John Darnielle on the Crisis of Conscience in True Crime
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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On his history with the true-crime genre:
I’m an ex-goth, and young goths do a lot of true crime. They especially did when there was a kind of subcultural currency in being the one who had more knowledge. The people who knew deeper stuff were within the culture. If you had volumes of older books, or if you knew more about, say, Peter Kürten, who was the Vampire of Düsseldorf. At the time this information was hard to come by.
Writing about Peter Kürten is true crime, but true crime is said to have its birth with Truman Capote. I don’t know that that’s really true because there were a lot of books about murders before then. It’s a very modern thing to do, to go “Oh, it was born in the 20th century, actually.” Whereas there were a lot of true stories about murders told in a lot of ways. In the Bible!
But I engaged at the level that goths do in that you wanted to know about this stuff, you needed to know. This is pre-internet, so even knowing about John Wayne Gacy at all was knowing something. But then for me, I encountered a crisis of conscience like Gage does in the novel, when you learn a little too much and it’s ugly to learn.
On adaptation and how his works belong to everyone:
[On TikTok] they’re taking my stories and running with them, and that’s a great and beautiful thing. People ask me, “What do you think if someone does this with your story?” And I say, “It’s great, it’s fantastic.” But then also people get obsessed with what a person meant by something and that’s where I check out. “Is the character in this song x or y?” “Tell me who this is, tell me what kind of person they are. Tell me their gender.” And I have avoided gendered pronouns in my writing almost my entire career. Writing books cements them in a way that you’re free in songs if you’re singing in first or second person. I don’t have to say anything. The song can be about any number of gender expressions you could name. I’ve always cherished that in songwriting that I don’t have to nail anything down, that I don’t have to be writing about anyone in particular. And then the song can belong to whomever. The song gets to be free in a way that books generally can’t.
On structuring his book as a house:
The book is a mirror with an obelisk in the middle. Part 1 mirrors Part 7, Part 2 mirrors Part 6, and Part 3 mirrors Part 5, in terms of the stories being told and in terms of the [point of view]. In the first person for parts 1 and 7, in the second person for parts 2 and 6, and in the third for parts 3 and 5. That in part was because I wanted the book to be a house and a house has a structure. The structure is almost going to have a symmetry of some kind… So I was thinking about how to make a book have an architectural symmetry and that was the idea I landed on…
If I’ve done my job you’ll notice that there’s a symmetry to it and you’ll ask yourself what the function of that symmetry is. It’s to construct a house, and by traveling through it you learn more about the rooms that you went through. Some of them look different in the wake of the ones you end up in.
John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a New York Times bestseller, National Book Award nominee, and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize for first fiction, and widely hailed as one of the best novels of the year. He’s the writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and sons. His third novel is called Devil House.