Tales From the Metalnomicon: Eleanor Henderson

Welcome to Tales From the Metalnomicon, a new twice-monthly column delving into the surprisingly vast world of heavy metal-tinged/inspired literature and metalhead authors…
If any subcultural phenomenon has ever truly earned the designation “stranger than fiction,” surely it must be the late eighties/early nineties youth crew/krishnacore straight edge scene. Yet, outside of a couple oral history compilations and earnest grad school dissertations likely by now numbering in the millions, this hearty loam was not quite properly tilled until the 2011 release of Ten Thousand Saints, Eleanor Henderson’s elegant, exquisitely rendered, at times harrowing novel of profound loss and the uneven pathways to redemption that ran through a churning world of shaved heads, Champion hoodies, and brutal breakdowns courtesy Bold, Straight Ahead, and a host of other bands from the moment Youth of Today declared — more aptly than they could have possibly known — a time we’ll remember. (I’ll spare readers my attempt at reworking an already excellent official synopsis.)

Aside from a excellent book, we have something else to thank Henderson for: The delicious image of someone completely unconnected to the hardcore scene picking up a novel because it was named, say, one of the Top 10 Books of 2011 by the New York Times or a Year’s Reading selection by The New Yorker or a Top 5 Fiction title by O Magazine (!), and entering a literary world wherein ardently sober Hare Krishnas spend all their free time screaming about purity and brotherhood over the “puerile wail of their guitars.” (Yes, cue Mugatu.)

“Sometimes I’d tell people what I was writing about and they’d look at me kind of funny,” Henderson tells Decibel. “But from my first encounter with straight edge a long time ago as a teenager, I was intrigued by its paradoxes and appeal. I felt there were stories behind it and inside it, and so I just had to have faith that if the material captured my imagination, there might be something there that would capture other people’s as well. I’m glad I stuck it out. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”
There is a wonderful moment in Ten Thousand Saints in which the protagonist Jude attempts to explain straight edge to his aging hippie father, who dismissively retorts, “Straight edge? That’s what they’re calling them now? In my day, we called them squares.” And his mother, “amused, embarrassed, and concerned” by her son’s prosthelytizing lyrics — “What kind of teenage boys sang songs about purity? What happened to songs about getting stoned? Getting laid?…The classics of her own youth were strummed on the guitar, they were hummed in the shower, there were harmonicas” — observes Jude’s “romance with straight edge as she might have observed his first love — warily, with a mother’s pride, hoping that, in the end, his heart wouldn’t break too hard.”

Forging an individual identity within a culture and/or family not of one’s own choosing is, of course, a complicated dynamic no matter the soundtrack, but Henderson employs the strange, enlivening, honest-to-goodness revolt of eighties straight edge hardcore to gain a unique and edifying vantage point on the human condition, and this is where we begin our conversation with the gracious and witty author…

I chatted straight edge with Ian MacKaye several years back, and he talked about the idea of “taking leave of your senses” being sort of prepackaged as rebellion “when in essence it is really just slipping into what is one of the strongest economies and one of the most mainstream behavior patterns in this country” — which is an epiphany you capture and parse well in Ten Thousand Saints.

I don’t want to generalize too much about straight edge — it meant different things to different people, obviously — but the art of being a teenager is inventing new forms of rebellion, and I think that was one of the real attractions of straight edge for a lot of young kids, especially of this generation coming of age in the eighties. They had to outdo parents who had perfected rebellion. And some of those parents had trouble saying anything, never mind No, because they themselves had said Yes so strongly. Most parents, I think, feel something similar, but the criteria for parents who grew up in the sixties was probably a little heightened.

Actually, regarding generalizations, one of the things I love about Ten Thousand Saints is the smart, multidimensional approach you took. The main characters are drawn to straight edge through traumatic experiences, but several peripheral characters love the aggression and the music and the style — and their devotion to the ideal is constantly wavering because the stakes are not as high for them personally.

I wanted to create a nuanced portrait of the scene because it is nuanced. People come to it for different reasons and with different experiences. My husband, for example, like Jude and Johnny, experimented perhaps a little too freely, and he was reacting against that. The extreme 180 was very attractive to a lot of people. Then there were other kids who felt as if they didn’t quite fit in anywhere else and the scene was a family, a shelter for them. Abstaining from drugs and alcohol was secondary.

I love how you come at New York City straightedge hardcore through characters that start out and/or end up in small town Vermont, establishing a scene — the whole zeitgeist of a bunch of small town kids suddenly convinced they are in the process of changing the world. We’re in the future, so we know it doesn’t turn out that way, but that exhilaration and youthful promise still connects.

My mother’s family is from Vermont. I have a lot of love for Burlington. We grew up going to Vermont every other summer and coming from Florida I kind of idolized the idyllic nature of the Vermont setting. I had deep appreciating for the Burlington community on which Lintonburg is quite obviously based, but it really could have been any small New England town. When your town and world is that small something like the coming of straight edge can seem that big. And the connection to vegetarianism was stronger in earlier drafts of the book, so a dairy community seemed like a strong setting, especially then — there is a beloved scene I had to cut in which the boys kidnap a sheep from a farm in Vermont to hold for ransom.

You recently told Rock Cellar straight edge hardcore isn’t the music you’d put on in your everyday life, but I’m curious if whether you gained a greater appreciation for it while writing Ten Thousand Saints?

Yeah, appreciation is the right word — sort of a critical appreciation. It wasn’t necessarily the best music to write to and it was occasionally a bit much on my grandmotherly ears, but I tried to bring myself as close to the subject I was writing about as possible. I listened to a lot of my husband’s seven-inches! Still, it really isn’t my world. I enjoyed going to hardcore shows in Vermont — during college my husband and I made lots of trips to 242 in Burlington, the great little CBGBs of the Northeast — so I had a familiarity with the culture. And I envied the ease with which my husband entered and moved through that world. But the music never really felt like mine, and in writing the book I came at it from a sideways, journalistic, outsider perspective.

How did Ten Thousand Saints evolve from those experiences into what it eventually became?

Well, it took me nine years to write the book so over the course of that time straight edge changed and hardcore changed and I changed, a whole generation had passed since this youth crew era. I began the book very close to the scene. By the end I had a child and was living in Virginia. I had gone through an MFA program where I’d written a draft of the novel. Inevitably, I started to see it through new eyes and that affected everything. For example, when I first began the novel, it was written in the third person from limited Jude’s point of view, but as I went along it became difficult for me to access the story solely through the righteous eyes of a flawed, confused sixteen year-old whose point of view I did not necessarily share. I struggled to provide that nuanced view because he could only gain so much maturity over the course of the book. So I began to introduce other characters and allow readers into their heads, and that’s when I really felt as if I was able to get a little more traction and provide a little more dimension to the story.

I don’t want to play spoiler here, but as someone who is not a fan of endings where the story just drops off — you know, Hey everybody, I must have written a piece of literary fiction, ’cause everyone is confused!; that kind of thing — I was so grateful for the beautiful epilogue you close the book with, jumping forward in time to the closing of CBGBs and showing some real peace for a character who has been put through so much over the course of the book.

Actually, not everyone is so crazy about the ending! A lot of people have said they thought it would be stronger without the epilogue, if they were allowed to imagine a little more abstractly where the characters end up. It did come quite late. I was walking down St. Mark’s place in 2007 or 8 not long after CBGBs had closed down and was just struck by how much the city and the scene had changed — not just since 1988, but even since 2001 when I’d lived in the city. I felt just as the book had grown by letting other characters in, I believed the book could grow by telling a story about how the city had changed as well. I wanted to create that sense of peace by letting readers know that Jude is okay and that New York survives and he survive,s but they’ve both changed irrevocable. The closing of CBGBs was irresistible as a marker of the end of an era. It was important to me to do that.

In a lot of ways this totally marginal subculture has become a very persistent one. Youth of Today is out there playing shows still – a lot of bands from that era still do at least one-off gigs. Just look at the Revelation 25 shows! Have you noticed any interest in your book from kids who weren’t around for it but still idealize that time?

Definitely. I’ll have young people come up to me at readings frequently — a lot of girls, actually — and say, “Oh, I was interested in your book because I’m straight edge.” At a reading in Ithaca, a couple in their fifties told me both their kids — a girl and a boy — are straight edge, and one of them is touring the world in a straight edge band that had just played Tokyo. Things like that kind of blow me away. I was working for so long in the particular moment of this book with blinders on and then I pick my head up and see that straight edge is still thriving, even if it’s a totally different animal now. One of the hallmarks of the old marginalized scene was this was taking place in one basement at a time, but now all those basements are, for better or worse, connected by the internet. The same interests are manifesting in different ways in this kind of global village of straight edge.

It must be odd to write a story that is ultimately about the characters and their journey, and then have people like me calling you up wanting to talk about the backdrop.

It is strange to occasionally run into this expectation that I must be an authority on a scene over which I have no authority. And I’m sometimes scrutinized under those criteria, which is totally fair. But the first thing I wanted to tell a story, second thing I wanted to do was write about straight edge. Certainly there was a lot of trepidation. I know what protective scene it is and one of the reasons the book probably took so long to write is I didn’t want to get something wrong and offend people. For that reason I’m incredibly grateful and relieved when I get an email from someone in scene that says, ‘Thanks for getting it right.’ Now, of course, I also get emails from a less satisfied type. At a reading in New York, for example, somebody told me no self-respecting straightedge band would have two guitarists and no dedicated singer. I was like, ‘Yeah, but they’re supposed to be sort of metal…’ So I didn’t get all the details right but I had my husband there as my research assistant so I just blame him for the inaccuracies. [Laughs]

So I’m guessing whatever your next project is it probably won’t center around mid-nineties metalcore?

[Laughs] I’m doing something totally different next for that very reason – it’s a historical novel takes place on a Georgia farm in the 1930s. It couldn’t be less punk rock.

Visit Eleanor Henderson online. Previous Tales From the Metalnomicon include John Skipp, Dustin LaValley, and Sabbath for Preschoolers.