Andrew Bourelle’s debut novel, Heavy Metal, has a heart of its own, and its heart beats fast. Winner of the 2016 Autumn House Fiction Prize, the book is a rush, a total submersion in the verve and fog of youth. Danny, the protagonist, seems to be hurtling through space—an adolescent asteroid dressed in a Judas Priest t-shirt and ripped blue jeans—a loaded gun tucked in his waistband. This gun is a crux, and it is far from weightless—“Empty, the gun weighs four pounds. Loaded with six bullets, …the weight increases exponentially.” Danny has decisions to make, demons to face, and himself to find. Steeped in themes of betrayal, revenge and the unnegotiable inevitability of death, this novel grips the reader by the shoulders on page one and does not let go.
Taira Anderson: Heavy Metal is your debut novel—congratulations! How does it feel to have published your first novel, and do you think you’ll write another?
Andrew Bourelle: Even though the book is out and I’ve done a couple readings and interviews, it still doesn’t quite seem real. I guess the book in draft form was such a part of my life for several years that it’s hard to believe it’s finished and out there for the world to read. Autumn House Press did a fantastic job, and I’m very proud of the final product.
I do have another novel in the works, a mystery/thriller that I hope will be a real page-turner.
TA: Can you tell us a little about your process in writing Heavy Metal? Any habits or rituals? Did you write longhand or on a computer? Did you outline much—build a scaffolding? And how long did it take?
AB: I had been writing short stories for years, and I decided to see if I could write a novel. I was teaching a lot of classes at the time, so I wrote in very small chunks, just a few hundred words at a time, but I wrote pretty consistently, so it added up. One thing I did was I didn’t allow myself to go back and revise while I was writing the first draft. I felt that if I kept stopping to revise, I would end up with a very polished half of a novel that would never get finished. But if I could just get a full draft down, no matter how rough, I was confident I could do something with it. The first draft took about a year, maybe fifteen months, and it was quite rough. But I had a full manuscript I could work with.
I didn’t use an outline. The narrative takes place over a little more than a week, and I knew from the start that I would tell a week in Danny’s life—but I didn’t exactly know what would happen during that week. I had an idea where I was going, but, like most stories I write, the place I ended up wasn’t where I thought it would be.
I definitely did not write the first draft longhand. I’m much too slow of a writer when I’m writing longhand—and my handwriting is atrocious.
TA: As you wrote, what came easiest to you, and what did you most struggle with?
AB: I mentioned that the first draft took about a year, maybe fifteen months. More accurately, most of the novel took about a year, probably even less, but when I got close to the ending, I stopped writing. I just froze. I didn’t know how to finish the novel. I started writing stories again and ignored the book for a while. Finally, I made myself sit down and write an ending. I knew immediately that the ending was wrong. It was very freeing to write that first wrong ending; it broke my paralysis. I immediately rewrote the ending, which was closer to what I wanted, but still didn’t feel quite right. It took me a while to find the right ending, but at least I had broken through what was holding me back.
TA: Is there any advice you’d give to writers who are preparing to embark on the writing of their first novel?
AB: What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another, but I think that not revising while writing was important for me. Especially for my first book. Now I feel a little more confident that I can write a book, but back then, I didn’t know if I could complete a project of that size. I felt if I could get a full rough draft down on paper, I could turn it into a book. This seemed especially true because I was so busy. If you only have a handful of hours a week to write, and then you spend half of those revising what you’ve already written, then you’re not going to accumulate pages very fast.
TA: I don’t want to give anything specific away, but, when writing this novel, or when writing any work, how do you choose which characters live, and which characters die?
AB: I have no idea. I just go with what feels right. I can’t remember who said it, or maybe multiple writers have, but there’s this idea that a writer should know when to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. Writing is a craft, but there’s also magic to it. The story comes out of you during the act of writing. Even when you think a story is going to go one direction, it might change course and go in another. So if you’re killing a character, it’s not necessarily a completely conscious decision. That’s the story.
TA: Are there particular writers, books, or other works that you drew upon for inspiration when writing this novel?
AB: Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes is one of my favorite books, and it was very influential when I was writing Heavy Metal. McCourt wrote his memoir in first-person present tense, which is a very in-the-moment way of telling the story. He tells the story as it happens, not from the perspective of an adult narrator looking back on his childhood. I wanted a similar effect for Heavy Metal.
Another memoir I love is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. In that book, Wolff writes from the perspective of an adult narrator looking back. The narrator has an advanced vocabulary and the hindsight to reflect on the scenes as they’re being described. I didn’t want to do this in Heavy Metal. Danny is in turmoil. If I told it from an adult perspective, looking back, then readers would always have a sense of relief: I know Danny is going to be OK. Instead, I wanted readers to have a level of discomfort. The first-person present-tense narration doesn’t let you see beyond the moment—you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
TA: What are you reading right now?
AB: I just started Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones, a wonderfully fun coming-of-age story—about werewolves!
TA: Before you wrote this novel, you primarily wrote short stories (one of which appeared in Isthmus no. 3), and before that, you were a journalist. Do you feel your previous experiences in journalism and short-story writing prepared you for writing a novel?
AB: Yes, absolutely. To tackle a novel isn’t just a matter of writing a really long short story. It’s something else entirely. But writing short stories really helped me practice honing my skills, finding my voice. In fact, Heavy Metal began as a short story of the same name that was published in the Jabberwock Review. The story covered one night in Danny’s life. When I decided to tackle a novel, I realized that I had more of Danny’s story to tell. So before I even thought about Heavy Metal as a novel, I had the character, his voice, the tone—all from the story.
And being a journalist was unbelievably helpful. There’s nothing like writing on deadline five days a week to give you the discipline, confidence, and comfort to sit in front of the computer and write. People sometimes have this notion that you have to be in the mood to write, that you have to wait until inspiration strikes. As a newspaper reporter, you learn that you can—and have to—write even when you don’t really feel like it. What you realize is you can still write good stuff even when you’re not feeling particularly inspired.
TA: In addition to being a writer, you’re a teacher. What is the most important thing you try to pass along to your students?
AB: I teach all kinds of writing: creative writing, first-year composition, technical communication. In all of those classes, what I try to do is create a comfortable learning environment where students might actually enjoy writing. For a lot of people, writing is hard because it isn’t enjoyable. And it’s usually not enjoyable because somewhere in their education someone was overly critical and gave them the impression they weren’t good at it. If possible, I like to bring the fun back to writing. And for creative writing classes where the students already presumably think writing is fun, I try to keep it that way.
TA: i’m curious why you decided to set the novel in the late 80’s—why not the present? Do you have a special connection to that time?
AB: I grew up in roughly the same time period when the story was set. So, on one hand, it was just a practical decision: setting the story during the 1980s would probably be easier than setting it in contemporary America. It would be harder for me to capture a teenager living in a world of smart phones and Facebook than to imagine one in the time when I was a teenager. At the same time, I’ve always loved coming-of-age stories that capture different eras, movies like Stand By Me, American Graffiti, Diner. I think Heavy Metal has a lot in common with The Outsiders. That book was written in the 1960s when it took place, but the movie didn’t come out until the ‘80s. So when I was first exposed to the story I was growing up in a completely different era, but still the narrative resonated with me. Heavy Metal is a more adult book than The Outsiders. I think it’s heavier, if you’ll excuse the pun. But it does follow the same kinds of characters. Danny and his friends are the greasers of the 1980s. I wanted to tell their story.
TA: The heavy metal and hard rock music that peppers the novel is a dead giveaway of the decade, and it also creates a soundtrack that the reader hears while reading. We listen to Judas Priest pump through car speakers, listen to AC/DC in bedrooms, “…and when the volume is down low, the fist-pumping rock anthems sound somehow mournful, like sad blues ballads.” Why did you choose to incorporate the heavy metal and hard rock genres, and how did you decide which songs best fit with particular scenes?
AB: I don’t often write knowing what my title will be, but in the case of the story and novel, I knew all along the title would be Heavy Metal. The title refers to more than music—metal is a motif throughout the narrative—but I wanted to include references to bands and songs from the era. I had some difficulty knowing what the right balance would be. For readers who would be unfamiliar with the references, I didn’t want the song and band names to be a distraction. I still wanted people to enjoy the book even if they’ve never listened to Iron Maiden or Metallica. But for someone who grew up in that era, I wanted the references to strike a chord and evoke a sense of nostalgia. I did put a lot of thought into what songs and bands to mention at particular times. During the scene you mentioned, where they play AC/DC really low, the description is something I observed about AC/DC, and it seemed perfect for that moment in the book. When I was growing up, I loved—or at least liked—all the bands mentioned in the book. There’s a scene where Danny and his friends debate the greatest albums of all time. These were pretty much my favorite albums growing up. I couldn’t help myself but to include the scene.
TA: Though a specific city, or state, is never named, this novel seems very reliant on place—the small-town feel, the truck-stop diner, the open fields where “Broken cornstalks lay scattered like bones.” Can you explain the importance of place in Heavy Metal, and why you chose not to name a specific location?
AB: I didn’t want to name where the novel takes place because I wanted readers to be able to picture it just about anywhere. Having said that, place is very important to the story. I described the fields, the river, the sky, the small town. The leaves have fallen. The ground is frozen. The roads are empty because people are inside, hiding from the cold. Danny is trudging through a lonely world in the darkest depths of winter. The same could be said about what’s going on inside him.
TA: Heavy Metal gives the reader an intimate look into the life, mind, and struggle of the teenage protagonist, Danny. He’s very introspective and spends time talking to his high school guidance counselor, sitting on his rooftop at night, and pondering that maybe “each person is a world… Not a planet, but a world. A universe. An existence.” What about your own experience as a teenager informed, and inspired this novel?
AB: There are several existential moments in the book where Danny ponders his existence. Danny is trying to understand what it means to be alive, what happens after death. He doesn’t believe in God, but he wonders about fate. I think these “what does it all mean?” type of thoughts are typical of teenagers going through and emerging from puberty. You begin to realize the world is something bigger—and scarier—than you understood as a child.
I don’t know if I could put my finger on any particular experiences that informed the novel, at least not big experiences. But I think there are small experiences that left an imprint on the book. For example, I used to climb up onto my roof and look at the stars (although I certainly never took a gun with me, like Danny does), or I would put in a cassette and lie on my bed and listen to music and let my mind wander. I don’t know if all teenagers do this, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
TA: Heavy Metal also explores the complexity of familial relationships from Danny’s closeness with his brother to his more sordid relationship with his parents. What kind of home/family environment did you grow up in and what role did your experience have in shaping the relationships in Heavy Metal?
AB: My family was—and is—nothing like Danny’s. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that Danny’s mother is dead (the book mentions it on the first page). My mother and father are alive and well, still living in the house I grew up in. I never experienced the kind of traumatic childhood grief that Danny does. I do have an older brother, as Danny does, and the age difference is similar. We were—and still are—very close, just like Danny and Craig. That relationship certainly informed Heavy Metal, the way Danny looks up to and loves his big brother. But the similarities between families don’t go much further than that.
People who read Heavy Metal might assume there’s a lot of autobiography in it. I suppose there are parts of my life in the descriptions. I set the book in a small town, like the one where I grew up. I set it during the era of my own teenage years. I owned a Judas Priest t-shirt, just like Danny. But these are just details. The larger story—the characters, the plot, the events—all came from my imagination. Heavy Metal would have been a very boring book if I had written a memoir.
TA: Finally, I wonder, considering these tumultuous times, can you speak to what you feel the role and responsibility of writers and artists are socially, and/or politically?
AB: I didn’t set out to make any particular statements with Heavy Metal; I just wanted to tell a good story. That’s pretty much the case whenever I write. Having said that, fiction writers tend to comment on the world they live in, even if the world they write about is completely fictional. In the case of Heavy Metal, the book is set in a completely different era, but I think the issues it addresses—teenage suicide, bullying, gun violence, class differences—are as relevant today as they were thirty years ago. Fiction is usually a reflection in some way of our contemporary world.
Taira Anderson is fiction editor of Isthmus.