#4: John Darnielle 2016

Obsessions, February 17, 2017

John Darnielle, frontman for the band The Mountain Goats and author of three books, describes the long and meandering backstory behind his novel Wolf in the White Van. Creative process is not something you can generalize, Darnielle observes, but arises from the particularities of the artist’s obsessions. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and religion and pop culture writer David Dark.


RESOURCES

  • John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van and Master of Reality
  • The Mountain Goats (band)
  • Judas Priest (band)
  • TRANSCRIPT

Intro

[music]

Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we celebrate the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.

Today we'll listen to John Darnielle’s talk about his creative process at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing. Hailed as the best storyteller in rock for his work as the frontman for the band the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle proved his storytelling prowess transcends genre, with his debut novel Wolf in White Van, a finalist for The National Book Award in 2014. To help introduce John Darnielle's session is his fellow 2016 Festival speaker, David Dark, author of several books including most recently Life's Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious. In addition to writing books and essays for publications including MTV, Pitchfork, and the Oxford American, Dark teaches at the Tennessee Prison for Women and Belmont University, where he's assistant professor for religion and the arts at the College of Theology.



Conversation

[music, phone ringing]

David Dark: [00:1:17] Can you hear me?

Lisa: I can hear you.

David: I forget that this is possible.

Lisa: [laughs] Where have we found you this morning?

David: You have found me doing a lot of grading and looking over my notes from the John Darnielle talk and just contemplating him as a person who is doing a really righteous work, it seems to me. I’m amazed all over again by him, lately.

Lisa: When did you first discover John Darnielle?

David: Oh here you go. There is a producer called John Vanderslice. Do you know the name John Vanderslice?

Lisa: I do know the name John Vanderslice.

David: I was driving somewhere, we used to have a great independent radio station called WRVU at Vanderbilt. It has been around since maybe the late '70s. It's gone now. But they would have had REM on in days when it mattered. They would have had so many interesting guests once upon a time. But I was listening to them and I heard this song and I realized that it was a song about David Lynch's film, Mulholland Drive.

Lisa: Right.

David: I think the song is called “Mulholland Drive,” but in addition to being a song, it was just a powerful and helpful response to that amazing film, which I think is just one of the best films ever. That would be a tangent.

Anyway, I hear it, and I google the lyrics to figure out who sang that song, and it was John Vanderslice. And then I start googling him, and I realize that he's a producer, maybe known as a producer as much as an artist. And I find that one reason he's known is this band called the Mountain Goats. I'm then looking at all these pictures of John Darnielle and interviews and it’s like, “Well now I guess I got to get into the Mountain Goats.”

And I have. Then the book comes, and Wolf in White Van is everything that I’m loving in the music in the form of an amazing novel. Who knew that he would commit this act of literature called the Wolf in White Van? So I’ve been deeply attentive to everything he puts out there ever since.

Lisa: Well, you use the word attentive, and I thought of a phrase that you often use, called, something you talk about, which is our “attention collections.” During John Darnielle’s talk at the Festival of Faith & Writing, which we’re about to listen to, when he was describing his creative process, which is something that he talks about in his lecture, being something that he doesn't really like to talk about, that he finds it difficult to kind of encapsulate. And instead, he gave a rather rambling but perfect overview of how he came to write Wolf in White Van, and it kind of captures, to my mind, what you talk about when you talk about how important art, what our attention collections are: the things that grab us.

Can you talk a little bit about both attention collections, what you mean by that, and also what you were thinking when you were listening to John Darnielle talk about this process?

David: [00:5:05] It’s a clumsy phrase, “attention collection,” but I think it really gets at this, it’s not just the call of the artist, but it is the summons of anyone who wants to exist sanely among other human beings. Find out what’s in there. Do your work. I think of Carolyn Forché’s line, “Open up the book of what happened.” And of course I can’t say this without thinking of the saying, which I probably quote to every class, and almost every time I speak publicly, a saying attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, it’s from the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”

You have to find out where you’ve got hurt. You’ve got to find out how it came to be this way you're feeling right now. So his rambling presentation. Absolutely. He talked about obsessions. He said that he had been obsessed for most of his life with what is referred to as the “Judas Priest Trial” and specifically, the two folks—I have it in my notes, I have their names—James Vance and Raymond Belknap. These were the two men who attempted suicide, one succeeded and one didn’t, after just dealing with, as John Darnielle puts it, the pressure of your own, trying to make sense of your relationship with your own parents, trying to find a safe space. He said it really beautifully because he even described their love of music, their conversations, as trying to find a headspace that they could live in, right? So again, this attention collection. This is trying to have an emotional life that you can comfortably reside in. So he looked at that tragedy, news of that tragedy came to him when he was dealing with his own tragedies. He said, you know, sometimes you have obsessions that you can visit in song, and other times you have obsessions that you visit through something longer. And it seems that the novel is his own chewing over, his own creative process concerning an obsession.

I think of a line, sorry, I keep rambling here, and I’m not gonna be able to figure out who said this, somebody once said, “Write what will take your breath away if you don’t write about it.” That’s your goal. I say that to my students I say it to myself when I’m trying to figure out what I could try to write that I would be able to get published by someone, but write what would take your breath away if you don't write about it. And he just gave us this amazing sort of thumbnail sketch of, not only his song writing process, but his own process of being social, of lifting his own voice, and lifting the voices of others.

[music]

Lisa: Thanks so much for talking with us about that time at the Festival.

David: Thank you!



Session

[music]

Lisa: And now, here’s John Darnielle on creativity at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing. A note for our listeners: This recording does include content and strong language that might not be suitable for children.

[applause]

John Darnielle: [00:8:53] This is a profoundly underprepared talk, and that’s partly by design when I saw what I was to be talking about, which is essentially, I’m going to ramble a lot, I just warn you on this. When you are, when I say you, I mean me, when a new album is coming out, you go into promotional season. And they start setting up interviews, phone interviews. I hate talking on the phone, and have all my life. There’s worse problems to have, but still I wind up on the phone for three hours a day for a couple weeks and get really cranky. And you get these pet questions, whoever you are, that people ask of you. The one they ask me is, “Tell me about your creative process.” I don’t understand this question, and I will never understand this question because, you know, if you're asking what I work with, it’s one of these [holds up paper] and a pen.

But I think, it’s a question that I think comes from a noble place, trying to understand how the stuff that winds up attempting to bear meaning gets made. But I don’t know that you can ask it in a general sense, about a person or how they make things. I don't know if that it’s a meaningful question per se.

But it’s one of those things that, if you hear it enough times, well, I like to compare to when you apply for a job, right? And they ask you, a lot of the time, “Why do want this job?” And you want to jump over the desk and strangle them and say, “Because I need money. Because I need a goddamn job.” Right? And you know, it’s an insulting question. It’s like, “Why would you ask me that? I’m here, isn't that proof enough that I want the job?” It’s one of those where you can really, if you get into an obsessive frame of mind—am I talking too loud, is that OK? I worry about over-talking—If you get into an obsessive frame of mind about it, you can actually take the question to some interesting places, and then wind up criticizing yourself for being angry about it in the first place, because you have wound up having some productive thoughts about it.

That’s where I’m at today because I think about the book. And I’m working on another book. When you get to the end of a process like that, you start to ask how you got there. It’s kind of inexplicable. You know, you want to say, “You’d have to be me to understand.” There’s a line in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens where Jacob Marley, the ghost, appears to Scrooge and threatens him with his chains, and Scrooge is very skeptical and says, “You might be an undigested bit of beef.” Meaning, maybe I ate something and I’m seeing a ghost. This is also the case with the creative process. You can get irritated with something and, as a means of sort of expressing irritation, wind up going someplace interesting.

This is an aside, but in my music there’s a whole series of songs, “Going to blank”: “Going to California,” “Going to Morocco,” going to wherever. These songs just started as a way of making fun of my peers in high school, because in California, and probably everywhere, when you’re younger, any problem this local seems specific to where you're from instead of general to the human condition. And all these people I grew up with, especially if they'd been to Europe or New York would come back to Claremont and go, “Oh I hate it here. I can’t wait to go back to New York.” And I would go, “You know you're going to bring your problems to New York, because it’s not like people in New York are full of perfect people or anything.” And I’d start writing these songs to make fun of that urge to flee where you’re from and romanticize the place that you're going to. But it became a productive thing because eventually you go some place yourself and you end up fleeing.

At any rate I want to talk about Wolf in White Van and how we get to this character. If you haven’t read the book and you care about spoilers, that’s cool, but I don't care about spoilers at all. I don't care what you know going into the book, going ahead of it. It is a book of reveals, but I don't think it really matters if you know them ahead of time. Partly this is me reading my own biases to the question because I’m extraordinarily forgetful, so if you spoil everything for me, five minutes later I have no recollection of you telling me so I am spoiler immune. But if you think you might read the book and you don't wanna know how the guy got to be the way he is, put your earplugs in and I’ll talk to you after the talk.

[00:13:37] So in 1981, a couple of young men, a guy name James Vance and Raymond Belknap in Nevada were having their normal sort of day, which involved drinking a lot of beer. Neither of them were old enough to drink beer, but they did. This is scandalous. [laughter] Drinking beer, smoking weed, and listening to what then counted as heavy metal, what now we would think of as hard rock, so Iron Maiden, the Scorpions, maybe earlier classic ones like Rainbow and UFO, and most notably for our purposes Judas Priest.

Judas Priest was one of the bigger of the arena metal bands at the time. They make melodic, fast for the time, not at all fast now, heavy metal. They, on an earlier record, covered a Joan Baez song, memorably. But these guys came from lower-middle class homes, and broken homes, with step-fathers instead of fathers, and struggled as many other adolescent men do, and women, to communicate with their parents, to reach some sort of understanding. That’s normal, but their homes weren’t nourishing to them, and neither was their environment or their culture and so they were doing, as we all do, and creating a culture of their own to participate in. But theirs was delineated by feelings of alienation and a lot of drugs, like myself at the time, but a different sort of thing.

They had access to firearms. So after a long day of arguing with their parents and yelling and listening to really loud music and getting into the headspace they liked, they went to a playground. And in the documentary that exists about these young men, the one who died said to the one who didn’t, “I sure fucked my life up.” They had a rifle with them and both of them shot themselves. One died instantly, the other did not. His parents, desperate to find some sense of meaning in this incomprehensible loss, and I want to say, sometimes people say, “Well you can only understand this if you are a parent,” but I think that if you ever had parents, you can imagine what it would be like to come home one day and find that all the terms by which you had lived your daily life are now changed.

The one who survived, his parents desperate to find some meaning in this, sued Judas Priest. It’s okay to laugh about that because that’s funny. It’s sad that this thing happened, but it is absurd to imagine that a rock band from Birmingham, England could somehow reach into a young man’s brain and cause him to do something so incomprehensible. But they did. They sued Judas Priest, and it was during a time in the ’80s called the “Satanic Panic.” If you don’t know about this, there was a time when this whole, and this is a different talk that I would love to come back and give, when this whole post-Miltonic idea of Satan as some creature who’s actually more powerful than God, because God can’t make you respond, but Satan somehow can get inside your brain and make you do things you don't actually want to do that goes against your nature, which would make Satan a really remarkable creature for whom I find no biblical support whatsoever. [laughter] Anyway, but this post-Miltonic idea of Satan was pretty popular in American evangelical circles in the ’80s. And there was this idea that Satan, through his chosen emissaries, the rock bands, was inserting backwards messages into music. There were conflicting ideas about how this happened. One said that the rock bands were in on the con, that they were Satan worshippers and that they were doing this on purpose. But the one that I like better is the one that says Satan was just sort of somehow worming into the process through mysterious magnetic particles or whatever and influencing them to say something, that when you play it backwards, will send a message, that then will get into your brain when you listen to it, not by you playing it backwards, but through this mysterious, again undocumented, spiritual process of a forwards thing getting into your brain and your brain somehow makes backwards sense of it.

[00:18:14] There are, I should comment, just as an aside, there are people who believe in this process but do not see any religious thing in it who think that your brain can actually spell something out, that it hears backwards and that you can absorb that message. My favorite one of these I think right now—well there’s two. There’s one that if you play “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards it’s supposed to say, “Decide to smoke marijuana.” I really love the verb “decide” there. [laughter] It doesn’t say anything about whether you should act on that decision. It’s a very metaphysical thing. And the other one was during Obama’s first campaign for president. These guys came out of the woodwork, these backward masking guys, that the devil was working through the candidate. And in his acceptance speech in Chicago, you can look this one up on YouTube, they insisted that he was saying, “Thank you, Satan” over and over and over again. So they play it backwards for you, and of course it says [garbled] “Thank you Satan.” But if you listen to that enough it’s kind of scary. It can get into your blood.

[laughter]

So, all that is background. So these James Vance and Ray Belknap shoot themselves on a playground in Reno, Nevada in 1981. At this time, young John Darnielle is going to high school and does not know who he wants to be. He lives in an abusive house, and his sense of self is pretty plastic. That’s me I’m talking about. I don’t know who I am going to be. I’m not cool, and I’m scrawny. I can’t fight, and I’m not interested in sports, except for boxing, which I can only enjoy, well, and professional wrestling, which I can only enjoy as a spectator. I can’t really participate. I have been moved around a lot as a child. I still miss my birth house and my father at this time. I’m going to high school. There are 900 people at my high school, and I’m afraid I’m going to be destroyed.

I absolutely intend to take drugs as soon as I get the chance, but I don’t as of yet have the chance. But I see the kids in the parking lot across the parking lot, in the park that’s not part of the school but that you can go to from the school at your off periods. Claremont High at this point in time is on what’s called a modular system of classes, which means that even if you're 14, you can design your own schedule to have a free 90 minutes or whatever which makes a big difference once you get a car when you’re 16. But across the parking lot you can hang out with the kids in the denim jackets and the feathered hair and the alligator clips in their hair, which are roach clips for holding the small end of a joint with once it would burn your fingers. I’m not one of these kids, but I am taking up smoking and so I go hang with them and listen to them talk about the music that they like, which is Ozzy and the Scorpions and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. And I am orbiting them in a weird sort of way.

It’s cool, anybody can hang out up there, but I’m not really one of their number. I like to listen to old Genesis records. I’m getting into Lou Reed, but I want to understand the music they like. And I also have a next door neighbor named Shaun Dobey at this time, who I’ve known since before the camps were dividing as sharply as they start to in high school. I’ll go over to Shaun’s house and he will play me some Maiden or some Scorpions and we’ll talk about ways to communicate and we’ll smoke cigarettes in his mom’s garage because his mom has learned you pick your battles with your kids, and if your 14-year-old is smoking cigarettes but he’s staying out of your hair then maybe you just go ahead and hope he quits smoking later.

So that’s where I’m at when these guys shoot themselves. I read about it in the paper. This is prior to cable coming to Southern California. Very short aside: cable came super late to Southern California because the movie studios and the TV studios were very powerful there. So when the rest of the world was entering into the 24 hour news cycle, we weren't having that in Southern California. TV was like four stations and UHF. UHF was a paradise of evangelicals and professional wrestling. It was the best thing ever. [laughter] So I’m not seeing this story on cable. I’m reading little tiny notices about the Judas Priest trial. I’m pretty interested. I know that they have brought Judas Priest to Nevada to testify in court, that they did not in fact attempt to cause their fans to kill themselves by putting backwards messages in their records. But I can only read this in one or two sentences. I’m in an information poor environment.

That is an important data point. When you have a lack of information, you make your own. I think this is an extraordinarily important step in the creative process. I try not to fret over the information rich environment we all live in presently. But I know that in the absence of knowing much about the trial, I thought about it a lot, and I made my own stories about it. Not sitting or writing them but you ask, “There’s an interesting thing going on. I wish I knew more about it.” But I don’t, and there’s no way of finding out. So it just sort of festers. Like it’s an image that you carry. A couple kids shot themselves. They made Judas Priest come and say they didn't mean to kill those kids. That’s all I know.

Time passes and passes. Metal becomes much more extreme. Judas Priest is no longer really a heavy metal band in any sense of the word because the growth in metal is much louder and faster and much more open Satanic stuff. There’s a band from France called Antaeus that puts out a record called “Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan.” That’s the way that metal goes. It goes into these much more extreme places. Judas Priest is pretty quaint in comparison to these guys. I go through a metal phase and then rap explodes and I get super into that, and I’m transcribing NWA lyrics on a typewriter. Then I start writing songs, and they're indie rock songs and that’s its own sort of environment, and that’s where I go. And that’s where I’m at when I wind up in Colo, Iowa.

Colo is a town I like to say had 773 people when we lived there and 771 now. It is a railroad stop. Nobody really moves to Colo on purpose. If you grow up there, then you stay there. If you can’t afford to live in Ames, next door, then you live in Colo. Our house cost 275 dollars a month. The city couldn't convince our landlords to make repairs on it, so the city bought the house from our landlords in order to knock it down. That’s how we wound up moving to Ames.

[00:24:57] And that’s where I’m living when, on a 56-kilobit-per-second connection, I start to get curious about the Judas Priest kids. I remember hearing there was a documentary made about it. But internet connections are slow so all I can see are these gruesome images of the survivor kid from this documentary that does not circulate. It’s not on VHS. It’s probably out there on someone’s tour bus at that point, but I’m not on a tour bus.

But I’m thinking about these kids from time to time, not obsessively but every once in awhile if I listen to Judas Priest or if I listen to any speed metal from the ‘80s. I’m thinking, yeah well there’s two kids. Wow. That’s heavy. And I’m also getting letters from people to whom my music is meaningful. And you start to navigate these sorts of pathways that when somebody says, “Well I listen to this song and this is what I take from it,” and you want to go, “Well it’s not up to me to enforce a reading on you, but that’s not what I meant.” It’s a weird thing to start navigating and you start thinking about Judas Priest. Or you think about the guy who shot John Lennon. These people who take messages that weren’t there into strange places and whether they actually did that or whether that’s the way the people around them explain incomprehensible behavior.

That’s where I am making what sense I can of small bits of information. My notes say to go back now to earlier childhood. When I was four, before the divorce, I was in love with Judy Garland because I saw the Wizard of Oz, and it knocked me over. I thought it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I announced to my mother that I was going to marry Judy Garland, and it was her sad duty to tell me that Judy Garland was dead. Of course the Judy Garland that was dead for me was 10 year old Judy Garland, not the grown woman. But tied up with Judy Garland was this image of Kansas, the mythical country of Kansas. I had been born in Indiana but was moved to California before I was fully conscious when I was a year old. So I had a sort of lost terrain, a sort of Xanadu. Indiana. Y'all know where it is, it’s just over the border. But for me it was like the Moon or Oz.

It was this place that I knew I was from, this place where I had first seen light about which I knew nothing and could know nothing except that my mother and my father had been young and in love there and about a year later they divorced, and Indiana becomes even more of a mythical place for me. As does Kansas where Dorothy Gale, in the Wizard of Oz is from. I have this idea of Kansas, and I’ve never seen it. I can read about it in the world book, but I’m a child. There’s no internet. All I can know about Kansas is the tiny, tiny bit you might hear about Kansas growing up in central California in the ’70s, which is nothing. There’s no reason for anybody to be talking about Kansas.

So I’m carrying this place, it’s sort of a hidden place in my heart for years, not thinking about it, not dwelling on it, not sitting down and saying well what do I think about Kansas. If you ask me about my creative process in Kansas, I say, “Well I had a loose thought about Kansas.” When I start touring, I go there. As it turns out, Kansas, like absolutely any other place in the world, is just another place where people live and work and love and die. But a place you haven’t been is a place of infinite possibility and potential.

[00:28:36] So I have these things in my mind, and I make a living in music, and I have these obsessions, some of which I’m able to visit in song, and some of which seem bigger than a single song can really address. I write a book about Black Sabbath, called Master of Reality, that leans on some experiences that I had in my 20s taking care of adolescents in locked psychiatric facilities. When they would get there, the first thing our job would be to do, would be to take their clothes and possessions away and put them in a robe, ostensibly to protect them from themselves. I disagree strongly with this process. But it’s what they do, presumably so that they won’t hurt themselves. But with the adolescents we worked with in the mid to late ’80s, we would take their Walkmans and tapes away because a lot of the nurses and doctors bought into this idea, that the music they were listening to for comfort might actually harm them. I did what I could with this idea because I was 22 and I would say, in a private moment, “I’d get fired if you mention this to people, but this music is fine. There’s really nothing, music’s not going to hurt you.” Because it’s so important to an adolescent who’s rootless to have some experience of transcendence, of art.

So, I had all these experiences, and I write this book, Master of Reality, the first half of which is an adolescent in a locked ward writing to his therapist, asking for his Black Sabbath tapes back and the second half of which is the same person years later writing to his therapist to explain, “I got sent to a state hospital, and it fucked me up.”

This opened some ideas for me about the way, the many ways, that we relate to single touchstones of art and music. When I finished the book, it felt like such a triumph. It’s a very short book, but writing any book is difficult. It’s like climbing a mountain, a big mountain, where you go, at some summit, you go, “Wow, this seems like I’ve come a long way. If I turned around now it'd still feel like I accomplished something.” When you get to the top, you can’t even remember the previous summit. It’s like it’s distant history.

So I finished it. I handed it in. I had been so enjoying working on the book every day, that I just opened up another document. I use this process called “Melel” that is really interference free. It’s like using a typewriter, which is what I learned on. So I just opened up another document. I didn't have anything in mind at all. But I had been writing a lot about music, and I have all these images about Kansas and of the park on the other side of the parking lot at Claremont high and of some disfigured guy whose parents have sued Judas Priest. There was a documentary made about it, as I say, but I couldn’t see it. I only knew about it. I knew that in it the disfigured boy speaks at length on his own behalf. I may have seen a clip or two of it. But in the absence of actual hard information, I have to make up the story myself. And I just started typing.

They you're supposed to write what you know. When I was a young writer, I resisted this idea with bone and blood. I wanted to write about what I wanted to write about, not being a kid in Claremont. But I'm older now so I started writing about kids in Claremont because that is what was going to make it flow. And I wrote about a bunch of kids sitting around a parking lot smoking cigarettes and listening to Judas Priest and listening to the Scorpions and listening to Rainbow and listening to Ozzy. And the chapter went along, and I didn't really know where I was going. I was just writing this scene that had a number of these touchstone images, that again, I haven't been obsessing on or cultivating, just taking note of, just knowing what seems interesting to me.

And I wrote about 3,000 words. And at the end of it, the narrator wound up at his house, and he had a brief conversation with his mother, and he went into his room and he shot himself in the face. And I thought, well, that’s a terrible short story. This is not a good short story at all. I didn't know what to do with it. It was just killing time. I’d been writing the Black Sabbath book every day and now I didn't want to not work, so I wanted to be working.

[00:33:00] So, I finished that, and I said, “What can I do with that?” I wrote a bunch of other chapters where his father spoke and his chaplain spoke and where an imaginary figure from his past spoke. But they didn't really seem to be going any place. I asked myself, “Well OK, wait. If he is still alive, what does he do for a living?” He can’t really work retail, I don’t guess. He’s terribly disfigured. Theoretically, he could be employed there, but I don’t feel like, if your face is this sort of face that this surviving kid from the Judas Priest documentary has, probably a position in the public sphere is not something you’re going to seek out, unless you get to a really heavily healthy place, which this kid isn’t.

I was on an airplane changing planes and looking for magazines to read, and it was an international flight. And I’ve read that month’s issue of Harper’s and The Atlantic that we bourgeoisie types read, and I’m looking at the other, cooler stuff, stuff about fantasy games, a game called Warhammer. It’s like D and D without all the heavy sort of plotting. You just sort of go to war, right? [laughs] There’s all these little figurines, orcs carrying hammers and stuff like that. There was a Warhammer magazine, I just bought it in this changing airport. Why not? I need something to read.

And I thought, well, maybe my dude is game designer of some kind. But I didn't want it to be video games. I wanted it to be something he could do in isolation. So I imagined you maybe can play a game through the mail. As it turned out, when I started doing research later, there were a few of these back in the day. At the time, I was just sort of guessing. I was doing what people do, asking a question. What’s he do for a living? How does he make any money? Did he sue somebody? Well, we know the Judas Priest trial did not end up with Judas Priest having to pay these kids. So, no. He has to make a little bit of money somehow or another. So I had this play this mail game. Then I had to write the rules of the game. And that’s where the entire book went.

My point, if I have one, is that your creative process, mine anyway, isn’t something I can track, or describe, as generality. For specific instances I can tell you how something came into being. But I think that what this tells me is a thing that I also resisted very strongly as a young man, that creativity is self-expression. I really didn't want to hear that when I was younger. I didn't want to hear that anything I make tells you something about me. I wanted to say, look, I can inhabit a narrator and method act that guy, and it has nothing to do with me. I want to say that. This is why some old songs from my catalog, I no longer want to perform because I say, “Well I don't like that person or what he stands for.” But I’m not willing to claim anymore an absolute separation from that character. All I can do is not write that kind of stuff anymore. I do think that all writing, eventually, inviolably, is self-expression. What that tells you about what you write might be good or bad. It might be flattering or unflattering. But I think it comes from the stuff inside you. I think it would be literally impossible to write something that doesn't tell somebody about yourself, which is what Wolf in White Van also is eventually about.

That’s what I’ve got. Thank you.

[applause]

Outro

[music]

Lisa: [00:36:50] Special thanks to John Darnielle. His next book, Eternal Harvester, is slated to release in just over a month. You can follow him on Twitter @mountain_goats. Thanks also to David Dark. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidDark.

Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith and Writing on the campus of Calvin College and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, John Brown, Sadie Burger, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Jose, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Deb Visser, and Jane Zwart.

You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu and if you're into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we’re doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful. Also, we’ve got 26 years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio. If you’ve been at some of these Festivals and have a favorite session or two that you’re especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at ffw@calvin.edu and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.

Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel. Back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.