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Talking Video Games and Ghosts with John Darnielle

I recently emailed with Mountain Goats mastermind and <i>Wolf In White Van</i> author John Darnielle about his new book, his history with gaming, haunted feelings, and much more.

We recently ran an excerpt from Wolf In White Van, a novel exposing Mountain Goats mastermind John Darnielle not only as a lyrical genius, but as one hell of a novelist. Since then, the book has blown up, climbing onto the New York Times Bestsellers List and receiving a nomination for this year’s National Book Award, all of which is so intensely refreshing to see. Behind all that hubbub, for once, is actually one of the most compelling books of the year, a complex and constantly unwinding story of a disfigured man who operates a text-based role-playing game by mail. By turns mysterious, heart-rending, cryptic, hilarious, OCD-laced, and basically by transitive property capable of all other traits comprising any of those cult games that may have for some time overrun your life, it’s easy to see how Wolf In White Van could inspire total obsession. 

Recently, Darnielle was kind enough to correspond with me via email to answer some questions about the book, his history with gaming, haunted feelings, and much more.

Photo via Wikicommons

VICE: Correct me if I'm wrong, but after reading the book it seems pretty obvious to me that you were or are a gamer. I don't think I've read a book that nailed the obsessive hoarder pleasure of role-playing quite like this. Is there a game that most haunts you, or one that's closest to your heart?
John Darnielle:
I played video games from early on and can probably break down my Ages of Video Game life like this:

I. Pinball enthusiast skeptical about and fearful of the new machines (Asteroids, Space Invaders) in the arcade

II. Reality-accepting pinball enthusiast spending half his arcade time at the video games (Centipede, Qix, Missile Command)

III. Guy whose friends had an NES but who, himself, didn't. This means I didn't get into first-generation cartridge stuff until they cut the price on the NES because they were making room for the SNES, which I've still never played. This era for me is defined by Ninja Gaiden III, which is a masterpiece.

IV. Guy who bought a Nintendo 64: The hype around this machine was huge, and we couldn't really afford it but we got it anyway. For ages there were only four games you could get in the US to play on this system and one of them was fucking Goldeneye. A lot of people loved fucking Goldeneye, but I could not give a shit about that so I played Mario 64 until I'd gotten every star twice and found Yoshi on top of the castle and then a friend at work loaned me Zelda: the Ocarina of Time, which was huge, because it was such an immersive world with such clear good/evil boundaries, which are something I like: not always, I also like—you know—other configurations, but I respond pretty viscerally to evil villains who seek to punish the innocent sheerly for the sake of magnifying their own evil. I hadn't, prior to this game, even with Mario 64, felt that total-narrative-immersion thing that became the norm in video games for quite a while. The first time I arrived at the Temple of Time, the quiet in there, the echo of the footsteps... it's still pretty vivid.

This is all prologue though. The game that haunts me most dates back to era II and was called Dazzler, and involved feeding bananas to a gorilla trapped at the center of the screen, and there are vultures chasing you because they hate the gorilla maybe? And you have to drop snakes behind you to distract the vultures, and the hero's name was Oh, and I am submitting this link as proof of these claims because I totally get that they're pretty extraordinary claims. Dazzler is kind of representative of what was great about that "quick, invent a game" era of coin-operated games: some guy probably wrote the plot because that was his job—to think up a game. "Feed the gorilla while evading vultures" was his idea on a given day at work. There are a lot of games from that era where the plot feels like something that came to somebody in a dream, and they're really quietly inspirational to me. 

Photo via Flickr user abbyladybug

The narrator in the novel is the creator of many games himself. One in particular, Trace Italian, incidentally ends up connecting fantasy to reality with damaging results. For him, the whole game generated from his obsession with the phrase "Trace Italian." I wonder if the world of the novel at first revealed itself to you in a way like this, from some strange kernel?
You are absolutely right on about me and the glow that certain words and phrases, mainly phrases, have for me. It's the joy of giving things titles—when I was a young music obsessive, I sort of had this hierarchy of coolness in my mind. Albums whose titles did not come from one of the songs were almost always way cooler than albums that took their titles from the names of one of the songs. Albums whose titles came from within one of the songs but not from one of the song's titles, that was pretty cool, because it pointed you specifically at that one song without being super-obvious about it—it was like a clue on how to read the album. Self-titled albums that weren't debuts, this was a weird grammar that I later learned within the record business is basically an admission of defeat and/or a marketing strategy. 

In the case of the book, I wrote the last chapter first, right? And then the thing happens at the end of it, and I was like, that's the sort of short story you write when you're 12: some stuff happens and the narrator dies. I kept hammering away at a forward-moving book with a bunch of narrators saying interesting stuff sometimes, but the story was kind of going nowhere... but then one day while working, I thought how that last chapter story is probably actually an OK story if you work backward to it somehow. And so that led me down a rabbit-hole of thinking about backward masking, which used to be this super-cool arcane knowledge area back before you could just dial up the supposed backward-masking things online, and I ended up reading about this Larry Norman song—Larry Norman being more or less the founder of Christian rock, a really interesting figure—that, when you play it backward, is supposed to say "Wolf in White Van."

And so, like... that's the sort of phrase that, as a writer of any kind, I think you have to hear it and feel wonder. It's just so evocative and open. Why no article: "the" white van, "a" white van? What's going on, that some person thinks that's what he hears? The person who thinks that's what he hears, how does that bizarre image function for him? Why is it evil, if it's evil? At any rate it sounds kind of dangerous and ominous, right? So I assigned it to the book as the title, and got the idea of tracing backward, and this phrase—I feel like the idea of a phrase being obscure enough to really be open to whatever you want to bring to it, that's where phrases come alive for me. When there's not enough information in something so you have to supply it yourself.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I listen to music sometimes when I write, but I'm always having to stop, because I read everything I write out loud. That's the test of whether it works or not, for me: how it sounds out loud. But when I'm just sitting down for the morning, or when it's a little loud out in the house beyond my office room, I'll listen either to classical music (I listened to a lot of Scriabin while writing Wolf) or metal: usually death metal, usually older stuff. In part "usually older" because if I'm listening to something I'm not super-familiar with, it'll probably distract me. Music is great both for feeding the mood of the writing but also for staying out of the way while providing a sort of conscious-mind minor distraction for me. So, like, I know the first two Mercyful Fate albums backward and forward, so I listened to those a lot. And the Warfare Noise comp of Brazilian thrash. And this band called Moss, a fair bit of slow doomy stuff really lets me write while being slow enough to not distract me. If things get real active and up-tempo, it's too much and I have to choose between either the music or the writing.

And finally I listened to a lot of ambient, which is so useful, because you can sort of assign a mood to it—even the cheery stuff—if you say: "This is ambient music for funerals" in your mind, you can get a pretty funereal vibe from it. This podcast called Ultima Thule is kind of my first-look listening when I sit down to write. It's pretty perfect.

Photo via Flickr user sketchbookkid

I got the feeling at times that the narrator was the voice of a ghost, someone who was beyond reality, but left inside it because of a wrong he'd done, accidentally or not. Do you believe in ghosts? Something beyond death?
I have to get all cute and 90s-college with this: I do "believe" in "ghosts." That is, I think ghostliness is a thing and there are ghosts in everybody's lives and the idea of ghosts is something that's going to inform how I or anybody else relates to the world whether we think of them as existing outside our consciousness or not. Like, objectively, do I believe that the spirits of the dead exist outside of the consciousness of the living? No. But that's not the same as nonexistence. I think of ghosts as something you have, like a cold. And, like a cold, you're probably always going to have it again. 

You're right that Sean is pretty ghostly, especially because he's been reborn: the Sean people knew (the only one people knew; hardly anybody knows the rebuilt Sean) is a ghost haunting the lives of the people who knew him. But because he survived, he gets to see what that's like—to have been a person who now haunts others. 

I would prefer to believe in a world beyond this one—I always liked the teaching that this world is not illusory but sort of play-acting while the spiritual world is the actual, absolute reality—I used to read a lot of Vaisnava texts about this stuff. But honestly, no. At the same time, there's so much that's illusory that we buy into just for the sake of getting along daily that I like to sort of hold ideas of other worlds as possibilities in my mind, in that internal yes-and-no space, which is also where fiction lives. For instance: I read about a murder, and it's gruesome as fuck, and it's so vivid and I knew the killed character well enough that it feels very real, and is real in this space in my head, but nowhere else.

That's what ghosts are like for me: real, but probably only for me.

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