Interview with Dean Swinford Author of the Death Metal Epic Trilogy.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m Dean Swinford, the author of the Death Metal Epicbook series. The books tell the story of David Fosberg, the guitarist of an obscure Florida death metal band. I’m from Miami, so the books start there. They move to Belgium, where I lived as a Fulbright scholar when I was writing my doctoral dissertation. The books tell a coming of age story that’s been described as smart and funny. I’m an English professor with a research focus in medieval and early modern literature. If you look at the bookshelf behind me in this picture, you can get a pretty good sense of my interests. I’ve got my Shakespeare next to my Metalion and my mythology reference next to my dictionary.
The amount of detail in your book is amazing. It is clear you are a true die-hard Metalhead! When did you first get into Metal?
Pretty much for as long as I’ve been aware of music. I have two older brothers—they’re about ten years older than I am. My one brother had Queen’s News of the World on vinyl. The combination of the robot monster on the cover and “We Will Rock You” as the first track really captured my imagination. After that, it was Motley Crüe’s Shout At the Devil and related hair metal, with a gradual transition to Metallica and D.R.I. Death metal and its fractured swarm of spawn took me pretty abruptly: one morning, I heard Napalm Death on WVUM, the local college radio station out of the University of Miami, and that was it.
Is this your first book/trilogy?
This isn’t my first book, but the Death Metal Epicis my first extended work of fiction. Much of my writing is academic scholarship. My first book, Through the Daemon’s Gate, is about the astronomer Johannes Kepler. He’s sometimes seen as one of the earliest creators of science fiction. He wrote something called the Somnium, which basically describes how the inhabitants of the moon wrongly believe that the moon is the center of the universe. Besides being an important early work of science fiction, the Somniumis full of characters and tropes that metalheads would appreciate: it has an Icelandic astronomer whose mother is a witch, the summoning of a daemon from the moon, and Tycho Brahe, an astronomer who had a metal nose because he lost his real one in a duel. I’ve also been publishing research on medievalism in metal. You recently reviewed, Medievalism and Metal Music Studies: Throwing Down the Gauntlet, which has my essay on the poetic apotheosizing of Euronymous as a medieval king through an examination of references to him in album thank you lists.
There are many, many books about Metal but the vast majority of them are non-fiction. In fact, less than 1% of all publications about Heavy Metal are fiction. So, what made you decide to embrace metal themed fiction?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not really sure why there isn’t more fiction about metal, to be honest with you. It offers such a rich range of material to explore. With my novels, I’m trying to write the kinds of books that I would have wanted to read when I was younger. I worked at a Borders right after I finished college and I spent many hours shelving the literature section. The Booksalot where David Fosberg works at the beginning of The Inverted Katabasisis based on that job. When I worked there, I really got into books like John Gardner’s Grendeland Cees Nooteboom’s The Following Story. I’d carry them around all the time in my backpack. I’m trying to write books that this younger version of me would have wanted to add to that book stash.
I guess what these books gave me is a sense that ancient ideas and poetry can still help us today. Also, they showed me that you can connect that ancient material to funny and absurd situations in real life. In other words, a book with references to the ouroboros, the Nekronomikon, and the spirits of those killed by the black plague doesn’t have to be a fantasy novel.
At the most basic level, writing these books is fun. I enjoy coming up with the bands, drawing their logos, and designing the liner notes for imaginary masterworks like Desekration’s Infernöor that groundbreaking and ill-fated album by Astrampsychos,The Intrapsychic Secret.
Tell us about your writing routine. Do you work at home, in an office, late at night or are you an early riser?
I write best in the morning while guzzling coffee. Milk, no sugar. I prefer to sit outside on my deck. First, I handwrite different parts of a chapter. I like to use those Moleskine journals, but I usually end up with the imitation Wal-Mart versions. By the time I’m done with them, they’re stickered up and filled with my illegible scrawl. My favorite pens to write with are those Uniball Signo ones—they’re like my heavy metal novelist pro model.
When I get anxious and think I’m not going anywhere with my writing, I type up whatever I’ve got in the journal and print a hard copy. I add revisions and additions by hand to the hard copy until the draft’s covered in notes. After that, I type in all the new stuff and print an updated copy. I keep doing this until I have something that I like. Then, I print the finished chapter and put it in my draft folder. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it makes me genuinely happy to take the printed chapter out of the copy machine and slide it into my draft folder. Writing is hard—it helps to get excited about little goals like this.
Here’s my draft folder for Sinister Synthesizer, the last Death Metal Epicbook. It has an ouroboros on it to remind me that I’m trying to close the circle and finish the thing.
From conception to having it come off the printing press how long has this project taken?
This is definitely one of my weak points as a writer. I am very slow. The first book came out in 2013. I started it in 2010 or something like that. The second book came out in 2017. I haven’t talked with my publisher about this, but I’d say that 2021 seems like a pretty realistic goal for the next one. Or it seemed that way until this coronavirus thing. I guess I’m not really slow—I’ve also published lots of academic scholarship in that period. But the idea of just popping off a novel a year? I have no idea how that’s possible. Now that I’m working on the last Death Metal Epic book, I’m starting to realize, too, that my days of exploring metal’s poetic underworld may be limited. Ultralimited. So I kind of want to savor it as much as possible and make sure that I’m true to my overall goals with the trilogy.
How has initial reception been?
People have responded well to the books. They’re on a small press, but the books have allowed me to be in touch with people from all over the world to share our interest in metal. They’ve been used in classes on metal and culture at the University of Dayton and Miami University and I’ve had the opportunity to talk with the students about the books and ways that they connect metal to medieval and mythological themes. Recently, I’ve been in touch with a grad student in the Czech Republic who is writing a master’s thesis on metal literature.
How much of the main character is a mix of you and your experiences?
Part of writing is the ability to empathize with whatever motivates any of your characters. When I’m writing David Fosberg, I’m writing from the standpoint of a younger, maybe more naïve, version of myself and my friends growing up. But even when I’m writing someone who comes off as strange and villainous, like Nordikron, I still put myself in a position where that person’s ideas and experiences come off as relatable or understandable in some way. A lot of the interplay between David and Juan in the first book comes from David being receptive to Juan’s ideas, but also seeing those ideas, and Juan himself, as suspect. When I’m writing those parts, though, I kind of use Juan as the mouthpiece for everything connecting metal to myth—which is one of the main ideas I’m trying to explore in the series.
What advice would you have for aspiring authors?
In a general sense, I would say to stick to small, achievable goals. Two pieces of advice have helped me:
First, write about a page (250 words or so) a day. That page doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be material that’s going to end up in the finished thing. It could be notes to yourself about a character, or how you want some plot point to work. The important point is just getting some material. In the first book, there’s a long paragraph that describes Juan’s top hat. I spent a lot of time rewriting those sentences, drawing the hat, looking at pictures of top hats online. I probably had enough material to do a chapter on the hat itself, but I cut all of that. The important thing was that the time I spent writing about the hat was really a way for me to explore Juan as a character—he’s the person wearing the hat, so writing about the hat gave me more insight into his qualities.
Second, if you’re working on a book, don’t worry too much about where you’re going until you have 100 pages or so. It’s better to see where your ideas take you, instead of having some preconceived notion of where you want to go.
Thanks for taking the time to interview me. Thanks, too, for bearing with the coronavirus delay on my responses!