“Universal Harvester” has a notable ‘90s aesthetic. Courtesy Picador

John Darnielle discussed music, recent novel

John Darnielle’s book reading for “Universal Harvester” detailed his personal relationship with writing to a large attendance.

The turnout to John Darnielle’s book reading was large — perhaps larger than Magic City Books was expecting. By the time I showed up, the Algonquin Room, in which the event took place, was full. Devoid of seating, I decided to stand in the back. I counted 52 heads within the room and at least half that funneled toward the front of the store by the end of the night, all craning their heads to see Darnielle.

John Darnielle is a novelist, known for his gripping debut, “Wolf in White Van,” which was nominated for the National Book Award, and his recent, chilling sophomore follow-up, “Universal Harvester.” Both novels are “New York Times” bestsellers. He is also known for fronting the folk band the Mountain Goats since 1991 and recording 16 studio albums. It isn’t fair to say he’s just a part of the band, however, as Darnielle pretty much is the Mountain Goats.

His new novel, set in Iowa in the ‘90s, is a sort of horror-mystery involving a video store in which some tapes came back with new, cryptic footage interpolated over the film. The characters of the story take it upon themselves to figure out what’s going on.

He opened the night by reading us a short, comedic sample from a book he’s currently reading, remarking that he never reads living authors. The book, whose name either I missed or he didn’t provide, comes from 17th-century England and, according to Darnielle, is from where we have most of our biographical information on Shakespeare. He then read an enticing sample from “Universal Harvester” before the discourse began, between himself and Tulsa Literary Coalition founder Jeff Martin.

Of course, the first bits of discussion related to the Mountain Goats, with the band being such a central presence in Darnielle’s life. I doubt anyone was there that hadn’t heard of them. Still, in the context of Darnielle’s life, the band actually took a while to take off and become its own entity.

“I really don’t wanna impose on anybody,” Darnielle explained to a laughing crowd, eliciting an image of a solitary artist, DIY-recording songs by themselves. This didn’t stray far from the truth, but Darnielle had his foot in the music industry early on. He wrote four album reviews a month — pretty good money at the time, according to him — and had an early website and zine that he curated. Eventually, he was invited to write an entry in the “33 ⅓” series of books, a sort of multi-genre series that looks at various albums from different perspectives. His was a fictional story regarding Black Sabbath’s “Masters of Reality.”

From there, his future agent contacted him, telling him he liked what he’d read and would be interested in reading more of Darnielle’s work. Eventually, his agent sold the first six chapters of what would become “Wolf in White Van,” making Darnielle “obligated” to finish the novel, as he put it.

“Universal Harvester” takes some stylistic departure from its predecessor notably in the more relaxed prose style. Darnielle waned the new novel to be less “pyrotechnic” than “Wolf in White Van.” The latter was gripping, filled with a latent anxiety in such a manner that Darnielle admits he “didn’t want you to put that book down.”

“Universal Harvester,” being more outlined and meticulous than his previous novel, is his work at a more mind-prodding, thoughtful piece.

As for his process, Darnielle stressed immediately that he hated hearing someone else read his work out loud. He figured if it had any business being read aloud within earshot of him, it was he who would be doing the reading. He also has a small circle of people with whom he shares his unpublished work, namely his wife, who gets to read everything he writes.

“Fiction is where I live,” Darnielle declared later in the night. “I’m always working stuff; I always work.” He meant this not solely in a literary sense, as his songs often take a narrative form as well, almost each one forming as a story, fictional or not.

But of all his stories, “Wolf in White Van” is the first to have been adapted as a screenplay and successfully sold to a studio, namely Sundance Labs. Darnielle has no creative control over any prospective film once it begins production, if it begins production, but he assures us that a very high percentage of screenplays sold to
Sundance Labs are brought to the big screen.

“Books are so superior to film,” he assured us, adding, “You can’t even quantify it.”

After the discussion, the floor opened to a Q&A, the first several questions of which related to Darnielle’s experience with tabletop RPG games, a point he mentioned briefly within the previous discussion. Beyond that, he was asked if his past experience working at mental health clinics had helped to inspire some of his characters.

Darnielle admitted that his characters were certainly worthy of a stay in a mental health clinic, but that during his time working at one, he never got into the patients’ heads to learn what made them tick. Being a nurse, he merely made a treatment plan and went through with it.

A few other questions related to his songwriting.

“I write songs all the time, I could write them in a warzone,” Darnielle assured the crowd, telling us that it took him between one and four hours to get a feel on a new song.

In response to a question regarding his word choice, Darnielle said, “I write sentences. Some people don’t write sentences, they write stories, and they get a lot of help getting their sentences together.” This is something of a battle in the literature scene, between prose and plot, and it is most preferable for an author like Darneille to synthesize the two pieces, in turn creating an authentic piece of literature.

Darnielle ended the night by recounting his experience recording the audiobooks for his novels, claiming, “It was days and they’re long days,” and by assuring us he would never write an album to release alongside a novel, as “it would feel like a gimmick.”

“Universal Harvester” and “Wolf in White Van” are available from Picador in paperback now, and the Mountain Goats’s music can be found on any major music retail or streaming service.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker