Interview With Alex Skolnick of Testament
As part of my interviews with authors series, I had the pleasure of speaking with Alex Skolnick about his new memoir GEEK TO GUITAR HERO. Feel free to check out my review of his book here as well.
What inspired you to write your autobiography?
Technically it’s not an autobiography – it’s a memoir focused on becoming a professional guitar player, kind of like Anthony Bourdaine’s “Kitchen Confidential” focuses on how he became a chef – although it is certainly autobiographical. I’ve dreamed of being a writer for years. I’m a voracious reader and every now and then I’ll come across books that inspire me to write. This would happen any time I’d read Philip Roth or Tom Wolfe for example – I always wanted to write in a similar literary, honest, observational manner. More recent writers include David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggars, Chuck Klosterman and Bourdaine before he was so well known. I plan to do many books but I figured for my first, it made sense to do a memoir intended to read like a novel.
How long did it take?
I started it in 2009 and finished in early 2012, so about three years.
Do you have time when you felt most inspired or productive to write? I know many of us have images of a harried writer pounding away on an old type-writer in a small apartment in the middle of the night surrounded by cigarette butts and empties, but what is the modern reality for a writer?
I live in Brooklyn, NY and we don’t have large apartments, so that’s partially true. But I use a MacBook Pro instead of a typewriter and don’t smoke other than an occasional cigar. There were times that I’d fit that image writing late into the night, a bottle of fine wine by my side. Other times, I’d rise early in the morning pounding away at the keyboard with strong coffee. Much was written in coffee houses in Brooklyn – I find it helpful to get out of the apartment and write elsewhere. You’ll see so many writers in these cafes – even well known ones like Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Safron Foer and others – so it’s motivating like working out in a gym as oppose to alone. Large chunks of the book were written in tourbus bunks, planes and cafes in various cities all over the world. At one point, I had a few days off in Paris and wrote in some of the hangouts of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other Lost Generation artists.
Did you approach, or were you approached by any publishing firms?
While there was interest and occasional talk, I found it hard to get taken seriously as a real writer, especially with the stereotype of being a guy from a metal band. So I decided to self-publish and support independent bookstores such as Harvard and McNally Jackson. That’s been a great experience. People are loving the book, and it’s not hard to get at those stores or on Amazon. I’m not opposed to linking with a big publishing firm in the future as long as it’s on my terms and they see beyond the stereotype.
It seems odd to me that many modern Metal autobiographies are ghost written or at the very least co- authored. It defeats the point of the term ‘auto’. Why did you choose to be the sole voice?
It seems odd to me as well, until you consider that most rock bios are written as one time promotional product by guys who are not big readers – most wouldn’t know Hemmingway from a hummingbird. Whatever their musical skills, which can be great, they are not aspiring writers and for the most part they have nothing to say beyond one bio, usually ghost or co-written. Not being the sole voice of my words would be unthinkable. I’d never bring in someone else to lay down my guitar parts in the studio, why would I get someone to write my words?
Do you feel GEEK TO GUITAR HERO could have been improved with an outside editor? On a related point is there any point you have looked back and wished you had not published certain parts?
I did enlist some help – my graphics team, Nomad9 Design was incredibly helpful with editing as well as design. And several friends, including some who worked in copyediting, read the book or parts and offered story feedback and/or grammatical commentary. Of course, having someone like a modern day Maxwell Perkins, who edited Fitzgerald, Wolfe and Hemmingway, sometimes chopping the books significantly, would be a dream. Maybe I’ll find a full time editor like that at some point for future works.
At times your comments were very forthright, even bordering on being negative about many people in your life, family and band-mates. Have you had any feedback from friends and family?
I wish I only had positive things to say about others in my life, but sugarcoating it wouldn’t be true to the art of writing. Thomas Wolfe could barely set foot in his town after “Look Homeward Angel” and that was fiction! I tried to come at this in a way that was reflective, constructive and objective. The last thing I wanted was to come across as being “shit-talking” or anything like that. I’ve had talks with a few people and given warnings to some that certain parts may be uncomfortable. So far everyone’s been understanding, although it occasionally feels like a bit of an “elephant in the room.” My mother had some deep concerns with how my brother came across, yet seemed to barely notice the critiques of her. As far as the music scene, books like Sammy Hagar’s have raised the bar for forthrightness – mine is quite tame by comparison.
Why did you decide to leave out the last 20 years of your life? You summarized two-decades, 1992 to 2012, in just a few pages! Do you think it was because people are not interested or are you planning to do a second book? On a personal note I think you have a lot of good stories left you could tell.
If I’d added twenty more years, this book would get into War & Peace territory (not comparing myself to Tolstoy). In other words, it’s big enough as is – nearly 400 pages, maybe too big. I’d rather tell some of my stories in full literary detail than try to cram in every single one like typical rock books. If this was an autobiography, and the only book I ever put out, maybe that would make sense, but as indicated, there is much more to be written in due time.
Many Metal books focus on ‘the dirt’ but there was a refreshing and distinct lack of shock value or pandering to the ‘average’ Metal fan with titillating tales of the classic trifecta of sex, drugs and Rock and Roll. Was this this a deliberate attempt to reach a different audience?
While there’s no shortage of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll out there – in books, TV shows, films and real life – there is a huge shortage of stories with introspection, honesty, vulnerability and other human qualities. My story just happens to be largely about learning guitar and joining a metal band. But it’s also about growing up with no self-worth , developing a skill that enables you to turn your life around, and the many challenges faced along the way. I’ll be happy if it reaches different audiences, sure, but that was never the intention – only to write a work that reflects my own standards.
This question is pretty predictable but was it cathartic to write your autobiography? You seem very hard on yourself at times!
Writing anything personal – from a short essay to an autobiographical memoir such as this is – is excellent therapy, minus the shrinks, sofas and psychiatric theories (which aren’t always correct anyway). You reflect upon things, then work them out yourself. It’s incredible that the brain stores these long forgotten memories that return as soon as you start digging. Parts were very difficult to describe without sounding too victim-like (my challenges, hard as they’ve been, were still very “first world”), or placing blame elsewhere. Glad to hear it comes across that I’m hard on myself, not just others. I couldn’t believe the clarity of thoughts that had been lying deep down in the well of memory.
Do you think your story will significantly alter the perhaps common perception that you are the one-dimensional, headbanging Guitar Hero from Testament and not much else? If yes, was this your deliberate intention to avoid being pigeonholed or just a natural by-product of telling your story?
I certainly wouldn’t mind if it alters that stereotype, although at this point, anyone who’s paid attention knows I’m not one-dimensional. It helps that there are so many platforms of expression now – such as blogs, Twitter posts etc. One no longer has to be limited to the official publicity of whatever band they play for (I’m grateful to the tech geniuses who made that possible). So if it helps alleviate the pigeonholing, that’s wonderful. But that was never a deliberate intention.
Has your work maybe inspired other guys in Testament to write their life story or maybe even negotiate the rights to a big Testament biography from a major publisher?
I haven’t heard of it from anyone else in the band. It would be very interesting to have a big Testament bio covering all the periods of the band, including when I wasn’t there.
When GEEK TO GUITAR HERO hits #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list, who do you want to play you in the movie adaptation?
Thanks for the vote of confidence, will be great if that happens. For the grown up me, definitely Johnny Depp. He not only had my exact hair style in Sweeney Todd, he also plays guitar! For the young me, I’d love to see this kid, Keir Gilchrist. He starred in the film version of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which was written by a friend of mine (Ned Vizzini).
How can people acquire your book?
There are links at Geektoguitarhero.com. Also they can go to the Harvard Book Store in Boston, McNally Jackson in New York, or order from Amazon in the US, UK in Europe.
Do you have any words for aspiring writers?
Writing is a lot like any other creative process including music. You need to seek out and listen to great music in order to be inspired to work on your own songs. Similarly, you must seek out and read works by great writers in order to be inspired to create your own written pieces. And in both cases, you must come up with more than you need and develop the sense to keep only the best parts. Trimming and fine tuning is as important a phase as coming up with the initial idea, maybe more so.
Check out the following sites.