the longlist for the National Book Awards was announced
last week, it had the usual suspects ó 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.
in White Van" is the story of a young man who has
survived a tremendously disfiguring accident ó think
1980s teenagers listening to too much heavy metal. Heís
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
What has it been like being longlisted for the National
Oh my God; I just didnít see it coming. Waiting for
the book to come out is such a heavy process ó hoping
people like it but trying not to stay too invested in
that. The book is so new, I havenít really had time to
consider more than, do I feel like Iím done with it,
and itís as good as it can be.
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. Itís incredible. I
still canít believe it.
in a contest and one of my competitors is Marilynne
Robinson. Iím 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 Iím
keeping. It would be rude to want more.
The structure of "Wolf in White Van" is
complex ó how did you approach it?
The first thing I wrote was the last chapter. It ends
with this event. I didnít really know where to go from
there. I did a lot of writing after that Ė 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.
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 í90s, 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 bandís
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. Thatís why their parents were so confused and
lashing out. Thatís a big part of what the book is
about ó you canít 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 ó that would be awesome. Thatís
not what people do in tour vans since 2001 or so. In
tour vans people stare at cellphones and laptops, or
read books. Usually itís electronic devices. Half of
you says, oh, thatís depressing, you could be looking
out the window at the Rockies or whatever, but the other
half canít lie. Weíre back there and we have 5G and
weíre doing the same thing weíd be doing at our
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. Iíve done three so far and theyíve
music we (the Mountain Goats) play, thereís 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.
Itís an exciting release. Our shows are like dance
parties ó not everybody dances, but you spend a lot of
energy, leave a lot of it in the room.
are more like weaving a tapestry. Possibly people are
getting a cathartic release ó but music is physical.
Music pummels you. Itís got a beat, itís loud.
Whereas this is more cerebral.
given to wanting to read the long prose bits, but
writing this book I think Iím 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 itís
Whatís your writing process?
I write on any available surface, paper bags, anything.
In the notes function of my phone. Thatís where I get
a lot of good ideas for the book, because Iíll 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 Iíll 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 donít have a choice ó thatís my day job. I work
best in the morning, so Iíd be writing in hotel
rooms.... While I was writing a book I had a 1-year old
ó 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 donít know if Iíve ever heard anyone describe
being a musician as their day job before.
But it is ó thatís what I do for a living. To me,
creative work is labor, like any other kind of labor. Itís
got value and it takes your time and itís 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 everybodyís creative work is going
to be useful to everybody ó it will only be useful to
the people who connect with it. Itís still labor. Ö
I was very proud to be able to say this (being a
musician) is what I do for a living.
youíre out on tour, youíre there 24 hours a day. You
donít clock out; youíre in the van or on stage. ...
Writing is a little different, I think Iíll feel
weirder if that becomes a thing.
What have you been reading?
The thing about my reading is, Iím never in a hurry.
The top 10 books of any year, Iíve never usually read
any of them. At some point I should be in a hurry; Iím
going to run out of years eventually. But I read from
all over time: Old books, books by dead people. ... Iím
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.
just read "My Mortal Enemy" by Willa Cather.
Sheís a person who Iíd like to have read everything
she wrote before I die ó but I donít want to read it
all in a row, I want to space it out. I think sheís
probably the best American writer weíve had.
now Iím 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.
found this Sicilian mystery writer, (Leonardo) Sciascia
ó 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 itís 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 ó Iím psyched to read those.