Saturday, March 20, 2021

Melissa Ginsburg

Melissa Ginsburg is the author of the novels The House Uptown and Sunset City, the poetry collection Dear Weather Ghost, and two poetry chapbooks, Arbor and Double Blind. A second poetry collection, Doll Apollo, will be published in 2022 by LSU Press, and the poetry chapbook Apollo is forthcoming in June from Condensery Press. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Guernica, Kenyon Review, Fence, Southwest Review, and other magazines. Originally from Houston, Texas, Ginsburg studied poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Mississippi. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with two dogs, eleven chickens, and the writer Chris Offutt.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The House Uptown takes place in Uptown New Orleans in a house that has been in Lane's family for generations. It's not just the setting of the novel; it's also a physical embodiment of family history, memory, and past mistakes that circle back to affect Lane and her granddaughter Ava in the present. Fourteen-year-old Ava has recently lost her mother, and searches for her mother's presence in the house where she grew up. The past is alive here, and the living, in their grief, haunt the place like ghosts. We decided on The House Uptown because it is the focus of the characters' obsessions and the site of all the drama driving the book.

I wanted to highlight New Orleans in the title--another potential idea that we ended up discarding was Crescent, after one of New Orleans's many nicknames, Crescent City. We also considered Survived By, which I still think is a catchy title for a crime novel, just not this one.

What's in a name?

Lane's name comes from my family; it's a rough translation from the French of my mother's maiden name, Allee. My grandmother, whose Uptown house was the inspiration for this book, was called Jake and my aunt was named Dale. Though Lane is not based on the women in my family, her name is a kind of homage in this book about mothers, daughters, and various dubious inheritances.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I usually think endings are harder, but that was not the case with this book. I always knew from a plot standpoint what would happen to the characters in the end--the decisions they made would lead to inevitable conclusions. One of the reasons I write fiction is to explore the way people inadvertently hurt those they love. Decisions which seem harmless at the time can end up reverberating in unexpected ways. Figuring out the right beginning of the book was more of a struggle. The House Uptown moves around in time, and includes scenes from the 1990s as well as today. The last thing I wrote was the prologue. It's set twenty years in the past, on the night of a terrible accident which puts everyone at risk, even decades later.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I see myself in all the characters. Lane is an artist who is frustrated by the narrow expectations of Southern womanhood, and loses patience with everything that gets in the way of her paintings--I can certainly relate to all that! Her assistant Oliver is funny and sarcastic, a bit prickly, but underneath that he is devoted to the people he loves and is quite vulnerable emotionally. He is prone to making bad decisions, and I relate to him most of all. Ava is the farthest away from me--she's wholesome and sincere, from a small town in the midwest, and she believes in the concepts of right and wrong in a way I never did. But she's also grieving the death of her mother and is quite alone in the world, and I was able to connect with her character through those emotions. I feel a great deal of affection for each of the people in The House Uptown. They basically mean well, even when they are behaving badly, which is often!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

British crime shows are a big influence on my writing. I love the darkness and intimacy of shows like Vera, Scott & Bailey, and Happy Valley, which center complicated women and a deep understanding of place, landscape, and culture.
Visit Melissa Ginsburg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue