John Wray
Photo: Julio Arellano | courtesy of Kathy Daneman PR

Author John Wray on the Death Metal Novel as Flamethrower

Like the death and black metal bands it includes, John Wray’s novel Gone to the Wolves is a full-on assault on the senses that doesn’t hold back.

Gone to the Wolves
John Wray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
May 2023

Rock novels come and go, as prone to combustion as the bands and genres that spawn them. They are plagued with any number of devils, from awkward descriptions of music to blatant set-piece concerts. Worst of all is the bid for popularity they represent for their writers: Look at me, these novels seem to say. See how cool I am? Studied cool is the worst pose of all. 

John Wray’s latest novel, Gone to the Wolves, suffers from none of these ailments. Like the death and black metal bands it covers, it’s a full-on assault on the senses that doesn’t hold back.  In this novel, music is a flamethrower that burns away lies to reveal the truth. Because of that, it’s the most authentic and exhilarating novel about music I’ve read. Any music head—even those who aren’t fans of the genre—will find plenty to enjoy here.

Wray is no newcomer to the writing scene: he’s a novelist with five previous books and a music journalist whose work has appeared in Spin and Esquire. His work ranges from a novel about a teenage schizophrenic roaming the streets of New York City (2009’s Lowboy) to a story about a man who has become separated from the flow of time (2016’s The Lost Time Accidents). But he said he’s never had more fun writing a book than he did with this one, and it shows. The exacting details of Gone to the Wolves reflect metal culture’s febrile, heady milieu. The three primary characters—Kip, a suburbanite given to bouts of rage; Leslie Z., a black, gay firebrand; and Kira, an abused trailer park teen—who grow up amid the nascent death metal scene in Florida, are equal parts complex and relatable. 

The result is a book that gives metal its due in fiction, not as background or subplot, but as the main event. If you’ve ever wished for a novel that took metal seriously, where musical taste is life or death, Gone to the Wolves is for you. 

I was skeptical when I first heard about Gone to the Wolves. Many writers that attempt to write about rock don’t know well the music or the scenes they’re writing about. But when I read the scene in Gone to the Wolves where Leslie Z. and Kip are in the bedroom listening to Death and Leslie Z. explains what amp and pedals the guitar player used to get his tone, I thought, “Oh, this guy gets it. This is the real deal.”

It’s hard to write about music for all the classic reasons: the “dancing about architecture” quandary. But there’s an extra complication when you’re writing about rock music, popular music, hip-hop, or any “cool” form of music. You get this creeping impression that the author—who’s usually a dude—is trying to be cooler than he is by writing a novel about something that’s obviously cool. And you never want to feel embarrassed for the author. Sure, you can try to inhabit the mind of Jimmy Page, but that doesn’t make you Jimmy Page.

There are exceptions. Some books about rock ‘n’ roll, like Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo, go to such weird places that they sidestep the problem. But I was very conscious of that issue, which is why I knew from the beginning I would write about the geeks, the super fans, the true believers. I knew that Kip, the protagonist and our guide through this world, had to be a neophyte, and at no point could he be cooler than I am. He becomes a badass toward the end, which is when he and I part ways.

So as long as the characters aren’t cooler than you, the novel works.

Right, they shouldn’t be cooler than the author. It’s the equivalent of some dude who goes to rock shows and then posts pictures of awkward selfies with rock stars on his social media. That never makes a dude look cool. The rock stars have pained half-smiles on their faces. You can tell they’re looking for an escape route. You don’t want that equivalent in a novel because writers are many things, but they’re not particularly cool.

The common approach is for a writer to fictionalize the bands, maybe because they’re worried about the novel becoming dated or don’t have the requisite music knowledge. But you don’t do that in Gone to the Wolves. You write about Death, Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, Mayhem, and Emperor. And you’re not name-checking because you also discuss the people in the bands.

In the early phase of Gone to the Wolves, for example, Kip, Kira, and Leslie Z go to metal shows, and here’s this dude, Chuck [Schuldiner, of the band Death], who Leslie Z knows because his mom goes to church with Chuck’s mom. This approach cuts through all the mythology that often gets in the way of understanding and feeling the music. Was the inclusion of real bands and people part of your approach from the start? 

I knew that from the very beginning. I set the first part of Gone to the Wolves in the underground, burgeoning death metal scene in small-town Florida, which was the global epicenter for the large, commercially important death metal scene for a brief period. Death metal made big inroads into the mainstream, which is very odd. You know, as with Cannibal Corpse in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective or Jim Carrey on The Tonight Show talking about how much he loves death metal. 

I wanted to show that the scene in Florida in the latter part of the ’80s was a small, DIY, grassroots scene. There wasn’t a lot of distance between the fans and the performers. They were kids in their teens playing at youth centers and kiosks in city parks in Sarasota.

The way to show that it was a supportive, nurturing community, no different than the early punk community in London in 1975, ’76, or the hardcore scene in DC in the ’80s, was to show the interaction between the fans and the people on stage. The stage was just a corner of the youth center, you know. So Death became like characters in the novel, although we’re only with them briefly. That became the template for the rest of the book.

Two of my rules were: don’t put a band or some famous rock musician in to make the novel sexier and use these walk-ons to sell the book; only use them when they contribute to the reader’s experience. If you’re going to write about music scenes and the most insignificant fans, you need moments of intersection between those characters and the people they idolize and whose music they adore. I had to be careful not to do it too much. Some things got cut that were fun for me to write but didn’t move the novel forward.

I want to read the uncut version. 

Be careful what you ask for. The one exception is the scene with drunk, passed-out Vince Neil at the Rainbow Room in L.A. That was too much fun to resist. I wrote it for Eric, my editor at FSG, who played in a metal band in high school in L.A. Poking good-natured fun at Mötley Crüe is a leitmotif throughout Gone to the Wolves. I thought there had to be a meeting with one of the band members. Even if he’s completely incoherent, someone from Mötley Crüe had to make an appearance.

There are a lot of things tucked into the story that are meant for music fans. In one scene, two kids at a show one-up each other as they list actual bands, which reads like a parody of band names. In another, Kip and Kira find a religious pamphlet warning about the evils of metal, and Kip’s response is basically, “Anthrax isn’t even death metal, they’re thrash.” Those details are right out of the era and are spot on. 

I had more fun writing Gone to the Wolves than any other book I’ve written. In part, it’s because of the incredible richness of metal culture in the United States. It has its own language, iconography, and subcultural codes, almost more than any other kind of music. It’s a complete Weltanschauung: the visuals, the design, the sound, the vernacular used, everything.

It’s not a world, to my knowledge, that has been written about in this form. There are some very good nonfiction books, but neither my editor nor I could think of a novel that took metal seriously and didn’t patronize or condescend or use it as the punchline to the joke. 

Throughout Gone to the Wolves, the characters search for something real or authentic. They have a fine-tuned way of differentiating between concert-goers that are posers and those that are real fans.

At one point, they get into an argument about whether the guy Kira’s dating in L.A. is a poser. Kira says, “Telling the truth is the one thing I care about. Seeing things like they are. Not pretending they’re better … That’s what metal is for. It’s a flamethrower, Norvald. It burns all the bullshit away.” Does it seem to you that music can peel away the false veneer of reality and get at something more essential?

It absolutely can. In Gone to the Wolves, the three protagonists are very different from one another in most respects, both profound and superficial, but are passionately drawn to metal for distinct reasons. I don’t know if Leslie Z. would articulate the appeal of metal in the way that Kira does. This is part of why – as if in a centrifuge – they’re drawn from radically different directions regarding the metal they’re into.

When I’m describing Kip’s first revelatory first listen to Death in Leslie’s bedroom, it gets at what Kira’s articulating because he’s a kid who’s grown up in a rough way. He’s a depressed teenager who often feels alienated and alone. He’s living in Florida, where there was a dominant fairy tale about life: everything is wonderful. The sun is always shining. No one suffers. No one dies. That’s why half the country moved there. But he’s growing up knowing that’s not the whole story.

They’ve been selling that lie for years. 

It’s a lot like the dawn of British punk. They were living in England at a time with unemployment strikes, garbage strikes in the street, and very few prospects, and yet the dominant pop cultural narrative at the time in England was ’70s feel-good prog rock that didn’t reflect the felt reality of the kids. The same thing was true of the death metal scene in Florida. 

The best metal, as opposed to punk, is a hybrid of the fantastical — songs about Satan and demons beguiling you in the night and epic Viking battles — with real-world outrage. That profound indignation and shock at the state of the world is part of the reason one might seek escape in fantasy. A masterpiece like Ride the Lightning by Metallica has both elements in suspension. They’re almost of equal importance. 

So the reaction to the world around the musicians is the impetus for the music and also what draws people to the music?

Yes. Even going back to Black Sabbath, some of their best songs are about the real world, not just “the wizard snatched me away and took me to Satan.” You also have songs like “War Pigs”, which is clearly about the Vietnam War. Having my three main characters at different times in the book articulate what it was that drew them to metal was also a way of showing how different they are from each other.

For Kira, it’s angry, extreme music that washes away all the bullshit and the prevailing narrative for her. She’s someone who is in a lot of pain and had problems growing up, so metal to her is the highest truth because it speaks to her inner torment and anger. Then you have someone like Leslie. 

Leslie is not your typical metalhead.

No, but that’s why he’s so important to Gone to the Wolves because he shows that there isn’t one type of metalhead. His character is a wonderful way of showing the diversity of the metal community. By nature, he is a performer who lives in his fantasies. Growing up gay and black in the almost exclusively white, small-town environment of Gulf Coast Florida would motivate one to cultivate an active fantasy life because reality is a little daunting and threatening. So for Leslie, metal is a beautiful escape into a fantasy world where he can date the singer from Hanoi Rocks and be a worldly sophisticate and a master chef and all the things he dreams of doing.

Whereas for Kira, it’s the opposite. That’s why they’re in conflict throughout the novel. 

That reminds me of a moment in Gone to the Wolves when Kip tries to understand Kira’s obsession with realness. Kira says, “We’re always trying to make life feel real—to make it louder and brighter, more crazy, more like how we think reality is supposed to be […] but maybe the answer is to pick some random fairy tale, some stupid fantasy, and take it as seriously you possibly can. Go down so deep that everything just flips. Reality turns flat and gray. The fantasy gets bright.”

That connects with what you’re talking about. For Leslie Z., reality isn’t real. Fantasy is real. The music lets him do that.

Right. Kira’s also talking about black metal. She’s not yet fully immersed in that world, but it foreshadows what they all will encounter in a year or two in Norway. And that distinguishes black metal from the metal that had gone before.

These kids in Scandinavia painted themselves into a corner. They essentially wanted to make death metal, but they were a half-generation younger, and they had to find something that made them special. Frankly, it wasn’t the music that made them special in most cases. Most black metal is pretty boring. 

Between the blast beats and the vocals, it’s not so much about dynamics. 

True. But there are a few exceptions. A band like Emperor, who comes in for a bit of ribbing in this novel as well, became, a little bit after the events of this book, quite an exceptional band. Black metal has its passionate devotees, but these were teenagers who didn’t yet have the musical ideas that would distinguish them from their influences, like the big death metal bands Morbid Angel and Obituary and Deicide. So they looked beyond the music to find ways of getting attention, and it led them into this very dark place.

It was very important not to make them seem cooler or more glamorous than they were because they were confused children. That’s one reason I had to create a force behind that movement that would be legitimately terrifying.

When I got to the third section of Gone to the Wolves and realized where you were headed with this story, I was surprised because there’s nothing in the book description about the black metal scene or the church burnings in Norway. I lead with that when I talk to people about the book, and they say, “Oh, I’d read that.”

I wouldn’t have wanted to write a whole novel about the Scandinavian black metal scene because it’s been too sensationalized. I wanted the reader to have a grounding in other metal scenes so they could see that these were just a bunch of kids trying to be impressive, scary grownups and how these guys were different. I wanted to make sure the reader understands that the vast majority of people who make metal and consume it and go to the shows and adopt it as a lifestyle—

They’re not church burners, right? 

No, I mean, they’re actually pretty cuddly people. 

That runs counter to type, but stereotypes are often false. Pushing back against that is important.

I’ve felt this when writing other books, too. I wrote a novel about a schizophrenic kid about ten years ago (Lowboy). As I got deeper into writing that book, I became conscious of how much misrepresentation and sensationalistic, lazy writing and filmmaking there is around mental illness and schizophrenia in particular – so much so that schizophrenia is almost a scary word when you hear it.

Similarly, when I was writing Gone to the Wolves, I became committed to exploding certain stereotypes and portraying this world with more nuance and accuracy than non-metal fans might expect. 

Speaking of Lowboy, you’ve written about characters with mental illness in more than one novel. Kip has dissociative fits of rage where he goes to “the white room”. As you’re saying, it’s important not to misrepresent metal; the same is true of mental illness. What is it that draws you to write about that subject? 

I’ve thought about this a lot. Mental illness is a fascinating subject. There’s something about novels of a certain length that have room for a kind of investigation. Fiction is at its best when it represents subjective states of mind. That’s something that fiction can do arguably better than most other art forms. Some films have dramatized mental crises of various kinds, but you’re still basically on the outside when you’re watching this film unless it’s just loaded with voiceover, which has its own drawbacks.

The novel has this inherent advantage in that most of the time, even if it’s a novel written in the third person, you’re inhabiting the point of view or mental interior of at least one character and sometimes a whole gallery of characters. I feel that the novel is uniquely suited to exploring extremes of subjective mental states, and nothing could be more subjective than the perceptions of someone suffering from mental illness.

There’s something in this book for every music fan. It appeals to people who like extreme music and those who don’t or maybe want to understand more about it. Gone to the Wolves is tremendously open and welcoming, just as a music scene or music community can be. 

As someone who has written about music for many years, I love how wild the distinctions are among passionate lovers of music as to what music is great and what music is awful – all the disagreements and conflicts and controversies around different sub-genres of popular music, how you can have so many people who are so passionate almost to the point of life and death about what constitutes great and terrible music. It creates this kaleidoscopic variety of passionate opinions, which I think is beautiful. In a sense, no one agrees about anything in popular music except that Coldplay sucks.