Melissa Ginsburg comes to BookPeople this upcoming Saturday, April 30th, at 3 PM, to speak and sign her Houston-set debut, Sunset City, our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for April. We asked Melissa a few questions via email before her visit to the store.
“I do think Houston can be alienating…the way the city is organized, people move from one air-conditioned space to another, traveling by car, without the happy accidents that can occur when you’re a pedestrian in a city. So if you opt out of that—get out in the heat, on foot, be in the in-between spaces—you can really get away with a lot. No one is going to notice you. It’s perfect for crimes!”
- Interview by bookseller and blogger Molly Odintz
Molly Odintz: Houston is as much a character in your book as a setting. The atmosphere of alienation inspired by the endless driving and urban sprawl mirrors the city of Los Angeles as a noir setting. What inspiration did you take from your Houston setting?
Melissa Ginsburg: I do think Houston can be alienating—I certainly felt alienated when I was growing up there. The way the city is organized, people move from one air-conditioned space to another, traveling by car, without the happy accidents that can occur when you’re a pedestrian in a city. So if you opt out of that—get out in the heat, on foot, be in the in-between spaces—you can really get away with a lot. No one is going to notice you. It’s perfect for crimes!
Houston still has space in between everything, you can still go unnoticed there, you can get lost, you can hide. That anonymity works on a larger level, too, with the city as a whole. I think of Houston as a very anonymous place. People don’t think about it much if they haven’t lived there or spent time there. It’s not a part of the American imagination like New York or LA or Chicago, even though it is nearly as big as Chicago.
All of this might be changing now, though. It’s a cooler, more interesting city than it was even 10 years ago. In many ways the Houston of Sunset City is the Houston of my childhood in the 80s and 90s. It’s fictionalized.
MO: I loved that your protagonists in Sunset City embrace a spectrum of sexuality, yet the novel still carries a classic noir sheen of eroticism and femmes fatales. What was your inspiration for the, um, naughty bits? Do you think that we’re moving away from rigid gender and sexual roles in society at large, or just on the outskirts?
MG: I tried to make the book realistic, and sex seems to be such a natural part of what these characters do and who they are. They are in their early twenties, they are impulsive, they drink, they do drugs, they have sex. Sex for Charlotte is an expressive medium for her own despair over Danielle’s death. It’s a perfect medium because it does so many things at once. It’s a means of connection, it’s a high, it’s an escape.
I sometimes wrote sex scenes when I didn’t know where to go next. It was a way of getting to know the characters, and keeping myself in the world of the story. There used to be a lot more sex scenes that I had to cut because they didn’t fit.
I do think we are in a time when sexual behavior is less fraught, and gender is accepted as more fluid. It’s changing fast, and will keep changing. I would not have guessed, as a child, that gay marriage would be legal in my lifetime, or that there would be shows on tv with trans characters, and that would be part of a mainstream conversation.
The characters in Sunset City are, as you say, on the outskirts. It would not occur to Charlotte to judge or even label her own or anyone else’s sexuality, but for somebody like Sally, a wealthy businesswoman in a conservative world, it’s a different story.
“Sex for Charlotte is an expressive medium for her own despair over Danielle’s death. It’s a perfect medium because it does so many things at once. It’s a means of connection, it’s a high, it’s an escape.”
MO: Your novel passes the Bechdel Test so well, and Sunset City is full of complex female characters. Did you set out to write a feminist noir?
MG: Thank you! I did set out to write a book about women, so yeah, it was always going to read as feminist, because I don’t know how else to look at the world. I don’t have much interest in writing about men. And I wanted the book to be good, to avoid the cliches of the genre or to use those tropes differently. For me that meant writing female characters who were complex, and who were free to act.
A lot of Charlotte’s behavior is similar to the behavior of traditional noir detectives who are male—she drinks too much, she is promiscuous, she’s self-destructive. I am drawn to the genre because I am interested in people like that, men and women. I like to read about them, I like them in real life, and that’s who I wanted to write about. Passing the Bechdel test is so easy, really, it astonishes me that so many shows and movies can’t or don’t do it. It’s as simple as treating women like people.
MO: Who are some of your writing influences, inside or outside the genre?
MG: Jean Rhys was a big influence on me for this book—I love how willing she is to be dark, how ugly she will allow her characters to be, and her prose is so concise, it kills me. I also love Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Denise Mina’s Garnethill. There’s a fantastic book by Clare Kilroy called Tenderwire, that is not exactly a crime novel, but it feels like one. I love that book. And I read all of Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Chandler, a lot of Graham Greene. Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Everything by Mona Simpson.
“I did set out to write a book about women, so yeah, it was always going to read as feminist, because I don’t know how else to look at the world. I don’t have much interest in writing about men. And I wanted the book to be good, to avoid the cliches of the genre or to use those tropes differently. For me that meant writing female characters who were complex, and who were free to act.”
MO: Sunset City is a debut, but it feels very sophisticated. Tell me a bit about your writing process.
MG: Thanks so much! I had never written fiction before, other than one bad short story in college, so it took me a very long time to figure out how to do it. I worked on Sunset City on and off for eight years. I had to learn how to deal with time, how logic worked, cause and effect relationships. That was the hardest thing for me. I was used to writing non-narrative poetry that layered time, or froze it, or ignored it.
For Sunset City I worked from outlines but then I would find through the writing that the outline I had made fell apart. I went back and forth between outlines and rambling scenes that helped me get to know the characters. I wrote hundreds of pages that I threw away because they made no sense. I cut and cut, and reworked it. It’s my first novel, but I probably wrote 3 or 4 books’ worth of terrible pages that I threw away. It was not an efficient process!
MO: Your characters drug habits and sexual proclivities are depicted realistically and without glamour or judgement – you treat each character with empathy, without romanticizing their actions. How did you strike that balance?
MG: All through the writing I felt so much affection for each of the characters. They all make bad decisions, they all hurt themselves and other people, and I did not want to glamorize that. Anyone who has been around hard drugs knows how ugly they can be, and how compelling at the same time. But I understand why people would behave that way, given their circumstances. No one in the book has had an easy time of it, they have all been put in positions where they had no idea what to do, how to handle it, and they did the best they could. It doesn’t excuse what they do, or make me like them any less. I just tried to understand everyone’s motivations, and to be honest about the consequences of their actions.
“No one in the book has had an easy time of it, they have all been put in positions where they had no idea what to do, how to handle it, and they did the best they could. It doesn’t excuse what they do, or make me like them any less. I just tried to understand everyone’s motivations, and to be honest about the consequences of their actions.”
MO: Your story is as much about female friendship as it is a murder mystery. Tell me about the friendships in the novel.
MG: Charlotte and Danielle have this very intense relationship. They fed into each other’s needs so perfectly when they were very young. Charlotte provides this adoring audience for Danielle, gives her so much attention, and offers her some stability, too. Charlotte is more grounded, because she has had to be, to take care of her mother. Danielle can afford to take more risks, to be reckless, because she has plenty of money and no one depends on her. She’s an only child, her dad’s not around, her mom works all the time, so she acts out. That feels exciting to Charlotte.
And when Charlotte’s mother dies, Danielle is given the opportunity to be kind and generous, to be needed by someone. So their devotion to each other comes out of that foundation, and it’s magnified by the drama and intensity natural to teenage girls. It gets diluted and corrupted by drugs and boys, and by adulthood, but they are always rooting for each other.
Charlotte and Audrey are drawn together by their mutual love for Danielle, and the pain of losing her, of failing her. They each act as a proxy for Danielle, in a way.
MO: Sunset City is your debut, and it’s already getting a good amount of buzz. What’s next? Do you want to stay in the mystery genre?
MG: Yes! I’m working on a novel now that will be set in New Orleans and the Alabama Gulf Coast. It will have a similar noir feel to it, and deals with a teenage girl and her grandmother. And I’m also writing poetry.
MO: Your characters are perfect millennials (and I say this as a compliment, and as a member of the much-maligned generation myself) – they engage in recreational drug use, sleep with whomever they desire, and they work dead end jobs despite their education and intelligence. Is the detective novel the ideal format for the state of our generation?
MG: Noir has always been good at dealing with people on the fringes of society, who either don’t buy into mainstream values, or who aren’t any good at living the way they are told they’re supposed to live. I don’t think the characters’ lifestyles are specific to millenials. It seems to me that young people have always lived that way, at least young artists, musicians, creative people. Maybe what’s happening now with millenials is you have a generation of people who are choosing to participate in the world differently.