Interview with Ron Riekki (Novelist)

Metal Express Radio: Hi Ron and thanks for interviewing with Metal Express Radio. How are you these days?

Riekki: Hmm. I would say liminal.

MER: Last year you published your first novel, “U.P”, congrats on that. How do you feel as a new writer? What does it take to be one? Have you written stuff unofficially?

Riekki: I feel relieved as a writer. It’s something I’d been working on steadily since 1995. And I’d started to wonder if it was ever going to happen. Luckily it did. If anyone wants to be one, I’d say spend every day of your life working on it. Same with the best musicians/guitarists. They live it. I remember reading a story about how Magic Johnson walked everywhere with a basketball and how Kobe Bryant did the same thing. Then I read that Stevie Ray Vaughan walked everywhere he went with a guitar, even took it on the bus with him. Clapton did the same, so it became an extension of his body. That’s how I’ve been. I write every day. Or actually more like every night. I’m nocturnal. Interesting question on if I’ve written stuff “unofficially.” If you mean “underground,” yeah, all my stuff is kinda underground press stuff. Just like most metal bands are on underground labels. I’m on Ghost Road Press now, which is a good solid indie press. They win a lot of awards — Colorado Book Awards, Spur Awards, WILLA Awards, etc. But I’ve had stuff published on some really tiny presses before that, but I don’t really count it because it wasn’t a national release. But I’ve moved over to the official side now with the Ghost Road Press contract.

MER: “U.P” discusses the harsh lives of youngsters and that “it’s not easy growing up” and the struggle for survival during the winter time. What made you write this kind of novel? Why is the winter element the example for suffering?

Riekki: Wow. Great questions. I think the novel was just inside me — had to come out. I remember Ice T (of the Metal band Body Count) saying how he just writes this kind of stuff, just comes out of him. He can’t control it. I’m like that. These books and plays just bleed out of me. From pain I suppose, loss. I really didn’t like a lot of aspects of my childhood. I prefer adult life. Maybe it’s because in my adult life I got out of the cold. I lived in Northern Michigan growing up, large Finnish community. I think all the Finns moved there because it echoed Finnish landscapes and weather. My family is originally from Lapland, but I am not a cold weather person. I used to live very near the equator and that was the climate for me. In the book, there’s a line about it getting so cold in the winter that cows’ ears would freeze and break off. I remember making a tunnel through the snow to get to our mailbox. And radio reports of wind chills in the negatives — negative thirty, negative forty, negative fifty. Warnings not to go outside, that you could die. I hated that. I like to be outside. So I guess the suffering of the characters — their isolation and loss of not having fathers (one kid’s dad is in prison, another is homeless and addicted to heroin, etc.) — is exemplified in the weather. Outside is how they feel inside. Cold, alone. I liked that question. It was a good one.

MER: Lately Smartass Radio dubbed you as the “First Metal Fiction Writer”. The first connection the novel has to Metal is that the main character, Craig, is a Metalhead. Are there any other connections to Metal around the novel?

Riekki: Craig talks about Metal throughout the entirety of the novel. He even does a top ten list of his favorite Metal albums of all time. (That list by the way has gotten a lot of comments from readers—they want to debate it, especially his number one choice.) But really that’s how Craig sees the world; it’s through Metal that he finds himself. His father got incarcerated, so his mother moved them from Detroit, Michigan, to Northern Michigan and he had no friends, then he goes to a Ratt/Poison concert and he discovers sexuality and freedom and energy and it just changes him, finally gives him a connection with the world. So really for every page that Craig narrates Metal is there, in his metaphors, in his thoughts. How he sees the world. I think Metalheads will really appreciate my novels, because they’ll get all the references. Craig nicknames one of the characters “Hollow” and a metal fan will realize the Pantera reference. Anyone else won’t get those references. And they’re layered throughout the book.

MER: Craig, like various youngsters, are attracted to Metal while they are facing the images and sights from their environment. Does Metal save them from their hard realities? Do they use Metal as a means to correct errors or to try to better themselves?

Riekki: I think Craig feels he has nothing. He’s not cared about. He’s an outsider. Even when he’s not, really, he thinks he is, believes he is. And the music gives him identity. He’s hurt. He’s fatherless. He’s angry. And he understands the lyrics. He feels the lyrics are written to him. On a personal level, I think that’s when I’ve connected the most with Metal, is when I’ve been at the lowest points of my life. When I was dating a girl that I was completely in love with, I didn’t really listen to Metal much. After breaking up with her, I started listening to it again, reconnecting. For me, that’s how I’ve connected with Metal. When I was young and lost and angry, suddenly Vulgar Display of Power completely made sense to me. And I think Craig’s like that. I don’t think he sees it as correcting errors at all. I think he views his life as errors. That redeeming himself is impossible. He’s been demonized. So he’s given up, accepts it. Or is giving up, accepting it. Feels empty. Hollow. And cranking “War Ensemble” allows him to drown out the rest of the world, which the real world is one of rejection, where people promise one thing but in the end only abandon you. I remember when I was in the military, I’d fall asleep to Slayer’s Reign In Blood and I think it was because nothing else would drown out the rest of the loud world. Craig’s like that. He’s trying to shut the world out. No other sounds. But as a side note, I think Craig connects to the Metal ballads too, something like Waysted’s “Heaven Tonight.” You know, Craig is a Slayer fan. That band keeps getting mentioned in the novel. But I envision him putting on Dokken’s “Alone Again” when he’s by himself, definitely not when anyone else is around, and crying.

MER: In the novel you included four main characters from pretty tough backgrounds. Do you have a role in the story itself? Are you one of them? Are you a participant? Have you been, in your youth, one of them? Did you experience their type of lives?

Riekki: Interesting. Yes . . . and no. I’m not in the novel, at all. But then I am all of the characters. I mean, one of the characters has cerebral palsy. And I don’t. But writing to him, I completely understood his isolation, his outsider quality. I’ve been an outsider my whole life. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it seems I have been. I think becoming a novelist sealed that. To write, you have to be alone. It’s that simple. So I spend full days sometimes not seeing anyone, talking to anyone. So all of the separation of these characters, I get, I understand. I think people who’ve read the book see me as Hollow. But Hollow’s brother died and that’s central to him and I’ve never had a brother. I think in my youth though, I was these kids. I remember connecting with others through Metal. My cousins in real life listened to it. And I can close my eyes and see us in a car headbanging to Pantera. And I miss that. A group of close friends like that. Un-censored. I think the novel’s really nostalgic in a lot of ways. But nostalgic for a bad time. Or maybe not bad. A complex time. I don’t know.

The type of life my characters experience is one of being young and not feeling you have a future. And a lot of people who’ve read it, a lot of them tell me, “I know these kids.” “This is my son” or “this is my neighbor.” A lady came up to me after my latest reading and said that. I’m glad about that, that people know these characters, and I’m allowing their lives to be heard, because largely they’re ignored. This world is crammed with loneliness and if people are connecting with Metal, that’s worth something. There’s a line in the book that says, “If it wasn’t for friendship, we’d all self-destruct.” I think when I wrote the book, I was hoping to connect with readers. To create a family out of my writing. Friends out of readers. One of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me was when Jeff Pilson of Dokken/Dio gave me a blurb for the book. He wrote about how he knows these characters, how he connects with them. I was a massive Dokken fan growing up. Loved them. And to have him write to me saying how he connected with my writing after I’d connected to his music in my youth. That’s what I’m talking about! Yes, I know these characters. And I think when people read the novel, they’ll see themselves in Craig or J or Hollow or Antony. See themselves or see their friends, their brother, their kid.

MER: What is your history around Metal? Besides being a writer are you also a musician?

Riekki: I wish. Man, I wish. I really, really respect musicians. When I go to concerts, I’ll key in on whoever I think is the best musician onstage. Like when I saw Sepultura, I just watched the drumming the entire show. Best drummer I’ve ever seen live. Hypnotizing. Chills up my spine. I love talking about that concert. And watching George Lynch on guitar up close in Grand Rapids. I really get astounded at what you can do with an instrument. I completely forget myself when I’m listening to amazing music. I’m a music addict. I probably wouldn’t be alive without music. That’s how much it means to me. I think instead of antidepressants, I take CDs. Guitar chords as mood stabilizers. And I love all kinds of music. I used to be in bands when I was a kid, from like twelve to eighteen. My first band was terrible, just terrible. Like Daniel Johnston but without any talent. Oh my God, we were bad. No musical training, not a clue what we were doing. But then after years of guitar lessons and experimenting and getting a 4-track recorder, we started to get to be pretty good.

My cousin Kevin Asgaard still plays in Metal bands, guitar; he opened for Jackyl. We had one song we did in our band (Demented Soul) called “Tic Tac Orange,” a straight-up metal tune cross between Danzig and Mike Patton. I did vocals and a two note guitar solo, guy that was giving us guitar lessons gave us the drum track, and then my cousin put guitar over it. No bass. We didn’t know anyone who played bass. And I got all into doing the production. There was this roller coaster ride recorded that got played backwards and mixed into part of the song, kids screaming backwards. I thought it sounded cool as hell. We did plenty of songs, but that one, the first one we did with the 4-track came out really sweet. And it got played on WUPX in my hometown. It made the top ten most requested, and we hadn’t requested it at all, so we were riding in my car and just ecstatic, trying to find anyone we knew to show them we were on the air, astounded that someone liked our song. That was incredible. But that was my peak. Band fell apart after that. That was high school.

In college, I did a couple tracks with a guy named DJ Sir Real who replaced Kid Rock in The Howling Diablos and with a Metal drummer named Paul Snabes and those sounded pretty good. A friend of mine in North Carolina was forming his own record label called Ishkabibble Records and he took all my high school and college recordings and put together a CD called “Ron Riekki—Thirty Years of Rock and Roll” and released it and I think he sold like eight copies. Label no longer exists. He went on to play in a group called The Fast Computers that I really like. Man, getting nostalgic with all of this. And also realizing how much music I actually did do. I used to be a music major, but I switched majors after a year, but Central Michigan University put me in the music dorm, so all my friends were music students. The drummer from The Verve Pipe was in my dorm. You’d hear people practicing their instruments every day. Those were some of the best days of my life. I love being around musicians. They just have this Buddha enlightened free hippie crazy interesting hilarious vibe to ‘em. Musicians rule.

Lately I’m music-less as far as playing. And I miss it. I need to get back. I think I really do. Last girlfriend who broke up with me said something along the lines of “I wish you’d played guitar more.” I asked why and she said, “Because it’s sexy. You imagine that what they’re doing with their fingers, they’ll do to your body.” OK, I think I’ve just decided writing this that I need to start playing again. Man, listen to girlfriends when they break up with you. That’s my advice.

Good thing is, this book has me back in the world of music, getting interviewed with a lot of Metal shows throughout Canada and the U.S., so I’ve gotten to submerge myself in talking about something I love. And one really cool thing is that I got a call from VH1, a producer had read U.P. and recommended me to them, so I got to work as a music advisor on a show and then worked on a second VH1 show as well.

MER: Please tell the Metal fans some facts about you. Who is Ron Riekki?

Riekki: I don’t know. I feel all caught up in a weird existential moment right now. Who the hell am I? What’s something random?

I love Quebec. I’m amazed at how beautiful women are. I think Jack Kerouac’s a genius. And Flight of the Conchords too. I played college basketball.

And recently got a four book deal with Ghost Road, so they just published my novel U.P. last year. Next year they publish my novella A Portrait of the Artist as a Boogey Man about a schizophrenic John Denver-slash-Slayer addict. Then in 2011 they published my military memoir I Hate It Here. And in 2012 they published my novel Hunger and the Ass. So readers are gonna have some crazy books coming their way if they check me out— You can just tell by the titles of my books that they’re not standard.

National Book Award winner John Casey gave me a blurb for U.P. where he wrote, “I wish Kurt Vonnegut were alive to read U.P. He’d love it.” That was a huge compliment, because Casey was friends with Vonnegut. So if you like Vonnegut and Metal, hopefully you’ll like my books.

I’m also working on a screenplay with an actress I met this summer while I was in L.A. I went there for interviews with VH1 and some other channels. When nothing materialized, I got into acting (Jen, an actress friend told me to sign up for Central Casting). Within a week, I got picked by Warner Brothers for a very small role on Pushing Daisies on ABC, but I got Screen Actors’ Guild membership out of it, which means I’m going back to L.A. in a couple months to take advantage of that, see if anything else will come up out of the blue.

While I was there I got to do a stunt on Criminal Minds on CBS, although I didn’t get stunt pay, but was a blast to do. Got to run from a burning church and leap over a wall, escaping. And met the actress Martha Boles, who is an incredible talent—she played Agent Josephs on Criminal Minds–and I’m working on the screenplay with her now. Hmm. Not sure what else to tell about me.
I have a music crush on Jennifer Charles (Montreal singer) and Kerli (Estonian singer), and another on Kate Beckinsale in Serendipity. And I hope anyone who reads the book and likes it will track me down and send me an email or letter or Facebook note saying what they liked about it. I really hope to make some friends with readers.

MER: In the past, Metal was accused of corrupting young minds. Do you think that this notion is justifiable? If it is – did that notion affect your writing?

Riekki: Well, Craig’s a bit of a villain. But there’s a line where he says something about his mother blaming Ozzy Osbourne for his behavior. And it’s just not that simple.
I can go on rants about the American social system, how the U.S. leads the world in incarceration, how that means in my opinion the U.S. leads the world in fatherlessness, and then what that means to American society, if there’s a drug culture and an imprisonment culture, then to have these fathers who are addicts and not getting rehabilitated and going to prison and not getting rehabilitated, then what it means for their children.

The goal with the book is I wanted to write painfully what it’s like for the isolated teen. So a lot of the writing is ugly. But I hope it’s real. I mean, Craig’s a cutter. He takes a paperclip and carves into himself until he’s bleeding so that he can feel something else other than the pain he feels. Is that Metal’s fault? Or is there a much larger socio-economic, a larger psycho-historical element that has to be examined?

There are really frightening statistics out there right now when we look at gun violence and unemployment and racist and classist court systems. To blame Metal feels a bit ridiculous. Paul, my drummer friend, is probably the one of the gentlest humans I’ve ever met. I remember exhausting myself at Metal concerts. Sleeping like a baby afterwards. Albeit a baby with tinnitus. But to say that Metal corrupts minds, well, there are bigger issues that need to be examined.

I will add this though, I don’t listen to satanic bands, so that world is not part of mine. I do think that you can program your mind to think anyway that you want, and so I tend towards CDs I found empowering. I remember listening to “Mouth for War” and really connecting with “I’ve moved mountains with less / When I channel my hate to productive / I don’t find it hard to impress.” When I channel my hate to be productive. That’s fantastic. That’s what Phil Anselmo did. There’s an authentic anger there, but he turned it into, what?, nine studio albums? That’s what I try to do.
I have this plethora of loss in me, loss and anger and sadness in me that all humans do. It comes with being alive. But I try to turn that into novels. When I was studying at the University of Virginia, people would often turn in short stories for workshops, and I’d turn in full novels. That’s how much I was writing.

I served in Diego Garcia in Desert Storm, I’ve taught in prison to people serving double/triple life sentences, I grew up with kids who I felt were hurt at levels that I don’t know how they survived, and I’ve felt the poverty of trying to be a writer. I’ve lived in Prague, Montreal, Spain, Chicago. I’ve seen too much. There’s too much to write about. And I hope to do it honestly, which is what I think your majority of Metal lyricists are trying to do. Hell, you could ask, is my novel corrupting minds? It depends on how you read the book. What you take from it. And I can’t control that. All I can do is write honestly. And I think that’s what the best metal bands have to do. They have to write honestly, painfully, authentically.

MER: Do you think that creative writing can save all troubled persons? What are your experiences with that subject?

Riekki: Yes. OK, I was just teaching in a nearby prison here. And these guys have stories. They’ve had exceptionally tough lives. My hope is that when I’m teaching them how to write, I’m teaching them how to cope, how to organize their thoughts, how to make themselves into heroes, how to communicate with the world. And they have incredible stories. Incredible. Visceral. Powerfully sad. Powerful. Just a thick kick to your heart, sadness. And humor. Complex.

Some of the best writers I’ve read are homeless, incarcerated, ex-gang members. Unfortunately, they don’t have the access to the things that can set them up for getting published, for their voice to be heard. Luckily, I do.

And I think my writing has allowed me to connect with people. That it’s allowed me to cope with my troubles. You know, it’s healing. I’ve gotten through some very sad times by writing. Heck, earlier today I had a wave of deep sadness missing an ex-girlfriend and what kept me up was knowing I had this interview to look forward to, that I’d get to connect hopefully with your readers. That’s what counseling is. You’re talking with someone. And any time you pick up a pen, that’s a counseling session. Psychologists rarely talk when you have a session with them. So in a lot of ways a piece of paper is the same way, just more affordable.

I’d love it if anyone who reads this interview remembers this: if you’re ever really sad, maybe even suicidal, pick up a pen and start writing. Don’t let yourself stop until you have three hundred pages. Do that and the wave of feeling will be gone. And you’ll have created something. And you’ll be alive. Alive with a book. You know. That’s beautiful. To me. I love creation. That’s what keeps me going.

This hope that I’m going to write things that will connect with people. You know, when I think of suicide notes, I sometimes think that the flaw was that they were too short. That instead of writing a page, if that person had written four hundred pages that they’d still be alive. Do you know what I mean? I think it’s incredibly healthy to write. I absolutely fall in love with poems. Sometimes online people will post these hastily rushed, kind of sloppy, self-indulgent, pitying poems, and I have to be honest, I feel these little heartbeats of connection when I read them. Yes, they’re unimpressive in their verse style or what have you, but, my God, a person is trying to connect with another person. I find that lovely. Just like I said I love musicians, well, I love writers. I fall in love with writers daily. I wish I could date Kathy Acker and Sylvia Plath and Erica Jong and Suzan-Lori Parks and Colette.

MER: As a Metal fan , where do you think Metal is going today? Do you think it will rise up again like when it was in its golden years in the 80’s or will it remain in its current state?

Riekki: I was in Chicago listening to a radio station talk about the best band of all-time. They were arguing for R.E.M. I was like, huh? Callers were saying the Beatles. Radiohead. In my opinion, and I like all forms of music, it’s Rage Against the Machine. And that’s the 90’s, not the 80’s.

I feel like the best Metal I heard was in the 90’s. I felt like the 80’s were trying to find its voice, but it wasn’t there yet, at all. I really would argue that it was the 90’s that were the golden years. Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display Of Power, 90’s. RATM, Evil Empire, Battle of L.A., 90’s. Seasons, 90’s. Queensrÿche, Empire, 90’s. No More Tears, 90’s.
I asked a friend of mine, Bernadette, a Denmarkian, her favorite Metal album of all-time and she listed a Type O Negative album from the 90’s. Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba,” Aerosmith’s “What It Takes,” basically all of Alice in Chains.

Man, I’d like to set up a debate with an 80’s Metalhead and I’d take the position that it was the 90’s that was the heyday and I think I’d have quite a list of counter arguments to the 80’s aficionados. When I think of the 80’s I think of “Cherry Pie” and I wince.

WFNP’s out of NY asked me to do a top ten Metal CDs of 1989, but I opened it up to 89-90, because it was too hard to just do ’89. Including ’90 made the list easy to do. Because of the point I’m trying to make, i.e. that I think Metal’s improving. Like all art forms. I think there’s so much hybridity and taxonomy out there right now that you can find a Metal song for anyone, depending on their interests. From atonal Mike Patton to mainstream Rap Metal to Frost Like Ashes—I mean, who knew there’d be Christian Black Metal?

I had a teacher who became very displeased if anyone talked about feminism as this one, simplistic viewpoint. She wanted to keep reminding us of its multi-vocality. Well, that’s what Metal’s like. When we’re talking about Metal, what are we talking about? Look at ten Metalheads’ CD collections and you’ll see an incredible variety. But what is its current state? I don’t understand. Are you saying it’s in bad shape? Too spread out? Too underground?

All I know is that since my book has come out, I’ve gotten interviewed by Metal shows all over—Amanda Murray at WRAS, Russell Knight at WEGL, Steve Ponchaud at WIMK, DJ Scully at WFNP, talked with Ophelia Necro at KFJC, and those are just to name a few. I think just about every college radio station has a Metal show, so it’s out there. And with the internet, it’s even bigger. I mean, I’m talking to you right now. How cool is that? We’re, what, six time zones away from each other? Discussing Metal.

Metal’s fine. It’s different. It’s changing. But it’s fine. It’s going to be in music for decades and decades, just new, advanced. The way that you hear George Harrison in Motley Crüe (“Slice of Your Pie”) and hear Carl Perkins in George Harrison and hear southern Gospel in Carl Perkins. Metal will influence music in infinite ways in the future. And what we’re starting to see is its newest hybrids and how it’s affecting other media—Metalocalypse, Wayne’s World, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, my novels. I think it’s an interesting time for Metal. With chat rooms and net radio and international touring, it’s a great time to be a Metal fan. I mean, right now I’m listening to Fastway’s “Heft.” Superb tune. And I can watch it live. In like a second. Bizarre. You can make your own Headbanger’s Ball now any time you want if you own a computer and can call up YouTube.

MER: What are your plans for the future? Are there more novels on the way?

Riekki: Yes, there’s the novels I already commented on. And then the screenplay. Beyond that, it’d be nice to get an agent. I think I’ll find a good audience for my writing with the books I have coming out on Ghost Road. Working on another novel called nothing Blazing Abandoning about a cute Death Metal couple. I like it, but it’s still in raw shape. There are a bunch of my plays that I need to send out. And working on some other screenplays too. Want to get ready for L.A. this summer. And hope people will check into for updates. And hell, maybe some Metal bands will record songs inspired from U.P. That’d be sweet.

MER: Do you have any special advice for the current and next generation of Metalheads around the world?

Riekki: Listen to Metal that empowers you. Operation: Mindcrime spurs me to want to take political action. Same with RATM. I really like Rage’s website, because it encourages active engagement with communities, no apathy. And I like that word community, anything set up where Metalheads are working together, helping each other out. I love the idea of concerts to promote awareness and raise money. If there’s anything like that that I could help bands with, let me know what I can do.

You can contact me through my publisher or various other ways. I’d also encourage that bands ensure that females are safe at their concerts and to stress that onstage. And just I guess in general to link up, bands supporting bands, radio stations and publishers supporting authors (which I very much appreciate you interviewing me) and authors supporting all of the above. I hope metal fans will read my novel U.P. It’s at, and plenty of other online booksellers.

MER: Ron, thank you for taking the time for this interview with Metal Express Radio. Good luck with the novel and with your future releases – hopefully they will influence and captivate the readers.


  • Lior Stein

    Lior was a reviewer, DJ and host for our Thrash Metal segment called Terror Zone, based out of Haifa, Israel. He attributes his love of Metal to his father, who got him into bands like Deep Purple, Rainbow, Boston, and Queen. When he was in junior high he got his first Iron Maiden CD, The Number Of The Beast. That's how he started his own collection of albums. Also, he's the guitarist, vocalist and founder of the Thrash Metal band Switchblade. Most of his musical influences come from Metal Church, Vicious Rumors, Overkill, and Annihilator.

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