John Darnielle crafts intensely emotional songs as The Mountain Goats. Now he's crafted an intensely emotional first novel.
Wolf in White Van follows Sean, a disfigured loner who distracts himself from the pain of living by running a play-by-mail role-playing game called Trace Italian. We sat down with Darnielle to learn what he wanted to achieve with the novel and how he separates it from his music.
INDY: Has it been frustrating trying to separate this novel from your music?
JOHN DARNIELLE: The only thing that's frustrating is this question everybody asks, "How is the creative process"—that's the term they use—"different when writing a novel versus writing a song?" To me, that's like asking, "How is the cooking process different when making soup versus bread?" Well, I'm in the kitchen for both of them.
A song is sort of a—"explosion" overstates it, but something you make in a fit. I revise songs, but I write them really fast. With a novel, you come back to it every day, or you let it sit for weeks, then come back. There's a lot more freedom. A song is like a puzzle—that sounds unemotional, but actually, puzzles aren't inherently unemotional—whereas a novel is a long journey.
So songs have compact, specific goals, but in novels, you've got room to spread out?
Yeah, there's a lot you can do with songs. But one thing you don't do is listen to part of a song, come back and listen to another part the next day and not get the whole picture for a while. There's some similarities in how you build it to a pitch. There are little climaxes and drops. Usually you can tell when I've reached a point where I thought something cool just happened, because that's when I'll end the section. There's an inherent music to prose, but it's more symphonic, maybe. There are movements, a place you start and a place you end up.
Someone asked on Tumblr about bringing Mountain Goats merch to the book tour. You said that in places you'd never been, bring it; otherwise, leave it at home. Why do you want to keep the book separate?
If I'm blending them, then it's sort of the John Darnielle show. I want my book stuff to be about the book. I don't consider myself an over-dignified dude, but it would be undignified to go, "Here's my book, now a little song and dance! I'll do all these things that you like about me, me, me!"
If people want to hear my music, come to a show. I'll play music all night long. But I want to let the story have its moment. I think it would be mean to the book to go, "Just in case you didn't want to see me read, I'll play a few songs to get you in the door."
Were there challenges in writing the book?
The initial draft began with the last chapter, and I didn't have any idea where it would go. At first, it began the book and was a lot longer. Next, I wound up writing from the perspective of Sean's father. I wanted to give one chapter to all these narrators. But I don't even remember why I wanted to do that.
One day, I was like, "This isn't a story, it's kind of a play." I don't have any gift for theater, so I threw all that away. I kept a scene or three but I wanted to have it all in Sean's voice. That was when I got the idea to tell it backward. When it was all these voices around this incident, that made it about the incident, when I wanted it to be more about what it means to make something to distract yourself from stuff that you are or have been.
What do you hope people get out of the book?
I don't know. That's sort of where I let go. I read horror, but I also read a lot of highfalutin intellectual stuff that gives me a thrill. Borges, the Argentinian writer, liked the word "thrill" a lot. And that's what you want. This is where it is similar to music. I hope you get chills at some point. And there's so many different types of chills, right? There's fear, excitement, dread, empathy. I want that woozy, unmoored feeling. But also, my favorite stuff makes me cry, and I have a scene or two that, for me, got really emotional and cool. That's a useful purpose of art, to take you into a place that you get to escape from, because it's just a book.
You're buddies with [The Fault in our Stars author] John Green, right? Did you draw any inspiration from him?
We know each other somewhat. I think he did something pretty different from what I do. The stuff I make is more patchwork, like Robbe-Grillet, this French writer nobody reads anymore. His books are very much puzzles. You have no idea what's going on. There's one called Jealousy where the trick is that it's in the first person but the narrator never refers to himself. Drawing those sorts of games into writing is what's fun for me.
You know that trick they're always doing in horror movies where the screen glitches a little bit? I love that. I think it's really overdone, but it's a metaphor for what fiction can do, where suddenly, the story sort of unmasks itself. It does a magic-mirror thing where you're looking at something else and it's too late for you to escape. You've already given your coin of faith, so you keep going. John's books are full of big emotional payoffs. I love that too, but I want mine hidden somewhere—in fiction. In songs, I just do big catharsis.
I did feel that at the end of the book.
I wanted some lack of release there, but also some satisfying thrill. In Victorian novels, I love where they go, "I've told you what happened to Martin and Jane, and now we only have one person left and I'll be done." But there's an aspect of it that's really illusory. Unless you carry the character to his death scene, the limits you establish around a story are false. A narrative is a building you put around chaos. I wanted there to be the same sense of dissatisfaction you get if you ask yourself, "What story does my life tell?" Well, several—some of them irreconcilable.
Games are a big, literal part of the book. The role-playing game in the novel is really complex.
Sean says that it's actually very simple, and it really is: go here, four choices, each choice branches out into four more. It's a chart that's pretty easy to follow if you take away the narrative, which makes it seem profoundly complex. I didn't map it out in any way. I just kept going as I described it.
Where did you get the idea of a play-by-mail game, which I've never heard of?
I made it up, but I felt pretty sure there had to have been such a thing. When Sean is digging through old issues of Omni to look at tiny ads, that's me. One thing I really lament about the death or shrinking of magazines is that I could take one and worry it for weeks. I would get really inspired by the locations in the ads. Like, "Heroic fantasy magazine, second issue, available out of Emporia, Kansas." And I would be in Southern California going, "Emporia, Kansas. Wow! We don't have towns with names like that out here!" I would envision this place, and any place you can imagine is an entire universe you can populate and build.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lone wolf."