Why Great Writing Is Like the Star Trek Blooper Reel
And Other Highlights from Donna Tartt and John Darnielle in Conversation
On Tuesday night, I went to see John Darnielle (of both literary and musical fame) in conversation with the legendary Donna Tartt as part of the Brooklyn Voices Series, presented by Greenlight Bookstore and St. Joseph’s College—the occasion for the event being Darnielle’s second novel Universal Harvester, which also came out on Tuesday.
I’ll admit, my first thought when I caught wind of this pairing was: John Darnielle and Donna Tartt? Sounds amazing, but, well, why? Luckily, someone else in the audience had the same question, and during the Q&A, Tartt explained that it was actually Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies, who had turned her on to The Mountain Goats, and then later, Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van. “I loved it, and I wrote you a letter on my typewriter, and that’s how we met,” Tartt said. Darnielle, for his part, was suitably thrilled to have gotten a fan letter from Donna Tartt. “Hey I got a letter! She likes my book! Donna Tartt, maybe you’ve heard of her! So I was two for two on famous writers, because one of my old drug buddies now lives in David Foster Wallace’s house,” he joked. He also expressed his appreciation for her more seriously: “It is a profound honor to be interviewed by one of the foremost novelists of our generation,” he said at the event’s end.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Darnielle started off the evening by reading from “a book he found backstage” that turned out to be the Bible—Revelations to be exact. “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name…” Exactly the right way to start a literary event these days, and things only got better from there.
Universal Harvester is in some ways a horror novel about nostalgia. The book is set largely in a video rental store in Nevada, Iowa in the ’90s; the young man who works there begins to get complains about weird, and sometimes frightening, clips spliced into the middle of the VHS tapes—this leads us to a barn, with a mysterious woman living inside. Darnielle explained:
For one thing, Iowa’s a place that people think of as unchanging. You know, when you see it, especially when you see the cornrows and the soybean fields, they look eternal. But things like the video stores, a lot of stuff has gone away. And I’m always wanting to mess around with grieving or remembering things that are gone without succumbing to nostalgia, because I consider nostalgia a deadly toxic poison to be avoided. I’m always saying to people who are younger than me: you just wait until suddenly once of your friends on Facebook announces that music is not as good as it used to be. That guy’s the canary in the coal mine.
I was a big Faulkner reader when I was young, and I think there’s so much you can do with the past besides sentimentalize it, there’s lots of ways of contextualizing it and honoring its place… so I started thinking about all the changes taking place in Iowa that you might not be able to see unless you live there.
“It’s quite scary,” Tartt noted, “the obsession with capturing the past and freezing the past, and you show the creepiness of nostalgia by how the past is…crystalized and the lengths to which some people will go to recapture the past.” Darnielle agreed, saying “you’re also kind of eating corpses when you do too much stuff in the past. There’s a sense in which you’re doing something that’s against your own life. It’s a weird place, the past.”
Tartt also commented on the way the novel leaves space for alternate futures, showing a variety of possibilities to the reader. Darnielle explained:
In fiction, at any given moment, you are like Sylvia Plath said, sweet God, right? You can kill ‘em all, right now, you can take them all out of their misery. And then maybe the book’s like three pages long. I will anti-spoil something—I think when nothing really bad happens then that’s the opposite of spoiler, but for the longest time, the wall of our kitchen’s a chalkboard, and I write down lots of things I’m gonna do… for the longest time it said KILL EZRA. And I was gonna kill Ezra, and I felt a little bad about it, because Ezra did nothing to deserve death. You get close to your people, and especially to the ones who you know, who are secondary characters. A major character dying, that’s a big choice to make, but at the same time, it is something you might want to walk through, the death of somebody who is going to mean something to you as a writer, and when you’re writing you’re also the reader, but Ezra, I knew I’d be killing the guy to make something happen for other people and it was really gross and wrong, so I didn’t wind up killing Ezra, but it was one of the alternate futures, it was there: Ezra was going to die.
And instead, something else happened, and I had to describe what was around the physical thing that happened, and it opened up a bunch of different new stuff, and I’m always thinking about that, these various paths. We always say that anything can happen, but actually, in real life, you face a lot of limitations depending on your gender, and your race, and your class, and a lot of other things, that limit what you will or won’t do. And your age, and stuff like that. I mean I’m not going to be a middleweight boxer, that’s not going to happen. Now, when I lived in Grinnell, I remember one day—I was still a heavy smoker at the time, but I was watching boxing and I was 28 years old and I though, you know, if you quit smoking, you could actually at the very least try out at amateur boxing. You could get in shape, there’s a path there to do that, but that path will get closed for you eventually. But in books it’s not true.
But as Tartt pointed out, it’s not only that Darnielle opens up possibilities for different futures, fictional and otherwise—it’s that he, in a way, shows his work to the reader. “Those are strings and threads that I usually try to hide,” she said, “most novelists do, those are the underside of the cloth—I only want you to see the embroidery…But you are showing us the rigging and how it works at certain points, which is a very engaging technique. I think it opens up the book to the reader a little bit more, because it makes the reader understand a little bit better how the book is made.”
Darnielle credited the technique to his interest in 18th century novels—but also brought the concept into the future. Far into the future.
Defoe does this kind of thing. When I was in college, I designed a course actually, because I went to Pitzer where you could get a degree in English without ever having read anything… [laughter] Now, that sentence was not done yet. Pitzer’s a good school, but I looked at the syllabus and I went wow, you can graduate in English from this school never having read a single 18th-century novel. Because the curriculum was becoming more and more focused on tailoring it to modern needs, and modern literature’s amazing and stuff, but the 18th century is a wild time in literature, the book is so open, there’s so many things you can do.
People just break in and tell you something about their own lives in the middle of the story. And it’s incredibly inspiring and transgressive, and you go, Wow why are you telling me what you bought at the store today when you were telling me the story of Clarissa?
And it’s this constant fourth wall-breaking. I’ve always wanted to sort of do stuff like that, where it just shakes the ground underneath a little, because it’s exciting.
It’s like outtakes, like the Star Trek bloopers reel. Has everyone seen the Star Trek bloopers reel? In the Star Trek bloopers reel, they pull a prank on Leonard Nimoy. He’s sitting there brooding at the control panel of the Starship Enterprise, and a child comes into the frame, who’s wearing the exact same uniform, and the exact same haircut, and he’s a Vulcan, he has the ears, and he says, “Hi Daddy!” And Leonard Nimoy just breaks up—I don’t know if it was his own son or just a child that they had on set, but it’s like every contract has been broken in this moment. I’ve always wanted to produce moments like that.
Later on, Tartt asked Darnielle about the first book that made him want to write a novel. Darnielle thought for a moment, and then said The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (to much agreement from the crowd). “When it gets to the stone table scene—with that book, the thing that I really loved about it is that the first chapter is essentially a comedy. It’s just delightful, there’s this delightful candy, I’ve never tried it before, Turkish Delight. I want to eat some right now. And I love Mr. Tumnus, they all seem so great. And then this darkness comes in and takes over,” he said.
“Which seems like brightness at first,” said Tartt.
“When I read that, I thought: it would be amazing to do that,” Darnielle said. “And then what you learn as a writer is that you can’t do that to yourself. You still don’t get to really have that. You make something that you hope does that for other people, but in reading a book, when you write it you get a different version of that.”
Tartt didn’t entirely agree. For her, she said, writing a book was actually a deeper experience than reading one, even reading one that is consuming you entirely—”about 40 feet farther down,” she said. “My best points in writing a book are when I come to the end of the passage, and I’m thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m going to go next, and I’m so deep in what I’m doing and where I am.”
The last question Tartt asked was a writer interview classic—always asked because everyone always wants to know: what’s your writing process like?
I rented an office in a former textile factory and I moved a desk into there and a bunch of books that had been sitting in piles in the office room are now in nice tidy bookshelves. So I go in there, the kids go to school, or preschool, I drive into the office, I light some incense, I sit down at the desk and debate whether to read a comic book or not, think a little bit about how I feel about reading right before I write, whether I want to do that or not, because if you’re a songwriter and you listen to Bob Dylan before you write, or Leonard Cohen even worse, then you just write fake Leonard Cohen songs. So I do that, I futz around a little bit, then I crack it open, and I look at my file, and I say what’s to do next. Also I make a little list of things to address. I’ll look at what I just did, and I’ll go okay well, any questions about that? Yeah, okay what happened, you know, they just watched a video and everything went awry, do we want to pick up the next morning, do I want to follow on that scene, what do I want to do?
I get up and pace, I have a—nobody knows this—I have a walking stick. Unfortunately I’m not the kind of guy who can grow a big old wizard beard. But in my mind I have a wizard beard. Pacing around, and then I will get on a skateboard that I have in the office. Put the walking stick down, I get on the skateboard, I try to ollie. Never gonna happen. But I try. And I sit there doing tic tacs going What am I gonna do? What if what if what if what if—cool. Then I sit down, and I type something up, and I go that sounds pretty good, okay do that. And then I type real fast, listening to ambient for a good hour or so, and then I start reading out loud. And when I get to a point where I have too much to read out loud off the screen, I go home and print it out. I don’t have a printer in the office because I’m really stupid and obstinate and the printer is at home. I’m the only one who uses it, but I don’t want to bring it to the office.
Tartt also has no printer. “It’s unsightly,” she said. “You know what’s on the desk when I’m not in the office?” Darnielle said. “A 1953 Royal typewriter. That looks right.”
In fact, Darnielle started Universal Harvester on the typewriter, but eventually switched to the computer. Tartt started that way too. “When I was a child,” she said, “I was constantly scribbling and keeping notebooks and I thought that the instant I learned how to type that it would be like an old movie, where people wrote ‘Chapter One,’ and then they just typed up their novel and the pages were sort of flying. It was one of the bitterest disappointments of my life. I just sat there and was like—this is really hard. I’ve never been able to compose at the typewriter terribly well, I’ve never been terribly fluent at it, but sometimes it’s really good when you’re in a difficult passage, for me anyway, because it forces you to slow down and think about every sentence and every word in a way that the computer doesn’t. Because sometimes on the computer you can just fly along, write, write, write, write, write, and then, you know, none of it is very well thought out.”
During the audience Q&A, one very enthusiastic attendee asked Darnielle about his next project, and if we could have any hints as to setting or character. That got an emphatic no from Tartt, and agreement and explanation from Darnielle:
I don’t like to talk about what I’m writing, for a number of reasons, but the main reason is, if you say what you’re working on, especially in the age of social media, everybody tells you what the funny version of that would be. That makes for a fun Twitter thread, but then you can’t scrub that from your brain. So that’s murder. You can’t do it. What if you did that wearing a chicken suit? Okay cool, now I can’t think about anything else. I never talk about what I’m writing while I’m writing, actually Donna’s the only person, Donna and Sean (McDonald), the editor, were the only people who knew anything about this book while it was going on. To me—and Donna shares my view on this—you have a choice. You can have the pleasure of talking about a book you’re working on, or you can have something good at the end. You can’t have both.
One of the last questions was another perennial favorite: do these writers subscribe to possibly the most famous writing maxim, “write what you know?” Well—not exactly. “That’s the worst advice anyone can give,” Tartt said. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? we wouldn’t have that if C.S. Lewis had written what he knew. That’s terrible. That’s spawned a whole generation of bad student fiction. And actually some fairly bad novels too, if you ask me. So no, no. That’s my view.” Darnielle was a little less convinced. “I would say no with qualifications,” he said. “I did set this in Iowa and California in part because I do not want to set something in a place that I can’t describe accurately. I want to go to a place. So I think there’s something in that for me with place.”
“But you shouldn’t be confined by that,” Tartt replied. “That you can only write about a place that you’ve lived. And sometimes what you know can be emotional realities; that should be the truth. I mean, if you’re writing about grief, you should know that. You can’t write about it otherwise. Grief, heartbreak, love, in an emotional sense, that’s very true. But, let’s be thankful that J.K. Rowling did not follow that advice.”