Four Square feet
An Interview with John Darnielle
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl and John Lachausse
John Darnielle is best known as the frontman of the Mountain Goats, an indie folk band founded in 1991. In 2014, Darnielle's first novel, Wolf in White Van, was released to much acclaim and was nominated for the National Book Award. Darnielle's next book, Universal Harvester, is out on February 7, 2017. Find John on Twitter at @mountain_goats, Facebook at @mountaingoatsmusic, and Tumblr at johndarnielle.tumblr.com. You can also visit mountain-goats.com.
TMR: What are you watching, reading, or listening to these days?
JD: I am sick today, and so is my older son, so he didn't sleep well at all and so neither did I. So I have been spending the day casting about for music that a person who barely slept and is sick might enjoy. I've been listening to Kaito, a Japanese electronic dude, and Funeral Moth, a sort of understated slow-metal band also from Japan, so I started looking around on Bandcamp and YouTube for other stuff from Japan.
I ran across a band called Kyojaku, who play a sort of post-rock that's got a bright, breezy feel to it -- it reminded me, a little, of Weather Report, though it wasn't nearly as chops-intensive. But it was really enjoyable. From there I went to a band called Kikagaku Moyo, who I guess have several styles, but the album I tried, Forest of Lost Children, is psychedelic stuff -- a sitar figures prominently. It was very good, very distinctive stuff, mining a really deep psych vein that hit the spot, so I sent a note through Facebook to a friend who's really into psych music, and he said thanks & asked me if I'd listened to the Schammasch album he recommended a while back, since he knew I liked their previous one, Sic Luceat Lux. I hadn't remembered, so I queued it up -- it's a triple album, called Triangle -- the first disc/set is just winding to a close, it's very moody, technically-accomplished-but-not-showy metal -- it veers goth here and there, and is very good and epic stuff. So that's my listening today so far.
On a daily basis I listen to the Ultima Thule podcast, a long-running ambient/space music podcast from Australia, and to Hearts of Space, the legendary space music program. Both have subscriber models which I support, these shows are huge gifts, labors of love, endlessly rewarding.
TMR: Do you remember the first story you wrote, or the first story you were proud of?
JD: Yes, the first story I wrote -- after whatever stories I wrote longhand, and after these very weird little comic books I used to make when I was no older than 5 (I have vivid memories of these: I had these rubber stamps of Laurel and Hardy, and some other rubber stamps of the alphabet, and I'd stamp L & H in situations where they were, like, getting chased by the alphabet, or by a nonsense assemblage of words, and having to get out of the predicament of...being chased by some unpronounceable word-cloud. They were essentially horror stories involving cartoon figures of Laurel & Hardy) -- was called "The Magic Bugle."
I don't remember whether I wrote it on my mother's typewriter, or whether I wrote it on the old Royal typewriter of my own that I was given for my 7th birthday -- it was what I'd hoped to get that year, because I'd been using mom's a lot. But timeline-wise I don't know if "The Magic Bugle" was a response to getting a typewriter of my own, or was a story I'd written that made my mom say "a typewriter would be a good birthday present for John this year." Anyhow! My mother and father, by then divorced, made much of the story's opening line -- "Once a bugle stood in the window of a store that sold brass goods" -- my father would harangue his Freshman Comp students with it and tell them to aim for sentences like it. The story that followed was pretty similar to the weird Laurel & Hardy comic books I'd made a few years before, though -- the bugle becomes animated and runs away from the store or from somebody who's bought him, and is chased by... some policemen or something? Other people who want a bugle? I don't remember; it's kind of a Gingerbread Man situation; but when he gets caught, he cries out to his owner to destroy a clock. Plot development out of nowhere with no explanation offered. The bugle then finds itself back in the window of the store, unharmed. (This story feels to me now like a dream-narrative by a seven-year-old who, two years earlier, had lived with his father and mother and liked it, but who's moved house twice since then and would now like to break the whole concept of time.)
I remember wishing I'd been able to do more with it, though. Like, I knew the ending was a cop-out. I think the first story I felt proud of is one I'd probably be totally horrified by now, and I can't, for the life of me, remember what it was called -- it was the one that got honorable mention from Literary Cavalcade when I was fourteen years old. Literary Cavalcade was a national competition, and our English class routinely got snubbed by it: Our teacher, Rosemary Adam, had classes routinely winning competitions both in California and nationally -- like, we ran the table at some of these competitions, we were assassins -- but we couldn't crack Literary Cavalcade. The story I submitted was in three not-really-evidently related parts about which I don't remember much -- one involved Marilyn Monroe at a party, and the last one had a man being blown up in a fishing boat. It was almost surely a clumsy and graceless attempt at the sort of literary science fiction I'd been gorging on for a year or two -- the stuff championed in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions anthologies: Brian W. Aldiss, Carol Emshwiller, J.G. Ballard, Barry N. Malzberg -- and in Aldiss's New Worlds anthologies that I'd marvel at in library stacks. Stuff I'd read without understanding at all, but from which I'd get a mood, a sort of awe at the architecture. So I was proud to have made something that looked & felt in some way like that stuff.
TMR: As an established novelist, can you explain what it was that compelled you to work primarily as a musician, rather than as an author?
Novels are closer to poetry than music, but they're BIG enough that when I'm revising—reading the whole thing aloud, and aloud again—it's close enough to performance that I can see the music in it.
JD: I think the immediacy of music was the thing for me -- I was 24 when I started the Mountain Goats, and the first songs were just poems set to music. You can really only get any connection in poetry at poetry readings, which I'd done my share of -- poetry felt so solitary. Playing music, there's a physical contact, a moment of impact -- you can feel when your lines register, it's intoxicating. Novels are closer to poetry than music, but they're BIG enough that when I'm revising -- reading the whole thing aloud, and aloud again -- it's close enough to performance that I can see the music in it. Honestly any effort I make is anchored on some conception of musical expression, on the idea of performance and melody -- even if prose melodies are kind of...I mean obviously they don't have notes, but there's rhythm, and then a sort of melody to the way you structure your sentences, I have this cockamamie idea about the Song as the essential form which every other form is a version of. (I used to have a real thing for these Big Cockamamie Ideas and can still get a little excited about them.)
TMR: Which author, if any, would you choose to write a collaborative novel with?
JD: Kimya Dawson likes to tease me by remembering that the first words I ever said to her were "I don't work well with others," or something along those lines. Writing is pretty solitary for me. The few efforts I've made to write collaboratively have sort of just run aground. But there was a moment right around the time that I was getting the idea for the Mountain Goats: I was really into poetry, was writing & reading it all the time & sending it around to literary magazines -- I got published a few times, it was exciting. And a girlfriend had told me, in high school, about Pound basically attacking The Waste Land with a chisel, and I liked that idea, so I sent some poems I'd been working on to my friend Dave Carpenter, who, in high school, had seemed like one of the most-likely-to-succeed poetry dudes. I told him to just do with them as he saw fit.
He sent back radical revisions -- retaining the first person, but shearing off all the excess that was kind of my biggest problem back then; writing whole new parts that took the ideas and images and storylines out further, into deeper places. I remember very little about the poems now except the experience of saying, hey, look, it's still the poem you were writing but it has a new face. That was a really great process, so I think I might be up for something like that -- going in either direction, if somebody were up for it -- but it requires some serious curiosity and humility, and I'd imagine it's trickier if both writers are a little established instead of guys in their twenties doing poetry-through-the-mail in a pre-internet age.
I feel like the people I'd most want to collaborate with would be poets -- Frank Bidart, Chelsey Minnis, Michael Earl Craig, maybe? But I have no idea how that would work, and there's this sense in which what I admire in poets is the singularity of their vision, the way I have to sort of submit to & enter into their own vision and language, how what they do, each good one, is stuff nobody else can do.
But take Bidart: he has a pretty strong narrative urge -- he's, I guess, "confessional," for lack of a better word: part of his project is exploring his own inner depths, but he holds to storytelling, sometimes loosely, but there's always a through-line somewhere. He's talking about life, life is his theme. So there's a connection to the kinds of stories I like to tell. There are so many small histories in his poems, and often there's some anchor in trauma - again, a little connection. I feel like trying to draw a novel out of one of his poems, or to make one by assembling a bunch and making prose out of them, would be extremely crass -- they are as good as can be on their own, they need nothing. But I think there might be some possible collaborative process involving new work that would be -- maybe less crass, if only because the process I'm imagining would be intentional: Bidart writing poetry, me drawing a novel out of it -- but even that feels weird to say, because, while I was writing this reply, I took In the Western Night down from the shelf and looking over a few favorites...he's just so great, so complete in himself. Anywhere you dig in, it's just magic.
But to boil my answer down, I think if there were some way of Bidart writing poetry and me doing something with it and him revising / editing / rejecting / expanding on that, some back and forth process like that -- through the mail, through email, it's hard for me to imagine doing actual WRITING in a room with somebody else also working on the same thing -- that might be a fun way of finding something new, some new way through. And would be, obviously, a ridiculous honor, it would be hard to get over.
TMR: Bob Dylan told Leonard Cohen that he considered Cohen to be his nearest rival in the art of songwriting. With Rolling Stone calling you the "greatest storyteller in rock," could you say that you have a songwriting rival?
JD: Cohen has this phrase in "Chelsea Hotel #1" -- "that was called love, for the workers in song" -- I admire and envy his humility there, and I try to model my own thinking about it: I just work. I hope the stuff I make is useful to somebody somewhere. If I think of my work as work - labor - the idea of competition or rivalry feels weird. Like, who's competitive on a construction crew? You just make the thing, build the hut, raise the building. I think there are people doing roughly the same kind of work I do, people working on the same crew -- Bill Callahan's always the first name I think of, there's nobody like him and he's sculpted a voice that's his alone. That's what I hope to do, and I think if you get to that point, rivalry's a very weird idea. Your job in the work of song is to establish a voice that can't be confused with anybody else's.
if I'm a storyteller, the stories I'm telling are stories about the four square feet of the site over which I've been given supervision.
So if I worry this construction-crew metaphor a little more, it's like...ideally, if I'm a storyteller, the stories I'm telling are stories about the four square feet of the site over which I've been given supervision. Bill is like that: His four feet are his domain, no further work is needed over there. Bill's got it. That's what I want from what I do -- a sense that I've made, of the space I found, a good and useful part of the broader work everybody's doing on the site.
TMR: In an interview with NPR, you discuss Wolf in White Van and how you never had an outline for it, that you propelled it forward by asking what came next. Was there a time when you regretted this? Did you ever doubt the novel?
JD: I had a tiny bit of an outline, but it was only single-word chapter titles. WIWV went through so many permutations -- the initial draft had multiple narrators: his dad; a preacher; Marco, the guy he did mailorder from in Mexico, who, by the final draft, is a phantom conjured by his traumatized consciousness after the accident. Then there was a whole forward-moving Sean-only section, which began with the chapter that's now chapter 17, the last one. At some point I said: What if that beginning were the ending? How could that be the destination? And I wrote chapter 1, and started asking myself questions about Sean -- What does he do for a living? Who, if anyone, does he talk to? What is his relationship with his parents like, now that he's grown? -- and by then I was able to take up residence in his head pretty much at will, so I'd just let him talk about those things while telling this internal story about Lance and Carrie, the shocks they'd brought to the quiet of his life.
I don't remember doubting per se though I do remember specific moments during assembly -- because of the backwards movement, and because I didn't write with any outline beyond these one-word prompts, the book, as it moved along, began to require some pretty persuasive shaping, and I had to write out timelines -- would he have known this at this point yet, or has that not happened "yet"? The word "yet" gets really weird and psychedelic when you're telling a story backwards. But I sat down in the hallway here at home with a pair of scissors and printout and moved stuff physically around while diagramming timelines. It was sometimes really challenging: like, it's hard to hold multiple timelines in your head -- present-day Sean telling a story of his present-day life, present-day Sean tracing back to his younger self, past-tense Sean telling his own story -- but it was also really fun. I just sort of took as given that I'd make something. I try to stay out of thinking about whether the something I'm making is good or not, I can make that judgement when I'm done working and have a finished object to contemplate. (At that point, you go into revision, which is its own thing and kind of the bigger thing, in my view.)
TMR: If you believe in "writer’s block," what might be some advice for writers?
work is itself a noble calling, it doesn't require the burdens of Inspiration and Importance or even Goodness or Greatness.
JD: I don't believe in it, because I consider writing work. There is no point at which any person who writes can't write something. Maybe they don't feel motivated, or maybe they're nagged by self-doubt, but any person who writes can look across the room and describe what's there: "The Christmas tree is decorated with lights and hanging things. My son has hung a CD on it, I'm not sure which one" -- that's just a true description of what I'm looking at right now, from my position on the couch, looking at the Christmas tree. Maybe it's not a terrifically entertaining description, but it's writing. So my advice is to jettison the idea of writing as divine calling dependent on nebulous qualities and to think of it as work, because there's always work to do, and work is itself a noble calling, it doesn't require the burdens of Inspiration and Importance or even Goodness or Greatness.
TMR: The storyline of the "Alpha Couple" -- "a fictional couple that recurs in several early Mountain Goats songs," as well as the entire Tallahassee album -- ended with "Alpha Rats Nest," the final song on Tallahassee. In the previously mentioned NPR article, you discuss the origins of the couple: You were "reading a lot of poetry … [you were] really into John Berryman and so impressed by the idea of making some project where you had the same character that you did 400 poems about." Do you miss the couple and writing about them? Would you consider writing a novel about them?
JD: No, I took a lot of pleasure in ending the story -- I'd already put it to bed a few years before, Tallahassee was kind of a last gasp -- and a lot of fun, because by the time I wrote it, I'd grown into a better writer: the guy who wrote "Star Dusting" couldn't have imagined "No Children." But I consider it a little gross to sort of re-till the ground. You have to let your characters go; draining new blood from them is pretty vampiric.
TMR: Your next novel, Universal Harvester, is due out on February 7 of next year. You've said that it "hits that sad/frightening axis that [you’ve] always found most inspiring in the writers [you] like best and in the work [you] seek out." Did the novel affect you emotionally as you were writing it?
JD: Yes; writing is exploratory for me, in that I don't decide on a theme first: I decide on a story first, and then, as I write, I learn why that story appealed to me: what there was in it for me. It took me a while to understand that I was writing about grief, about the horror of grief, and the rage and hopelessness of it -- instead of the sadness, which is usually the first thing I think of when I think about grief. When I got to the Irene Sample section the theme was really becoming assertive, because I knew what was going to happen, so as I built the family up from scratch, I got pretty sad, knowing what I was going to do to them -- specifically to Lisa. And when we return to Lisa later and see what became of her, it upset me some. I wanted her to have a mother she could call her own, to be spared from her damage. But of course I'd have no story then. "Writers are monsters, they really are," my professor, Robert Mezey, told me once, a long time ago.
TMR: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the next few years? Another novel? A new album?
JD: "Always working on stuff," I like to say: it is true!