Cult hero author to read from adult ghost story
Concert pianist Christopher O’Riley and author Mark Z. Danielewski rehearse a performance of The Fifty Year Sword.
Mark Z. Danielewski: The Fifty Year Sword
7 p.m. Oct. 15
Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., Oak Park
Updated: October 10, 2012 10:22AM
Cult author Mark Z. Danielewski, whose narratively and typographically complex works include “House of Leaves” and “Only Revolutions” (and a forthcoming 27-volume serial novel entitled The Familiar, for which he reportedly earned a million-dollar advance), will launch a national performance tour of his 2005 book The Fifty Year Sword Oct. 15 at the Unity Temple in Oak Park.
The novella has been described as an adult ghost story disguised as a children’s story. It involves a mysterious storyteller entertaining children with the tale of how he acquired the titular invisible blade, which never fails to cut but shows no trace of a wound for 50 years.
Danielewski first conducted a performance of The Fifty Year Sword two years ago at the California Institute of the Arts, featuring vocal performances and giant shadows created by a shadowcasting artist. This year, to celebrate the publication of a new edition of the book, he will read the text in its entirety, accompanied by original music by Evanston-native pianist and NPR host Christopher O’Riley. We caught up with the author on the eve of the tour for a few questions about his approach to writing, his reasons for staging performances of this tale, and “awakening improbable senses” in his readers.
QUESTION: Why did you write The Fifty Year Sword in the form of a book for children?
MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI: More accurately: its form constitutes how we as adults relate to stories we are told as children. How we begin to detect that the compression of forces and events into caricature makes all the more possible contemplations of violent disruptions we will, in one form or another, have to face as we grow older.
Q: Why have you chosen to perform this book rather than your earlier works?
MD: Three years ago, Steve Erickson, the author of “Zeroville” and “These Dreams of You,” invited me to read at REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in Los Angeles, ed.) We discussed excerpts and eventually settled on “The Fifty Year Sword” — at first small scenes and then eventually the entirety, until it evolved into a fairly elaborate staged reading.
The seed of interest for me was actually getting to hear the five distinct voices braid together their tale. In essence, it’s a musical piece. Even while casting, we refer to the roles as soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Then when the reading fell on Halloween, it was hard to resist a little fog, some shadows, spooky music. The following year, it grew a little more. Harry Partch instruments, more fog, more elaborate images.
In Chicago on the 15th, while we won’t have the five voices or animations, Christopher O’Riley will perform original music he composed for the eBook and this tour. For the five voices you will only have my voice. But that might be interesting. I’ve never publicly read the whole thing before.
Overall, I’d say staging The Fifty Year Sword since 2010 led me to understand how to redesign the artwork, correctly modulate the layout and finally finish the book.
Q: Most novelists write fiction to give readers an escapist experience. First, what do you think of that practice? Second, what sort of experience do you have in mind for your readers?
MD: To grant readers an experience they can get nowhere else: one that expands the imagination, awakens improbable senses, cracks open the black window which gazes out onto the softly answering abyss.