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"...DISSATISFIED SOCIAL CRITIQUE AND BEAUTIFUL OPTIMISM.": BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE EDITORS T FOX DURHAM & MICHEL LEE GARRET

Burning Down The House is an exciting collection of crime stories all inspired by songs from The Talking Heads. Like the music, the short fiction is often eccentric, engaging in a left-of-center way, and emotional in ways you wouldn't have predicted. Editors and contributors Michel Lee Garret and T Fox Durham were kind enough to discuss the project with The Hard Word.


SCOTT MONTGOMERY: What made you think that the music of The Talking Heads would produce such a strong anthology?

 

T FOX DURHAM: The love Michel had for the music. I had just edited a charity anthology based on the music of Pink Floyd, “Coming Through in Waves,” and the myriad voice of the band offered a fertile field for many styles and themes. When Michel suggested Talking Heads, I also found the same to be true of Talking Heads. For years, I’ve been a fan of their music, of their mélange of songs but had no idea it was the same band until I studied their work. It was one of the reasons she convinced me to sacrifice my energy, put aside my own work to generate what I knew was going to be a great collection and addition to the treasure trove of modern anthologies currently in print.


MICHEL LEE GARRET: There’s something about the style of the Talking Heads that blends so many things — styles and genres, humor and surrealism, dissatisfied social critique and beautiful optimism. I thought this was a perfect spark to incite an anthology of fiction because I suspected different authors would all respond to something different and run in different directions, creating a kaleidoscopic effect that manages to unite into a complex, multifaceted whole. Which I think is exactly what happened!

 

S.M.: How has their music influenced your own writing?

 

M.L.G.: The Talking Heads have been a pretty fundamental influence on me as an artist in a lot of ways. I find myself constantly inspired by the band’s ability to push boundaries, to find new creative frontiers, to remain relentlessly and unapologetically weird, to define their own unique voice while never sounding the same, to use their art to hold up a mirror to humanity: all our flaws and foibles called to question, yet all the beauty and joy of our lives earnestly celebrated. These are elements I strive to incorporate into my own creative work.


T.F.D.: Since I was a wee Fox at the old IBM 486, music has fueled and fired inspiration. Even at twelve, I put on a pair of headphones and listened to an old CD player. Music reaches me. Like a hunting dog, the right song drives the ducks out from the bush, galvanizing me to write. The music of Talking Heads works on that wavelength for me, connecting to me through passionate work. There are bands that write songs to sell, for commercial success with little more than a puerile interest in their art. Then, bands like Talking Heads seek to push the envelope, to explore the medium and create beauty. We sync.

 

S.M.: Did you give the writers any criteria they had to meet?

 

M.L.G: There were a few criteria. One — each story had to tell a unique, original story. The songs were a spark to light a fire, but no one could simply transliterate a song into prose. They had to dig deeper than that. Two — every story had to be “recognizably crime fiction,” but I encouraged authors to experiment with setting and elements of other genres, which many did, creating a diverse blend of horror, fantasy, magical realism, speculative fiction, and other genres. And, not necessarily a requirement, but I also encouraged authors to bring social, political, and class consciousness into their story, which many also did, creating a collection that really punches up against systems of injustice. Beyond those three things, everyone had free reign. And what a range of stories they came up with!


T.F.D.: Michel guided the authors, but I wanted stories that would identify with the music. Too often, authors see one of these anthologies, pick a story they wrote years ago then make some slender connection to the theme or characters or plot, so instead of open submissions, we picked people we knew would deliver. Take the song, see what it says to you then show us something brilliant from your vision of that song.

 

S.M.: Did any author surprise you on how they interpreted one of the titles into the story?


M.L.G.: Every story is fantastic, but a few really caught me off guard in the best possible way. Lucas Franki’s take on “Electric Guitar” is such a unique story — a magical-realism road-trip buddy-comedy revenge-quest fantasy hero’s journey, starring a man and his magic talking guitar. Amazing. P.D. Cacek’s “Life During Wartime” averts the easy interpretation of writing about a literal armed conflict, and instead tells a story set in a near-future fascist dystopia, framing history itself as a “war” between the forces of peace, justice, and democracy against the forces of corruption, violence, and authoritarianism. Brilliant. And Kimberly Godwin’s “Crosseyed and Painless” does an incredible job at seeming like a straightforward police procedural before gradually descending into horrifying surrealist madness that questions the very nature of truth and fact itself. Glorious.

 

T.F.D.: Every author surprised me. Every author employing their métier delighted, inspired and renewed my hope in what is sometimes a fading and fragile industry—an occupation that can really gouge your motivation. I think the one that stands out the most is “Guitar Hero” by Lucas Franki. I told Lucas the late John Candy should have voiced the character like a segment from Heavy Metal.

 

S.M.: What made you pick the titles for your own stories?


T.F.D.: Our expectations of life, how emotions work, how people feel are often contrary to how life really works: friendship, parenting, marriage, sex, romance and love—and one element does not automatically include another. We learn unrealistic expectations from the media—media that often depicts how we think things should work and not how they actually do. If we want to be happy, make others we love happy and maintain relationships, we often have to open our minds, admit we know nothing and listen instead, learning like children. You can’t project love into someone. We are all born selfish, fixated on our needs over others, and it takes hard work to get to a healthy place.

 

A major theme of my work has always been a dose of reality. People are broken. Their head is filled with a mélange of desires, needs, aspirations, often in contradiction. We are not a divine sculpture but a collection of mismatched cogs that evolved individually and somehow manage to work together through trial and error—billions and billions of births and deaths. I want to write about how people actually work, not how we think they do. Relationships are ugly, messy painful trials that often fall apart, but failed relationships are the only way we learn, if we listen, if we have the courage to admit to our own selfishness. I feel guilty for every failed one, and I only find redemption knowing that each failure made me better, taught me something, showed me something about myself and eventually guided me to do the hard work to build the capacity to maintain healthy connections. And I still have a ways to go.  

 

“This Must Be the Place” has been a favorite for years before I knew it was Talking Heads. I first heard it during an opening for Agents of Shield, and it resonated. Soon I had it multiple times on a playlist. I remember listening to it over and over again at the Magic Bean Café in Cape May, New Jersey while writing. And listening to the song, it’s really about uncertainty. I remember surprising Michel with that observation. If you listen to the lyrics, it’s not about a person sure they’re in love. They’re saying, is this love? I guess so. This must be it. I loved that uncertainty, that innocence, even the nativity about real love and how little we actually find it in this life. Often, love casts a spell on us like a fata morgana, but it’s the promise of love or the hope that it is love. But we often mistake a selfish need as love or find it facilitates a comfortable situation; however, we know love because we feel the need to sacrifice for it. The narrator isn’t sure, and the entire song is about figuring out what this alien and compelling force is that is filling their heart. And what’s the deciding condition? They feel like home. It’s where they want to be.

 

My characters are homeless. They’re junkies. They’re lost on the streets of Lancaster in Central PA. And yet, they feel something for each other, but it’s not like love in the movies. It’s broken. It’s messy. But it’s noble, lifting them up. Is it love? Also, they are homeless, and they’re looking for a home. And if they can’t find one with walls and a roof, they’ll find it in each other.  


M.L.G.: I picked “Burning Down The House” both as the title of the book and my story specifically because I wanted the collection to serve as a charity project for a good cause. Early on in the planning process, I began thinking about how humanity is pretty literally “burning down the house” through the effects of climate change, so I began thinking about the book as an effort to help fight climate change. That, in turn, informed my story, which features the impacts of climate change and water scarcity as central elements of its near-future setting, and how these injustices impact marginalized communities — creating wide-spread desperation that kicks the plot of the story into motion.

 

S.M.: What did you enjoy most about the project?

 

T.F.D.: Connecting with the talented authors and learning from their unique voice. I love that synergy. Let’s take this rough diamond and cut it as close to perfection as we can. You edit enough—and actually writing is a small part of the process compared to editing, refining—and you get this radar in your gut about how a story should feel. You read a passage, and it just feels off in your stomach. So, you edit until it feels right.


M.L.G.: I really loved seeing the diversity of stories that the authors brought to life, which capture such a wide range of the human experience and celebrates so many underdogs who deserve to have their stories told. It was an honor to have so many incredibly talented authors lend me their time and talent as I worked on this book. I also loved working with Fox — a dear friend of mine, a brilliant writer, and a mentor who has helped me grow as an artist. And it was also a great joy for me personally to work with Gregory Galloway, who I greatly admire and whose first novel “As Simple As Snow” I read at 16 years old and it changed my life.

 

S.M.: Were you surprised no one chose Psycho Killer?

 

T.F.D.: “Psycho Killer” is a fun song, but it lacks depth. It’s great to dance to, one of my favorite Halloween songs, but I don’t think the authors were looking for those kinds of stories. When I think crime anthology set in America, I think of the horror and desperation of living paycheck to paycheck, drowning in constant debt and always just one car inspection away from total destruction. Mohandas Gandhi said poverty was the worst kind of violence. Property makes up the majority of the law, and what I noticed most in the anthology was that many of the stories were about class interactions. Serial killers make up a fraction of recorded crime, certainly (I hope!) out of the common frames of reference for the writers, so because of the lack of theme complexity in the song and the ubiquitous presence of poverty in our culture, it did not surprise me. 


M.L.G.:I was surprised! I thought someone would snap that up. P.D. Cacek actually told me she wanted a challenge and told me to pick a song for her and she would write a story. I gave her a choice between “Life During Wartime” and “Psycho Killer” because I thought either would be a great addition. She said “Psycho Killer” would be too obvious and went with “Life During Wartime” for a greater challenge. And to be fair, her story ended up being completely brilliant, so I’m not upset. But yes, a little surprised! Despite that, I genuinely think it’s a great collection, with titles that references a good blend of iconic hits and deep cuts, sure to delight diehard fans of the band and people who’ve never listened alike.


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