Pub Ex Machina: The Revolution Will Be Digitized
This article will appear in the January issue of Book Business.
Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of mind-bending, paradigm-busting works House of Leaves and Only Revolutions, has made a career of turning the novel on its head. So it should come as no surprise that he’s attempting the same with ebooks.
The digital version of the Los Angeles-based author’s The Fifty Year Sword (Pantheon)—which in print features elaborate stitched illustrations—came out late last year and is neither a print replica nor a reflowable document. Rather, the fixed-layout epub takes the fastidiously constructed ghost story for grownups to another level, incorporating an original score and a collection of text effects that are triggered as the reader turns pages .
“I was in many ways the art director and [ebook producer] Lillian Sullam was the technical director,” says Danielewski on the phone from Los Angeles.
The author takes a very hands-on approach to the design of his books, which is why he was intimately involved in converting The Fifty Year Sword, the first of his books to be rendered digitally.
“My role was to take what I had designed in InDesign, [and] things as crude as paper and thread, and help transfer all of that to a format that seemed amenable to an ebook format, and then to actually begin to deepen that experience. Lillian and I worked very closely. I’d suggest possibilities for a certain sequence and we’d look at how that would resonate thematically while not being an example of using one too many tricks.”
Danielewski points to a passage about a “valley of salt” where words become blurred, and a forest of falling notes where letters and words disintegrate. “Not only does it literalize the theme,” he says, “it creates a sense of immediacy in the reader who is trying to get through the page before it dismantles in front of her eyes.”
The book’s original music, which is cued by specific page turns, was written by Danielewski’s friend Christopher O’Reilly, who’d composed the pieces for a staged shadow play of the story when the book was first published in limited Dutch release in 2005. “I’d got a grant to support Chris’ role [in the live performances]. It dawned on us: Why not use it for a score for the ebook?”
Sullam employed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the thematic variations and avoid repetition. Beyond the granular details, there are bigger issues at play. For instance, is it the same book now?
“At what point are we moving away from the novel entirely and moving into a new art form?” asks Danielewski. “Expectations need to be put aside and managed differently. … We didn’t want to get too ahead of the text itself so that it became an animated movie of sorts. That’s where we spent the most time [on the project], determining what not to do. At what point are we moving too many letters around? At what point is there too much sound? At what point are we interfering too much with the whole experience?”
It’s a question Danielewski will grapple with as he and Sullam convert the more intricate House of Leaves and Only Revolutions into digital formats. (The two started with House of Leaves but “that was so immense and complicated that we backed down” and tested the waters with the much shorter Sword.)
How best to navigate this new intersection of media while remaining true to the original works, which are hybrids of text and design themselves?
“I’m concerned with image as well as text,” explains Danielewski, who’s quite aware of the cognitive minefield through which he’s tip-toeing. “There’s something that language does—it tickles certain parts of our mind. It registers in a way that image doesn’t. … There’s also something about image that’s tremendously powerful and highly mnemonic. … My vocation has always encountered this bifurcation between image and text. And maybe there’s a third part with music. What my books do, I’m coming around to, is explore that world between them. It’s not one or the other. It’s actually that liminal place on the threshold of image, on the threshold of language, that maybe conjures, tickles, enacts something that’s a little new.”
When you put it that way, it’s almost a comfort to know that Danielewski’s the one on that front line where ebooks and multimedia meet—testing the limits, fully aware of the implications.