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August 16, 2007

Book Notes - Brock Clarke ("An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

I can wholly recommend every book featured in this series, but occasionally one comes along that exceeds even my expectations. Brock Clarke's novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, captivated me from its opening paragraph to its last with its humor and surprising sense of humanity. Every literature fan should enjoy this novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is a whimsical and occasionally heart-touching effort from one of my new favorite authors.


In his own words, here is Brock Clarke's Book Notes essay for his novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England:


My new novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, is about a guy (Sam Pulsifer) who burns down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, MA, and kills two people in doing so. He goes to prison for it, gets a GED, takes a memoir-writing workshop with group of bond analysts, gets out of prison, tries to start his life anew, which I—along with the orphaned son of his victims, the bond analysts, his mysterious parents, other people who want him to burn down other writers’ homes, someone (or someones) who actually are burning down writers’ homes and blaming him for it—do not allow Sam to do. The novel itself is in the form of a memoir, a book pretending to be devoted to helping would-be arsonists learn how to burn down writers’ homes in New England.

Here are some songs I was listening to while I was writing this book, or songs that might have some bearing on the book, or songs that I like, book or no book. And while there are plenty of fires in the novel, it seems too obvious to include songs about fire. This, unfortunately, means I won’t be including the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” and it also, fortunately, means I won’t be including Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake.” Because, as the song itself wonders, “Who wants to go to Fire Lake?”

Anyway, here are the songs.


“Hello, It’s Me,” by Todd Rundgren

I love this song, and the more people tell me I shouldn’t, the more I love it. I love it for the obvious (who else would it be?) but mournful title line, the sweet and simple lyrics, the overall feeling of sadsackedness the song conveys. I’d first heard this song when I was a teenager, forgot about it, and was told (I was just beginning to work on my novel at this point) by the writer Keith Morris, that I needed to listen to it again by my friend. He’s wrong about many things, but he was right about this.


“Canadian Lover/Falcon’s Escape,” by Destroyer

Dan Bejar (Destroyer’s lead singer and songwriter) is a genius, even if the same people who tell me I shouldn’t love “Hello, It’s Me” tell me he’s arch and pretentious (why are these people allowed to even listen to music?), and even if, half the time, I have no idea what he’s talking about. In this song, for instance, he sings, “Canadian lover/Don’t demean yourself.” This has nothing to do a falcon escaping or with anything else in the song, I don’t think, but I love it. I played this song over and over and over again while writing An Arsonist’s Guide.


“Roadrunner,” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

This is the only song on this list that has anything to do with New England, and even then, the most relevant line (“I’m in love with the modern world/Massachusetts when it’s late at night”) isn’t all that telling (“Minnesota when it’s late at night”), except that Jonathan Richman mentions driving past the Stop & Shop, and there is a Stop & Shop in my novel, too.


“When I Was Drinking,” by Hem

This is a lovely, heartbreaking song, sung by a woman whose name I don’t know (the band is called Hem, not the singer) but who has a lovely heartbreaking voice. In my novel, Sam’s parents drink a good bit, for some of the usual reasons and some unusual ones, and I hope my depiction of them makes people feel what I feel when I hear this song.


“Pray Them Bars Away,” by Lee Hazelwood

Because he just died, and it’s a terrific song, and he and it deserve to be remembered, and also because there are a few prison scenes in my novel.


“Book of Poems,” by the Old 97’s

An Arsonist’s Guide is, among other things, about how we want books to do so many things—like make our life better, or make us better people—that they’re often unwilling, or unable, or ill-suited, to do. I mention this because of the line, “I’ve got a real bad feeling that a book of poems ain’t enough” in this song.


“Respectable Street,” by XTC

When I wasn’t writing An Arsonist’s Guide, I was dancing (and air guitaring, or air drumming) with my young son to this song, a fact I’m sure he’s quite ashamed of now, which is why I mention it.


“One Day When the Weather is Warm,” by Joe Henry

“It’s the awful truth/the thing I’ve always known/I gave my life to you/just to save myself.” Even the people who tell me I shouldn’t love one song or another love this song. It is the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.


Brock Clarke and An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England links:


the book's website
the author's book blog
the book's page at the publisher
the author's articles at the Believer
the author's articles and stories at the Virginia Quarterly Review
an excerpt from the book

American Way review
Publishers Weekly review

Brock Clarke short stories online


also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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