At a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Friday, Mark Danielewski ’88 said the main characters in his last work, “Only Revolutions,” are Shakespearean lovers with a twist.
“They were like Romeo and Juliet in that their end was tragic, but instead of being star-crossed, they were just wandering and lost,” he said.
Danielewski spoke to a crowd of about 35 students about the structure and themes of his recently published second novel, which has gained recognition for its unconventional layout and a free verse writing style. A book that can literally be read from both ends, it chronicles the journey of two 16-year-old lovers, Hailey and Sam, who take a road trip across America in a universe with flexible rules of time and space.
After his first book, “House of Leaves,” was received well by audiences and critics, Danielewski said, he was torn as to whether he wanted to write a sequel or an entirely new book. Though he knew a sequel had a better chance of receiving critical and popular success, he ultimately chose to create a new kind of novel that would give readers the power to read the text in a number of different combinations and orders, Danielewski said.
“I wanted to write a book that offers the reader an experience they can’t get anywhere else,” Danielewski said. “It’s about pushing the possibilities about what a book can do.”
With “Only Revolutions,” Danielewski created a two-columned novel of prose, where the text is of varying sizes, words are deliberately misspelled, and — since the book is also meant to be read from back to front — approximately half of the text on a page is upside-down.
“At a certain point, the text becomes an image,” Danielewski said. “Sometimes, the text becomes too small, where you physically can’t read it.”
Danielewski said he and a team of assistants spent years researching the vernacular of teenagers in different American eras during the writing process. In addition — in order to visualize how the story would look on the page — Danielewski used multiple computer monitors to track the corresponding points of view in the alternatively flipped portions of the text.
“I was surprised how technological the process was,” Thomas Howell ’08 said.
Despite his current success as a professional writer, Danielewski said, he had a difficult time as an English student at Yale, where he was rejected from every writing seminar to which he applied.
Much like Danielewski’s writing, the Master’s Tea itself was unconventional. Danielewski opened the talk with an excerpt from his novel describing an orgy, and closed with a quiz — the winner of which took home a battered copy of “Only Revolutions” that Danielewski had been toting.
“This is a weird Master’s Tea,” Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt said.
While many students said they enjoyed Danielewski’s frank discussion, a few said they had hoped he would talk more about the challenges of getting an unconventional novel into the mass market.
“I wish he had talked more about the publication process,” Daniel Yao ’08 said. “How does an author get a book like ‘Only Revolutions’ distributed at Barnes and Noble?”
Danielewski’s second novel is currently ranked 24th on The New York Times’ bestseller list for hardcover fiction.