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Sydney Writers’ Festival presents John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van

John Darnielle is considered one of the greatest living songwriters. Louisa Studman explores his move from song to narrative.

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John Darnielle is first and foremost a talented storyteller. As the songwriter and only permanent member of The Mountain Goats over their twenty-four year run, he is the creative force behind fifteen full-length albums and countless EPs, singles, and cassette releases. All of these songs are reminiscent of short stories; in each one, Darnielle brings a character to life and positions them in a small world of their own creation. Music is almost secondary to the depth and quality of lyrics.

It is therefore unsurprising that he has channeled his talents towards writing a book.

Wolf in White Van, Darnielle’s debut novel, benefits from the years that he has spent exploring his favourite themes of isolation and escapism. It tells the story of Sean Phillips, a man disfigured at a young age, who withdraws into a role-playing game of his own making called Trace Italian. The novel moves backwards, slowly revealing the circumstances of the protagonist’s injury, as well as the tragedy that befalls young players of Trace Italian.

Last night as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Darnielle spoke about creating his debut novel in a conversation event hosted by the Chaser’s Julian Morrow. Throughout the night, he emphasised the complex relationship between personal experience and writing, and the importance of spontaneity in his work.

The climactic final chapter of Wolf in White Van was the first to be written, and was not intended for anything in particular. Over the next five years, he would fill out the other chapters, in transit between shows, and whenever else he had a spare moment. He resists the notion of canvassing work before it is written, preferring the freedom of letting words come to him. “I do all my best work that way. I wrote the song ‘No Children’ on an airplane on the little sleeve that holds your ticket.”

Darnielle’s work, previously purely fictional, changed tone with the autobiographical album The Sunset Tree in 2005. He reveals that Wolf in White Van, too, incorporates elements from his own life.

“The ephemera in the book is something I didn’t have to research,” Darnielle says. His previous work as a nurse informed much of the protagonist’s musings about pills and his lifelong medical attention. The key event of the book, one of self harm, also comes from a personal place. “When I was a teenager the situation in my home was dark and difficult, and I turned to self-mutilation. I would carry a razor around in my wallet and whenever things got hairy, I would open up a place on my skin.”

Despite drawing on experiences from his past, Darnielle is reluctant to ruminate on autobiographical tones in the novel in a precise sense. He talks about a therapist who told him that all the people in your dreams represent you. It is this story that sums up his creative process so well, acting as a means of describing the connection between his artistic work and his own life. “Dreams can mean a number of things. They have no definitive meaning. The story loses potency if I know exactly what it’s about. I want to keep away from it.”

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