The Rumpus Interview with John Darnielle

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John Darnielle’s work invited literary accolades years before the publication of Wolf in White Van, his debut novel. In 2012, fans of Darnielle’s band, the Mountain Goats, campaigned to see him named US Poet Laureate. Though the campaign didn’t bring Darnielle the title, it received coverage in outlets from Pitchfork to the New York Times—a major public affirmation of Darnielle’s gifts as a writer and a storyteller. Now, of course, it’s official. Wolf in White Van earned a spot on the 2014 longlist for the National Book Award, confirming Darnielle as a major prose-fiction talent as well as a celebrated lyricist.

Wolf in White Van introduces readers to the routines, the mind, and the history of Sean Phillips. Disfigured in his teens and more or less isolated as an adult, Sean engages with other people largely as the creator of Trace Italian—a text-based, by-mail role-playing game:

[L]ying supine and blind for days, faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit…I started to fill in the details: how the planet had been ruined (reactor five); how the cities had been emptied (mutant hominids from sea caves seeking out coastal cities for uncontaminated flesh, and continuing to move inland, spreading disease and killing innocents); where and how the surviving humans had built the Trace Italian (far inland, with their bare hands…). How it rose from the landscape, bigger than its medieval counterparts, a shining structure on the plains, protecting the sprawling self-contained city underneath it, a barrier against the outside world…

Wolf examines the relationships between trauma and escapism, authorship and readership, memory and identity—all while creeping toward an understanding of what led to Sean’s cloistered life.

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The Rumpus: When did you know that the substance of this book—the voice, the themes—belonged to prose fiction as opposed to a song?

John Darnielle: I don’t start with a theme in either case—when I sit down to write, I either have a guitar in hand or I’m at the piano, or else I’m in front of a QWERTY keyboard typing away. So the day I started work on this I had my laptop open and I just felt like writing some prose, so I started writing: it was the chapter that became the book’s final chapter. It began as prose. Songwriting is kind of performative for me. I start playing and singing out loud and then when I hit a vein, I start writing down the things I’m singing. (Usually. I’ve been trying to write some music-first-then-lyrics stuff the past couple of years just to see how it feels, see if that’s a new challenge to explore.) There isn’t a lot of bleedthrough between prose and songs for me—songs are off in their own world.

Rumpus: Wolf in White Van revolves around two tragedies, but readers learn about the circumstances of these tragedies quite gradually. How did your approach there, the structure of the book, change over time?

Darnielle: So, I wrote the last chapter first—I revised it a lot later, but the first two-thirds of that chapter are substantially the same, and its big moment was always the same event. I didn’t really know what to do after that, so initially I wrote a few chapters by Sean about his life proceeding on from there; then, I got the idea to have multiple narrators tell the story, which was an angle I tried for the better part of a year. There were chapters by his dad; by a preacher; by Marco, the imaginary zine editor. But I didn’t really see where any of that was going, and I realized that that was because this one life event was where all the stories kept heading—they were all moving toward something that had already happened. So I filed all those other voices and took the stories they’d been telling and put them in Sean’s mouth and had him tell the story the way it sort of naturally occurs: in the direction of this signal event.

Rumpus: Sean’s cut off from the rest of the world in some pretty significant ways. He develops a role-playing game about a fortress. As a metaphor, this seems obvious at first, but it becomes more and more complex—to start, the fortress is both an enclosure and a means of reaching out to people. (The end balance, I think, is really satisfying.) My question is, did you have to grapple with any anxieties about being too straightforward or too opaque?

Darnielle: You know, I’m kind of blind to my own meaning when I’m writing—like, this fortress-for-shelter idea, it’s totally obvious, right, but I didn’t see it that way when I was writing it. I was just starting from the question: if this guy has any money in his pocket, where’d it come from? And I thought about mail-order, about how there was a time where if you had a decent mail-order gig—record distros, zines, presumably all kinds of things that weren’t on my radar—you could even end up having that as your day job. That was the beginning idea. From there, I said: what kind of mail-order might he run? I didn’t want to make him a music dude. And then I just sort of thought about a game, something that would be fun—and then I wrote the ceiling bit, and I thought about tracing patterns in ceilings when you’re lying on your back someplace.

So the idea came to me kind of in-process. I try not to second-guess whether I’m being too clear or too obscure, I figure I can deal with that in revision—while I’m writing I try to focus only on clarity and tone, everything else follows from there.

Rumpus: The book refers many times to the way readers find messages in a work, from Sean’s description of the dead fortune teller sequence in Trace to the passage from which Wolf in White Van gets its title. How much does this trouble you, the lack of control you have over what readers take from your songs or your writing once the work is out in the world?

Darnielle: Sometimes a lot, sometimes not at all. It goes with the territory, you know—when you make a thing, whether it’s a song or a story or a poem or anything, and then you decide to release it into the world: right then you’re agreeing to sort of let other people start rummaging around in it for meaning. Prior to that moment, I really do have a hermetic relationship with any signifying that’s going on: it’s just me and the thing, right?

If people get weird reads on something, they only trouble me for what are, essentially, silly reasons—like, for example, I have no interest in the mindset of a person who mistreats other people on purpose, at least not from a first-person standpoint. I think I’ve seen and heard quite enough of that mindset in art: I don’t need to see “inside the mind of a killer” any more or whatever. But sometimes people are going to take a first-person story as an inhabiting of a sick mind, some people like that kind of thing. If I don’t fill in all the details of a story—and refusing to fill in vital details, this is, like, a huge narrative pleasure for me—then some people are going to put their own stuff into it.

Again, goes with the territory! But there’s that part of me, which I think is an essentially egocentric (ergo not particularly useful) impulse that wants to say: “No, no, no, you’re thinking of somebody else. That is not the kind of narrator I’m interested in. Don’t think that way of my narrator; I wouldn’t write a guy who thinks like that.” But I feel like fretting too much about this, again, is kind of an ego-heavy pastime. I try to let go; I have to run with the assumption that everybody knows I’m not writing Rules for Living or Secret Directions to the Pyramids but making things that I hope are fun or useful.

Rumpus: The things Sean finds a measure of security in—the game, the genre paperbacks, the music he listens to, etc.—all belong to what you could call low culture. The book suggests that a refuge like this can be a trap too. If you had to give someone advice about engaging with these familiar addictive, ill-regarded forms—or heavy metal or monster movies or whatever—as a functional adult person, what would you suggest? (Needless to say, I am not asking for myself.)

Darnielle: Mmm—I’m not so sure about traps. Things can go haywire, but there’s also a kind of right relation to interior escapes—a way of making them infinite safe spaces. That’s what he says at the hearing, that he meant to make a place where people could do whatever they liked without leaving the playfield, getting out there into the dangerous places. It’s almost the opposite of a trap: the fantasy spaces are the spaces of infinity, the places where you can stay all day and never come to harm. It’s conflating those spaces with the dream-world of waking daily life that leads to dangerous cul-de-sacs. Culs-de-sac? Dead ends, anyway.

Rumpus: Sean struggles both with the unreliability of his memories and the tyranny of his memories. As you worked to depict this tension, did the way you relate to your own past change at all?

Darnielle: Hard to say—I’m at a point in life where sometimes I’ll be able to imagine, say, what it might have been like to be my father when I was a teenager—and I want to say, Jesus, Dad, sorry, it must have been pretty rough wondering whether your son was going to make it through adolescence. Writing the book, I had a lot of opportunity to sort of think about that stuff in my own life and then have Sean think about it in his. But I probably would have been thinking about that stuff anyway: I’m a dad now; thinking about how your dad might have felt when you were a kid kind of goes with the territory of Dads.

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Feature photo © Lalitree Darnielle.


Greg Hunter is an editor from the Twin Cities. He concept-tweets in obscurity as @Dialogue_Log. More from this author →