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Michel Lee Garrett is an author, editor, and recovering journalist. She has investigated courthouse corruption as a small-town reporter, directed communications for a U.S. Senate campaign, and played in a handful of punk bands. A queer and transgender author, her work seeks to examine how inequitable systems manufacture injustice, and how the human condition is ultimately one of rebellion against an absurd world. She lives in Central Pennsylvania with her wife and two children.

Michel’s latest work is Burning Down the House: Crime Fiction Incited by the Songs of the Talking Heads, a charity anthology to help fight climate change that she coedited with T. Fox Dunham. The anthology features all-original stories by both editors, as well as Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Award-winning author P.D. Cacek, Best American Mystery and Suspense author James D.F. Hannah, and eight additional authors including both well-established and early career writers. Each story in the anthology is named after a Talking Heads song.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Michel about Burning Down the House, her approach to writing and editing, and her future plans.

Michel Lee Garrett

[John C. Mauro] Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with Before We Go Blog. Your new anthology, Burning Down the House, is a brilliant collection of stories from several of the most exciting voices in crime fiction today. Could you tell us the origin story of your new book and how you assembled this very impressive cadre of authors?

[Michel Lee Garrett] Thank you, John, for having me, and for your insightful review of Burning Down the House.

Collections of short stories that reference music have become a popular sub-genre within crime fiction — for instance, I’ve previously had short stories featuring my recurring protagonist Raymond Reynolds appear in anthologies that reference the Allman Brothers, Hank Williams, and Willie Nelson.

Being an editor by trade and training, I was inspired to pursue such a project myself, and felt that the Talking Heads were the perfect band to incite a collection of fiction. They are such a powerful artistic force and have been one of my favorite musical artists for many years.

Through some grace and luck, I was fortunate to assemble an impressive lineup of authors. I approached authors whose work I admire and was very humbled that so many talented voices agreed to lend their voice to this collection. There are some incredible writers here: award-winners, authors who are at the top of their game and the top of the crime genre, as well as a few exciting emerging voices to watch.

I also had a lot of help from my co-editor, the brilliant and prolific T. Fox Dunham, who brought years of experience to this project and helped me develop this project from merely an idea to a full-fledged book. His pervious editing experience from the collection Coming Through in Waves, which references Pink Floyd, was of great counsel to me.

Particularly meaningful to me is that Gregory Galloway agreed to be one of the authors in this collection. I read his first novel (the devastatingly beautiful young-adult mystery masterpiece As Simple As Snow) when I was 16 years old, and it had a profound and lasting impact on me. It’s one of those books that truly influenced my life and shaped who I am as a person.

To have Gregory — genuinely a personal literary hero of mine, who created one of the formative pieces of art of my life, who has also distinguished himself as a leading voice in literary noir through his novel Just Thieves — in a book I edited is still a little mind-boggling, frankly.

Burning Down the House[JCM] I love the diversity of voices in Burning Down the House and the different interpretations of themes incited by the Talking Heads. Which author surprised you the most with the direction they took with their chosen Talking Heads song?

[MLG] Having a diversity of voices and themes was something that was important to me from the start. I really tried to bring together a group of authors who I knew would bring a diverse array of lived experiences, perspectives, styles, and themes to the collection.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was Lucas Franki’s take on “Electric Guitar.” I’ve had the pleasure of being friends with Lucas for many years, and he often focuses on horror — especially cosmic and eldritch horror. So imagine my surprise when he sends me his story and it’s the funniest damn story in the whole book!

His story is so many things all at once that it shouldn’t even be possible — it’s a crime story, it’s a buddy comedy, it’s a road trip, it’s magical realism, it’s a meditation on the power of music, it’s an epic fantasy quest, and it’s a hero’s journey. And not only does it manage to be all of those things at once, it’s cohesive, hilarious, and brilliant.

This kind of impossible genre-blending is Lucas’ bread and butter. He’s extremely adept at taking genres that seem like they shouldn’t work together, and turning it into absolute gold — like his faux-documentary story in the anthology LOLCraft, where he deftly blends eldritch horror, political commentary, and laugh-out-loud humor.

I guarantee you’re never going to read a story about a magic talking guitar with more humor, heart, and genuine emotion than Lucas Franki’s “Electric Guitar.” He’s a real up-and-coming voice in the horror, speculative, and crime-writing world. Make sure you keep an eye out for his work.

[JCM] Although it’s officially an anthology of crime fiction, the stories in Burning Down the House feature a blending of several genres ranging from magical realism to horror. Did you adjust your approach as editor when moving across so many different styles?

[MLG] When I invited authors to participate, the charge was for stories that were “recognizably crime fiction,” but I also specified that experimentation with genre, style and setting was encouraged — as were stories that engaged with elements of political, social and class consciousness. And the authors really took that to heart! I love how many of the stories blend crime fiction with other genres and settings, and how many make a point of critically examining and “punching up” against injustice.

That said, I think my approach to editing such a diverse range of stories remained pretty consistent from story to story. In my view, a good editor works to preserve the voice of the author and to help them realize their unique vision in the most impactful way possible. Each author definitely brought a unique voice and vision to the collection; my job was to help them drill down into the heart of their work and help them create the version of their story that would most powerfully resonate with the reader.

Across all genres and styles, things like human emotion and motivation, clarity of theme, and purposefulness of prose always apply, even when the specifics and the aesthetics look different from story to story. I tried to help each author elevate their individual approach to their own work, and in doing so, to cultivate a shared “heart” and “spirit” across the collection that transcends genre.

[JCM] Your own story in the anthology interprets the Talking Heads song, “Burning Down the House,” on two levels: global warming of our planet and the breakdown of one particular family who live in a dystopian near-future wrecked by climate change. There’s a lot going on in this story, and it all comes together brilliantly. How did you develop the ideas for this story and strike the right balance between individual and global scales of tragedy?

[MLG] I appreciate your kind words, because I really wrestled with this story.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to reckon with climate change as a central element, how mankind is somewhat literally “burning down the house.” My earliest vision centered on two siblings, one of whom works for a privatized water company and the other who was planned to be the leader of an eco-terrorist organization. The final product is similar, but not quite the same as my initial vision, and ended up being slightly narrower and more personal in scope.

The problem I began encountering with my initial vision was that the story felt “too big.” It was all about these big ideas, but not really grounded in the lived experience of the characters.

My ever-insightful co-editor T. Fox Dunham gave me some important counsel: to focus in on the human drama between the characters, to ground the plot in their individual tragedy, and to let the rest flow organically from that starting point.

That ended up being the secret to making the story work — that the global tragedy and the personal tragedy are inherently intertwined, and one informs the other. When I stopped thinking about it in terms of big ideas, but instead started by writing a very intimate scene of two sisters standing over their father’s corpse in a funeral home, the rest of the story flowed much more naturally. I ended up with a story that was still about big ideas, but that felt much more personal and grounded in real, individual stakes.

I also have to give a big shoutout to my wife Crystal! My wife is my first reader for everything I write, and she always gives me hold-no-punches edits. For this story, she candidly told me that my original ending in my first draft was underwhelming and I needed to rework it. Although I whined about it at first, as usual, she was right, and it ended up being a much stronger story once I thought more about the conclusion and wrote a more satisfying resolution. Thanks hun!

[JCM] Another highlight for me is P.D. Cacek’s story, “Life During Wartime,” which serves as a terrifying warning about the twin evils of antisemitism and fascism. What did you think when you first read her story? What were your interactions like with P.D. Cacek during the development and editing of her work?

[MLG] P.D. Cacek is a gem — one of the great multi-genre talents of our time, who thoroughly deserves both the Bram Stoker Award and World Fantasy Award she’s been recognized with. She’s also extremely humble, and would doubtlessly demure at my praise.

I knew I was reading something special when she sent me her story. I encouraged her to dig deeper into her anti-authoritarian themes and more fully embrace her alternate history / near future setting — feedback to which she was graciously receptive.

Her final product, as you’ve so perfectly put it, is indeed a terrifying warning about the evils of antisemitism and fascism. She eloquently frames history as a kind of “war” between the forces of progress, peace and justice and the forces of fascism, corrupt authority, and the scapegoating of marginalized peoples — a perpetual conflict in which we are all engaged every day, through every common act of decency and every act of resistance against systems that perpetuate injustice.

Her story also engages with agism and the marginalization of senior citizens in a society that only expects them to die, as well as with the nature of perception and how our biases can blind us to deeper truths.

It’s a powerful story, one I’m extremely grateful she brought to the collection.

[JCM] One of the common themes across Burning Down the House is how humanity repeats the same cycle of mistakes but with ever more catastrophic consequences. What are the most important messages that you would like readers to take from these stories?

[MLG] I think you’re spot-on that the idea of cycles, especially cycles of mistakes and their consequences, emerged as one of the key themes in the collection. However, I really want readers to walk away not with a sense of defeatism or cynicism, but with a sense of empowerment, optimism, and rebellion.

Many of the characters throughout the collection try, in different ways, to break out of the cycles that have defined their lives. Even when they fail in the end, it’s still a noble effort to rebel against the cycles of injustice that imprison them and try to build something better in their place.

Life is the same way. In the end, we all meet the same fate. But life is beautiful and noble and profound while it lasts, and the ending of our collective stories does not negate the pursuit of justice, beauty and truth that precedes it.

I hope readers walk away from the collection ready to question the cycles that they participate in, and ready to participate in the creation of cycles that contribute to a better world.

Or, at least, that they walk away having enjoyed the book. I’ll settle for that, too.

Remain in Light[JCM] Your biography mentioned that you played in several punk bands. When did you first become a fan of the Talking Heads? Have they also influenced you as a musician?

[MLG] I’d heard some of their hits before, but I truly became a fan of the Talking Heads in college, when I sat down and listened to their album “Remain in Light” for the first time. As soon as the hypnotic beat of “Born Under Punches” hit me for the first time, I was mesmerized. That album was a revelation for me. After that, I dove into their discography, and I fell so deeply in love with their unique blend of nervous energy, angular experimentalism, dadaist lyrics, pop sensibilities, social and philosophical depth, and underlying optimism. Watching “Stop Making Sense” for the first time was similarly revelatory for me. No one has ever done what the Talking Heads have done, and as far as I’m concerned, no one ever will again.

They were also an influence on me as a musician, but I never approached anywhere even relatively close to the same level of visionary artistry in my musicianship. My college band was a lot of fun, though. We threw punk, shoegaze, electronic elements, prog rock, and classic metal into a blender and ended up with some interesting results. I played in a few other projects after that — a noisy garage punk group, and then an instrumental post-rock duo — but at a certain point, all my friends had moved away and I realized I just wasn’t having fun trying to start bands with strangers.

At that point, I told myself, “Well, Michel, you’ve said your entire life you wanted to be a writer, and to do that, you have to sit down and actually write.” So I made the decision to rededicate myself to my love of literature and writing, and the rest, as they say, is history.

[JCM] Beyond the Talking Heads, who are some of your biggest influences as a writer?

[MLG] Albert Camus, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut are some of my biggest influences. Camus shaped my worldview in my formative years and taught me the world is absurd. Pynchon and Vonnegut taught me to embrace that absurdity and to laugh about it. Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice,” especially, was an illustration to me of how much you can use genre as a framework to achieve artistic vision and literary ends.

I have a love of classic noir, particularly Raymond Chandler. Chandler had such a talent for language, setting, atmosphere, and labyrinthine plots that are so much to slowly watch his detective unravel.

I also have a great fondness for the Beat Generation, especially Ginsberg. I feel a great sense of connection to them — a loose group of artists, beaten down by strange and uncaring times, doing all they can to find meaning and freedom in the midst of their ennui and struggle. Ginsberg, particularly, was so powerful in his explosive, free-form, surrealist reckonings with the world around him. “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel” (from his poem “America”) is a line that has held a special place in my heart ever since I first read it.

While I’m not a filmmaker, I still feel like I have to shout out the Coen Brothers, who have contributed some of the greatest works to the pantheon of American crime storytelling. I also grew up watching mystery-of-the-week TV shows with my mom, of which the show “Psych” was particularly influential on me for its playful use of pop culture and its deeply endearing buddy comedy. “You know that’s right!”

And, finally, I also have to take this moment to note that my co-editor, T. Fox Dunham, has been a profound influence on me. He’s been one of my closest friends and my mentor for years, and I have learned so much from him about the craft of writing and the spiritual tenacity required to be an artist. His three novels — “The Street Martyr,” “Mercy,” and “Destroying the Tangible Illusion of Reality, or, Searching for Andy Kaufman” — are each a masterpiece of crime, horror, and magical realism, respectively.

Fox wrote the words (from “Destroying the Tangible Illusion of Reality”) by which I try to live my life: “Live bravely, live madly, live wildly, for reality is tangible and is shaped by the brave, the mad, the wild.”

Everything else in life aside, I hope to live bravely, madly, and wildly.

It’s the only way to live.

[JCM] How has your background in journalism influenced your approach to writing fiction (in terms of writing style, plotting, etc.)?

[MLG] When I was choosing ‘what I wanted to do with my life’ in my younger years, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew I needed a job. I figured if journalism was good enough for Camus and it was good enough for Hemingway, then it was good enough for me!

While I don’t consider my fiction particularly “journalistic” in style, my journalism background has been very influential in other ways.

Journalism was extremely useful from the perspective of practicing the craft of writing. At its heart, journalistic writing is about identifying the core of your story, the most important information a reader needs to understand, and figuring out how to quickly relay that information in a way that’s understandable and resonates with the reader. Fiction often obfuscates and misdirects readers in a way that journalism does not, but that key skill still of understanding and conveying what you want your reader to walk away with is critical.

Journalism also provided an extremely useful background in editing — how do you approach a story from the mind of a reader, strengthen a story’s weak points, enhance its strengths, and preserve and elevate the unique voice of the writer? A good editor does all of these things, and my years of practicing through that process from a journalistic perspective was excellent preparation for editing “Burning Down the House.”

Other key skills, like conducting research and interviewing people who know more than you do, are equally critical for both journalism and fiction writing.

There’s also the fact that my recurring character Raymond Reynolds spends part of his life as a small-town newspaper reporter, an experience partly inspired by my own time as a journalist.

[JCM] Could you tell us about Raymond Reynolds, the recurring protagonist in many of your stories outside of this anthology? How did Ray come into your life, and where do you see him going in the future?

[MLG] Oh, I love Ray. He’s such a glorious dumbass.

Raymond Reynolds is my recurring protagonist and usually unwilling noir hero who somehow always manages to find himself stumbling into mystery and misadventure.

For now, there are three major phases to Ray’s life I write about. We first pick up with in his young adulthood Ray after a short, ill-fated stint in the Navy, a period in which he copes with a deep sense of depression and failure by living on the road as a rambling, country-singing alcoholic vagabond. In this period of his life, Ray stumbles from town to town and from misadventure to misadventure, typically causing just as much trouble as he solves.

When his rambling eventually wears him down, he returns to his hometown — where he gives up the bottle, picks up the bong, and impresses the editor of the local newspaper with his nose for trouble. He spends several years as a pothead newspaper reporter, chain-smoking joints and investigation courthouse and government corruption.

There’s also the post-newspaper phase of his life, where he’s finally (somewhat) reckoned with his vices and his demons, and has accepted his lot in life — becoming a hometown private detective, finally learning to take joy in unravelling mysteries instead of being forced into it against his will.

I first began to formulate Ray during my own days as a small-town reporter, a time in which I, like Ray, was clashing with corrupt authorities and drowning in my own unexamined traumas and depression.

Ray also takes some inspiration from my father’s life. My father had a highly successful and decorated career in the Navy, but there was a particular tragedy early in his service that had a profound impact on him. With my father’s permission, Ray in his backstory undergoes a very similar tragedy — but, unlike my father, he is destroyed by the experience and leaves the service a broken man, and spends much of his life trying to pick up the pieces of himself.

Ray is also heavily influenced by country music. As much as I love new wave and indie and 80’s goth rock and grew up listening to punk rock and ska music with my dad, I also grew up listening to country with my mom, and that ended up being a big frame of reference for Ray. The whole concept of being a rambler, being an outlaw, that particular kind of sadness that underlies so much country music, especially classic country — these are all major foundations for Ray’s character.

Ray also has a partner-in-crime of sorts, once he returns home — his best friend Johnny, a giant nerd, film buff, science-fiction lover and self-described gay disaster. Casual queer representation is important to me as a queer writer, and Johnny is one of my favorite characters to write. He and Ray make quite a pair!

Short stories about Ray have appeared from a number of publishers — including Shotgun Honey, Flame Tree Press, Down & Out Books, and Cowboy Jamboree. Keep an eye out for a future collection that will compile some of Ray’s misadventures in one place!

I’m also working on a novel starring Ray during his reporter days — a small-town Pennsyltucky pothead journalism noir story that’s very close to my heart.

There’s lots of future adventures I have planned for Ray, across all the different phases of his life.

At this point, Ray is basically a friend of mine. I often refer to writing about him as “hanging out with Ray,” and it’s one of my favorite things to do. Keep watch for many more Ray stories to come!

[JCM] Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview with Before We Go Blog. What’s next for Michel Lee Garrett after Burning Down the House? Any plans for another anthology?

[MLG] Thank you so much for having me!

I have lots of future plans.

Keep an eye out for a collection of my own short stories, many of them starring Ray. News to come on that front in the near future!

My big focus right now is the novel I’m writing about Ray’s journalism days, where he clashes with a corrupt district attorney and investigates a local heroin ring. That’s a major project that I envision as the first novel about Ray — certainly not the last.

On top of that, I have a few other characters I’ve written about whom I’m developing some plans around. There’s Cera, a promising but self-destructive young pickpocket who drops out of college to pursue a life of crime. I’m also developing a new character named Phillipa, an occult detective who investigates mysteries with the use of both traditional detective work and her power of astral sight; her stories blend hardboiled noir, speculative elements, urban fantasy and horror, making her unique among my roster of protagonists.

And, maybe, when I catch my breath, I might see about editing another charity anthology to support LGBTQ+ rights and advocacy.

Lots of exciting things to come! Follow me on Twitter @MichelMGarrett or find me online at LeeGarrett.net to keep up with my work!

Thanks again for reviewing “Burning Down The House” and for taking the time to talk with me!

(Author photo by Patrick Mansell. Cover art by Mary Siniscalchi. Cover design and layout by Ron Earl Phillips.)

Michel Lee Garrett

Michel Lee Garrett

Michel Lee Garrett

Michel Lee Garrett

Michel Lee Garrett

Michel Lee Garrett

Michel Lee Garrett

Michel Lee Garrett

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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