Q&A: John Darnielle on his novel ‘Wolf in White Van’

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When the longlist for the National Book Awards was announced last week, it had the usual suspects – books by previous winner Richard Powers and two Pulitzer winners, Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson. And there was one big surprise: the novel “Wolf in White Van” by John Darnielle, who is known as the man behind the Mountain Goats, a lyrically gifted indie rock band.

“Wolf in White Van” is the story of a young man who has survived a tremendously disfiguring accident – think 1980s teenagers listening to too much heavy metal. He’s developed a rich imagination, enough to see a story in the cracks in a ceiling. To support himself, he invents a mail-order role-playing game. Yet he finds that the scope of his imagination has consequences in the real world.

Darnielle reads from “Wolf in White Van” at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Tuesday at 7:30pm.


What has it been like being longlisted for the National Book Award?

Oh my God; I just didn’t see it coming. Waiting for the book to come out is such a heavy process -- hoping people like it but trying not to stay too invested in that. The book is so new, I haven’t really had time to consider more than, do I feel like I’m done with it, and it’s as good as it can be.

It would be hard for me to convey how it felt, to me, a former young man who wanted only to become a writer, to have that happen with this book. It’s incredible. I still can’t believe it.

I’m in a contest and one of my competitors is Marilynne Robinson. I’m not going to beat Marilynne Robinson. She is a person of profound insight. ... Obviously it would be a huge honor to win, but look at the company I’m keeping. It would be rude to want more.

The structure of “Wolf in White Van” is complex – how did you approach it?

The first thing I wrote was the last chapter. It ends with this event. I didn’t really know where to go from there. I did a lot of writing after that – it was not really going anywhere. Then I got the idea, once I was talking about backwards masking [on heavy-metal records], to actually tell the story from the future toward this moment.


Then I started at the beginning and then I had a big space to fill. You wind up doing a braid between the present, the past and the distant past. It was hard. By the end of the first draft, I was sitting on the floor with a printout of the manuscript and a pair of scissors, cutting out some of these sections that fit better elsewhere in the book.

The mail-order game he creates, a science fiction story, is a strand in the braid. Have you been tempted to create the game in full?

I was doing all that and there was no game. There was just a guy who had survived a catastrophic injury. At one point, when he started to grow older, I thought, how does he make any money? Asking questions like you would in a comic improv class. I got this idea, mail order. Back in the ‘90s, if you did mail order in music, you could make a good living doing it if you could hustle. Later I looked it up and it turns out there is such a thing as a play-by-mail game.

In the 1980s, there was a famous incident of two teenagers shooting themselves. The families wanted a reason and sued Judas Priest, blaming the band’s music. Your novel focuses on what comes after. It pushes against the question of why it happened.

There is no why. There hardly ever is. With those two kids, James Vance and Ray Belknap, there was no real why. That’s why their parents were so confused and lashing out. That’s a big part of what the book is about – you can’t trace clean lines to why people do things. People do all sorts of things impulsively and follow those impulses into strange places.

When your narrator Sean creates narrative from just staring at the ceiling, it seemed a little like being in a tour van for hours, staring at the walls.


Hmm. The tour van – that would be awesome. That’s not what people do in tour vans since 2001 or so. In tour vans people stare at cellphones and laptops, or read books. Usually it’s electronic devices. Half of you says, oh, that’s depressing, you could be looking out the window at the Rockies or whatever, but the other half can’t lie. We’re back there and we have 5G and we’re doing the same thing we’d be doing at our desks.

Could you compare the experience performing as a musician and performing as an author?

The book-tour shows have been ridiculously well-attended and really fun. I’ve done three so far and they’ve been spectacular.

The music we [the Mountain Goats] play, there’s a real cathartic release. We get up there and turn the energy and the volume up, and the idea is to push ourselves and everyone else in the room through a bottleneck with us. It’s an exciting release. Our shows are like dance parties – not everybody dances, but you spend a lot of energy, leave a lot of it in the room.

Readings are more like weaving a tapestry. Possibly people are getting a cathartic release – but music is physical. Music pummels you. It’s got a beat, it’s loud. Whereas this is more cerebral.

I’m given to wanting to read the long prose bits, but writing this book I think I’m better at dialogue than I thought I was. ... If you have a funny scene in the book, you revise it so many times that it stops making you laugh. But I was reminded by the crowd last night it’s pretty funny.


What’s your writing process?

I write on any available surface, paper bags, anything. In the notes function of my phone. That’s where I get a lot of good ideas for the book, because I’ll be changing planes and write a three-word phrase, and then when I next see it, some of what I meant by it will have gone missing and I’ll have to reconstruct it.

Some writers have a very carefully wrought writing rituals. Are you able to work on the longer narrative of your book while on tour with the band?

I don’t have a choice – that’s my day job. I work best in the morning, so I’d be writing in hotel rooms.... While I was writing a book I had a 1-year old – the idea of writing in a soundless chamber is a fantasy world. While I write my son is pounding the piano with his fists, so I learn to work with it. At one point, I had some time booked at some retreat, bed-and-breakfast type place, but I never went.

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone describe being a musician as their day job before.

But it is – that’s what I do for a living. To me, creative work is labor, like any other kind of labor. It’s got value and it takes your time and it’s useful to people, depending. The difference is if I make a wrench, anybody who picks it up can use that wrench. With creative work, not everybody’s creative work is going to be useful to everybody – it will only be useful to the people who connect with it. It’s still labor. … I was very proud to be able to say this [being a musician] is what I do for a living.


When you’re out on tour, you’re there 24 hours a day. You don’t clock out; you’re in the van or on stage.... Writing is a little different, I think I’ll feel weirder if that becomes a thing.

What have you been reading?

The thing about my reading is, I’m never in a hurry. The top 10 books of any year, I’ve never usually read any of them. At some point I should be in a hurry; I’m going to run out of years eventually. But I read from all over time: Old books, books by dead people. ... I ‘m a pretty slow reader and if I read more than two or three books from the 21st century in a row I really thirst for something from the more distant past to balance me out.

I just read “My Mortal Enemy” by Willa Cather. She’s a person who I’d like to have read everything she wrote before I die -- but I don’t want to read it all in a row, I want to space it out. I think she’s probably the best American writer we’ve had.

Right now I’m reading the new [upcoming novel by] Blake Butler, “Three Hundred Million,” which could not be more different from Willa Cather. ... He writes in this very hallucinatory style, you have to surrender to it and let it carry you.

I found this Sicilian mystery writer, [Leonardo] Sciascia – I found a used book by him in Galesburg, Ill., at a show a couple months ago. It was in a series, Godine Double Detectives, translated mysteries. Literature in translation is a huge passion of mine, but usually when you read a translated book it’s something from the lit world, something that professors and bookish people read. ... Turns out Scia Scia is an amazing mystery writer, so I got other three Double Detectives in the series -- I’m psyched to read those.


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