Two tightly packed bookshelves hug opposite walls in John Darnielle’s spare, sunlit writing office in East Durham, N.C. They hold, he says, all the books he can no longer fit in his home. Atop the smaller sit two volumes with a hallowed reputation in geek lore: Gary Gygax’s Monster Manual and Don Turnbull’s Fiend Folio, both reference guides loaded with drawings of fantastical beasts for use in Gygax’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game. Darnielle got the books a couple of years ago as gifts from comic book writer Matt Fraction after a reading at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore. Just the sight of even one of these books could fill the most grizzled old gamer with envy.
Darnielle is best known as the singer and songwriter behind the cult indie rock phenomenon the Mountain Goats, but on February 7, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will release his second novel, Universal Harvester, to considerable buzz—including a number of anticipated books lists and a starred review in Publishers Weekly. His first novel, Wolf in White Van, was published by FSG in 2014 and longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction that year. It follows the story of Sean Phillips, the disfigured and withdrawn inventor of Trace Italian, a text-based role-playing game that’s played through the mail. It was during the time he was working on his first novel, Darnielle says, that he first got into RPGs, which he now plays weekly with a group of friends. And like everything else Darnielle is passionate about, he waded in deep.
Bending over his writing desk, Darnielle opens a drawer, pulls out a black drawstring bag, and from it pours dozens of multi-colored gaming dice onto the desktop. Picking up a particularly pointy die and rolling it around in his fingers, he explains its idiosyncrasies. “Lou Zocchi is a guy who runs a company called Gamescience,” he says. “You can find videos online of Zocchi at conventions explaining why most dice are garbage—and it's because they tumble to make them look cool. And they do look cool, and they feel nice in your hand, but they don't give you a random roll. If you can tumble something, then the edges are uneven. Now roll that one.” When rolled, the sharp-edged Zocchi die doesn’t roll, exactly; it bounces, then drops. Darnielle nods: “You know that was a true roll.”
Darnielle clearly relishes in specifics. He remembers which comics series he subscribed to as a teenager in California in the 1970s: Power Man and Iron Fist, for one, and The Hulk, although he tapped out when Hulk began speaking in first person. He remembers the writers and artists he and his friends preferred—Marv Wolfman and George Perez over Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, to his chagrin. He remembers the specific store, Future Dreams in Portland, in which they first discovered that the comics writers from the stables of their beloved Marvel Comics wrote for DC Comics, which they decried as “garbage,” as well.
His memory for details serves him well as a songwriter who has been called “rock’s best storyteller” by Rolling Stone and “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist” by The New Yorker, and whose fans once petitioned the Obama White House to name him the Poet Laureate of the United States. It serves him, too, as a novelist—perhaps especially so in his sophomore novel.
Universal Harvester is centered around the Video Hut, a video rental store in the tiny town of Nevada (that’s nuh-VAY-duh), Iowa, in the late 1990s. There, the disaffected longtime clerk, Jeremy Heldt, discovers a number of unnerving scenes of film spliced onto the store's otherwise-normal rented VHS tapes. Movies such as She’s All That and Targets, once utterly normal, are suddenly intercut with grainy shots of people in a dark barn with canvas hoods over their heads, or a young woman running in the night on a gravel driveway abutting a cornfield.
When the twenty-something Jeremy—who still lives with his father, and whose mother died in a car crash when he was 16—begins to reluctantly investigate, the clues point toward a farmhouse in the neighboring town of Collins. Jeremy’s boss at the Video Hut, Sarah Jane, is on board with the investigation at first. But once she befriends Lisa Sample, the farmhouse’s sole occupant, Sarah Jane becomes harder and harder to track down, and Jeremy is forced to turn to a local schoolteacher, Stephanie Parsons, for help. Once their inquiries begin to overlap with Lisa’s personal history, Jeremy and Stephanie are forced to reckon with how the improbable events that affect the lives around you “have form, and shape, and weight, and meaning.”
The setting is something of a return trip for Darnielle, who lived in Iowa for just under a decade before moving to Durham with his wife, Lalitree, in 2003. While there, he worked at a number of health care jobs—most notably as a psychiatric nurse—and on a grain elevator, recording Mountain Goats albums in his spare time.
All the while observing, remembering, readying his stories.
John Darnielle (that’s Dar-NEEL) was born in Bloomington, Ind., in March 1967, the son of an English professor and librarian turned full-time mom. They didn’t stay long. Darnielle and his younger sister were living in San Luis Obispo, Calif., where his father landed a job at California Polytechnic, when their mother filed for divorce. Darnielle was five. His mother remarried a family friend shortly after, a diabetic hospital pharmacist with Marxist sympathies and a violent streak who beat her and John. By the time Darnielle graduated from high school, he was using drugs intravenously—first heroin, later methamphetamine—with assistance from his stepfather’s insulin needles.
Throughout, Darnielle wrote, starting on a Royal typewriter his mom gave him for his seventh birthday. According to a profile in New York magazine, he was writing poetry and submitting short stories to science-fiction magazines by the time he was in 7th grade. He loved listening to music, reading comics and sci-fi and fantasy magazines, and watching local professional wrestling. The through-line was clear: John Darnielle loved a good story. He loved escaping into the worlds that those stories made.
Darnielle’s childhood and adolescence have taken on a mythical status for Mountain Goats fans, thanks in no small part to the group’s ninth studio album, The Sunset Tree, which details the struggles of living in an abusive household and falling prey to addiction. It’s skillfully emotional storytelling, and one track in particular, “Dance Music,” summarizes nearly two wretched decades in two minutes of pop.
After high school, Darnielle moved to Portland, then a junkie Mecca. Once he’d kicked the habit, he ended up back down in California, working as a psychiatric nurse technician at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk in the early 1990s. It was then that he began recording music, straight to cassette, via a Panasonic RX-FT500 Boombox that has become infamous among fans. From a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song, “Yellow Coat,” he took the name Mountain Goats, and by 1994, he had released the group’s first studio album, Zopilote Machine, the first in a prolific career. To date, the Mountain Goats have recorded 15 studio albums, among a few dozen other releases, with a 16th due later this year.
The same year his first album dropped, Darnielle began corresponding with a fan on the Internet. That fan, Lalitree, would later become his wife. A few years after their first correspondence, he moved from the California coastline to the Iowa corn to be with her. That’s where the seeds for Universal Harvester first took root—though it would take him a couple decades to put that story to paper.
Darnielle’s first published book was not a novel but, rather aptly, a work of genre-bending music criticism—a meditation on Black Sabbath's Master of Reality as heard through the ears of a fictional adolescent inpatient at a southern California psychiatric center in 1985. The book, published by Continuum in 2008 as part of its 33⅓ series, was represented by Chris Parris-Lamb at the Gernert Company, and after Darnielle finished, Parris-Lamb mentioned that he’d be happy to shop around any other manuscripts Darnielle may come up with.
“The day that I turned in Master of Reality, I’d been working on it so long that it felt weird not to be working on anything, so I started typing something up, and it was what became the last chapter of Wolf in White Van,” Darnielle says. “I just started typing it up and it ended with a guy shooting himself and I said, 'Well, that’s not a good story.’ So then I wrote a bunch of other chapters with no direction at all, and they were all by different narrators. I still have some—a fair number of them I use for scratch paper now. But it wasn’t going anywhere, and so I didn’t finish it, and then Chris wrote and said, ‘Hey, no hurry, but if you had something you want to show to people, just a reminder that I’m here,’ and I went, ‘Oh, yeah, I was working on a thing. Give me a couple of weeks to bang it into shape and show it to you and you can tell me if you think it’s any good.’”
The book it became was, in fact, good enough to get longlisted for the NBA. Darnielle was shocked at the nod, to say the least.
For Darnielle’s editor, FSG v-p and executive editor Sean McDonald, hearing that the book—which went on to sell roughly 55,000 print copies, according to NPD BookScan—was nominated for an award of such prestige felt momentous. “Not that it’s ever not a thrill, but it definitely felt like kind of special validation,” he says. “This is not a sideshow by a musician. This is real work for him, and real artistic expression.”
McDonald saw this ambition and ability in Darnielle early on. “When I first read 60 pages or so of Wolf in White Van, it was terrific to see how serious John was as a novelist, and how he could transfer that very compact song-length storytelling style into a different form,” he says, adding that he found Darnielle to be both confident in his direction while also collaborative and receptive to feedback. “He knows what he wants to do and he’s confident about the way he does it. He’s not in any way shy as a storyteller, or about taking any kind of risks, but he’ll definitely listen if I’m telling him something’s not working. And that’s kind of the best interaction with a writer.”
On an overcast, unseasonably warm January afternoon in downtown Durham, John Darnielle buys upwards of $50 worth of vinyl from Carolina Soul, a local record shop specializing in jazz, soul, and, to a lesser extent, hip hop. He points out the “fantastic” new A Tribe Called Quest album on the way in and leaves with, among others, a record by Long Beach, Calif.-based funk band War, who he and the clerk agree are one of the “best bands ever.” Loping back to his gray Mazda 3 at a lively, slightly stiff-legged pace, he spouts tidbits about the locale along the way—about the 200-something-year-old cobblestone road back behind the Durham Hotel near where he and his fellow Mountain Goats, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster, had their most recent promotional photos taken, and about the restaurant on top, the Durham, run by the James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing, who is married to Mac McCaughan, guitarist and vocalist of the Chapel Hill-native indie rock band Superchunk and co-founder, with Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance, of Darnielle’s latest label, Merge Records, with whom he’s put out music since 2011. (Wurster also drums for Superchunk; Ballance and McCaughan spoke with PW in 2009 about their book Our Noise.)
Back at the car, which is littered with CDs, Darnielle mentions the Durham-based hip hop group Little Brother, whose 2003 album, The Listening, was a surprise hit among underground hip hop heads. Their 2005 release, The Minstrel Show, was supposed to be the group’s breakthrough, with fans of the jazzy, intellectual style of A Tribe Called Quest hoping that Little Brother could change the gangster rap paradigm that ruled the airwaves. “Instead, we got Jadakiss,” Darnielle notes—although, he adds, Jada did have a pretty good verse on a surprisingly great album recently. Once behind the wheel, he pops out the metal CD that had been in the drive and reaches for another, ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP. He skips the Jada track, instead queuing up a song featuring Kanye West, “THat Part,” and raps along as he drives back down Main Street to his office: “Quarter million, switchin' lanes, that part.”
Songwriting and fiction writing are two distinct parts of Darnielle’s life, and he seems to think of them as separate callings, and certainly gives each some distance from the other. He works on his fiction primarily in his office in East Durham. There are no guitars there on which to write songs; that work gets done at home. “With a novel, this is where I like to write best,” he says. “The light is one issue because I like to work in the morning. I come in and the sunlight, if the clouds aren’t there, will be hitting one part of the desk so hard that you can’t sit there, so I have to move around the desk as the day proceeds.”
Still, for fiction, he prefers the stillness of his office to home, where he has two young sons. “Ideally, I come in in the morning after the kids go to school, and if I can get enough done by the middle of the day, go back for lunch, and if I’m needed around the house I can just stay there. Sometimes I come back in the afternoon, but once you go home you tend to get stuck.”
He points to a bedroll he keeps between his desk and his larger bookshelf. “That’s why I have that futon, in case I need to take a rest,” he says, as he rolls two dice around in one hand. Later, he’ll exchange the dice for a fresh pair.
The writing process itself is different too. Even in his most expansive works of musical storytelling, songwriting is always more “performative” than fiction writing for Darnielle. Take Tallahassee, the first album the Mountain Goats dropped after being signed by the British indie label 4AD. A concept album, it tells a single story, the finale of a long line of Mountain Goats songs about an emotionally abusive, self-destructive couple. But it was nothing, Darnielle says, like writing a novel.
“Novels you have to outline,” Darnielle says. “I'm really into it—outlining is beautiful. But with this, it's really just writing a song involving these voices. It's role play.”
While Darnielle sees writing songs and writing novels as distinct enterprises, the musicians in John’s life aren’t surprised one bit by his ability to translate his yarn-spinning skills from one discipline to another. “He was born to do it, I’m sure,” Ballance says of Darnielle’s storytelling.
Wurster agrees. “The writing of the novels is just a continuation of what he’s been doing with his songs for all these years,” he says. “When you write songs, you’re trying to tell a story in hopefully no more than three and a half minutes, and I think this is a way for him to really dig in deeper and do much more in-depth character studies and descriptions and storytelling.”
Darnielle has been a reader as long as he’s been a listener, and writers including William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Raymond Carver, and C.S. Lewis have exerted their influence alongside musicians like Lou Reed and David Bowie. “Willa Cather’s probably the greatest of American writers, I expect,” he says. “But on the other hand, I was a giant Faulkner fiend when I was in high school. For that guy, time is like silly putty. That’s his whole deal: I get to do what I want with time, in order to get the most out of these stories and these characters.”
Darnielle, too, likes to play with time; linearity is of little interest to him as a storyteller. “I get restless,” he says, adding that “I am finding out some way that I think about telling one’s own story and of storytelling generally, or the way that works for me.” That way is closer to Faulkner than Cather. Wolf in White Van begins, in a manner, with its ending; Universal Harvester skips back and forth through time as if it were a VHS tape being rewound and fast-forwarded.
“I envy the Willa Cathers who can go, ‘Look, my story can stand by itself,’” he says. “Cather is so non-pyrotechnic. She’s like Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s just the force of clear, lucid prose, and characters who have flesh on their bones. And that’s the stuff I read for inspiration. I want my characters to feel like they’re people.”
In Universal Harvester, Darnielle says, he has found the characters he seeks: “All those people feel real to me.”
Much of that is because Darnielle lived it. For two or three years, he and Lalitree were living in Colo, Iowa—then a city, he says, of 773 people—and would drive to the neighboring town of Nevada, where much of the book is set, to rent movies and, more frequently, videogames from the local video store.
“I started writing the book to talk about the experience, as I see it, of renting videos in Iowa being different from California, where the stores were different,” Darnielle says. “I think choosing to open a small business in Iowa that relies on return customers like that is a different choice than if you’re making it in a high-concentration place like Southern California. I started writing that, and when I reached a certain point of having written it, then I started asking questions [about the characters].”
Some answers came directly from his personal experience. For instance, Darnielle points to the book’s first chapter as an opportunity for him to write a scene that sounded like a conversation that a visitor to Iowa in the late 1990s might have overheard. “I wanted to capture the way that Iowa men talk to each other, or at least part of it,” he says. “There’s a specific sort of Iowan reserve in conversation that, if you’re new to it—especially if you’re me, if you’re from the West Coast and you’re a big talker anyway—it’s amazing to see.”
That discursive mode is perhaps best represented in an early conversation the book’s initial protagonist, Jeremy Heldt, has with a customer:
When he made conversation these days he sounded like a farmer at an auction waiting for the bidding to start.
“This one’s a real good one,” he said, tapping Best of Bass Fishing Volume Four. “They get smallmouth, they have to throw half of them back.”
“Ever get up to Hickory Grove?” Jeremy asked him. He had lived in Iowa all his life. Men in his family always talked about fishing.
“Used to. All the time,” said Bob. “We used to go out for bluegill in the winter.”
The salt-of-the-earth elements of the novel are deftly balanced with its eerier, more mysterious aspects, which are where Darnielle’s imagination, rather than life experience, comes into play. The novel’s narrative structure, as a result, is complex.
The book’s first part follows Jeremy’s investigations into the creepy scenes spliced onto the store’s after his customers at the Video Hut bring the oddities to his attention. Part two veers away from Jeremy’s story entirely, instead rewinding in time to focus on the childhood of Lisa Sample, who is abandoned by her mother at a young age after she joins the congregation of a traveling huckster preacher. A brief part three puts Jeremy back at the center of the story before part four jumps years into the future, when a family from out West purchases the Collins farmhouse once belonging to Lisa Sample and discovers, on their property, a peculiar collection of home-recorded VHS tapes.
The novel’s framework surprised even Darnielle: “I try not to know too well what’s driving me as I write,” he says. “Otherwise, why am I writing?”
But something at its center holds the disparate strands of story together. While the most obvious connecting theme here is film—even a young Lisa Sample heads to the movie theater in part two—perhaps the book’s core focus is on the tragedies that befall us: the death of one mother, the abandonment of the next.
“I feel like I sort of accidentally touched on something that’s more universal than I knew it was,” Darnielle says. “My immediate inspiration was my wife’s mom—the book is dedicated to her—who died at 59. And that’s really young. But so many interviewers wait until the end of the interview and then they tell me, ‘Hey, I lost my mother when I was young.’ The guy from Rue Morgue, I think it was—I don’t want to say this like I’m bragging or anything, but I was flattered and honored that he said, ‘I recognized Jeremy’s desire to not make that the whole center of his story. To just be living his life, and trying to find a place for honoring his truth and not being defined by it, but at the same time he and his dad were totally defined by it.’ The people who are missing, they’re always going to be missing. It’s hard to pave over that space. You never want to pave over that space.”
In some ways, that sense of loss and memorialization extends to the era in which the novel is set—the bygone age of the video store.“It’s not specifically grieving the video store, but grieving an era in which there were a lot of things that only people who have experienced them can know,” he says. “That’s true of any age—that no one who wasn’t there can understand it.”
One thing some readers may not understand is the book’s title, left unmentioned throughout its pages. It’s an actual company—they make combine harvesters and tractors. But leaving that question open, among others, is part of what draws Darnielle to fiction in the first place. “What I like in a mystery is enough satisfaction that nobody feels like they’ve been cheated,” he says. “But there can also be stuff that you don’t need to know. The writer has a good idea of what happened, but that’s not important to you in understanding the story, or its point.”
FSG has already signed Darnielle for two more novels, McDonald says. It also has plans to release a limited vinyl edition of the Harvester audiobook, with the author narrating and providing original instrumental music. Meanwhile, Darnielle has begun research for a potential new writing project. Its topic? Early medieval England.
“I'm casting my net around, is what I’m doing,” he says. “I was reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain a few years ago, and there's all these very short ones that not much is known about. And every once in a while a sentence will leap out at you and you’ll go, ‘Well, there must have been more of a story there.’ There's all kinds of really interesting little details strewn about, and I feel like there's a lot I want to do with that stuff.”
Novels about tabletop game designers, video shop clerks, and ancient British regents—not to mention albums about pro wrestling and the Christian Bible, or his well-documented support for reproductive rights. Darnielle’s interests are wide-ranging, his appetites unending. Restless by his own estimation, he’s seemingly unafraid to try it all, landing on his next project like a die dropped on the tabletop. “I just like to work,” he says. “People talk about the terror of the blank page, and knock wood, I have no idea what they’re talking about. I want to put stuff on the page.”
But if not the blank page, then what? What is John Darnielle—a man who’s faced child abuse and addiction, fatherhood and fame, crowds of cultish fans and bookstores filled to the brim—afraid of?
“You know how sometimes, there will be a hill, and there will be a guy coming over the other side of it—and he’s a big biomechanical warrior guy who’s half-human and half-machine, and he’s got a big bazooka-style gun, but he’s also got another gun strapped crossways on his back?” he asks. “That.”