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January 25, 2018

Book Notes - Giano Cromley "What We Build Upon the Ruins"

What We Build Upon the Ruins

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Giano Cromley's impressive short story collection What We Build Upon the Ruins portrays everyday characters in bad situations convincingly and always with compassion and a sense of hope.

Ben Tanzer wrote of the book:

"In these stories, nothing is fair, not life, not death, not family, not nothing. All these characters can do is try to be okay, and what Cromley illustrates for us with his dexterous prose, is that if they keep fighting, and keep bleeding, and keep trying to feel something, anything, maybe they can be."

In his own words, here is Giano Cromley's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection What We Build Upon the Ruins:

In the age of Spotify, the playlist has become a bloated laundry list that lasts for hours and offers endless permutations when played on "random" mode. The playlist I've chosen is a throwback to the type you'd make back in the late nineties when we were all just learning how to burn our own CDs (usually with music downloaded illegally). Playlists back then where short and tight, and if you couldn't get your point across within the span of about a dozen songs, you weren't doing it right. So in honor of this short story collection (an art form that prizes brevity and economy) I've chosen to make a playlist that harkens back to that simpler time – one song for each story in the collection.

Story: "What We Build Upon the Ruins"
Song: "When Water Comes to Life" by Cloud Cult

I used the opening lyrics of this song as the epigraph for the entire collection, so it would be a little weird if I didn't have it somewhere on this playlist. Cloud Cult has been one of my favorite bands for a long time now, and if you know much about them it'll probably seem almost a little too on-the-nose for me to associate this song with this collection, but I don't really care because I think they're that great. This is a song about survival, about those who keep going and keep searching for meaning and purpose – just like the characters in this story. If you've never heard of Cloud Cult before reading this post, you're welcome.

Story: "Boy in the Bubble"
Song: "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads

The older I get the more I understand and appreciate the Talking Heads. I wrote "Boy in the Bubble" right around the time I first started to awaken to how great this band was. "Once in a Lifetime" asks the question, How did this life become my life? The protagonist in my story experiences this same feeling when he drives home from work and somehow drives right past his own house – as if he no longer recognizes who he's become. This is one of the rare stories in this collection where I very consciously had a particular song in my head as I wrote it.

Story: "Stormy Night"
Song: "Unsatisfied" by The Replacements

I always felt like The Replacements were a band that never quite got the skin they wore to fit who they were. I wrote this story when I was living in Washington, DC, a time when I constantly felt like a fish out of water. I also happened to live in an apartment similar to the one in this story, an apartment that made me highly aware of everything my neighbors said and did. While this song doesn't speak to the situation or experiences of the characters in "Stormy Night," it represents the overwhelming way I felt at the time I wrote it.

Story: "Coyote in the City"
Song: "Elijah" by The Mountain Goats

A writing teacher of mine once opined that it's bad form for a writer to cry at his or her own reading. (He said this at a bar, shortly after one of my fellow classmates had just committed said sin.) I'm not one for committing literary felonies, but I have to admit if I read this story to myself at the right time with the right context, I might feel my eyes misting up. It's fitting, then, that "Elijah" would be this story's musical companion. Not much to say about the song other than it's truly, hopelessly beautiful and incredibly moving and, yes, I often cry while listening to it.

Story: "Human Remains"
Song: "Particles" by Olafur Arnalds, featuring Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir

Olafur Arnalds is best known for music that creates lonely, wordless dreamscapes befitting his native Iceland. As I was writing certain sections of this collection, I listened to his music obsessively because it was a great way to immerse myself in a place where my own words could flow. Except whenever this song came up, I had to stop. "Particles" is the only Arnalds song with words, and Hilmarsdóttir's voice has a haunted tiredness that calls to mind the feeling the family in this story has as they try to heal from unimaginable loss.

Story: "Eureka, California"
Song: "Don't Read the Classics" by Owl & Mouse

This may have been the most difficult story to find a song for. The idea when I wrote "Eureka, California" was to create a character who comes off as charming in his own quirky way, yet slowly reveals himself to be as nasty a person as you'd ever come across. I wanted to put readers in a position of having their allegiances tested and then finally snapped. This song – a story about a woman who realizes her boyfriend was, in fact, a total cad – really nails the anger and rage and sadness the careless leave in their wake.

Story: "3 Out of 5 Stars"
Song: "I Hear Noises" by Tegan and Sara

"Hey, let's move in together and see what happens." How many relationships has that phrase or a similar one signaled the beginning of the end for? I imagine a lot. This song has always been, to me, about coming to the realization that people may love each other, and they may also be completely wrong for each other at the same time. That pretty well sums up this story as well.

Story: "Those Who Trespass"
Song: "Offend in Every Way" by The White Stripes

This is a prickly story about a person who believes he's doing something noble, but is really only seeking to satisfy his own curiosity. We often cloak our darkest desires with good intentions. This song, and the White Stripes in general, embody that feeling perfectly.

Story: "Ling"
Song: "Small Town Saturday Night" by Hal Ketchum

If you've grown up in a small town, you know that itchy feeling you get in your late teens when you start to wonder what lies beyond the city limits, yet you fear what's out there just the same. This is the only other song-story combo where I actually had the song in mind as I wrote the story. This song came out when I was in high school, about the same age as Sammy and Chuck are in this story. In particular, there's a line in the song about restless teenagers (Is there any other kind?) speeding toward the edge of town and wondering what will happen if and when they reach it. That's exactly how Chuck and Sammy are feeling in the moment this story takes place.

Story: "Homefront"
Song: "Dearly Departed" by Shakey Graves

I'm fascinated by ghosts. Not just rattling chains and bedsheets with eyeholes cut out of them, but the idea of what a ghost might be. My best guess is that they're memories. As long as the memory persists, a ghost – in some form – exists. "Homefront" is about the ghosts of a character's childhood, how no matter how far he goes and how much he disassociates from it, it always manages to catch up to him. The song "Dearly Departed" is about a different type of ghost – the ghost of a broken relationship – but a ghost nonetheless.

Story: "The Physics of Floating"
Song: "Everything" by City of the Sun

If you don't like this song, I'm sorry. There's not much I can do to help you. Every time I listen to it, it feels like a revelation; it feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, and the sun is shining on my face for the first time in months. Those feelings defy words, though words can (and should) at least try to replicate them. I'm not so presumptuous to say this story achieves that feeling, but I'll readily admit it's the feeling I wanted this story to evoke. I'll let the readers judge whether or not it's successful.

Bonus Track:
"Black Vikings" by Immortal Technique

This song did not directly inspire any of these stories. I did, however, lift the title of this collection from a line in this song. Immortal Technique's music is tough, edgy hip hop with a revolutionary bent. He's also an incredible poet. This song is about a culture that's been stolen and the efforts to reclaim it from colonial forces. At the end, Immortal Technique says, "No one will remember these people ever existed, and all that will be left is what we build upon their ruins." That last line has always lingered in my mind, and as I searched for a title for the first story in this collection, I realized how perfectly it captured what I was going for. Later, as I thought about which story I would name the collection after, it was no contest. Hence, What We Build Upon the Ruins.

Giano Cromley and What We Build Upon the Ruins links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Chicago Literati review
The Coil review
Cultured Vultures review
Newcity Lit review

Billings Gazette profile of the author
Cease, Cows interview with the author
Great Writers Steal interview with the author
Identity Theory interview with the author
Monkeybicycle essay by the author
The Quivering Pen essay by the author
Steph Post interview with the author
Writer's Bone interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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