A coming of age story set in the Eighties, Heavy Metal is the winner of the 2016 Autumn House Fiction Prize
Shelf Unbound: The first line of your novel is: “I place the gun barrel between my lips, touch the roof of my mouth with the sight, test the hardness of the steel with my teeth.” The narrator is Danny, who then recalls finding his mother’s dead body after she shot herself. Was this scene always planned as your starting point, and how did the idea come to you?
Andrew Bourelle: Heavy Metal actually began as a short story of the same name that was published in the journal Jabberwock Review. The opening chapter of the novel is very similar to the short story, which was published before I ever thought of expanding it into a novel. I made some adjustments to the opening paragraphs, but the general image at the beginning is the same: Danny with a gun in his mouth. The scene was always the starting point.
At the time I wrote the story, I had recently stumbled across some kind of list on the internet about memorable opening sentences and paragraphs from novels. I can’t remember what was on there. Moby-Dick probably. Fahrenheit 451. A Tale of Two Cities. Prior to this, I had never really worried about having a “hook” for an opening. I didn’t mind easing into a story. But, for this story, I decided that I would try to grab readers from the opening sentence. The result, of course, is that the opening sets a very dark tone for the rest of the novel. But I think those opening two paragraphs tell the reader what they’re in for. I imagine prospective readers picking the book up to read the first page, and they’re either going to say “Wow, I have to keep reading this!” or “Oh, my God, I can’t read this!” You know what you’re getting into.
Shelf Unbound: Danny is navigating grief at the same time as he is navigating adolescence. How much of his experience is autobiographical?
Bourelle: The story is not autobiographical. The plot, characters, events are all from my imagination. However, I did set the book in very familiar territory. It takes place in an unnamed midwestern town in the late 1980s. I was close to Danny’s age in the late ’80s, growing up in a small town in Ohio. I certainly drew from my own life in that sense (although I make the setting seem bleak and depressing even though where I grew up is quite lovely most of the time). I’m not really an autobiographical writer, but I do tend to set my fiction in places I’ve lived. The time period and place were very familiar to me, which I think helped me get into the parts that were not: the story and the characters.
Shelf Unbound: The novel, despite its seriousness, is also a fond nod to the Eighties. Why did you make the era such a big part of the novel?
Bourelle: Growing up, I was a big fan of movies like The Outsiders or Stand By Me—stories that are set in a particular time period but that tell universal, timeless stories that speak to any generation. One day it occurred to me that the world had changed drastically since I was growing up. I realized I could write a coming-of-age story set during the era of my childhood, attempting to evoke a sense of nostalgia for those familiar with the time but also trying to tell a story that would resonate with readers of any age.
It was fun to include references to the time period: MTV when it actually played videos, landline telephones before we even used the term “landline,” and of course the music of the era. I grew up listening to hard rock, so it was a blast giving Danny a similar taste in music.
Shelf Unbound: What interested you in writing about the relationship between two brothers?
Bourelle: My best friend, besides my wife, is my older brother Ed. In the novel, Danny is a freshman, and his brother Craig is a senior. The age gap between Ed and me is a little wider. We didn’t attend high school at the same time. But we were always close friends during our teenage years. I said earlier that the book is not autobiographical, and that is certainly true in terms of plot and character. But the way Danny loves his brother, the way he looks up to him, the bond they share—for that, I drew from my own feelings.
Ed is a freelance illustrator living in Seattle, and we remain close. When I finished the first draft of Heavy Metal and was ready to seek feedback, the first person I asked to read it was my wife, Tiffany. The second was my brother. Because it’s a book about brothers, I dedicated Heavy Metal to him.
Shelf Unbound: Do you think we will see Danny again in a future novel or have you closed that chapter?
Bourelle: I used to write lots of short stories that were coming-of-age narratives told from the point of view of teenage boys. It seemed to be a genre that I was drawn to. When I was considering trying to write a novel, one of the reasons I decided to expand the story “Heavy Metal” was because it felt like the type of story I was really interested in exploring. But I haven’t written a coming-of-age story—or even wanted to—since I finished Heavy Metal. It’s as if I finally told the story I’d been trying to tell, which has allowed me to move on and try other things. I’m not sure I could write a book like Heavy Metal again. I got it out of my system, so to speak.
Having said that, I have joked that I should write a sequel and call it Grunge. I could set it in the 1990s, following some of the characters who’ve gone off to college, and instead of listening to AC/DC, Iron Maiden, and Metallica, they would listen to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and The Smashing Pumpkins. I’m mostly joking, but the idea is lingering. Maybe there is a chance.
I recently wrote a piece for the “Book Notes” section of Largehearted Boy (largeheartedboy.com), where I provide a detailed playlist for Heavy Metal. There were so many songs referenced in the book or that were influential as I was writing that some couldn’t make the list. Rather than repeat the same list here, [here are] a few bonus tracks.
“For Those About to Rock
(We Salute You)” by AC/DC
This song isn’t mentioned specifically in the book, but if I picture Heavy Metal as a movie, I can see this song being played over the opening credits—an acknowledgement of what viewers are about to get into.
“Heading Out to the Highway” by Judas Priest
At one point, Danny and his brother are cruising in Craig’s Nova, listening to this song. It’s a perfect song for two brothers hitting the road trying to escape their world of worries.
“The Trooper” by Iron Maiden
When I was a kid, I had a poster of this record cover, which depicts the ghoulish creature Eddie (from all the band’s album covers) dressed as a 19th-century British soldier clambering through a field of bodies. When describing Craig’s bedroom, I gave him the same poster. The song is a narrative about dying in battle, and I always thought it was interesting that it was told in first-person point of view. Who says a first-person narrative can’t be told from the point of view of the dead?
“One” by Metallica
There is a scene where Danny and his friends are sitting in a junkyard, listening to this song and debating its meaning. Danny gets the song in a way his friends don’t—it’s a song about being cut off from the world, being truly and completely alone. That’s how Danny feels.
by Ozzy Osbourne
This is the first song referenced in the book, on the very first page. The song starts with Ozzy screaming “All aboard” and then laughing maniacally, followed by Randy Rhoads’ racing guitar rollercoaster. By including it on the first page, I am sort of giving a message to readers: get ready—you’re in for a ride!