On September 16, John Darnielle—best known as the singer/guitarist and essential constituent of the band the Mountain Goats—released his debut novel, Wolf in White Van. A day later, the National Book Foundation announced it had been nominated to the long list for the 2014 National Book Award for fiction.
The protagonist and narrator of Wolf in White Van, Sean Phillips, lives alone, his face disfigured since the age of 17 by what he refers to (at first) as "my accident." In the present, Sean earns his living as the creator and proprietor of a set of subscription-based, mail-operated role-playing games—principally Trace Italian, a post-apocalyptic narrative quest that has brought one set of its teenage players to grief in real life.
What actually happened in Sean's own accident, or incident—and why—is the subject of a slow reckoning. Sean's memories are shaded by the mood of being a long-haired teenager in the doom-haunted world of the late '80s, in a culture unnerved by the prospect of occult conspiracies and hidden demonic influence.
Darnielle's music is lyrically literary and built around acoustic guitar, with the Mountain Goats' early albums recorded in intense lo-fi via boombox, but he is a passionate enthusiast of metal. In 2008, he contributed to the 33 1/3 series of books about albums by writing about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, in an epistolary novella format.
We spoke in a conference room at the offices of his publisher, FSG, the afternoon of the novel's release. The conversation was recorded on a Panasonic RQ-L340, using a Maxell cassette freshly purchased at a Radio Shack nearby. Only one of the clerks at the Radio Shack had had any idea that they carried blank tapes or knew where they were kept.
The traditional question when somebody from another artistic field writes a novel is, why did you choose to write a novel? Which is usually sort of: What made you think you could do this? But so much of your songwriting has been these sort of microfictions. Like, intensely done, compact—
Moments, and the novel is in some ways an older format. A less stripped-down, modern—
Yeah, much more expansive.
So what was it that made you feel that a novel was the thing to do?
I didn't—when I started writing, I didn't know what it was going to be. I just was, I had just turned in Master of Reality and I'd really enjoyed the process. And so I'd been flipping open the laptop to work on Master of Reality for ages. And I just started writing something. There was no, you know, vision for where it was going to go. And I wrote what turned into the last chapter. It was a bit longer than it is now. And it ended with the thing that happens at the end, and then I said, OK, well, that's a really bad short story. Right? It's your classic—when you're in junior high and write a short story, something happens that just blows everything out of the picture, and so I thought, well, what if this was a long story? I started to solve what to do with this chapter that I liked the feel of. The way to it seemed to build a big story in front of it and trace back to it. And there were a lot of false starts.
I didn't really say to myself, "I'm writing a novel." Just the same as I don't usually say I'm writing an album, I just write a bunch of songs, even if they're all about the same thing, and they're clearly going to fit together. I don't sit down and say here's my project.
When I write prose, I just sit down and write prose and see where it's going.
Have you had any other stabs at novels?
Prior to this, no. When I aspired to be a prose writer, I thought it would be short fiction. But I mean now, obviously—not obviously, but—this was really fun to do, and now I feel like I could do better. It's like: I like it, but I also, having solved a few problems and figured things out, and all the continuity stuff I had to do to tell it backwards and stuff, I feel like now I have an idea of how you put one of these together. So I'd like to build a bigger one.
"Build" is sort of an interesting choice, given Sean's occupation.
Well, it is like building, is the thing. Writing prose—like the first pass is pretty performative, it's like writing a song, insofar as it's letting it come, seeing where it goes, and trying not to interrupt yourself. But then after that it really is assembly. You look at the sentences and you fix them where you think they need fixing and you put them together. Like right before we started showing it to publishers, when it was only half done, I remember moving what was going to be Chapter 11 to Chapter 2. And suddenly a lot of things opened up. It really was like, it was very much like if I have a bunch of blocks together. The ground floor has been blue blocks, but it would be better if there was green ones down there.
Had you played any of these sort of role-playing games?
No. When I was in junior high, I sort of thought that might be a thing for me, and I signed up for Dungeons & Dragons club. I was into science fiction and fantasy stuff and it seemed like an actual fit, but in classical D&D, whether you can fight a given monster or not is determined by some real basic math. If you only have so many hit points, and you run into a ghost, which is what happened to me, you should flee. You can't beat the ghost. No matter—you're not going to get a miraculous strike on him. You're an entry-level character with hardly any things. I ran into a ghost, and I said, I'm going to hit him with my sword, and the dungeon master said, you shouldn't do that, you can't, you can't. You'll die. And I said, yeah but he's got a fighting chance, right?
Well, that wasn't really true. And so I died quickly, I said, OK, well, fuck this game.
But then when I was writing this, I mentioned it to a friend, and he mentioned that he has a weekly gaming night, that he does with friends, including the game designer Jason Morningstar, who lives in Durham, where I live, and I joined up. So now I do weekly tabletop games. We're actually doing D&D right now, but it's so different from what we normally do. The ones we normally play are much more improvisatory and often don't even involve dice. There's a story and you improv the story through. But right now we're doing D&D and rolling a lot of dice and defeating evil dragons.
So it's sort of a reverse trajectory.
I wanted to do it to see what it was like. The by-mail thing—they also did exist. That was my idea, and then I thought, Well, if I thought of it, it probably exists. I asked Jason, and he was able to tell me there was this one company called Flying Buffalo, who I think still does it, and I looked them up. And I think there might be a couple more. But I never did that.
This late '80s dirtbag culture—it's an interesting milieu. Having grown up with it.
Yeah, yeah. Where'd you grow up?
Aberdeen, Maryland. I think I might be exactly Sean's age.
Oh, awesome, awesome. You know, I hung out with a few, I was sort of on the fringes of the, you know—the Camaro-driving, hair-teasing, Scorpions-listening. I listened to the Scorpions, I liked to hang out with those guys, 'cause I liked what their musical taste was like. But culturally I was more of a bookish dude.
But we also connected because I liked to get high and so did they. So.
But, yeah, I feel like it's one of the most honest cultures that I've seen in my lifetime. One where people are liking what they like, whether it seems cool to the general culture or not.
Or whether they horrify their parents.
Well, yeah. That's some of the appeal, to me, but.
There was moment of fear of the occult. These culture fears, the 60 Minutes expose of Dungeons & Dragons...
Oh, yeah, I was combing through all that, I was looking up all those things. Tumblr is great for that stuff. Tumblr has all kinds of people putting up old anti-D&D scare pamphlets and stuff. The sort of thing that like, if you find one in the wild, you go Ahhhh, this is the greatest thing.
There's a minister that I don't want to give a whole lot of publicity to, a minister named Michael K. Haynes. Who wrote a book called The god of Rock, and "god" is in all lowercase, because it's not the real God. Which is like such a juvenile thing, right? The little god of rock. I think I found it in a thrift store; it could be that a friend of mine who knows I like this kind of stuff gave me this book.
It's one of those nonsense publications that talks about the dangers of rock and roll, and the secret messages and so forth. But pretends to be very learned. It's like, "I've done the research for you parents, so that I can tell you about it," and he's wrong about practically everything.
Like when he's saying things about the bands, who's occult and who's into drugs, it's like—no, I know these bands, you're wrong. And I'm kind of obsessed with this book, so I ordered his guide to ritual cult symbols. Like you remember when people used to say that AC/DC was supposed to stand for "Antichrist/Demon Children"?
That, I mean, this is a thing like that came, I want to say to the person that's doing that, that came from your head. It had nothing to do with AC/DC.
"Kings in Satan's Service."
Exactly. Knights in Satan's Service.
Knights in Satan's Service.
Yeah, all those things where it's really like an expression of the person lobbing the accusation.
Part of what's interesting about the relationship between Sean and his parents in the book is that on some level, they're not wrong? They're concerned about the darkness of his fantasy interests, which are indicative of a real problem. But his deepest revelation, his most gripping or transformative moment of insight, seems to come not from the occult material but from Christian broadcasting.
Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, it is occult material. That's what they're dealing with in that broadcast, the kind of stuff that's appealing to him.
But it's this fear of the occult as the driver.
Yes, yeah. that's right. Wanting to get up next to the edge of something.
You're also a well established fan of dark metal. What is it about this cultural current that draws the imagination both of the people who are into it and the people who are terrified of it?
I think it varies from person to person. I gotta say, there's like—in horror fiction, people have been writing 'Why do people like horror?' essays for as long as, a hundred, 200 years. People get theories about it. The two big theories people like: Why do people want to read horror? And what makes someone funny? What does laughter mean?
Those are both big questions. So I think it's personal, I don't think there's a real answer. I mean for me, part of it is that when I was a kid, I was really afraid of this stuff. Like I would see commercials for The Exorcist or whatever and it was frightening to me, genuinely frightening. Did not want to see. But I wanted to know about it, I wanted to know, what is the thing that I'm afraid of.
My friend John Vanderslice, if you find something horrible on the Internet and try to show it to him, he won't look, but he wants you to tell him what is it you're looking at, right? [Laughs.]
And that is kind of a profound response. You do want to know. I think it's really basic to want to know stuff but at the same time not want to have to have it, have to carry it, you know what I mean? Or have it change you. At the same time you have curiosity.
I gotta show you this book I got today on that exact line. I have a big shelf of occult stuff. Hardback.
[Crosses room to get shopping bag. Produces a copy of The Devil's Churchyard, by Godfrey Turton.]
Is that the greatest thing in the history of the world or what? The subtitle.
"A Modern Novel About Devil Worship."
"A Modern Novel About Devil Worship." I tell you, this—whoever's idea it was, whether it was the author's or the publisher's, to put that as the subtitle is genius. If you're interested in that subject matter, there's no way you're not picking up that book. [Laughs.]
I have no idea whether it's any good or not.
"An ancient vellum-covered book, written in Latin..."
Who published it even? There's actually no—no, it's Doubleday. Wow!
When you were growing up, what was your household's relationship to this stuff?
I was really into science fiction. Sean's into Conan—I tried reading Conan, but I wanted brainier stuff. And my family both encouraged me but also would, they wanted me to read more serious fiction. We would have—not big arguments, it wasn't a big sticking thing or anything, but I would get a lot of—not a lot of shit, but some shit, for me wanting to read comics and science fiction. In my house, arguments like that tended to get, you know, loud. In a hurry. But yeah, it was not—I mean, I know people who were forbidden to read stuff like that. My house was always very permissive that I could read whatever I want. But I sort of had to answer for it sometimes.
And I went through this phase, I think my science fiction lasted about three years, after getting out of comic books into science fiction. And in high school, I discovered literary pretension. Read Faulkner —who I think is great. I don't think William Faulkner is necessarily pretentious. But I was reading stuff that I was maybe missing a lot of. [Chuckles.]
Does parenthood affect the way you look at creating this kind of a story about a very bad relationship?
For me, one thing that parenthood has been really good for is to get perspective on one's own parents. Just on how the things you did or I did as an adolescent might have affected them, what it might have felt like to be them. You can try asking yourself that when you're a lot younger, but it's really hard. If you don't know anything about astrophysics, how much you can guess about what it's like to be an astrophysicist is extremely limited.
Once you know a little about parenthood, then you can really imagine yourself in their shoes. And in writing the book, I looked a lot harder at the other side. And that's a thing that preoccupies Sean a lot. He's a living testament to the fact that we're all connected and our actions have effects on other people.
You read it out loud as you write?
Oh, I read, I always read out loud. William Gass has this line, 'By the mouth, for the ear, that's how I'd like to write.' That's not me, my stuff doesn't read with like—every sentence of William Gass just crackles with sound. But. For me that's the test of a paragraph, whether it survives out loud.
Did you think about having to dial back the lyricism?
No. When it gets lyrical, I get happy. You overdo that, I do think, yeah, then it would become tiresome to read it. In this book it's nice when it sort of descends or flows into some lyrical passage and then emerges. It happened pretty naturally. When it would seem like it was sort of time to—a new layer would suggest itself.
But then you do think, what if I did that for the whole work? It would be florid, and it would be too much.
It's tough to talk about a book that's built in this way where—
Yeah, yeah, I know. [Laughs]
How do you draw the line in talking about it, about how to sort of avoid—
By Chapter 2, you know something has happened. And so. But I tend to tell various versions of that: A guy who had an accident when he was young—I like the word the "accident," that's what he uses, right, so it's not really an accident. Or it is.
When you get a book contract, it says in the contract what the book's going to be about, so you don't come back a year later and say, "You know, I got distracted by boats, and so I'm giving you a manual for a boat," right?
So the contract said that I would deliver a book about an interactive game designer with no face. I like that.
I didn't say that. It happened in negotiations, and I looked at it, I was like, I love it. I want to say, "Well, he does in fact have a face," but I still like that.
Did you study the medical literature?
A little bit. I wanted to find out what was possible. And I watched some pretty hairy videos of EMS teams, you know, getting people to the hospital. Yeah, I looked up stuff about skin grafts and so forth. I mean, not too heavily.
I had this thought, and this is the sort of thing that's probably sort of frustrating for an author to say, but I had this thought: What if he's not actually disfigured? What if he did a thing, and it didn't really do the things he says it did? How much do I trust this guy?
Now I know the author is supposed to have all the answers about this, but that's not how I conceive of any area that I'm writing through. I learn stuff about what exists somewhere out there in the aether and send you information, but whether you trust it or not [laughs] it's like another thing.
I was thinking of like David Bowie as the Elephant Man, the stage production of The Elephant Man didn't have any makeup. He was just the Elephant Man. And he held his arm a certain way.
And I thought that's interesting. It's like to me, when I picture him, I see him whole half the time. I see the face that didn't get hurt. And then the rest of the time I do, I think, like, you know, the kids from Dream Deceivers. You see this documentary? Two kids who shot themselves. Nevada. And the families sued Judas Priest.
One of them died, the other had his face reassembled. If you see it, you'll see it's a clear jumping-off point for this.
How far did the lawsuit end up going before—?
Oh, you should see this. They—I mean, Halford had to testify in open court. Judas Priest was in Nevada for the better part of at least a week or two, and possibly more. Interrupting their lives to testify that they were not trying to kill their listeners.
So is it based on the idea that there was deeper occult—
Backwards masking. It was backwards masking. It was subliminal messages, right, and that was the thing. And the defense had to delve into the lives of the families, to say, was this the first time they'd done this, and so on and so forth. It's ugly and sad. But that the sort of, people wanting to blame people's actions on the malevolent workings of culture or art, it has always been really interesting to me.
In the book, Sean doesn't—the family wouldn't provide a simply explicable back story either. You're dealing with an act of mystery.
There's two ways of answering that fear of backwards-masked messages and the culture driving people to do evil. One is to present an alternative narrative. To answer it with the absence of a narrative is—
Yeah, it's the scarier substance.
Did you think about his back story in those terms, in terms of whether there was going to be any—
Like a solid explanation? No, I don't think so, I think in part because I don't believe in solid explanations, I really don't. I wouldn't say they're a great evil, but I do think people trying to explain people's behavior sort of mathematically, it's a bad idea. People do all sorts of things, for complicated reasons. There was, there was a temptation, there was a period during the writing where I was like, how are we going to get some explanation of this. But then I realized the book was kind of not about that, it was about the aftermath, it was about what happens after you've made a calamitous decision.
It's like a smaller piece of the societal picture. The problem isn't that there are backwards messages.
Right, yeah yeah. That's right.
What the problems are is something that's deeper and harder to articulate.
That's right. And maybe impossible to articulate.
So are you touring on the book as a book?
Yeah, I'm not doing [music]. That would be very song-and-dance-y, I think: And now, I stand up and jump up and down and yell! That would be weird to me. So, yeah, I'm actually leaving my guitar at home. I'm very excited about this.
How's the performative reading?
It's different. I used to do poetry readings when I was in high school, so I have some experience of reading, but it's very—I enjoy it a lot, especially because the way it's written, the scenes that are fun to read out loud are these ones that sort of, they do that drop I was talking about, where it's sort of like everything seems to be happening on the surface of something and then you're in this interior world.
It's not—our shows are cathartic. Our shows are a release of a lot of tension. And reading isn't like that. Reading is more like the sowing of some tension, and then a very faint release. But it's really cool. It's fun.
Your songs are very written, but when you're doing them you're putting in that catharsis with performance. There's this element that you can deliver to put the impact across. When you're doing a book, you've got the words, and you've sort of got to keep going with that.
Yeah, that's right. And it really is, you're trying to turn a screw, rather than to loosen it, you know.
[Minder enters to say time's nearly up]
I was trying to remember whether there was anything else I wanted to ask about. I enjoyed it. I should have said that earlier.
Cool! I'm glad you did.
The structure worked for me.
I'm very glad. It was really—the final assembly was so intense. It was like, when I was like, getting toward—I don't think I had all the pieces done, but I was this close, and there were these, I was moving chapters, right? I had sections from within the chapters, trading them out.
I was doing this on the floor, and it was very, it was brain-breaking stuff. I'm not sure what happens—I did a couple where it's like, what if this happened here? I like it better. Now OK, make sure it doesn't refer to anything that we wouldn't know yet or that hasn't happened yet, and so a lot of fixes like that.
Thanks for doing this.
I think I'm going to take my headache and lie back down on the floor until the next one.
[Author photograph by Lalitree Darnielle]