Interview with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats

October 22, 2014

LARB A.V. sat down with singer-songwriter John Darnielle, principal member of the band, The Mountain Goats, to talk about his debut novel Wolf in White Van, which has been longlisted for the National Book Award for fiction.

JERRY GORIN: You’re a talented songwriter, so I suppose my first questions is, why write a novel?

JOHN DARNIELLE: I wrote Master of Reality (Darnielle's first book, a collection of fictional essays from the point of view of a 15-year-old boy in a mental institution) and I really enjoyed the whole process, writing and getting ideas, and throwing some away, and it’s a lot more involved than making a song. Not more involved than making an album, probably, but I really enjoyed it, so I immediately started writing something else. It’s a different set of chops — it’s what I imagine people who exercise feel when they switch what exercises they’re doing. So I started working on Wolf in White Van, and it was a pleasure. Plus, if you’re doing multiple work things, when one of them frustrates you you can flee to the other one, and it’s nice way of feeding into both of them. So it was really enjoyable, and started getting bigger, and bigger, and songs don’t do that, and it’s nice to have something new, challenging and different.

What's the difference between writing songs and writing prose?

You know, people keep asking me that, and it’s like comparing making a cup of tea to baking bread. They both take place in the kitchen, but after that there really aren’t any similarities! A song happens very quickly, and also exists, for me, in a much more knowable, formal environment. Whereas with a novel you can do whatever you want. You can do whatever you want in a song also, but I don’t want to do whatever I want. I want to write formal songs — verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus —that’s what I do. Whereas a novel, it’s almost infinitely open. It always has been, a lot of people think it just started being that way in the sixties, but actually the early novels are just chaos. And so when you sit down to work on a novel, everything is open, even if you’ve already written a bunch of stuff. It’s very very open, and that could be threatening I guess, but to me it’s always really thrilling — you are only limited by what you see next.

Can you tell us what Wolf in White Van is about?

The story is told backwards, and it traces back to a catastrophic event in a man’s life that happened when he was a teenager. He is an interactive game designer who is disfigured. And two of the people who play the game that he administers through the mail come to harm. And that’s the core of the book. I mean, the trial, or rather the hearing that they have, it’s in the middle of the book, and there’s a lot after it, but to me the book moves to and then away from that moment.

That mail-based game sounds like a lot of fun if it were real. Where did you get the idea?

It’s called Trace Italian, which is a type of medieval fortification, and it takes place in post-apocalyptic America, after there’s been a meltdown on a nuclear reactor near Riverside, CA. And everybody is seeking shelter and wants to get to this underground fortress that the main character, Sean, has been building in Kansas — that’s the plot. You start your game in California, and attempt to move toward Kansas. And every move that you make is a narrative piece that you choose from four options, and each one moves you a little further forward, but no one will ever get to the end.

There are a couple of games like this that still survive that you can do through e-mail, although they are administered by computer so there’s not actually anybody on the other end deciding your move. But I hadn’t played any of those, and actually I came up with the idea myself, and then I verified that these games did exist. I thought about what this character might do for a living, and I thought well, I bet he could do something like this, and it was just my idea. It turns out that there was such a thing, because most ideas you get are probably not going to be wholly out of nowhere! Then I asked some friends of mine who played indie-style games to point me in the direction of companies who still do it, and I got into the gaming and now I have a weekly thing that I play. But the style of gaming that we do is more like improv, where you sit around and you have a plot line and there’s a guy loosely guiding the action, but what you’re doing is improvising a dramatic scene.

A theme that comes up for me a lot in the book is the power of imagination. At first the main character, Sean, appears to be using his imagination as nothing more than a crutch, hiding behind it, but later in the book you also see the genesis of him taking more agency with his imagination, wielding its power

— But he’s also letting it control him as he does, and you can’t really control the imagination. The imagination is great, but the imagination is not your pet, you know, it’s a wild area (laughs). 

Part of what the book is about is questioning the idea of causation for what people do. People just follow little threads, and I don’t know that when people do something rash and horrible that there’s a distinct ‘Why?’ you can point to, like here’s where they went off the rails. I don’t think there’s ever such a moment, if you look hard enough and close enough. But Sean does follow a thread into some spaces that he doesn’t feel like he can turn around from. I don’t want to say that what he should have done is imagined less, that’s not true. Obviously that’s not true, because imagination nurtures and heals us. You can’t say anything qualitatively about the imagination being a great and nurturing place or a dangerous and terrible place, because it’s all of that stuff. It's sort of like the freeway, you can drive down the freeway to get someplace, or you can walk out onto the freeway and die. It has no absolute characteristic. And that’s what I like about the book, I don’t think it makes a statement about that, I think it sort of describes a situation and asks us to look at it a little bit.

Is there something about which the book makes a statement?

No, I mean I don’t do statements, generally speaking. The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton makes a statement, I have a couple of songs where I sort of — You Were Cool makes a statement. But for the most part I’m more interested in framing something and looking at it. I mean I don’t think I’m completely without my own opinions about my characters and their motivations, but it’s not didactic.

Is there a parallel between Cyrus and Jeff from The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton and Sean?

The difference is that I judge the parents in The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton. The ones who send Cyrus to a hospital are bad parents. Whereas Sean’s parents are not bad parents, they do the best they can with a bad situation, I think. I don’t think they’re model parents either, but average. I mean, what happens in their house is a senseless tragedy.

There is a quote that I really like from Sean, which comes when he describes a tricky part of his game and the players that choose to open the door versus those who don't. He says that "the ones who don’t go in, in some ways, are strangers to me.” It goes back to that idea of imagination being both nurturing and dangerous, right?

If you start wanting to visit dark pockets in your imagination, it may or may not change you as a person. Like if you read a novel that’s from the first person perspective of a murder, it might have an effect on you. It’s not going to turn you into a murder — nothing can do that, you are responsible for your own actions — but it might have some effect on the way you think of things. There’s a sense that you want to be a steward of what you let in, I think, though a lot of people might say "No, open up the floodgates!" But I think you should be a little cautious. Like if you watch a bunch of terrible television for 3 days, you’ll feel less intelligent than you did a few days before.

But he’s talking about curiosity there. You're passing this house, and it looks like something is in there. If you go in, something is going to happen to you, and a smart player might say “I don’t need what’s in there.” But Sean can’t understand that, to him those aren’t his people, the ones who wouldn’t look. Even if they knew it might be dangerous.

Lastly, can you compare being on a book tour with a band tour?

So a music tour is more exhausting in that you’re staying up later and drinking more, but it’s a knowable routine and I’m in a van. And I have a barrier between me and the rest of the world most of the time, nobody sees me before I go on stage, its just me and my bros, and we don’t even talk anymore because we’ve together for like 10 years! So it’s a much more insular environment.

Whereas I woke up at 4 o’clock this morning in San Francisco, and I went to airport, and I landed, and I met a new person, and he drove me to meet some more people, and I’ve been hanging with people all day. I’m not really a sociable guy! People think I am because I’m garrulous, but I’m not. So it asks for a lot more of seeing people face to face. This is something I share with Sean, as generally speaking in my own life I stay inside, or in the backyard. I don’t dislike people, but I sort of, I wind up feeling uncomfortable and weird if I’m around people too much. A book tour involves a lot of people. It’s an adjustment, I can do it, but it’s not my natural condition, which is to cluster and cocoon.