Sprinting Toward Epiphany: Talking With A Songwriter Turned Novelist
John Darnielle is best known as the man behind The Mountain Goats, a band defined for its 20-plus years by a certain literary quality. His songs are populated with high school burnouts, bitter, broken lovers, people living on the fringe who can't escape their own ghosts.
The songwriter's latest project is a novel, Wolf in White Van, and it's centered on another social outsider, whose sheltered, solitary life is disrupted when a disaster strikes. In a conversation with NPR's Lynn Neary about writing the book, Darnielle nails a fundamental difference between his two art forms.
"It's sort of like comparing making a fire and building a house," he says. "A song is fire. You react to it primally, instantly. You don't have to decide whether you like it, and you don't really have to sit down and think about it much after you're done listening to it. It really does run through you like wind. Whereas a book is a journey: It's a thing you agree to go on with somebody, and I think every reader's experience of a book is going to be different. There are scenes in the book that feel very song-like to me, but I do think it's a different sort of ride. It's more of a marathon. My songs tend to sprint toward some epiphany and then explode."
Hear more of the conversation at the audio link.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
John Darnielle is best known as the-man-behind-the-band, The Mountain Goats. His songs are populated with high school burnouts, bitter broken lovers, people living on the fringe who can't escape their own ghosts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS YEAR")
JOHN DARNIELLE: (Singing) I played video games in a drunken haze. I was 17 years young. Hurt my knuckles punching the machines, the taste of scotch rich on my tongue.
NEARY: His latest project is a novel, and it's centered on another social outsider, Sean Phillips. He's been horribly disfigured by an act of violence. We don't find out the details until the end of the book. He rarely goes out in public because people stare at him so much. Here's John Darnielle reading from his novel, "Wolf In White Van."
DARNIELLE: (Reading) They freeze up when I open the door. You can see it happen. They are in a sort of imagined forward motion, ready to launch into whatever pitch they've come to give. And then the sight of me arrests them mid-swing. Wielding this kind of power feels different from what I imagine people who crave power think they'll get if they ever get their wish because this - this can't be what people want. Or maybe it is, and I just don't really understand how power works, I think, sometimes. But then I think about it some more. And I think, yes, I do know something about what power is, how it works, what it's like. I do know.
NEARY: What is it you wanted to explore through this character who has been through what Sean has been through, who's now living so isolated from most of society because of what happened to him when he was young?
DARNIELLE: I think there's a sense of which he's trying to reconcile his younger self from his present self, which I think is a pretty common story. Except that he has done this damaging giant act toward the end of his adolescence that leaves this physical trace of the breach right at the point at which he crossed from who he was into some new thing.
NEARY: Is there a part of you in that younger Sean who was so rash - who got so damaged by this terrible act?
DARNIELLE: Oh, sure, absolutely. I mean, there's a - it took me years to come around to the idea that you're always writing a little bit about yourself in any character you write because that's the only personality you really know inside and out is your own. But I mean, I think about when I was having this very turbulent adolescence. And several times I fled home, right?
And so now I'm a parent. I can now, from where I sit, imagine the absolute horror of waking up as a parent to discover that you have no idea where your child is. Right? And I was fine. And everything came out fine. And nobody is angry about it anymore. But I thought about those moments - about, you know, how on the other side of whatever age one has been, you can sort of get a feel for how your actions might've affected others.
NEARY: Well, and that's one of the things about this book that you explore, and you explore it through this game that you have invented and that Sean plays. First, let's talk about that game. What is the game?
DARNIELLE: It's called Trace Italian. And I got the idea - I think I got the idea on an airplane because, like I say, these early drafts where all these sort of - it had some really cool scenes, but I didn't know where it was going. And then I started asking myself questions about this person. Well, what does he do for a living if he is this adult who would have a hard time working a counter job or something? And I thought, well, maybe he does something through the mail.
NEARY: Right. And it's a game that is done strictly through the mail.
NEARY: I mean it is - which is interesting 'cause most people think of games now as video games. And that...
NEARY: And that you can get lost in a videogame. And yet these are people who get lost in this game that is going on via snail mail. (Laughter).
DARNIELLE: It's a feat of the imagination. It's very - and is the thing is, like, you don't ever want to become a person says, oh, well, you know, we used to have to use our imaginations back when or whatever. You want to avoid being that person. But there's something so industrious about, you know, OK well, I will send you your move in the game. And then you will imagine it and maybe plot it out in a notebook and then plot your next move and write it back to me in the form of a narrative.
There's something very elegant, I mean, almost bucolic about that. You know? (Laughter) Like it seems like some other world in which you had to do more to entertain yourself which is kind of true.
NEARY: A couple of the people who are playing this game take the game eventually too far, and they leave the realm of the imagination. And they start actually doing these things.
NEARY: And that leads to tragedy. Why is it that a fantasy game like this can become dangerous like that?
DARNIELLE: Well, I wouldn't say that the game itself is dangerous, but it's strange for me to answer because I would never want to say, well, don't get too caught up in your dreams, you know. Don't get too involved in things that aren't real because I think that's where all the treasure lies. I get as caught up in imaginary things as I possibly can, and stay there as long as I can, you know.
But I think there is this - the territory of the imagination has some real dangers, or can, if it's not walled off. And that's what they do is they sort of take - they project the game onto the physical world - right? - and start thinking that things in this imaginary space actually exist out there in the world and blur those boundaries. And in that sense, that's what it's about is finding out that beyond a certain boundary, you can't say in control of things.
NEARY: Yeah. You know, talking about these people who become obsessed with playing the game in this book, you have some pretty intense fans yourself. Do you ever worry about your own fans of obsessing with your music?
DARNIELLE: I don't worry in the sense of people taking it too far. I, you know, I think I've made a point of letting people know that I don't consider, you know, my work some expression of some deep inner truth. It's a thing that I do that I hope is good and useful. But I mean, when people feel your stuff intensely, that's just a way of saying that they have actually agreed to meet you on this field that you tried to plant. That processes of understanding somebody's art is a two-way street. You can't do art that just lands on somebody like a rock, you know. Everybody has to meet out there in the center.
NEARY: Do you figure your music fans will want to read this book, will get this book the way they get your lyrics?
DARNIELLE: Well, I mean, I think of books as very, very different from songs. I consider song, like, the primal state of human beings. It's the first thing you do when you are born is you start to sing, whereas writing is artificial and awesome but totally different thing. It's sort of like comparing making a fire to building a house.
The song is fire. You react to it primally, instantly. You don't have decide whether you like it. And you don't really have to sit down and think about it much after you're done listening to it. It really does run through you like wind, whereas a book is a journey. It's a thing you agree to go on with somebody. And I think every reader's experience of every book is going to be different.
Obviously, I hope everybody who likes my stuff enjoys the book, but I do think it's a different sort of ride. It's more of a marathon. My songs tend to sprint towards some epiphany and then explode.
NEARY: John Darnielle - his new book is "Wolf In White Van." He joined us from WUNC in Durham, North Carolina. Thanks, John.
DARNIELLE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.