not only was the "cover" in this equation, strictly speaking, unnecessary, it had fatally interrupted the fluid stream of interactions I had been (deeply) engaged in. I didn't buy the book in the end. I probably would have if the cover hadn't interposed itself. Hadn't pulled me out of my immersion.

But... all this isn't to say "fuck the ebook." I love the ebook — just not the notion of an ebook "cover." Bring on the ebook. The digital reading medium is freaking exciting and has yet to be really exploited to the fullest. And apropos of that: you must feel compelled, I'd imagine, being who you are, MZD, to write books that are native to the digital medium, much in the way you write novels which are native to the physical format — any plans in that direction? If you aren't too busy visiting prison yards and landfills?

MZD: "A reading adolescence" nicely gets at the question of how "reading" is no longer that useful omnifactotum we rely on to convey how we process information. That's right, "omnifactotum." If you're going to throw out "skeuomorphic" I'm going to throw around a word I can't even find in my own dictionary. Google grants omnifactotum only six appearances. As you can see I'm all for glib, but I'm also for new words. Or at least newish.

Where I'm going: I wonder if reading now requires a more precise vocabulary? Of course we have skimming and close reading and studying and memorizing, all suitable, but there's no question "reading an article on a website" frequently means skimming, while "reading poems" of, say, Michael Robbins or Timothy Donnelly requires more care in order to appreciate their gifts in stillness and tonal shifts. One could imagine color encoding "reading" to indicate levels of attention. Or we could just say, "I spent 10 minutes treasure hunting a webpage" or "I, like totally!, stone-skipped that Wikipedia article" or "I GWINed that." Yup. You got it. Got What I Needed. In the meantime, though, maybe we would be best served to use the word "reading" more sparingly — reserved for those moments when we consider both narratives and ideas that are not our own and are difficult to assemble and leave the world slightly ajar.

And here's why, after questioning whether covers will still exist, I want to defend them. I think, importantly, they frame our reading expectations. They catch our eye but don't sensationalize. They hint but don't solve. They warn but do not say why. And, most of all, they're memorable. I can still vividly picture early covers of books I read and reread. Ulysses (Vintage International), The Iliad (Anchor Press), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Bantam), The Catcher in the Rye (Bantam).

And that's just for starters. I'm sure you have yours.

P: The jackets I feel the fondest towards tend to be the simplest, the most transparent, the ones that display as little design as possible. Like the Gallimards and the old Penguins...

As a reader who is also a designer, I don't love having another designer impose their thoughts on my reading experience. I'm sure this must go doubly for you as a reader, designer, and author. I notice that the ones you just mentioned are mostly type driven as well...

MZD: Very true. And certainly the cover for The Fifty Year Sword is type driven. And yet in the way we sunk that title [Dante font – Editors] into its haze of orange — a texturized orange — a figuration still occurs. That's an area I remain fascinated by: the border between language's conveyance and the impact of image, where both modes of communication begin to break down into the other, and therein (there between) discovering whether or not an area exists that is neither strictly imagistic nor strictly linguistic, where a third kind of communication and understanding takes place, accessing that fabled region where intellect and affect fuse without rendering the parts imperceptible.

Certainly The Fifty Year Sword alternates between those images created out of thread and paper and reproduced in the book, and those images imagined by the reader when encountering the blank recto pages. I remember how you and I, when approaching the cover, considered ways to literalize thread. I still love your decision to go with a die-cut to emphasize the want of the stitch, the want of cohesion, the wound (all of this your very first impulse, in fact), and later, when we found a means to provide literal red thread by producing a Nepalese binding [special edition only – Editors], to then conceal it.

Which brings up three of the most important questions: Why are we here past midnight? And with shovels? And what's in the box?

The Fifty Year Sword Special Edition

P: What's in the box is your book, The Fifty Year Sword. And its probably time we unearth it.

(Although: quickly! 1. Yes, "reading" is a catchall and we need some new subheadings. 2. Related question: If we have "ebooks" do we "eread"? 3. When we read, context matters. For instance — what other actions of ours are mediated by screens and how does this affect reading on a screen? This question also applies to, say, drone warfare. If bombing live targets and playing Game Boy happen in the same context, what are the consequences? 4. Covers are AWESOME. 5. They ARE "frames"! 6. They are also doors. 7. Digital, is like the "outdoors," where "doors" aren't really crucial. 8. "Omnifactotum" is a word that feels both archaic and neologistic. So I like it a lot.)

Now: [from the literal and virtual jacket of – Editors] The Fifty Year Sword:

One Halloween night, at a party held at an East Texas ranch house, a local seamstress named Chintana finds herself thrown into the role of chaperone for five rambunctious orphans. Not surprisingly, the children's energies prove barely containable, even with promises of cake and a storyteller.

The storyteller, however, is not what anyone expects.

Looming and cloaked in dark, he entertains the orphans with a tale twisted out of vengeance and violence. He does not come empty-handed, either. At their feet he sets a long, narrow box sealed with five latches.

"I am a bad man with a very black heart," he warns them. "And it was only that badness and blackness which forced me to seek out what I have carried now for many years and brought this night for you."

An unsettling thing to say to anyone, especially to children. But as Chintana soon discovers, this is just the beginning. Her concerns only mount as the storyteller offers more and more menacing details about what consequences lie hidden within that long, narrow box.

To make matters worse, the orphans, one by one, lean forward and lift the latches...

So — how to make a cover for this book which accomplishes all of these tasks you mentioned earlier ("framing," "warning," etc.)? You and I discussed how we wanted something actual done to, perpetrated on, the jacket; how we wanted to take advantage of the physicality of the book; how we didn't want to print mere "pictures of things" on it. "Pictures of things" describes what digital was invented for; what the experience of digital, in a way, is. If the physical book is going to continue to justify its existence (we were saying, you and I), then we need to wring the most out of the thingy-ness of books. The tangible ones, that is.

Here, we considered having sewing done on the jacket, in actual thread (the protagonist being a seamstress, and the interior art being beautifully hand-stitched thread-pictures). Too expensive.

I also spent a fair amount of time considering how the titular sword might be represented through the damage it inflicts — so I sketched a bunch of books which were nocked, notched, sliced, and run through... I was very interested in what these cuts would reveal and conceal... and I briefly considered having interior die-cuts in different places, which reveal certain key phrases from pages underneath.

The last of these sketches has a somewhat, er, sexual subtext as well...

But in the end, these options weren't quite subtle enough.

So how about the absence of thread?


This visual metaphor encompasses the damage done by needles and swords alike — i.e., piercing (we wanted the jacket to have a kind of covert violence to it). I like how this effect mirrors the interior art and the art on the case binding. But more importantly, I enjoy the implication that all the thread here, all that connects and binds, has been pulled out. (Or, even more hauntingly, perhaps the needle has been sewing without any thread in the first place...)

I was told by our production manager, the ingenious Andy Hughes, that the printer could construct a "pinwheel," a spiked axle of some kind (something like what you see in the innards of a player piano) to die-cut the pin-pricks through the jacket paper. Since every sheet would load at a different point in the complete revolution of the wheel, each jacket would be uniquely pricked. No two jackets are the same. This, needless to say, is wicked cool.

And I will also mention that this contraption reminds me of the punitive needle/tattoo machine in Kafka's "In the Penal Colony."

The Complete Stories

Which is also a kind of horror story, as well as a tale of retribution and justice. And I know how you love tattoos, Mark. Tattoos, like physical books, suggest permanence.

fan tattoo 1
Fan tattoo. Text from House of Leaves
fan tattoo 2
Fan tattoo. Page from Only Revolutions.

MZD: Ah, Kafka's apparatus and all that it inscribes, which in fact your pinwheel, your apparatus, does not inscribe. There is no ink, no legible sentence. If once thread — carefully colored and correctly stitched — could make sense of all those holes, tell us something, a secret, maybe even tell us something more than a secret, better than a question, that thread now is gone and the means to rethread those inkless lacunae lost. Instead our cover resembles Kafka's apparatus as it fails at the end of "In the Penal Colony," a murder without sentence, a sentence without language, yet still revealing beneath itself a murder, or the possibility of a murder, in the language of image, an image which, though stitched and even seemingly complete, may still defy sense.

If "the sentence" becomes the linguistic point dominating "In the Penal Colony," "the stitch," as you well know, is what binds (or perforates) The Fifty Year Sword. How we stitch together letters, words, stories, the lies we need, the history we heed, the reasons we reach for to justify what we do or don't do next. And, of course, the opposite: how we unstitch our secrets, our pains, our truths, our loves.

Before it came to mean "loop" or that which binds, "stitch" in fact first held its meaning in the Old English "stice," meaning "a puncture, stabbing pain."

Not surprisingly, then, with all this in mind, the artwork inside was created with sewing machines, paper, and many, many bobbins and spools of thread. The thread remnants and broken needles can be seen in the endpapers. Many hours, long days and longer nights, were spent stitching possibilities out of nothing. Using the orphans' colors, dozens and dozens of butterflies were stitched until we finally settled on one. That decision was a particularly sad moment because we loved that particular creation and yet it is the lovely, albeit conflicted, figure of love the hero must unstitch and only through the course of the story attempt to recover or restitch in her mindful heart.


But in order to depict this restitching we had to work in reverse and unstitch the butterfly, scanning the resulting image as we went, until eventually we had only the holes. Many alternate butterflies still exist, but the one that mattered to Chintana, Belinda Kite, and the storyteller lives now only as a patch of punctures. Only in the book is its stitched entirety preserved, complete with bobbin-side violet lashes.

That was a curiously vivid time. Hallucinatory (and I use that word pointedly, for all its inferences, and unpoint them here too by stating nothing chemically packed into a pill or distilled from a root played any part). The concentrated attention on what we spun from our own synaptic needlepoint was all and everything that we needed to conjure the shapes and shades. [For the definition of "we" see credits page in The Fifty Year Sword (Oct. 2012) – Editors.]

Of course it didn't hurt that now and then we looked up from our sewing machines and caught a glimpse of wings at large. A gift of live butterflies had been opened in my place, and soon the rooms whirled with fluttering intention, whether seeking out sugar water, light, an open door, or just the pleasures of flying.

Interesting that they were monarchs, so even then I was catching all the time a flicker of orange.

Also — quick note on the cover color — I want to confess here that initially I had favored black or some layout incorporating the five quotation marks matching the hues as they appear in the book.

You, in the beginning, had liked an orange. In the very beginning — was this a year ago? — along with the die-cut I didn't connect with (a variation of which we now have thanks to you) you had picked out a rose orange which I didn't connect with (a variation of which we now also have).

By chance, while building a dummy, Andy Hughes, with whom I've worked since House of Leaves, threw on some orange cloth boards. I didn't like those either.

But I had begun to come around to your and Pantheon's collective intuitions. Are those fair words to use? Intuitions? Collective? I started to examine my resistance only to discover that the main one was simple: the hue of the color could not be the same as the orange quotation mark. If it were, it would seem to bias the book towards that particular voice/orphan. Realizing this, and realizing that of course we could use an orange different from that narrator, the color scheme began to make sense. Rita Raley, who teaches up at UCSB and knows the book well, liked the idea of using a color that warns away (i.e., danger) at the same time as it calls one closer (i.e., distress). Finally I liked it because it spoke of jack-o'-lanterns and pumpkin pie. I love pumpkin pie.

P: This was a color I'd never used on a book jacket before (always a bonus). I've worked on plenty of orange jackets, but never this orange, never an orange as nuanced as the orange we have here. Everyone always wants the really garish oranges: the day glows, the retina burners. Those oranges just didn't have the right amount of dignity for this book of yours. At least that's how I was feeling about it. Too bright would seem oddly whimsical or frivolous. Too dark, and we'd have something murky on our hands. (I like pumpkin pie too. And, if we were making a paint chip based on your book jacket, we could call it that — though it'd have to be a really fresh pumpkin pie. Maybe even unbaked.) All these subtle gradations of color have emotional ramifications. So you want to get it right. Though it's worth mentioning that ink is a bit unpredictable in the printing process — so you never quite end up with exactly the shade you'd thought you'd get. There is a touch of the lottery in printing ink on paper. And, of course, printed ink shifts in color over time as well. Ink is capricious. This is one reason why I love it.

MZD: So we've been digging awhile. Is it enough? After all, the box isn't that big. The book is not so long. Do you think we need to dig deeper? Tell me again what the Catalan translation for Barcelona means? It's odd to think you're in Spain right now and I'm on my way to Comic-Con and yet we're also here, surrounded by these tall trees, their branches snapping off in the breeze, like they were as dry as the breeze, though there is no breeze, none whatsoever, and why also is the bark peeling off like debrided wounds in a burn ward?, something is definitely wrong with these trees, not to mention the earth we keep spading through, soft and unforgiving and soaked through with something a little too sweet to mean water or ink or anything chemical, and all the roots a little too soft too, especially to mean roots, unless our shovels are that sharp, maybe they are, are they?, Peter, what's wrong with these roots? And I'm sorry I'm babbling now. This place has gotten me nervous. So nervous I'm not even me anymore, but some other voice, which you should have noticed back when I started bringing up the trees, and maybe even that's gotten you nervous too, are you nervous?, because I hear you, I do, I get it, really, who wants to be alone with a voice like...

when thoughts burn away words
[Provided with caption/signature: "What's left over, sometimes, when thoughts burn away words." – Editors.]

...well you know, among trees like these with this, whatever this is, soaking through our shoes and our socks, and staining our feet something terrible, and all the time asking over and over is the burning worth the charcoal?, is life worth the mark?, especially with dogs howling, if those are dogs, though they aren't howling like they're coming this way, or even watching, but like they're running away, why on earth would they be running... Tell me again what the Catalan translation of Barcelona means?

P: It's not a translation as much as a description. (Maybe translation is description? I dunno.)


Color de gos com fuig: The "color of a dog running away." Motion and color are one and the same. And aren't they just. Who ever conceived of color as static?

dog running

You are at Comic-Con.

With George R. R. Martin
With XX Girls
With XX Girls cosplaying Skullgirls.

And I am in Barcelona, and we are both in a state of high surreality.

With a Fish
With a fish.

Are you surrounded by Daleks and Drow? There are those here too. Someone at the little café table across from me is reading Juego de Tronos.

You aren't making me nervous — I'm only nervous because I'm engaged in a Leary/Castaneda/Alpert-esque psychotropic experiment involving an unprecedented sixth cup of coffee.

Things are getting unmoored...

÷ ÷ ÷

Peter Mendelsund is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf Books, art director of Pantheon Books, art director of Vertical Press, and a recovering classical pianist. His designs for Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy were described by the Wall Street Journal as being "the most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction," and he was recently awarded 11 of the 50 Best Covers of 2011 awards chosen by Design Observer.

÷ ÷ ÷

Mark Z. Danielewski was born in New York City and lives in Los Angeles. He is the author of the forthcoming novel The Fifty Year Sword, House of Leaves, Only Revolutions and The Whalestoe Letters.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Fifty Year Sword
    Used Hardcover $17.95
  2. House of Leaves: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  3. Only Revolutions: A Novel Used Hardcover $5.50
  4. The Whalestoe Letters Used Trade Paper $5.95

  5. Iliad Used Trade Paper $4.50
  6. Ulysses (Vintage International) Used Trade Paper $8.95
  7. Ratner's Star (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $9.00
  8. Juego de Tronos (Vintage Espanol) New Trade Paper $18.00
  9. The Metamorphisis, in the Penal... Used Trade Paper $7.95

Mark Z. Danielewski is the author of The Fifty Year Sword

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