When the longlist for the National Book Awards was announced last week, it had the usual suspects — 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.
“Wolf in White Van” is the story of a young man who has survived a tremendously disfiguring accident — think 1980s teenagers listening to too much heavy metal. He’s 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 world.
What has it been like being longlisted for the National Book Award?
Oh my God; I just didn’t see it coming. Waiting for the book to come out is such a heavy process — hoping people like it, but trying not to stay too invested in that. The book is so new, I haven’t really had time to consider more than, do I feel like I’m done with it, and it’s as good as it can be.
It 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. It’s incredible. I still can’t believe it.
I’m in a contest and one of my competitors is Marilynne Robinson. I’m 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 I’m keeping. It would be rude to want more.
The structure of “Wolf in White Van” is complex — how did you approach it?
The first thing I wrote was the last chapter. It ends with this event. I didn’t really know where to go from there. I did a lot of writing after that — 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.
Then 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 ’90s, 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 band’s 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. That’s why their parents were so confused and lashing out. That’s a big part of what the book is about — you can’t 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 — that would be awesome. That’s not what people do in tour vans since 2001 or so. In tour vans people stare at cellphones and laptops, or read books. Usually, it’s electronic devices. Half of you says, oh, that’s depressing, you could be looking out the window at the Rockies or whatever, but the other half can’t lie. We’re back there and we have 5G and we’re doing the same thing we’d be doing at our desks.
What have you been reading?
The thing about my reading is, I’m never in a hurry. The top 10 books of any year, I’ve never usually read any of them. At some point I should be in a hurry; I’m going to run out of years eventually. But I read from all over time: Old books, books by dead people. ... I’m 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.
I just read “My Mortal Enemy” by Willa Cather. She’s a person who I’d like to have read everything she wrote before I die — but I don’t want to read it all in a row, I want to space it out. I think she’s probably the best American writer we’ve had.
Right now, I’m 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.