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John Darnielle On Places Of Sustainment, Nourishment In ‘Universal Harvester'

Brandon Eggleston

John Darnielle is author of three books, including his latest novel, Universal Harvester, which is out now in paperback. His first novel, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for a National Book Award shortly after its 2014 release. His 2008 take on Black Sabbath's Masters of Reality as part of the 33 1/3 series, was not a critical assessment or personal essay about the author's experience with the music as most in the series are. Instead, it was a novella, the plot of which involved a young man attempting to retrieve a cassette player which holds his copy of the album.

Darnielle's humor column for Decibel magazine, "South Pole Dispatch," dared to meld humor with heavy metal. In addition to his books, he is leader of the band the Mountain Goats, sometimes serving as the project's sole member since its inception in the 1990s. Darnielle continues to write, record and tour with the band as well as co-hosting, I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, a podcast dedicated to the group's music.

Darnielle appears at Watermark Books on Tuesday, March 6, to read from and sign books. The event begins at 6 p.m.

Interview Highlights

Jedd Beaudoin: One of the things I'm struck by in Universal Harvester is the sense of place. I grew up in rural Michigan and so often people talked, not about direction, but about places and would give a whole family lineage when talking about how to get somewhere.

John Darnielle: My experience of the thing you're talking about begins in Iowa. I'm from California, my wife is from Iowa. We talk a lot, Californians do, but we have a different style. When we would go to anything with the family in Iowa, they would talk about where everybody wound up. They could carry on this conversation at great length without any indication of what people were doing for a living or how they were. "He went up to Storm Lake." "He's in Storm Lake now?" "Yeah, he's in Storm Lake." "As I remembered, he was out in Webster City." "Yes, he was, but you'll remember that he liked Storm Lake so much." They can do this for a long time.

As I learned in writing the book, the way that people talk about finding themselves on the map, where they live, is actually an act of devotion. It's an act of honoring the memory of people who are gone and of the places that sustained and nourished you. When you talk about it in that way — a very subtle and quiet way — indicates how you feel about it and how you want to preserve it.

I'm struck by the specific places you chose. You chose Iowa and California. But California is Diamond Bar, West Covina — places that are not destinations.

I grew up there, but I didn't grow up in one of the destinations. I grew up in Claremont. You can go to Claremont to go to college but other than that nobody goes to visit Claremont. I've always identified as someone who's not from a destination. When I would hear that somebody was from New York when I was a kid, I would say, "Wow! Really? That's wild!" To be from one of these places that people go to.

But I also love the names of the satellite California towns: Palm Desert, Diamond Bar, West Covina, Roland Heights. I worked in West Covina when I was 18-19 and then I did nursing training in Diamond Bar. When I was a young writer everybody would tell you to write what you know, which I would find frustrating because you want to go, "I'm 14. I don't want to write about being 14." If you have a sense of a place and you write about it, you will probably sketch it better than if you're just imagining it. Or differently anyway. So I'm always trying to anchor to places that I know.

Can you talk about finding the point of view for the novel?

It's kind of a floating POV and there's a big reveal that I don't want to want to go into about it. One of the things you're thinking about when you're studying literature in college is the idea that there's some neutral point of view in storytelling. That's an interesting thought but there really isn't any such thing. Somebody is telling this story. That's the case with every story ever told. That person probably has opinions about what's going on in the action and how they know what they know.

When I was six or seven one of the first things I figured out was that there was a voice telling the story and I wanted to know how it knew everything. You start asking about the story, wondering how he can know so much, how he can be so omniscient if he's not God? The narrator in the story kind of is god of the story, but even then most third-person narrators know more than anybody would generally know about stuff that went on. So, I was thinking about this stuff as I was writing about Iowa and these tapes.

But there's a break into first person. It was almost an accident. I was writing the sentence and it spilled out that way. I said, "Well, that's interesting. What's going on here?"

I'm also interested in these events that may or may not have occurred. There are these moments where we're told, "In a different version of this, it might have come out this way."

In part, it was a tonal thing. I was writing and I was showing my work in a way. When I'm writing, I will ask myself, "What happens next?" I want it to be something believable because I also think, "Well, any number of things can happen." You also think that about your own life and I suspect that this is, in part, a sort of cryptically autobiographical thing. I'm 50, I have two kids and you occasionally look around your life and think, "Well, here I am in this house in North Carolina. Where else might I have been?"

I didn't have to end up here, unless you believe in a really hard Calvinist model of destiny — a number of things, a number of things could have happened. Could have not left Iowa in 2003. Could have not left California in '95. You think of all your possible futures, and they sort of exist out there in the ether. I don't know about anybody else, but when I think about those dead futures that never happened, they're interesting. There are all kinds of detail in them that's imaginary and rich. Usually, none of it seems as inviting to me as the present day but there's a lot in there.

The narrative voice coming in and saying, "When I describe a house, how did you imagine it? Did you imagine it this way?" is so wonderful, in a way, because, so often in a novel, we're given these dense descriptions. Here, we have a voice that's saying, "How do you see it?"

Part of this has to do with Iowa. It's a big farm state. When you say "farm," there's a whole lot of the country that has a very romantic vision of what that might mean. When they envision a farm, they envision a happy family and some pigs and some horses and chickens. The teenagers have chores and whatnot. But we know, if we've actually lived in farming states, that what a farm looks like is actually quite different. A farm is a business.

I think that a lot when I think about when I think about the "flyover" states. My book before this, a lot of it, took place in Kansas. When people think about Kansas, they have preconceived ideas that I wanted people to get on the table when I said that. "When I say 'farmhouse,' what do you think I mean by 'farmhouse'; when I say, 'Kansas,' what do you think I mean by that?" If you just picture a field, that's not right. There's cities there with colleges in them.

That's something that, as a guy who lived in Iowa for the better part of a decade, I'm always wanting to tease out peoples' assumptions about places they haven't been.

Can you talk a little bit about the use of films and a video store in the telling of this story?

I love movies but I don't consider myself a big film nut. I like horror movies a whole lot. I was big into arthouse movies when I was in high school. It's one those things where, when I'm writing, I'm trying to root things in the real world. I was thinking, "When we lived in Iowa in '99, what did we do?" Well, there was a video store in Nevada, in the town next door. We lived in a town called Colo, which is a really tiny town up the road. We'd stop by this place and get a couple of movies for the weekend, especially if it was going to snow.

This was before broadband Internet was generally accessible. We had 56k plugged into the wall, but you didn't really spend your time looking at the Internet or streaming video.

Once I'd situated where the story was going to take place, I asked myself where my character worked. Who is he? What's he doing? Does he have a career? Does he have a job. My friend Darryl worked at a Blockbuster, so that made sense. Often, I just ask, "What would a person of that nature in that time and place do to make enough money for rent?"

I began to feel sentimental for my old small-town video store as I was reading.

I think the summer before last we were at the beach here in North Carolina and we saw a closed video store called Groovy Movies. We looked in the window and there were movie posters that had bleached from continual exposure to the sun over the last few years.

When we were all renting videos, we did not think of that as a brief window in time. We didn't think that we were going to places that we would have to explain to our children what they were. Whereas, for my kids, if I turn on the TV and they can't see the movie they want to see, they can't understand that.

That was a window of time. So were record stores in the early ‘90s. It's hard to explain to people that when Metallica's The Black Album came out people lined up at midnight to buy it. There was a giant party not just at Rhino Records in Claremont but also at Tower in West Covina, stores all over the country. If you told people that you were going to open a record store at midnight because a record's going on sale, you'd be the only one there! [Laughs.]

I remember well buying that Metallica album at The Exclusive Company in downtown Green Bay. The same night I grabbed the second Badlands album, Voodoo Highway.

Oh man! That is a good call. Badland's guitarist Jake E. Lee is fantastic. He plays on Ozzy's Ultimate Sin which is a big favorite.

One thing that persists throughout Universal Harvester is this question of, "Are you doing OK?" It seems like a very deeply Midwestern thing because people aren't necessarily going to express their feelings, so you need to ask.

"How are you?" is a very formulaic question. It's almost impolite to answer anything but, "Fine." At the same time, everyone's a little shaken in this. But they do have things to share that they need to share. Everybody knows that and I think that people are trying to open doors for each other all the time. To give a little space. I don't think that the Midwest is as sealed emotionally as a lot of people present it as. But I do think that there are culture norms of not being overly effusive, of not forcing people to hear stories they didn't ask to hear. It's just a way of being. I think that is one question that is OK because you can have a formulaic answer. You can just say, "Oh no, I'm fine" and you can move on or you can say, "I'm worried" and you can share.

There is a conversation with a longtime friend of mine in which he insists that tragedy is about community. Universal Harvester deals, in part, with community. Is it a tragedy?

I'm real hardcore about the word tragedy. It was my theme in college. It was really a big thing for me. Greek tragedy. One thing you talk about when you study that is if you can even do tragedy after the Greeks. The Romans have a version but the Roman version is much bloodier and it doesn't adhere to what I view as tragic convention, which has gotta be that something is going to come and harm someone. There are visible, readable warnings about this but the only way you can learn to read the warnings is to go through the event. You can't avoid it, you can't avert it. It's not a tragedy if it could have been avoided.

I think you can actually make [a tragedy] in the modern day because I consider The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a tragedy. There are all these signals telling them not to go to the house, but they can't understand the signals until they're inside the house and by that time it's too late. I think you can have stories with great sadness, I think all stories have some sadness in them, but I don't consider it a tragedy unless it could have been avoided and everybody would have liked to have avoided it.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

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