“Before we do this I have to eat about three more bowls of grits,” says John Darnielle over the bowl he has recently vanquished, sitting on the floor of Birmingham, Alabama’s Red Cat Café. I am here to interview the front man of The Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van, longlisted for the 2014 National Book award. Wolf is a story about a young, facially disfigured man who runs a by-mail roleplaying game called “Trace Italian”; it is also about family, isolation, and the escape that esoteric fantasies provide from a world that sees the novel’s protagonist as deserving only pity or scorn. Wolf is Darnielle’s second book, after his 2008 entry on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality published in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of books about classic albums, in which Darnielle bucked the traditional format of an extended essay on the album itself and instead, drawing on his experience as a psychiatric nurse, wrote a fiction piece about a teenage Sabbath fan on a long-term stay in a mental hospital.
As I sat down on the floor, across the table from Mr. Darnielle, I am nervous the way you would be nervous upon meeting a person whose work means something profound to you. “Don’t be nervous, there’s no reason to be nervous,” he says, apparently aware of this. I tried my level best to comply with this order, and what follows is our conversation.
See this issue for an excerpt from the novel.
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Tim Jones: The spark of the idea for Wolf in White Van came from a story about the 1990 Judas Priest trial, didn’t it?
John Darnielle: Yeah, it’s a legendary documentary called Dream Deceivers. A couple of pretty messed up kids shot themselves after listening to Judas Priest for a while. There was more going on in their lives, but that was just the jumping off point; one of them, who survived for a while, was really deformed. And I thought: that person has been to a place that most people haven’t been to.
TJ: Probably my favorite moment in the book is the 7th chapter when Sean goes to a convenience store to pick up some candy [see excerpt]. He runs into some kids who just want to get a closer look at his face and they end up hanging out for a while; it’s very sweet. The kids treat Sean like he exists rather than avoiding him.
JD: He says something about recognizing “his own kind” in there. They’re heshers, which is its own culture, and I had this experience, so that scene’s tone and vocabulary is rooted in the kids who smoke cigarettes north of the high school. The scene that the last chapter opens on, well I was a heavy smoker for years and years so I would hang out with those kids and smoke cigarettes, and they were very cool to each other. These were outcast kids who weren’t doing well in school and were usually ditching school to just hang out on the bleachers and smoke. But there were kids who had physical and behavioral anomalies who were welcome in their group. And I thought, this is the interesting thing about this dangerous-feeling group is that they seem to take care of each other and are more open than they would be on the outside. I wanted to sort of give credit to this. It’s not unstudied; sociologists have tried to talk a little about metal culture in the 80s. I don’t know how detailed it is or how much you can know about them—but yeah, there’s a warmth to [the culture] that usually goes missing in depictions of it.
TJ: There’s a line in Wolf that hits really hard for me, which is that Sean says he understands his father’s anger at him because, “I did something terrible to his son once.” It exposes this weird way that hurting yourself seems to be a good way to hurt your parents
JD: Yeah. I think the reason that line is heavy is because it will be true of you and everybody else eventually. You do something terrible to your parents’ baby because you have to grow, and to do that, you take their baby away. Sean’s parents have an extreme realization of this, insofar as he absolutely annihilates and obliterates their baby. That’s the dynamic in their relationship. He made explicit a struggle that healthy families find a way to navigate. It’s about changing.
TJ: How was Wolf written?
JD: On a computer. I have a typewriter but I was clicking and clacking in a word processing program called Mellel. It’s my favorite.
TJ: Was it on the road or at home?
JD: I don’t do a lot of writing on the road. I did get the idea for “Trace Italian” on an airplane. It was a pretty good idea, but I don’t…. I have to write on the road some, but writing fiction is for me—maybe because it’s newer to me—a discipline that requires more solitude and control of my environment. I can write a song anywhere and I can be done by noon. But writing prose, especially something longer, you have to really keep returning to this milieu. You have to control your environment. But what I do is I have an office, and I go in and I sit at my desk, and I get into a zone, and then I’m there: I’m in the place where the story takes place and it’s necessary for longer stuff. I wrote most of Wolf in White Van in a lot of situations: I became a father during the process, so there was a baby rollin’ around and stuff. Didn’t have an office for that. But the final revision was sitting down on the floor with the printed out manuscript and cutting stuff up and reassembling it. It’s good work!
TJ: So your interest in poetry, I noticed a lot of them are European, post-Holocaust writers like Paul Celan, Tadeusz Rozewicz, and Anna Swir, who I had never read and I was totally blown away by. So what draws you to those poets?
JD: I had a girlfriend whose family was from Poland, and I wanted to know more about Poland and find out who the heavy hitters were. And it turned out that Polish literary culture—and this is true of any country—it has its own distinct development. In this case of Poland, it’s extremely interesting; it’s very serious business to be a poet, a very exalted occupation. There was this anthology that Czeslaw Milosz edited called Post-War Polish Poetry that was this great act of introducing this thriving, living body of writers to English speaking audiences. A good anthology is a massive gesture because you can get a taste of something that otherwise would be baffling to you. That’s why the internet isn’t great for discovering stuff, there’s just too much stuff. You need a compendium of some kind, and that was a super useful one.
TJ: Most of our audience is working writers, and while Wolf in White Van was published long into your established music career, you still had to work for a long time to get there. How long into being an artist did it take for you to feel like you had any success?
JD: I mean, you’re successful the first time someone listens to you and enjoys it. That’s easy for me to say, because I do well in my career. But I literally never, ever, ever, sat down and said ‘Well this is my career path, how do I make this into a job?’ I can’t understand that. Having to learn about business stuff is a necessary evil; I’m not interested in the business aspects of things. It was like, I was doing it while I was working as a psych nurse, while I was in college. After that I worked retail promotion for a while, and then back to nursing. It was a long time, but I wasn’t thinking ‘I wish I could quit my day job.’ I liked my day job.
TJ: When you were younger, you were winning poetry competitions.
JD: Yeah, a couple when I was very young. I don’t think very highly of those poems, I gotta say.
TJ: Was that something you were looking to do, but music eventually became more interesting?
JD: Yeah, I wrote poetry and eventually I started setting it to music and I began getting more interested in songs. Songs, I think, predate poetry. It’s a more primitive style of poetry. I like that about them. “Primitive” is kind of a loaded word, but poetry, especially in the 20th, 21st century, especially in America, is pretty insular. There’s not a lot of room for the sort of catharsis I wanted in writing. There’s good poets, but the scene is not as much fun as playing shows. So once you reject ideas of higher and lower culture, you’ll go to the place that’s more fun.
TJ: You said once that there is a point in the development of a writer when they move from Free Verse Crew to Meter and Rhyme Patrol.
JD: Well I did, not everybody does. I became a lot more interested in measured poetry. There’s plenty of good people writing in free verse, but it’s a looser discipline. When you have hard parameters you go, ‘Look, here is how you write iambic pentameter, and you did or you didn’t.’ It’s good to have a discipline like that. There is no “free” engine repair; you have to know what goes where in the engine to make it run well, and then you can modify it in ways that are interesting and good for your purposes, to make it drive in a way that serves your purposes. I really enjoy having the discipline.
TJ: I read Master of Reality before and after having been in a psychiatric hospital for a few days I think you really got to—
JD: How bad it sucks to be there!?
TJ: How insanely boring and terrible it is!
JD: You see it man, especially in the adolescent ward. If you’re an adult, you could lock me up for three days right now and I might get bored, but I have no responsibilities for three days—that’s cool. If you’re seventeen, you’re climbing the goddamn walls because there’s nothing to do. And there’s regimented time. Yeah, it was rough.
TJ: This is a question I find ends up having an interesting symbolic significance in its stupidity. Who is the main character of Jesus Christ Superstar?
JD: I have never seen it. I know the music, but never seen the show. I’m a Godspell man, actually. It’s Webber as well [actually it isn’t]. Godspell is completely awesome.
TJ: I found out recently that Phantom of the Opera is arguably the most financially successful piece of entertainment ever: it’s made over four billion dollars.
JD: That’s pretty awesome. For perspective, this coffee only costs a couple dollars, but if I had four billion dollars I could buy almost an infinite number of these. But the other thing is, if you have four billion dollars, you get them for free. When you get rich people to give you stuff. It’s crazy!
See the NDR Blog for additional excerpts from this interview.
John Darnielle is a writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats; he is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his family and is the author of the novels Master of Reality and Wolf in White Van. You can follow him at johndarnielle.tumblr.com and at @mountain_goats.
Tim Jones is Ph.D student in the English department at LSU. He holds a Master’s in Popular Culture from Bowling Green State University and is from Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter at @cutebuttsaga.