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John Darnielle: ‘What could be better than to be Merlin?’

John Darnielle

Lalitree Darnielle

John Darnielle published his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, in 2014; it was later longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction. As well as an author, he's a singer-songwriter and founder of the Mountain Goats, an acclaimed band who have released more than a dozen albums. Darnielle, who lives in Durham, N.C., just published his second novel, Universal Harvester.

Which country produces literature that you wish more people read?

Well, I'm a huge fiend for Spanish literature, though I do feel like it's pretty widely read – like, as a guy who makes at least 50 per cent of his reading lit-in-translation, I feel like everybody knows there's heavy hitters in Spain. I'm not sure people know how incredible the Polish literary tradition is, though – Magdalena Tulli is an astonishing writer, there's really nobody like her, and Jerzy Pilch is a thrill ride and Tadeusz Rozewicz is a poet whose work everybody should know a little about. Ditto Anna Swir, and Witold Gombrowicz, just a titan. So although I wanna make sure I'm giving props to [Javier] Marias and Merce Rodoreda and [Enrique] Vila-Matas, I think Poland's kind of the one about which I'd ask, "Do you know just how much great literature has come from there?"

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Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel?

Invisibility seems like the one between these two – I mean, it's a pretty simple super power: You get to be invisible. Presumably when you want to be, though, not permanently. If invisibility is presumed to be a permanent condition here, then time travel probably takes this one easy. But invisibility … this seems the more metaphysical of the two. As amazing as it would be to go here and there being present for history or seeing people you miss because they're gone – which you can't do, of course, time-travel paradoxes mess everything up – to just … absent yourself from everything … to exist tracelessly … to see things you were not meant to see: Imagine the political good you could do if you could only be invisible for a while.

What's your favourite bookstore in the world?

This is a very hard question to put to a guy who haunts bookstores whenever and wherever he can and who tours a lot, so I can't really pick one. I am in love with Caliban Books in Pittsburgh, where I've held – with my own hands! – a first-edition Yeats, and which has a great paperback section. And I'm in love with Recycled in Denton, Tex., where I bought History: A Novel by Elsa Morante, a book I feel like everybody should read, and which has an amazing old-horror-in-hardcover shelf. And I'm in love with John K. King Books in Detroit – honestly, it would be sweet to spend the last hours of one's life in there. And I'll always be in love with Powell's Books in Portland – I was skulking around in the shelves there as early as '85; it's a place of incredible power for me. And so on. All wonderful bookstores are my favourite bookstore in the world!

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

"What's your favourite part of the book?" which I would totally not answer easily but I feel like it's a good question. Like, there has to be a part where I'd say, "This is it, this is where it happens for me and becomes real."

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

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Merlin. What could be better than to be Merlin? Merlin is an open book that few can read, a known quantity who harbours infinite mystery, a guy who knows magic and has seen the future and was there for the best days of the past. I had a couple of other answers – Link from The Legend of Zelda, Inspector Barlach from The Judge and His Hangman. But it's Merlin, of course it's Merlin.

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