December 2007 Issue
Cincinnati author Brock Clarke turns accidental arson into a wryly funny book.
Photos by Jonathan Willis.
When not working on books, Clarke can be found editing “The Cincinnati Review” literary magazine or teaching creative writing at the University of Cincinnati
Brock Clarke pictured not far from his own cincinnati neighborhood, blends fire and fiction in his new novel.
Have pity on the poor house owned by Brock Clarke.
Sure, it’s beautiful: three stories of yellow-brick, Victorian architecture accented with stained-glass windows and a Rookwood fireplace, perched comfortably in the eclectic Cincinnati Northside neighborhood for nearly a century.
But it’s been in Clarke’s hands for several years now, and the novelist and University of Cincinnati creative writing professor’s love for the historic structure hasn’t yet trumped what he calls a habit of benign neglect.
“I like to have a house fall down slowly around me,” the 38-year-old says with a chuckle. “I tend to destroy homes.”
Indeed. As if the “enormous gate problem” currently brewing in his backyard weren’t proof enough –– three gates falling off their hinges on the patio, refusing Clarke’s attempts to prop them up –– his latest book features a story line that’d make any house shudder. In “An Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes In New England” (published this fall by Algonquin Books), the author tells the tale of a man who spends 10 years in jail for accidentally burning down poet Emily Dickinson’s beloved Massachusetts home and killing two people inside, only to become the main suspect when the houses of other famous writers start going up in flames.
It’s fiction, of course. Clarke is still whittling down the mountain of brochures, postcards and photographs he accumulated from visiting such revered literary spots as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House in Concord, Massachusetts, and Robert Frost’s The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, as research for his book –– destinations that wind up in cinders in “Arsonist’s Guide,” but which are very much still standing.
“I feel like I probably won’t visit another writer’s house for a very long time,” says Clarke, a native New Englander. He notes that just that morning, he’d thrown out the materials from his favorite site visit, The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut –– a massive 19-room, Tiffany-decorated dwelling that he describes as “a Victorian house on growth hormones.”
“I feel like I reached a saturation point.”
But the colorful details Clarke captured from those trips — combined with his witty observations on everything from Massachusetts college towns (“the leafy, prosperous streets, which were filled with so many Volvo station wagons it was like mushrooms in a cave”), to subdivision communities (“there was the constant, soothing hum of lawn maintenance coming from somewhere, everywhere, even though the grass seed in front of most houses hadn’t matured yet …”) — have paid off. He’s received a slew of positive reviews, and has already sold the movie rights to “Arsonist’s Guide.”
Of course, it also helps that the darkly comedic book was written by a man with such a dry a sense of humor, it could easily catch fire.
“We probably shouldn’t even be talking about this right now.”
Clarke, a diehard sports fan, is speaking in hushed tones about how much he adores the Boston Red Sox –– an act that he fears might be considered treason in Ohio on this October day, with the Cleveland Indians battling the Red Sox for a trip to the World Series.
“So,” he adds for good measure, “I should say right away that I’ve also become a Cincinnati Reds fan since moving here.”
Clarke and his wife of 11 years, Lane, an education professor at Northern Kentucky University, came to the Queen City with their now-7-year-old son, Quinn, back in 2001. It’s the latest of many moves for the author, who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, raised in New York, and schooled at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and New York’s University of Rochester. His last teaching post was at Clemson University in South Carolina.
“I wouldn’t call myself a man without a country. It’s not like I’m a refugee from Darfur or anything,” says Clarke. In fact, “it’s probably a good thing for a writer to be unmoored the way I am.”
But Clarke’s life has been filled with pleasant routines since moving to Cincinnati, including spending the winter and spring quarters teaching at UC, serving as the editor “The Cincinnati Review” literary magazine, and waking up early to see second-grader Quinn off to his school bus, before retreating to his home’s third-floor office to write.
“Usually, I’ll write well for half an hour, and then badly for two hours,” says the self-deprecating Clarke, who’s currently at work on his fifth book. (His first novel, “The Ordinary White Boy,” was published in 2002). “It’s fun when it’s going well, but when it’s not, it’s the most frustrating thing I can possibly imagine. Each new book or story presents its own problems.”
That was certainly the case with “Arsonist’s Guide.” The book, inspired by a short story that Clarke originally published in the New England Review, took him five years to finish and required a major rewrite after Clarke was 150 pages into the story.
“That was the only moment of absolute despair for me,” he says. “I just realized, this is not a book I can continue with. I don’t want to write it.”
The problem: a distant, third-person, satirical approach that was meant to be reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, but that Clarke realized simply bored him. “I was kind of made sick by it because it was so arch and so superior-sounding,” he says. “That wasn’t at all the type of book I wanted to write.”
His solution? Turn it into a funny, faux memoir, with 28-year-old protagonist Sam Pulsifer relaying the story of his accidental arson and the other fires it inspired, while also skewering everything from English professors to self-help books.
The successes of that style change prompted his publishing company to launch a nationwide book tour, which has Clarke unmoored yet again.
“I’ve been away constantly, and will be away for the next month or so,” Clarke says with a sigh. “I’ve done so much touring this year.”
But these days, at least, he knows he has a permanent residence to return to –– one that, thankfully, is strong enough to withstand even Clarke.
“In Clemson [South Carolina], all there were were either really, really old homes that were insanely expensive, or brand-new homes,” says Clarke. “These turn-of-the-century houses in Cincinnati are perfect.
“I have to have one that’s solidly built.”