John Darnielle discusses his novel "Universal Harvester"

John Darnielle
Photo by Brandon Eggleston
John Darnielle Photo by Brandon Eggleston

In singer/songwriter John Darnielle's second book, "Universal Harvester," the story is less about following a concise plotline than it is about exploring subtexts and emotional traumas underlying his narrative. Classifying his novel as any specific category is difficult, although critics have described it as a mix of horror, mystery, and thriller, among other genres.

Darnielle is the lead singer/songwriter of the indie-rock band The Mountain Goats, and has become something of a phenomenon for his specific style of songwriting, which is starkly honest and emotionally open.

In a similar manner, Darnielle has brought this innate ability for storytelling and performance into writing other forms. In 2014, his first full-length novel, "Wolf in a White Van," was nominated for a National Book Award.

Since its publication in February, "Universal Harvester" has also garnered critical acclaim.

Darnielle will talk about the book Tuesday at Savoy Bookshop in Westerly.

"Universal Harvester" begins with Jeremy, a young video-rental store clerk in Nevada, Iowa, in the late 1990s. After receiving complaints from customers, Jeremy begins to discover that some of the videotapes have been spliced over with short clips of strange and unexplainable footage. The footage soon starts to have a destructive effect on other people in Jeremy's life, sending them into an obsessive frenzy to find whoever is responsible. Darnielle pulls the reader through the past, present and future in what feels like a psychological thriller. What results is a book that is unnerving and fascinating, offering a strange insight into the dark, yet sensitive and sympathetic, inner workings of Darnielle himself.

On tying in a religious cult with one of the character's backstories (we won't elaborate further so as to avoid spoilers):

That's me bringing in my own sort of obsessions. I've been obsessed with religious cults since I was a child.

When we lived in Colo (Darnielle lived in in Colo, Iowa, throughout the early 1990s), we only had one car. My wife worked in the soil testing lab and I worked in the hospital, but my hospital shifts were different from her regular hours. So, if I were working an afternoon shift, she would drop me off at the Ames Library, where I would stay for four or five hours, until I went to work, reading or using the then fairly primitive internet. This is where I found a website that said, "Our children are missing and we don't know where they've gone." It was about this group called the Roberts Group, which was a Christian cult of the '70s that taught that you had to abandon your family. So there was this website of people just like I described, and there were letters from the families left on them that I found incredibly moving. It is one of the most heartbreaking things on the internet. And I thought that this typically happened to normal people from normal places.

On the difference between songwriting and book writing:

One is church and one is work.

Writing a book is a discipline. Songwriting I've been practicing for so long. I have two kids and can still write a song when they are making all kinds of noise. There will come a point where I do have to close myself off to finish the song, and it will take an hour or so, but a book is something you return to every single day. I can write a song in a day, and I usually don't spend longer than a day writing one, so it is a very ephemeral thing. Whereas, with a book, you spend at least a year or two, and you keep returning and returning, and things keep changing and changing, and you revise and revise. I revise my song a couple times as I go, but it isn't anything like the process of writing a book. Music is sacred, and I don't want to diminish it, but it is also very natural and a physical process. And when it comes to a book, all the process has been buried ... it's like making sculpture.

On the moment, approximately 40 pages into the book, when the reader realizes that the narrator is someone involved with the story:

I really thank God for that moment, but when I wrote it, I gave myself the creeps, and I didn't really know what I was doing, it just sort of happened and I thought, 'Oh, my God, what was that creepy thing that just happened? What a sort of creepy thing to do.'

I read a fair bit of experimental French literature from the '50s and '60s, and there is a writer named Alain Robbe-Grillet. All of his novels are experimental, and they can be very tough going. There is one called "Jealousy" whose whole trick is that it's told by a narrator who never refers to himself but who is present in many of the scenes. If you don't read that on the back of the book, you'll never figure it out. But I found it really inspiring that he does that.

On not writing a straightforward plotline or tying every loose end:

I really like open questions. I like to do that with books, to leave a bunch of questions open. To me, that makes for a much more fun book to play with.

I know that a lot of people are left unsatisfied by stories like mine. I'm not there to satisfy in that sense. One of my favorite writers, Robert Aickman, an English horror story writer, crafts many of his stories to leave you wondering what just happened. It's not bad storytelling. You can go through all the events and see what it is, but you won't know what they mean to the people in them or to the author. I always found that incredibly inspiring. This begs the question about the point of why you read: do you want to be told a story and at the end know all the things that happened? That's not what I want in a story. What I want in a story is to open a space for play. I want to get inside the story and move around and ask a bunch of questions. I want to give enough answers to be interesting and fun, I don't want it to be incomprehensible, but I also want it to be like life, where you don't get solid answers about much of anything.

On interjecting his work with nostalgia:

More than one person has asked that. I don't think of myself as nostalgic, but I guess I have to say guilty as charged because people keep seeing it. I'm setting things in a certain time, and I want to be accurate about that time. I think nostalgia is like toxic poison in so many ways, though. As you age, you will start seeing your friends on Facebook pine for times when they were younger. I'm 50, and I have a lot of friends that will talk about how much better music was when we were all teenagers. Well, one, this is a lie. This isn't true, music has always been great, and there has always been music to find. But two, prior to the digital age, even though I happen to love physical media and vinyl more than anything, you at most, if you had a lot of money, could only hear 20 new records a month. You would be spending a lot of money on music then. Now you have a limitless banquet every day and can listen to as much music as you can fit into your waking hours and you'll never run out, you'll never get enough. It is better for the listener now.

At the same time, when you remember how things used to be, the fact that you can't go back there, the fact that it is forbidden, injects into it that note of sweetness. It's permanently the way it was, nothing can mess with it, nothing can corrupt it. Nostalgia is essentially desiring a return to innocence. But the whole concept of innocence is nonsense.

You can't shake nostalgia, but I didn't mean the book to be a nostalgic exercise. I think the book asks, where are the darknesses of everybody's lives? In the past. So that's one of the things about nostalgia is that it tends to erase those darknesses and tends to make you say, oh that was a good time.

If you go

WHAT: Book reading with John Darnielle

WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Savoy Book Shop and Cafe in Westerly


CALL: (401) 213-3901


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