his is your first novel and the product of ten years of work. How did you come to write House of Leaves?
With very little money, very little sleep, and a great deal of lunacy. You start something like House of Leaves, part of you has to be a board-certified moron. Looking back now I think there was a time when I could have stopped. Just dropped the whole thing. The house, the family, the strange chorus of voices. But then the day came--or I should say the night--when I realized that would be impossible. I had already passed some invisible line and the book was now in control. I was listening to its demands, answering its needs. It became a priority, a life-ordering structure. And well that was that. Welcome to hell. You get the full tour.
Because it is completely unique House of Leaves is more difficult to describe than a typical work of fiction. You can call it a literary ghost story, but it's much more than that. Tell us about your book, how would you describe it?
I think most people will say it's about a house which is bigger on the inside than the outside. These days though, I like to look at House of Leaves as a three character play: a blind old man, a young man, and a very special, extraordinarily gifted woman. The three of them are telling each other stories--frightening ones, sad ones; did you read the sex stories?--and it's easy not to see them. You get swept up in their narratives, in their images. At least I did. But then, just as happens when you're listening to a friend recount something, there are moments when you become aware of the actual person and realize all these things they're describing, the dialogue, the events, along with the gestures, even the hesitations, everything involved in all you're hearing--the errors, the repetitions, the energy--is in fact an intimate portrait of themselves. I see House of Leaves more and more like that. Three people. Beautiful, sad, and of course terrifying, wandering like the damned the awful halls of their collective imagination and histories, haunting us--or at the very least me--the way they haunt their own stories.
There seems to be a surge of interest in horror, with three new films hitting theaters this summer--The Blair Witch Project, The Haunting and Stir of Echoes? What do you make of this trend? How if at all does House of Leaves relate to the horror genre?
I read a headline recently--I think it was USA Today--announcing Smart Horror is in. Encouraging. And I mean that on a cultural level. Such films are asking a very important question: what am I afraid of? Smart Horror--at least the way I'd define it--doesn't resort to your stock serial killer or other such clichés. Smart Horror goes after the deeper origins of fear. It usually relies on specters, religion, unanticipated violence, and all of it handled with enough uncertainty it doesn't just provoke an adrenaline rush but thought. Look at The Blair Witch Project. Kids want to talk about it, read about it on the Internet.
Many films in the 80s--mainstream here--were all about action. Rambo, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard. They offered heroes involved in impossible acts of courage, testing the limits of their endurance and their ability to withstand pain. Still no matter how big the budgets, how grand the scale, they were almost without exception all about anger.
Now I have to be a little careful here because parts of House of Leaves reflect my own schooling in that genre. Nevertheless what the 80s--mainstream again--didn't give us was a close-examination of that rage. You probably know where I'm going with this. And don't worry I'm not going to dive into the exact chemical and psychological mechanisms. In the interest of seeing that you don't consume that entire bottle during this conversation, I'll simplify: anger is always a result of fear. Period. Anger is one way to respond to fear. I say one way because responses are categorically multiple.
Now you may know someone who says he's never been afraid. (I say "he" because typically--though this is not always the case--men are the ones willing to make such a ridiculous claim.) Well if you ask this guy if he's ever been angry, he'll probably say sure. Hell, he'll probably brag about it. But if you're angry, you're afraid. I don't care if it's road rage or a response to a parental barb or how strange a new book looks. If you felt the stir of anger, something scared you.
Of course all this is not earth-shattering stuff. It's as old as the hills. But sometimes this knowledge gets misplaced. The rush anger gives us, the sense of power and possibility, is so powerful we forget the origins. We forget that we're really high on the product of our own internal chemical lab. It's a pretty sophisticated lab too.
So I'm encouraged by the trend towards Smart Horror because it suggests on a cultural level that there's a desire to get past the Anger Response and deal with a much more heroic question: what am I afraid of? And why? And how should I respond?
After all, maybe what we're so frightened of will turn out to be nothing more than a dark, empty room. Then again, maybe it won't.
That's what we're here to find out.
Walls and boundaries are meaningless in the world you create. As chaos and terror take over in the novel, the text responds; as the house mutates, so does Zampanò's manuscript. What are you saying about the transforming power of fear?
I'm going to disagree with you here. "Meaningless" and "terror" cannot exist together at the same time. At the heart of any terror is the fear of losing what we find meaningful. Even "terror of the meaningless" is the same; the fear that our life and our loves will be rendered inconsequential. The fact that you personally experienced terror points in the direction that there's a lot in House of Leaves you found meaningful.
In a strange and perhaps ironic way--especially when elicited by the thought of others in peril--terror can actually be evidence of our ability to care and most of all love.
Johnny Truant is an L.A. club kid and a fantastic character. Is he modeled on anyone you've encountered in Los Angeles?
Yup. Though last I heard he was missing.
That's all you're going to give me, isn't it?
Your book makes the reader uncomfortable in an entirely new and fascinating way--was it your aim to unsettle us?
When I was six or seven, I saw a movie about vampires and it terrified me. I got through it by finding out everything I could about them. Bram Stoker's Dracula, comic books, articles. You name it, I read it. The result: no more fear. Of course my parents didn't like the fact that I had to sprinkle garlic salt around the house for months.
House of Leaves is certainly about the unsettling nature of fear--and it was my aim to address that--but it's also about recovering from fear.
You could say it's Dracula, self-help and garlic salt rolled up in one. Only it smells a lot better.
Readers of House of Leaves will sense right away that you are a film aficionado. When did you become interested in film?
My father was a filmmaker. In the 50s, live television. Later avant-garde. Eventually he got into documentaries. Remind me to tell you one day about when we lived in Spain. What happened there was pretty staggering. Even more so--I think--than the cobras in India.
Anyway no matter what he was doing, whether shooting a film in Africa or directing a soap opera in New York, he constantly spoke about movies. And when my sister and I were young, he always brought 16mm films home. Back then we had on hand an old projector and an assortment of screens.
"The screen matters most," he would say and go on to discuss size and reflective levels and all sorts of other stuff. Most families spend money on cars, vacations and clothes--even if they're broke and at that time we were broke. Very broke. It was an important lesson. Shoes didn't matter. Dad spent money on the screens.
And it was a beautiful gift. My sister and I didn't know it then, but what a magnificent and strange education. Every week Kubrick, Reed, Chaplin, Fellini, Bergman, Ford, Welles, Lean came into our living room. All their light, all their wonder, their genius and misconceptions, flung up on the wall like some magical hallway stretching into far away places. My father always in the back, in his chair, still in his shadows.
Of course just because we had a nice screen didn't mean we a had a nice projector. And we sure as hell didn't have two. That meant every thirty-forty minutes, the reel would run out and a new one would have to be threaded. You can guess who got that job.
Well during this first break, my father would start asking the first questions: "What are we really watching children?" "Why that color?" "Why that name?" "What about the sound? The music? The performance?" "Is this truly just about cowboys?" None of which compared to what followed the film--long discussions, hours long, sometimes inspiring, sometimes raw with the words of battle; and yes, of course fear. We covered everything. Structure, political content, aesthetic (or not) achievement.
When friends came over, they expected the usual movie experience. You know, two hours of entertainment, end of story. Boy were they in for a shock. The film was just the starting point. I don't think they left the same. I bet you if you spoke with some of my grade school and high school buddies, they'd tell you just that. The movie was fine, but it was the talk that mattered most.
My father will be remembered for a lot of things but by some, TZD--as some of my friends called him--will be forever known for his passionate consideration of the art of cinema.
Do you still have the projector and screens?
They're in a storage facility somewhere. I haven't seen them in years. A lot of years. [pause] I just realized something. When my family died, the screen went dark.
Any interest in seeing House of Leaves made into a movie?
As Will Navidson says of the house on Ash Tree Lane: Not For Sale. Too many books these days are written with film rights in mind, which I believe limits the vast potential of the written word. I mean any author who has done any amount of reading and writing should know films are a different medium. They're a completely different language. If you're thinking the Hollywood deal while you write, you're already selling out all the possibilities you have right there on the page. I love films but House of Leaves is not about that experience. If you want to see this movie, you'll have to read the book.
Let's talk a little about House of Leaves's structure, which is unconventional and completely fascinating. How did you arrive at this concept? What about all the footnotes?
I believe the structure of House of Leaves is far more difficult to explain than it is to read. And while I'd like to lay claim to some extraordinary act of originality, truth is I'm only taking advantage of capabilities inherent in everyone. Whether it's dealing with magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and of course the Internet, most people living in the 90s have no trouble multi-processing huge sums of information. They may not know it but they're doing it. It's the same as walking or looking for movie times, we're all involved--for the most part unconsciously--in a massive, usually successful, mental juggling act, simultaneously sorting national stories, shopping lists, the sounds of a neighbor speaking a language we don't understand, music we'd like to understand better, the image on a poster, and all this mixed in with our appetites, emotional murmurs, and frequently the sudden appearance of a seemingly random recollection.
Really the only thing challenging about my book is the idea of a book itself. Older generations--despite the fact that they're multi-processing their morning breakfast, a train wreck in India and thoughts of an ailing friend--will find House of Leaves difficult because they're prejudiced. They've been taught what a book should look like and how it should be read. Ruler-wielding didacts have instilled in them the notion that a book must start here, move along like this, and finish over there.
But books don't have to be so limited. They can intensify informational content and experience. Multiple stories can lie side by side on the page. Search engines--in the case of House of Leaves a word index--will allow for easy cross-referencing. Passages may be found, studied, revisited, or even skimmed. And that's just the beginning. Words can also be colored and those colors can have meaning. How quickly pages are turned or not turned can be addressed. Hell pages can be tilted, turned upside down, even read backwards. I'd love to see that. Someone on the subway spinning a book as they're reading it.
But here's the joke. Books have had this capability all along. Read Chomsky, Derrida, Pinker, Cummings. Look at early 16th century manuscripts. Hell, go open up the Talmud. Books are remarkable constructions with enormous possibilities. We may be using a 300 MHz G3 to finish the layout of my book, but to get from the first page to the last takes impossible seconds. Not a second but seconds. And yet you can pick up a book--even an encyclopedia--and get from one to a thousand in much less than that. You can even access several pages at the same time. And you can carry this magical creation with you, write in it, and never need to hunt down conversion software to find out what you wrote and read years ago. But somehow the analogue powers of these wonderful bundles of paper have been forgotten. Somewhere along the way, all its possibilities were denied.
I'd like to see that perception change.
I'd like to see the book reintroduced for all it really is.
We just have to do it.
You're most welcome.
Will you tell me about the cobras? About Spain?
interview by Sophie Cottrell