Melissa Ginsburg on Mystery, New Orleans and “The House Uptown”

Raised in Houston, Texas, and now based in Oxford, Mississippi, Melissa Ginsburg crafts place-haunted prose in which setting is a central character. With two chapbooks, a full-length collection, and an impressive list of journal publications to her credit, she is also a well established poet. Her second novel, The House Uptown, explores our connections to place, an unresolved past, and an uncertain future with a lyrical beauty, a memorable cast, and the noir appeal of brilliant crime fiction.

I once had a welcome — albeit wholly unplanned opportunity — to interview Ginsburg onstage at the Southern Festival of Books while she was touring for her debut novel, Sunset City (2016). The scheduled moderator had bowed out on the day of her appearance, and I had the benefit of being the publisher of the two other panelists, novelists Carla Damron (The Stone Necklace) and Elizabeth Cox (A Question of Mercy). With just two hours to prepare, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Sunset City, and then had a delightful and insightful onstage conversation with Carla, Betsy, and Melissa.

With slightly more time to prepare for this interview in support of The House Uptown, our conversation explored Ginsburg’s interwoven work as poet and novelist, her connections to places that have held her imagination, and the particular challenges of publishing in a pandemic.

The House Uptown is your second crime novel (following 2016’s Sunset City). What draws you to this genre?

I’ve always loved to read crime novels, since I was a little kid. I love books that engage darkness. I love mystery, in the sense of not knowing, which is the state I am in about most everything, most of the time. I also love puzzles, which offer a satisfying respite from that state of unknowing. I think the tropes of the genre appeal to me as a writer, in the same way as the constraints of poetic form. I like to work within a frame. It’s freeing. It allows me to take the parts of fiction that I care deeply about — characters, place, emotional and philosophical insights — and find a shape for them, use them for something, move them forward in service of a story.

In both of your novels, place is overtly a character. In the case of The House Uptown, this seems to be true of both the titular house and the larger setting of New Orleans. What prompted you to write about these places?

The setting of this book is quite personal — the house is my grandmother’s house (though embellished), where my mother and aunts grew up. I knew it, too, as a child. It was a magical place to me, as was the whole city of New Orleans. I was brought up by New Orleans ex-pats, taught by my mother that New Orleans was the only real and worthy place a person could be from. I often had the sense that my mother felt sorry for her children for being born and raised elsewhere. I grew up in Houston, a six-hour drive, and we went to New Orleans several times a year when I was a child. We never took family vacations, we just went to New Orleans. Now my parents are back in the city and I’m close enough to drive down often. I’ve never lived there, but I know it well as a kind of intimate outsider. And it is unlike any other place, it’s incredibly charming and complicated and surprising and dark. There’s a flashy veneer that’s accessible to anyone, to tourists and outsiders, and then there are these other, more private layers. There’s a richness there that’s never-ending.

You’re also an exceptional poet, with two chapbooks and the collection Dear Weather Ghost (2013) to your credit. Do your sensibilities and skills as a poet inform your approaches to fiction — or are these worlds wholly separate for you as a writer?

I used to think that my poetry and fiction were entirely separate, but I find them influencing each other more and more. I am one person, with a tendency to notice and wonder about particular things, and in possession of a singular vocabulary. I will always write about place and emotionally intense moments and relationships regardless of genre. I will always explore moral questions in both poetry and fiction, I’ll always attend to images, to the senses. In The House Uptown I allowed more lyricism in, and more of what feels like my full voice, which includes my poetic voice. Writing fiction has loosened my poetics a great deal, too. I’ve been writing longer and more voice-driven poems since I started writing novels.

You’re now based in Oxford, Mississippi, home of William Faulkner, who so famously mused, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” which has become a maxim of Southern culture. The House Uptown is deeply invested with the inescapability of the past, and the unavoidability of a reckoning with it. What traumas haunt these characters of yours?

Everyone in the book carries loss with them. Ava, who is fourteen, has lost both her parents, the farm she grew up on, her hometown, everything she knew. The beginning of the book finds her still stunned by grief, hardly able to feel it yet. She goes to New Orleans where more than ten years later Katrina never really leaves people’s minds. Lane, Ava’s grandmother, has just lost her daughter, and is haunted by the decisions she made as a mother. The man she loved all her life dies two years before the beginning of the book, and this grief has derailed her. Lane’s assistant Oliver has survived the abandonment of his parents, the death of his aunt, poverty, and classist and homophobic violence and bigotry.

Your protagonist Ava is all of fourteen years old, but the loss of her mother and the particular unreliability of her grandmother and new reluctant guardian Lane necessitates that she matures quickly. Where did this character and her circumstances come from for you?

I loved the idea of putting an Iowa kid in New Orleans, because the cultures of these places are entirely foreign to one another. My stepsons are Iowa kids, and when they first met my mother they thought she was from Europe because of her accent. (This was the first time I knew my mother had an accent.) I was constantly baffled by the sincerity and sweetness of children in Iowa. I lived there eight years and never got used to it. I’ve also known lots of kids even younger than Ava who couldn’t trust the adults in their lives and thus became adult-like themselves. I once witnessed a nine-year-old girl gently try to talk her mother out of leaving her latest husband, then try to talk her out of having another drink. Those kids have had bad things happen to them, and they are so strong, and they shouldn’t have to be put in those difficult positions. Those are people I’m drawn to, that I want to spend time with and write about. In real life I want to help them, take care of them, but in fiction I want to test them, see what they are capable of. Ava is somebody I’ve had in my head for years — this strong, stubborn, naïve child, who is doing everything she can to make her world make a kind of sense, to avoid feeling the extent of the pain she carries.

Lane is a talented visual artist suffering from dementia, two aspects of her character which you capture masterfully on the page. How did you research these elements of the character?

I have a background in visual art and I know a lot of painters, but for this book I needed to understand the business of a commercial artist. I interviewed a muralist in the New Orleans area named Nick Burrell, and he taught me a lot about technical aspects of contracts, the supplies he used, he let me have a look at his paint storage area in his garage. I could smell the chemicals. All of that helped me understand Lane’s work, the physicality of it, the parts of it she would like and the parts she would resent.

My mother suffers from dementia, and it’s in her family, which means I might one day have it, too. During the past decade or so of my mother’s illness, I’ve watched her change and it’s made me curious about what it is that makes the self — that makes identity — if you don’t have memory or a mind that works. This question troubles me and terrifies me. Writing this book didn’t help me to answer this question, but I think it did help me to ask it more fully. I didn’t do much research about dementia for the book, but I have read a lot about dementia as a way to understand what is happening to my mom, and that, along with my family’s experience, ended up informing the writing. Also my mother’s lifelong best friend, who has been a second mom to me, is a nurse who has cared for many patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. I talked to her when I had questions about whether what I wanted to happen with Lane made sense medically.

We mentioned Oxford earlier. It always seems to have such a robust literary life, between Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, Square Books, the Oxford Conference on the Book, and Ole Miss, where the creative writing faculty includes you, your husband Chris Offutt, Kiese Laymon, Tom Franklin, and Beth Ann Fennelly, among others. What’s that Oxford dynamic like for you as writer, reader, and teacher?

Honestly, it’s a dream. I’ve never come across a community of writers like this one. I’ve been here ten years and have felt the whole time just lucky, like it’s more than I deserve. To be surrounded by so many great writers, including my students — to be challenged and supported by them, and to see them succeed, it’s so fulfilling, and I don’t feel alone, even though writing is so solitary. Being a writer in Oxford is fun and intellectually stimulating and creatively inspiring. I want to be a part of it forever.

Our pandemic times have drastically changed how readers meet writers, sometimes offering new opportunities to engage with readers whom you might never have met on a traditional in-person book tour. Is there anything coming up for you in the course of promoting The House Uptown that you’re particularly looking forward to?

Yes, there are two virtual events I’m excited about: I’ll be launching The House Uptown at Square Books here in Oxford — that’s on March 15, 5:30 p.m. CST, where I’ll be in conversation with the brilliant New Orleans writer Maurice Carlos Ruffin. Maurice is the author of the novel We Cast a Shadow and a book of stories, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, coming in August. Signed copies of The House Uptown are available from Square Books, and the event will be available on YouTube as well.

The second event I’m really looking forward to is at Murder By the Book, in my hometown of Houston, Tuesday, March 16, at 7:00 p.m. CST. You can watch it on Facebook live and YouTube. I’ll be there with crime writer Ace Atkins, who is an Oxford buddy of mine. I love how these events triangulate these three places that are so important to me — Oxford, Houston, and, of course, New Orleans.

Has pandemic life changed your own reading or writing habits — and if so, in what ways? If you could recommend to the readers of the Southern Review of Books just one book you’ve enjoyed recently, what one would you champion and why?

One thing I’ve been doing more during the pandemic, as a reader, is getting in touch with writers whose books I love, to tell them so. It’s been a really important point of connection for me during isolation, and some new friendships have developed this way. I’ve also watched a lot of poetry craft talks and readings that have taken place in other cities, and I’ve participated in some wonderful poetry conferences, which I would not have done during a normal year.

I want to recommend the novel The Last Taxi Driver by Oxford writer Lee Durkee. It’s set in north Mississippi about a cab driver about to lose his livelihood to Uber. It just came out in paperback recently, and it’s incredibly fresh, funny, and dark, as entertaining as it is profound. The book reminds me a little bit of Denis Johnson, but Durkee’s mind is wholly original, and his prose is flawless.

Thanks so much, Melissa. And congratulations on The House Uptown.

The House Uptown
By Melissa Ginsburg
Flatiron Books
Published March 16, 2021