As the driving force behind The Mountain Goats, singer-songwriter John Darnielle has enraptured audiences for the past two decades with lyrical portraits that border on sung short stories. In his second novel, Wolf In White Van—his first, Master of Reality, was a consideration of the Black Sabbath album from the perspective of a teenager in a mental institution—Darnielle expands the reach of his imaginative process to the tale of Sean Phillips, a man badly disfigured in a mysterious accident, who spends his time leading players through a labyrinthine play-by-mail game called Trace Italian.
Through shifts in chronological perspective, Darnielle slowly winds the reader back to the point of Phillips’ life-changing accident, exploring, along the way, the intricate fantasy life that Phillips developed and maintained in order to survive. We spoke with him about the creation of Wolf In White Van and the difference between novel writing and songwriting.
Did the process for Wolf start in songwriting?
No, Sean didn’t start out as a song character. I had finished writing Master of Reality and enjoyed learning to follow a narrative where it goes, seeing how writing a longer story is part performance and part… collage? Ship-in-a-bottle building? Anyway, it’s different. So I just started writing something one day, and it turned into a scene near the end of the book—where Sean and his friends are hanging out, being young and Californian and bored—and I just built around that.
Where did Sean come from?
The image I had of young Sean before the accident comes from people I knew in high school. Just sort of a vision of a kid in a puffy jacket and jeans who has some dark dreams inside him. These were guys I didn’t know well, so I used to wonder about their lives, what they were like, whether their days were like mine.
How was the writing process different from songwriting?
I write songs really fast and I feel like song is its own space. I write songs in single incantatory bursts; half the time I’m writing out loud with the guitar and then pausing to scribble down what I said when I was playing the chords. Books are just different. I’ve also been writing prose longer than I’ve been writing songs; it was my first passion. I wrote my first short story when I was seven.
How did you design Trace Italian?
I had to check whether there really were play-by-mail games—of course there were, though the email I sent to one company that’s supposedly still running bounced, which I’m bummed about. I framed the basic movement you see, and I thought a lot about the set-up. The point of the Trace is that it only exists in descriptions. We don’t see any maps, it’s just a way of thinking about an actually existing part of the world, and eventually of thinking about the whole world.
Do you have a soundtrack for the book?
I feel like Steve Roach albums would read pretty well for a lot of Sean’s more immersed musings. I have some pretty specific southern California radio sounds for the scene in the parking lot—classic rock stations blaring from the windows of Camaros. And, like, instrumental guitar stuff like the Robin Trower album Sean listens to in the last chapter, or this old Steve Hunter album Swept Away, or the last two Jeff Loomis albums, that endless-day southern California feel. But there ought also to be something like Klaus Schulze, something electronic with movement. I think splitting the distance between outer-space organic synth sounds and shuffling instrumental electric-guitar stuff would set the scene best.
You have a knack for accessing the imaginary worlds that teenagers shelter in. How do you do it?
I still get transported by imaginary worlds, though I do hear a lot of people saying that as they grow older they don’t connect as deeply with the stuff they’re into. I think staying curious is the only thing—never being satisfied with the stuff you already know you like, always finding new stuff to get into. Then you’re always young with respect to the stuff you’re reading, listening to, watching, doing.