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Interview Mark Z. Danielewski

Mark Z. Danielewski
Stacey Knecht

The Fifty Year Sword
House of Leaves

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SK — I’ve never seen a title page quite like that before...

MZD — I haven’t either! Isn’t it great? I was looking at it the other day and thinking: I just wrote a story written by five quotation marks!

SK — Quotation ‘Marks’... we’re off to a good start. Of course, no one has the faintest idea what we’re talking about, unless they’ve read the book. Perhaps I should explain: The Fifty Year Sword is a story told by five different ‘voices’, each of them indicated by its own uniquely colored quotation mark.

MZD — It’s certainly very different when you hear it, as opposed to when you read it. What I would love to hear someday would be five actors doing it, like a radio play, so you could actually hear all these voices. Or you can get five people to do it, but they would each read the entire story, individually. Then you cut it all together, so the voices wouldn’t match each other, they wouldn’t be hearing each other. It would be a little off, it would have a John Cage kind of feel to it. It would break a little of the music. It might even be unlistenable, too complex. But however you do it, it should be three men and two women, reading in an amalgamation of bad Southern accents, bad Texas accents, not too specific, not too particular.

SK — Vaguely strange.

MZD — Yes, vaguely strange. The voices are a little without origin, just as those quotation marks are without origin. So even if they were an accent of their own construction, that would be fine. Unfortunately, when I read it out loud, it sounds as simply one voice.

SK — In the introduction to the book, which is presented in the shape of a sword, you tell us a bit about the five voices, ‘the five persons – one of whom in the early years slept with another and now endlessly wonders about the lakes of fall where someone else once wandered; two of whom still nurture their affection for one another, expressing so in an array of notes and overseas phone calls; a fourth who lost three; and the last of whom from the prison of a later life hates them all’. You don’t give them names, though, so we’re never sure, as we’re reading the story, which is speaking, or even which is which. Were they individuals to you, as a writer?

MZD — Partly. I mean, there’s five narrrators, there’s five orphans...

SK — What a coincidence!

MZD — Isn’t it? And there are five fingers on each hand! (laughs) So those narrators are probably a little more distinguishable in the course of the story. However, there is an abstract but significant idea that’s being toyed with there. The quotation marks are colored. They are the colors of autumn, and they also have a certain skin tone. The fact is, at some point in our lives we’ve sat with a handful of individuals who we don’t know. At all. And we hear a story – maybe told together, which is a rare case and a great deal of fun, when people have had the same experience and they’re all filling in each other’s details– that’s the kind of the thing that I wanted, but without actually getting into who those characters were. We think we know people, because we make certain assumptions, probably racial, probably ethnic, a whole bunch of things. On first meeting. And all it does is imbue us with a sense that we kind of know where these people are coming from. But the reality is, we don’t. We may have no clue where they’re coming from. We just project some idea of who they are. But really they’re nothing more than a colored quotation mark. And they’re quoting something. And we look at them as an authority because they’re breathing. Because they’re flesh and blood. Certainly House of Leaves was about that. We look at Johnny Truant and at first we think he’s just this ‘club rat’, then we see he has this mother, and her vocabulary starts to get very dense, and then he’s got a good vocabulary, and suddenly we begin to understand some of the connective tissue. But that’s not always how we experience stories. Often we hear stories that may be told by one person, but they’re the product of five quotation marks, if you will. They’ve just been fused and given a sense of authority which really doesn’t quite exist.

SK — So you don’t really know where or how they’ve begun. And those colored quotation marks in your book – they don’t help much either to clarify things, because the five colors are all so similar. One is a slightly paler or darker shade of the other – they tend to blend.

MZD — And they complicate. At first they’re all one, then suddenly they’re nestling within each other, and you’re like, whoa! How did that happen?! What exactly is going on? At first it seems completely nonsensical. But if you do the math, you start to realize, hey wait a minute, someone could have said that line, and someone could’ve edited that line, and then that edited line could’ve been nested inside what someone else said, and then someone later finished saying it. And suddenly you realize, wow, there’s a history of four or five different people repeating that one little line.

SK — It’s complete untrustworthy. You’ve robbed us of every single recognizable feature!

MZD — Yes. However! The bar that I held up for myself is: with all that taken away from you, the narrative should ultimately rise above it, to the point where you let go of all of that, and then realize you’re experiencing a story. That will create a certain vertigo, and at the same time, constantly create a sense of curiosity about the origins of the tale, the origins of the sword, the nature of the sword, etcetera, etcetera.

SK — Did you yourself ever get confused, while writing it? Perhaps you even wanted to get confused...

MZD — I’d love to get confused. But I’m not confused. I’m pushing towards that. I want to push towards my own limits, to be in a place that’s outside of what I can do.

SK — And then go beyond that?

MZD — I think my third book is that. I look at The Fifty Year Sword as a little bit of sorbet, between courses. To cleanse the palate of House of Leaves and get you ready for the next.

SK — So you’re working towards a state of utter confusion?

MZD — Well, not utter confusion, but something beyond what I can digest. I’m just finishing the new book now. At some point it’ll start to surface online, the final draft will be at my publisher’s mid-January. The title will be revealed in March, and the book will come out in October, 2006. The working title, for a while now, has been: THAT. So you can say, I liked THAT better than House of Leaves, or House of Leaves better than THAT, or I can say, ‘That’s THAT,’ or: It’s like THAT, or ‘What I’m telling you about is THAT, ‘cause THAT is what I’m doing!’
My first novel, House of Leaves, was written for a certain critical apparatus. I wouldn’t say it was written for, but it was so indebted to that it inevitably became for all the academic criticism that I’ve read, whether it was deconstruction, whether it was the psychological views, Freud to LeConte, that whole range – that’s what I was schooled in. So then the question was: could I write something that wasn’t suited, necessarily, to a set of academic criticism, but that would require a new critical apparatus? And that’s beyond me, because I can no longer anticipate how this will be critically approached. I’m using the word ‘critically’ in a formal sense, not just how it’s reviewed.
The new novel is a little troubling, it’s far more complex than House of Leaves, far more complex than The Fifty Year Sword, and I think it does exactly that. Well, it is THAT, so of course it does that...

SK — So you’re one step ahead of the critics.

MZD — Well, let’s say I’m conscious of that whole thing. Whether I succeed at it is another story. But I myself am unable to anticipate it, and that’s where there’s a certain rawness. So regardless of everything I’ve just said, which is philosophical, and completely intellectual, and cerebral, it creates in me a very raw kind of fear, love, a range of visceral responses, with the new book more than ever. Because I am no longer in control. I’m climbing the face of a wall without any pitons or ropes or trails. And I’m even kind of hazy as to where the top is. I don’t have a point of comparison. I can’t look at another book, and go: ‘They did this.’ And I could in House of Leaves. I could look at a Borges tale. I could look at a Kerouac or a Fante tale for Johnny Truant. I could look at Sylvia Plath. There were points of reference, and how I assembled it maybe was kind of new, but there were still very specific trails. On the third book, there’s not. You get sort of a whiff of that in The Fifty Year Sword, even though there’s a lot that’s very familiar, almost a regression to a type of storytelling – but part of it is kind of ripping away from that as well.

SK — What prompted The Fifty Year Sword?

MZD — Well, the concept of a sword had been floating in my head for about four or five years. The idea came partly from a social experience that I think most everyone has had, where you’ve been at a party, or at a dinner, or maybe you’ve been with a lover, and a comment is made that you laugh about, maybe, and don’t think much of, and then a few hours later you realize: that was a really cutting remark, that really hurt... At that moment we’ve sort of felt the effects of a fifteen-minute sword. Or maybe it’s a two-hour sword. So it was that idea of delayed hurt, delayed violence. It’s a little different in the book, because it happens on a fiftieth birthday, as opposed to fifty years hence.
Then that became a political idea as well, because one of the things – and this is where it becomes antithetical, there’s an antithetical nature to the book, because you have a children’s tale, which tends to be about immediate gratification: the kids in the story all want to see the sword. They want to know what happened. And that’s what we all want, we want to look under the bridge and see the dragon. But I think one of the concepts that defines adulthood is delayed gratification, and, more importantly, understanding the consequences. So we may cut funding for an educational program now, but we’re not going to feel anything tomorrow, or the next day. But forty years hence, there may be big problems stirring in society. The same thing with the Middle East. We invade the Middle East, CO2 missions, or drilling in the Arctic Reserve – these are things the consequences of which will not be felt immediately. They happen, they appear in the newspaper momentarily, and that’s it.
Two years ago this idea was floating around in my head, and then suddenly a story just wrapped itself around it. And I thought, hey, I kinda like it! I had the whole thing in my head, too, from start to finish. No, actually, that’s not entirely true: what happens to Belinda happened in the course of writing it. I didn’t know the ending yet, and that surprised me.

SK — That is surprising, knowing the ending as I do...

MZD — It totally surprised me, what she did. I didn’t even know she was going to come back! At first I thought maybe she was just scenery, and I would cut her out...

SK — Cut her out! Bit of sword imagery there...

MZD — (laughs) I know! It’s hard to avoid it.
So anyway, I wrote the story in a week. Literally. And that was it. But then I spent the next year kind of revisiting it, in off-hours. I’d spend all day working on THAT, and then I’d come back and toy with it.

SK — Did it have its present form at that stage? With the five voices?

MZD — Kind of. Yes, yes it did. They were different – the specificity of the line breaks and quotation marks changed, but yes, the idea was there. And then I played with it a lot. I felt like... the metaphor I’ve been using for a while is a watchmaker, because of the detail and everything. But then I realized that was wrong, because all a watch does is tell the time. So now I look at myself as someone who makes instruments. It’s more like a violin: it’s finely tuned, but it ultimately still needs to be played, it’s not just read, like a timepiece. A lot of books are written just to be read. There’s a ‘play’ that this book, The Fifty Year Sword, demands. A perfect example of one of the ideas that was teased into being here was the butterfly, the Harvester – the name is important here, by the way. The word ‘butterfly’, aside from being an insect with twin wings, is also a verb: you can ‘butterfly’ steak, you can cut open the steak, or cut open the chicken breast. But you can also ‘butterfly’ a wound, close it, with a special kind of bandage. So ‘butterfly’ means both to cut apart and to bind together, which is the central tension. So it was bringing that concept, which was already in the story – you’ve got Chintana, a seamstress, who’s sewing things together, versus a sword which is cutting them apart – bringing those things to the surface. Then, when I was finished, it was around fifty, sixty pages. But I didn’t really have the energy to promote it, so I just sent it to my agent and he looked at it and said, ‘I don’t know where you want to put this! It’s too long for a magazine and too short for a book.’ My publishers didn’t know what to make of it either. It didn’t have any illustrations at the time, so it was like, ‘Ehm, what is it, a children’s story?’ ‘Well, no, it’s kinda hard to read, all these quotation marks...’ And they said just focus on the next book, that’s the important one. So I thought, okay, I’ll read it aloud at some Halloween Party, and I threw it in a drawer.
Then one day my Dutch publisher called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing a special series for our sixtieth anniversary, we want a long short story or a novella’, and I said, Hm, and I took it out – and I normally don’t have stuff lying in my drawer, I’m really focused on what I’m doing at that moment. They looked at it and said, ‘This is great, but we can’t publish this as a 3-euro book, it’s too complicated. So we’ll do it on its own!’ They added an illustrator and then it just sort of all came together. It was only going to come out in Dutch initially, but then we thought, hm, we could do it in English, I mean I can’t sell it in the US, but why not, we’ll print a thousand or whatever –

SK — It’s not being sold in the US at all?

MZD — No. It’s an exclusive.

SK — Exclusive, in both English and Dutch, to the Netherlands. That’s interesting. How important to this book is the fact that it’s come out in the Netherlands on October 31st, Halloween? The Dutch don’t really have a concept of Halloween, except maybe the commercial side. If I remember correctly, Johnny Truant’s introduction in House of Leaves is dated October 31st, too. What’s going on here?

MZD — I like Halloween! (laughs) It’s all about the candy.

SK — But it isn’t just about the candy, is it?

MZD — No, it isn’t.

SK — So tell me your Halloween.

MZD — You know, I think Halloween is... it’s not... I don’t look at it as a national holiday, an American holiday, even though it is. It seems so non-denominational, but it’s not entirely secular, either. There’s a little bit of the darkness, of the mystique, which, in a way, has its ties to our religious legacy, whatever our faith is – there’s an element of the unknown. It’s also a way of indulging the night, of indulging our chance to procure different identities, there’s a playfulness, a mischievousness to it, which I like. I think there’s a whimsy there. And maybe this means I’m a really dark person, but it makes me far happier than Christmas. Christmas depresses me. Thanksgiving can be nice, that’s a very American holiday, but it’s rife with tensions. But Halloween... there’s something very comforting about it. I feel very at home in that particular holiday. That’s the best answer I can give you right now. I know it’s been around with me for a while, so, you know, maybe I’ll have a better understanding in a few more years.

SK — I like the ‘procuring different identities’ part.

MZD — Oh yes, absolutely. Costumes and so on.... all very useful to this particular book. The story takes place in Texas, but since it’s Halloween time, it’s perfectly permissible to have some weird fellow knocking at the door with a strange, long box, going off to talk with some orphans. But it also cues you in to the fact that maybe something can go wrong. It’s a dark time.

SK — Texas... this wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with Bush?

MZD — Well I did mention politics earlier... (laughs)

SK — Most novels tell us, right at the beginning, who wrote them. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Or Atomised, by Michel Houellebecq. You know what I mean. But when you open House of Leaves, you read: ‘Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, by Zampanò’. In The Fifty Year Sword, we’ve got: ‘Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword, by ....’, and then we see the five colored quotation marks you mentioned earlier.
In both cases I was reminded of some old-fashioned, traveling road show: ‘And here’s your host, Mark Z. Danielewski, with his strange cast of characters!’. It introduces a kind of distance between yourself and what, I assume, you yourself have written. Writers do that all the time, in various ways, but this is such a literal ‘distancing’: you actually tell us that somebody else wrote the book.

MZD — Again, the origins to that are many: having to do with my schooling, the kind of parents I had. But ultimately, I’m not one who’s satisfied with just a story. If you say to me: Oh, let me tell you this story... I’m going to want to know: Well, were you there? And how did you know that part, and who said that, and where did that come from? It’s like when someone says: ‘Beware of jealousy, it’s the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on’, and they say, well, that’s Shakespeare. And I say, no, it’s actually Iago, which is a totally different context. There are moments when you can look very keenly at a Shakespeare play, and go: That sounds like Shakespeare, like someone is coming through that character, and it’s no longer quite the character itself. But for me it’s always been very important who’s saying something, the origins. ‘Well I see Queen Mab hath been with you, she’s the fairies’ midwife’ – no, it’s not Shakespeare, it’s Mercutio, and Mercutio has a certain relationship with Romeo, and that’s important.
I always do this. When I see a movie, for instance, when I see a certain type of shot, where let’s say you’re looking at a street and someone’s coming down the street and the camera’s up high, and the camera comes down as the person walks towards the camera, and then the camera pans left as that person moves right towards the entrance of the house – I see the crane shot. I’m like, you know, that is a completely omniscient, or divorced, viewpoint in the movie. It is established by a director, a camera, and a crew. It’s very different if you hear someone speaking and the camera is placed, let’s say, where I’m sitting now in this chair and you’re speaking to me, or back and forth – suddenly that viewpoint is very closely associated with me, potentially my psychology, with you, your psychology, etcetera etcetera. So I have to look a few layers deep as to what the origins are. Obviously it gets deeper and deeper and more and more fuzzy and lost... But for me it seems there’s more integrity to that: there is a distancing, but at the same time, I have to look at those voices, first of all. There’s other people telling the story, and obviously something’s happened to five orphans: they experienced something. They saw something. And they carry their story forward. They’re the only ones who could’ve carried that whole story forward. They saw everything that the social worker didn’t see, Chintana saw some of it but not all of it, and so we see a whole blend of people. So where did this story really come from?

SK — I was about to ask, funnily enough: ‘Were they there that night, those five voices?’

MZD — We don’t know. I’m saying, well, we can look at those orphans. But the point is, it could be five people who say there were three orphans, and another person says there were seven orphans, and some person says, well actually, there were five. So, there’s a history there that you’re not going to know.

SK — You also don’t know the relationship of the five voices, time-wise, to the story they’re telling, you don’t know whether it was five minutes later, ten years later – you’re never really sure.

MZD — That’s right.

SK — You say that when you see a film, you’re nearly always aware of the presence of the filmmaker. When I read a book, and I’m aware of the author, I get annoyed. I don’t want to know he’s there. What do you think about that?

MZD — I think it’s a great point. What I’m exploring... and looking for, is... is ultimately perhaps a way to tell a story where you don’t necessarily have to be aware of that. The thing is, I don’t want to lie, either. I don’t want to fall into a convention, just because it’s easier. I don’t write ‘fast food’. I’m not... there’s an effort involved. My books are not CD-players, they’re instruments. A reader has to be willing to play them. And they will reward you. There’s a lot of work that went into them. A lot of detail. It certainly limits my audience to people who are creative, curious, exciting, wonderful (laughs)... No, but generally, I do enjoy the people who have enjoyed my work. Not just because they’ve enjoyed it – I shouldn’t even say ‘enjoyed’, because I meet people who are frustrated by the books, but people who have engaged in them. And it’s great to see how, for instance, House of Leaves crosses generational boundaries, ethnic boundaries, language boundaries – it’s just all over the place. And yet my readers are very similar, in a sense. They have a curiosity about the world.
So yes, I understand your irritation when you see the author. And I feel irritated when I see that crane shot. Just like you. Because even though it’s a convention, and everybody goes: ‘Oh, it’s just an establishing shot’, I’m like: You see the string that’s attaching the floating girl! That’s what it looks like to me. It’s wrong. You need something that makes more sense.

SK — Unless the filmmaker or author has intended for you to see the string.

MZD — Right. But it’s interesting, because some people don’t see that string. But I see it. And I don’t see any strings in The Fifty Year Sword, none that I can find. There’s no device that says: Hey, it’s Mark here, and I’m doing this. It’s very consistent. There are those characters, and those voices, and this is the way the story comes. It’s very different from... oh, I don’t know... old 1970’s stuff, or maybe some of the Vonneguts, where the author actually makes an appearance in the middle of the book. Or like Woody Allen, something like that.
There was a lot of cinematic stuff in House of Leaves, for instance the way the typography was used. Here in The Fifty Year Sword you have these fairly dense pages on the left-hand side – depending how you’re reading it, of course – and then on the right-hand side the pages are blank, so it can breathe, it’s open. Occasionally there’s a drawing. There are many choices that went into this. Because again, the understanding is that the eye is moving from left to right. I wanted to try and thematically represent what is and what’s not. What’s here, what’s apart. And also to open it up, to again allow that playfulness to come into it. That’s why the text is on the left side. Now: just imagine, if all of the text had been on the right side, and the left side had been blank, it would’ve been much more closed off. And your eye would’ve just ignored the blank page and gone on to the next chunk of text. It never would’ve pondered the blankness, the invisibleness, like the invisibility of the blade of the sword. And hopefully, you start creating your own things there: it’s a place for the reader to participate, to co-author this book.
So it’s a cinematic understanding of how the eye works, the direction the eye is going. If we were reading in Hebrew, we’d want it the opposite way.

SK — Your father was a filmmaker, wasn’t he?

MZD — Yes, he was. He was a filmmaker, did a lot of stuff, but not a person you probably would know.

SK — Was he American?

MZD — He was originally from Poland, near Warsaw. He was born in 1921, so he was eighteen years old when the war broke out.

SK — And he left.

MZD — No, he was involved in the Resistance, and then ultimately ended up in a labor camp. He was in the Warsaw Insurrection. He finally made it to England, and then to the United States, and never spoke about Poland. Never. Didn’t speak Polish. My grandmother, who I never met, was a Warsaw Catholic – an opera singer, actually. It was rumored that she really could shatter a glass. That’s one of those stories that probably has a billion little quotation marks! It was claimed to be true. It had been witnessed by someone. My grandfather was an engineer, and there was always this kind of specter, this unspoken assumption, that he was Jewish. He was the only one who was actually killed, in the war, by the Nazis.
So there’s this sort of strange cultural mix, in the background.

SK — There’s music, too, apparently.

MZD — Oh, yes. A lot of music. My sister’s a musician... I heard a great story, though. Do you have time?

SK — Do I have time? Of course!

MZD — This is a personal story, so it really has no bearing, I think, on anything other than my life. Though maybe it’ll close the gap a little bit.
My father married my mother, who was from outside of Philadelphia. She came from an old Philadelphia family, they’d been in the Northeast for generations. And my father, of course, sort of adopted America, was very forward-thinking. He was always looking at the newest thing. He’d have an I-Pod if he were around today. He’d be text messaging, probably would have a thing on MySpace, or whatever. He was always like: What’s new? What’s happening? And we were raised very much as American kids, though we had our last name, which immediately points to an ethnic background. but if I’d taken my mother’s name –

SK — What was that?

MZD — Morris! If I’d taken her name I’d be marked as a WASP.
So anyway, one summer, we went to my mother’s parents, my grandparents’ house, and my father decided to make a movie. A tiny movie. It was just going to be fun, because he was going to show the kids how movies are made. So he got out a little hand crank 16 mm Bolex, and he shot me and my sister being placed into a little red Radio Flyer wagon, and then being pulled along by my mother and himself. And then we went down the hill, racing away from my mother’s parents’ house, and we’d gotten the neighbor, who had a German Shepherd, named Rommel... what happened was, Rommel would sit on the far end of the road, and then the owner would stand behind my father while he was filming, and shout: ‘Here, Rommel!’ And suddenly Rommel would race towards the camera. This was done a few times, and we didn’t understand it. Then he shot us in the wagon, looking over our shoulders.
So then movie magic happened. We had one of those hand crank editing things, with a wooden board, and back in our apartment in New York my father cut it all together. And sure enough: there we were, escaping the house, and suddenly the mean German Shepherd was chasing us and we kept looking over and it kept getting closer and closer, and it was just thrilling!

SK — The Monster!

MZD — Exactly.
So it was this wonderful little story.
In retrospect, I looked at it and I thought, wow, this is interesting: my father is clearly trying to escape my mother’s parents! That became my more sophisticated reading of it, and I was like... a lot of stuff was going on. And sure enough, we ended up moving to Utah, and then my parents got divorced, so you can look at that little film as all sorts of little things. Right?
Okay. So, six months ago, through a long, complicated story, I find out that there is a man who knew my father in the camp, who’s now living in San Francisco, in Palo Alto. So I drive up, and I interview him. It turns out, he was about five or six at the time when the Nazis invaded. He had a sister, and his father had fled, he was part of the Polish Army, he fled to England, leaving them behind. So they were without a father, but they had a very strong, attractive mother, who was, I think, around thirty-two. And suddenly my father entered the scene. And became her lover. He was eighteen. It was interesting, too, because this man was telling me about what a poor father-figure my father was, which I sort of could... I was like... that’s too bad... I mean what am I going to say? So then we’re sort of doing the dates, and I thought, he was eighteen, and your mom was thirty-one – I’ll bet there are very few eighteen-year-olds who could pull off that responsibility well. Then his daughter walked through the door, she was around nineteen, and I think he had this moment where he looked at her and realized: She’s nowhere near ready to be a maternal figure for anyone!
What happened was, my father stayed with them, he was a father-figure for them, throughout the whole war, and through the Insurrection, which, if you saw The Pianist, which documents the leveling of the entire city – I mean, he describes the bombs falling, everything, it was pretty horrific – and they were just surviving. I think they were eating cats, they called them ‘roof pigeons’... So they finally ended up in a camp – not a death camp, but one of those labor camps in Germany. It was a little more relaxed because you could go outside of the fence and till a garden for food, but if people were late, someone might get shot. So there were consequences, but I don’t want to put it in the same category as the death camps. Well, the Front was moving closer and closer, and there were a few months when everyone felt kind of safe, and then there was this sudden fear that the Germans would exterminate everyone before the Front hit. So, my father and this young man’s mother conspired to escape. And they ended up finding a little wagon, and they took the wagon and gave it to the kids, and said: ‘I want you to play with the wagon and then go out to the garden and hide it in the bushes.’ So they hid it in the bushes.
Well, apparently, at this point the kids were so emaciated, because they hadn’t been eating, they’d all been living off turnips, they were really worried that they wouldn’t be able to go the distance.
So late last night – I mean, at night, they crawled under the fence, they scurried away from the guardtowers, crossed the garden, put both the kids in the wagon, and then ran away, over this bridge, from the Germans – from Rommel – into a far town, where they hid in the basement, and the next day, or a few days later, the American troops passed over them – literally, it was like a wave – and when they came out of the basement, they were suddenly on the Allied side.
And to hear that story, and suddenly realize that my father had recreated this, in this little movie...
The Poles were vilified, and rightly so, on a certain level. But there were... The problem was, there was no community for my father, so he never talked about it, whereas I think.... The Jews recognized that in order to survive the Holocaust, they had to start finding a language to discuss it. They had to. Even though most didn’t, by the way, but they were very brave and as the Shoah foundations testify there are people who are willing to walk through those fires again. But it was still so... imagine, my father died in 1993, and I suddenly realized that this little movie... he was reliving something.

SK — And you didn’t know that story until you met this man...

MZD — No. Just six months ago. And here’s another light idea: I don’t know if my father knew it. I’m assuming, but... Here’s a guy who had to repress a language, and an identity, he was adopting everything – I don’t know how conscious my father was of it. I mean, I think he would’ve profited endlessly by going to a shrink, but he was terrified – he was terrified of giving a language to who he was in the past. So it’s possible he didn’t understand what he was writing either. Did I say writing? I mean filming, though it was a kind of writing, an assembling of things... It becomes a much more poignant story: exile from the house, his mother’s house, which would’ve been this big country place, chased by Rommel, but he has his family intact. And at the same time, I did... I did think about, it obviously showed that he had some very powerful, or amorous, or loving feelings towards this other family that he’d had. I remember looking at this guy I was interviewing, who was sixty-something, and it was like: ‘Well, you’re kind of my brother!’ We did have the same father, you know? I think there was some closure there.
So I don’t know what all that relates to, but there it is.

SK — The war did very strange things to concepts of family, and country, and identity.

MZD — Were your parents in the war?

SK — No. My grandparents got out in time to raise their children in America.

MZD — So they survived.

SK — They survived, but many of their relatives didn’t, because they didn’t see the need to leave Europe. My mother was born in Brooklyn, but how could she not have been affected by it, by what her parents brought with them from their own country? And my grandmother never spoke English, and they never talked about their past. My grandfather never talked about much of anything, in fact, he was extremely closed.

MZD — And we inherit some of that. But the other thing that’s important is to realize what we don’t inherit. Because sometimes you make the mistake of going: ‘Well, I’m persecuted.’ And this cuts across everything. And then you go: ‘Well, how are you persecuted?’ ‘Well, I’ve got Banana Republic stuff, and my father, you know...’ And then suddenly it’s like, okay, when does it end? I don’t buy it anymore. You know what I mean? At a certain point, you’ve got to say... And I know I’m affected. My father brought very real paranoia about the war into our household. He was afraid. When he was dying of cancer, he was back in the camp. He was afraid of being watched, and all of this sort of stuff. But at the same time, I want to be as honest as possible about my experiences, and not pretend, not take something else and claim it, because that’s dangerous as well. And it’s a lie, too, to say that you suffered in the same way that someone else suffered. The fact is, I wasn’t in the war. My father was. There were a lot of people who weren’t in the war, who had a great time during the war, and maybe they had some bad feelings about what was going on, but they don’t know nuthin’ about it. They weren’t there in fields of fire, they never heard a tank, they didn’t see a bomb drop on anyone... And maybe that does connect to the story after all, getting specific about who’s saying what, at least being aware that things have origins, and maybe we can’t trace them all the way back, but by God, we have to be aware that they are there, that there is a specificity to all knowledge that we earn and that we gather, and not to claim certain knowledge as our own, just because it’s owned and earned by a friend, or a family member, or a religion, or an organization.

SK — Who said what, being clear and specific about origins... It just occurred to me: House of Leaves is filled with footnotes. And footnotes to the footnotes...

MZD — Absolutely!

SK — The Fifty Year Sword doesn’t have a single footnote.

MZD — No. Unless you count the ghosts. I could’ve eliminated all the quotation marks and the intro, and said, okay, this is just a story, but I didn’t.

SK — I wonder what you’ll do with THAT.

MZD — We’ll see. I hope we can have this conversation in a year, and see what the sorbet was cleansing and preparing us for. I’m looking at THAT more from the outside than I ever have, so I’m starting to see that there are relationships between all three books. And a lot of these themes that I’m talking to you about now are very much related to THAT. Certainly: where narration begins, how we originate each other’s stories, how we perceive each other. How we footnote each other.

The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author.