John Darnielle transitions from the Mountain Goats to writing books

Wolf in White Van takes Mountain Goats songwriter John Darnielle into the literary world.

November 25, 2014

More than anything, John Darnielle is a storyteller.

For most artists, doing what they’re passionate about for a living inevitably becomes a job. It’s why you see successful actors trying to write songs and successful singers trying to act. The crossover rarely works.

But John Darnielle is, more than an author, more than a musician, a storyteller. For more than 20 years he’s been writing songs under the Mountain Goats name, but in talking to him about his new book, Wolf in White Van, he’s quick to tell us that he’s been writing books since he was a kid.

“I’ve always wanted to write books,” Darnielle told us over the phone. “It preceded my desire to make rock music.”

A few years back, the two finally came head to head with Master of Reality, his critical analysis of Black Sabbath’s 1971 classic that, thanks to its fictional characters, was anything but prosaic.

His contribution to David Barker’s 33⅓ series eschews the usual academic form, funneling his thoughts on the album through the perspective of a teenaged metalhead’s journal entries. To Mountain Goats fans, the essay’s themes were immediately familiar—loss, desire, and frustration—but for the first time, Darnielle’s storytelling prowess was able to stand on its own, without the aid of the acoustic backbone they’d become so accustomed to. Darnielle’s first novel takes that one step further.

Wolf in White Van tells the story of Sean Phillips, an accident victim whose disfigured face contextualizes his isolation from society, but Darnielle is quick to point out there’s more to it than that.


The point of the book is not the accident. It moves towards that point, but the point of the book is the life that Sean makes for himself.

He’s not wrong. In reading Wolf in White Van, it becomes clear that while the incident frames Sean’s loneliness, it’s a choice he’s more than come to terms with. As he tells his mother after the accident, he was always going to be lonely. And as you make your way through his story, you learn that he’s okay with that.

Part of the joy of reading the book is diving deep into Darnielle’s discography once you’ve finished it. It’s fun to wonder what it would be like to read a book about The Alpha Couple, the tumultuous couple Darnielle followed, in songs, from West Texas to Tallahassee. Unfortunately for Mountain Goats fans, that’s an adaptation that’s never going to happen.

“I think it would betray the songs,” says Darnielle. “If I hear somebody has made their album into a Broadway musical, I think, ‘Wow, somebody backed a truck full of money up to your house.’ It doesn’t seem like something you would have a vision to do.”

And, the prospect of hearing Sean’s story in song seems even thinner.

“I want the book to be the book,” he explains, letting out a big sigh as he says it.

“I want people to get something fresh from what I do. I can imagine writing a trilogy of books, or even a tetralogy, if I had the idea. But the more successful something I do is, the more careful I want to be about not being crass about it.”


[pullquote]If I’ve done something good, I want to let it be itself, not to milk it like a cow.[/pullquote]

Lucky for fans, the wait for new material in any form might not be long. Wolf in White Van — which was longlisted for the National Book Award within 24 hours of its release — was at least partly the product of routine, and while its story evolved over time, adapting from multiple narrators to its lone storyteller, Darnielle says that it really came together out of habit. He explains that part of his day was missing after finishing Master of Reality.

“Writing happens before the idea happens,” he says. “I’m not even sure I had an idea until I’d been writing for a long time.”

He expounded on how satisfying it is to have another big project to work on, but also that he expects the Mountain Goats to start working on new music early next year, and after noting that he’ll often finish a song inside of a day, a new album might be closer than fans think.

“I’m always working on stuff. There have been books I’ve started and didn’t do anything with. There’s a ton of partial drafts here,” he says. “Right now I’m looking at some songs. I’m assuming that the Mountain Goats are going to get busy again next year. But yeah, I have visions for next year.”

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