April 06, 2016

The Crime Lady #054: Talking With Melissa Ginsburg About Sunset City

First, a housekeeping note: because today's dispatch is already plenty long, I'm saving the recommended reads and links for a second newsletter going out over the weekend, just before I leave for London to cover the London Book Fair (so if you're around, please do say hi! My schedule is tight but there are certainly some people I want to make sure to see.) Then it's back to the regular Wednesday schedule again on April 20. Onward:

One of my favorite debuts of 2016 is Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg, a dark gem of a noir novel set in Houston that has one of the most bone-deep depictions of a friendship undone by grief and mutually assured destruction I've read in a long time. Ginsburg, an acclaimed poet, worked on Sunset City for eight years before it found its way to her agent, and then to her publisher, Ecco. It packs so much character and story and loss and desire in less than 200 pages that I found myself marveling at the economy and more than a little envious at how Ginsburg pulled it all off. So I knew I had to ask her some questions, which I did over email. The full conversation appears here and is lightly edited and condensed for clarity:

The Crime Lady: With some books classified as "noir" or "literary noir" we later discover the author kind of fell into the genre by accident, that they were writing a particular story close to them and it turned out to be well within these genre borders. But I felt Sunset City was trying to be conscious of paying homage to, and then inverting, the usual tropes. Was that the case? And if so, what specifically were you trying to subvert?

Melissa Ginsburg: Yes, I intentionally set out to write a traditional crime novel. A plot driven genre novel is about the opposite of what I had been doing with poetry.  While I was writing these very tight, small lyric poems that were non-narrative, I was reading lots of noir, lots of detective novels. So I knew I wanted to try and write a novel that used those tropes and borrowed that structure, but I also wanted to write about women, and that the book would end up being about the characters more than solving a mystery.

As for subverting tropes, I did think consciously about gender roles in traditional noir, because it’s a genre in which women are not usually the focus, other than as victims and femmes fatales.  Charlotte behaves like a lot of traditional noir detectives who are male—she drinks too much, she fucks women, etc. But I tried to focus on characters more than tropes, and everything Charlotte does feels realistic to me. I was more concerned with being true to who these people are and how they really would react than being subversive or commenting on the genre.

TCL: Female friendship in all of its complexities are uppermost in Sunset City. Charlotte loves and grieves for Danielle but the latter is, shall we say, a long way removed from sainthood. Danielle could be funny and gregarious but also a casual betrayer and heedless that we tend to associate with addictive personalities. There are, thank goodness, a lot more books nowadays about female friendships that depict their messy truth than there once was, but Sunset City may well be one of the messiest. I wonder how you made sure to stay on the side of truth instead of opting out of easier paths?

MG: I wanted to write about people realistically. I’ve known a lot of folks, women and men, who share many of Danielle’s qualities, which I am drawn to. I like complicated, difficult people, and I think they are more interesting to write about. Danielle is charismatic, she’s a bad influence, she’s impulsive. Charlotte is a little more fearful, and she can’t quite afford to be as reckless as Danielle, so it made sense to me that she would be attracted to somebody like that. And people like Danielle need an audience, need support and steady attention. At the same time, they care deeply about each other, they are loyal and they are also both trying their best to take care of themselves and move forward, which conflicts with that loyalty. It never occurred to me to write Danielle any other way. I wanted it messy, I wanted her death to devastate everyone she knew, because of the loss and because of the difficulty inherent in loving her. That difficulty doesn’t go away when somebody dies.

TCL: I doubt you can talk about Sunset City without talking about sex. There is a fair amount of male gaze, since Danielle and Audrey, the other key female character in the novel, are involved in adult films. Charlotte's desires, her own grappling with what she wants, suffuse the narrative. But writing about sex is also, well, really difficult. Or was it for you? Mostly I want to hear how you used sex and desire as a way of deepening what we know about these characters.

MG: There were times in the writing of this book (which took me 8 years!) where I would write sex scenes because I didn't know what was going to happen next, because I was frustrated or felt stuck. I cut most of them, because they interfered with the arc of the book, but I found them really fun to write. I also tried to write realistically about these young women. I think the sexuality of these characters is realistic. They are in their early 20s, they are impulsive, self-destructive, lonely. Nobody has good role models or examples of healthy relationships in their lives. And sex is a way to get attention, a source of connection. For Audrey and Danielle it’s a way to make a living.

I also think that sexual acting out is a very natural, normal response to grief, and for Charlotte it made so much sense in this context. The male gaze is there, for sure, and that’s one of the tropes I deliberately borrowed from the genre. There’s a dead porn star in a hotel. I think that male gaze is sort of internalized by Charlotte, who is not somebody who would think too critically about that kind of thing. Her own desire feels like a welcome medium through which to channel her grief. It’s a means of expression and distraction simultaneously. It’s physical, a way to get away from her thoughts which are too bleak and sad. She uses physical exercise and drugs that way, too.

TCL: When I first got an advance copy of the book I'm fairly certain my first thought was, "Thank god, a short novel!" But of course there is so much packed into less than 200 pages. I assume that being a poet makes you attuned to the economy of language, but I wanted to hear more about what poetry brings to noir and vice versa and how they work in tandem.

MG: I edit compulsively, in my poems and in this book. My poems are also really short. I cut hundreds of pages from early drafts of Sunset City. I didn’t want extra stuff in there, maybe because I find myself easily distracted. I didn’t want the book to lag at any point. I’m much more comfortable ruthlessly cutting than I am writing. When the writing is good I have no idea how I did it, but most of the prose I generate feels boring, plodding, or unnecessary, and I throw it out. Maybe if I was a better writer, I could write a longer book? As a reader I love big long novels that you can live in for a while, but I don’t think I could ever write something really long.

Noir lends itself to compression. It’s a kind of elemental genre, it’s made out of these very basic ingredients: light and shadow, death, clues that take the form of images, of overheard snippets of conversation, of small details that have to be recontextualized. Because the tropes are so familiar, we don’t need a lot of explanation. We just need an image, really.

It's funny, the poetry projects I’ve written since finishing Sunset City are longer, more sustained. I think writing a novel, even a short one, has expanded my attention span.

TCL: You were working on Sunset City while your husband, Chris Offutt, was working on his memoir My Father, the Pornographer, which I loved and wrote about in my previous newsletter. While it is nonfiction and your book is fiction they both explore damage and, in a way, grieving and victimhood among those who refuse to think of themselves that way. I don't know how the two of you work, and while I'm curious about that, I'm more curious about whether there was some unconscious both of you tapped into and what, if any, parallels are really present with both of these books.

MG: I don't know about unconscious—we read and edit each other's work all the time, and our tastes frequently overlap. We both like to read dark, sad, violent books. But Sunset City was mostly finished long before Chris's dad died, before he had ever thought to write My Father, the Pornographer. I think we both try not to shy away from difficult material, and we both care a lot about prose on the sentence level, and in terms of structure.

I also would not have been able to write Sunset City or get it published without Chris's consistent support and encouragement. The book was hard to sell—it was rejected by many agents and publishers over a period of years, and I would have happily left it in a drawer and abandoned it if it weren’t for Chris saying, "It's good, it's so close, just keep sending it out." He was saying that to me even while he was in a kind of fugue state working on MFTP ten hours a day.

TCL: I had not thought of Houston as a particularly noirish place. To the best of my knowledge, there is no Houston Noir anthology (though perhaps one is in the works?) What was it about Houston that made it the place to set Sunset City? How deep are this city's secrets?

MG: I grew up in Houston and lived there most of my life until my late 20s. When I started the book I was living in Iowa City, and I could not imagine setting anything there, especially not a crime novel. The book I wanted to write needed a big space, the anonymity of a big city, and I knew Houston so well. I understood it in a way that I never could understand the midwest or college towns.

I think Houston is perfect for noir, because it is a very easy place to hide, to stay lost if you want to. There’s a lot of land there. A lot of space in between everything, and a lot of privacy because of that. People tend to stay in their air conditioning, so if you exist in the in-between spaces you can get away with nearly anything. Also it’s the fourth largest city in the United States, almost as big as Chicago, but nobody really thinks much about it. Which makes it kind of a blank slate. There’s a lot of opportunity there in terms of narrative. I love Houston but the whole time I was there, I couldn’t wait to leave. In the book I wanted to explore that ambivalence, that tension about home and landscape.  

TCL: Needless to say I look forward to reading your next novel. Is that, in fact, what you are working on, or is more poetry the immediate future -- or both?

MG: I'm working on both. I’ve just completed a poetry manuscript that is about Freud and his patient Dora. And I’m writing a bunch of new poems and working out a plan for a new novel. It will be about a little girl and her grandmother, and will have a similar noir feel to Sunset City. It will be set in New Orleans and the Alabama Gulf Coast. I find starting a novel very difficult, so I’m trying to sneak up on it by writing poems.