Melissa Ginsburg’s Houston is a gritty place where danger seems to hang in the air as heavily as humidity. The city feels as much a character in the poet’s first novel, Sunset City, as does her protagonist, Charlotte Ford, and Ginsburg says that’s not a coincidence. The story was always, in part, about Houston.
“It started with the idea of a crime novel,” Ginsburg says, “and Houston was very much a part of that. It always seemed crazy to me that there aren’t more crime novels set there—it’s such a perfect environment for noir.”
Ginbsburg, born and raised in Houston, explains that Charlotte is based loosely on a lot people she knew when she lived there. She says the people and the city itself are “very linked” in her novel. “It’s not [about] anyone in particular, but I’m really curious about people who are dealing with difficulty,” Ginsburg says. “That’s interesting to me narratively and it’s also interesting in terms of character. What do you do in intense situations? You can’t always predict how you’re going to respond to something.”
And Charlotte does find herself in precisely such escalating situations of intensity—witness to or part of drug overdoses, porn, and enough drinking to leave the reader with a sympathy hangover. The tightly plotted novel circles around the kind of people you just don’t read about very often. “I’m curious about people who are on the fringe, who are not part of our mainstream culture, but are on the edges and trying to figure out how to live that way.”
The novel, which took Ginsburg eight years to finish, was written in Iowa, Houston, and Mississippi. Meanwhile, she also published two books of poetry and completed her MFA (also in poetry) at Iowa. “I had never written fiction before and I had no idea what I was doing when I started out,” Ginsburg says. “I wrote hundreds of pages that I threw away, I had a dozen outlines that ended up making no sense. I really had to teach myself how to do it.”
Why the shift in form? “I wanted to see if I could do it, and I wanted to see what it would be like doing something that was more commercial than poetry, which hardly narrows it down,” Ginsburg says with a laugh. “Everything’s more commercial than poetry.”
But she loved reading crime novels and felt like she had nothing to lose by trying. “I’d considered myself primarily a poet and so my artistic sensibility and sense of self as an artist was not resting on this. It was an experiment.”
The book opens as Charlotte discovers an old friend, Danielle Reeves, has been murdered—bludgeoned to death. From there, the story weaves through Charlotte’s coping with the unexpected loss and her eventual unearthing of the culprit. “I find myself as a reader particularly amazed by plot,” Ginsburg says. Though her own novel saw many plot iterations, she still felt comforted by the space afforded to her in a novel.
“It was so freeing because there’s a lot of room to move around in something as big as a novel,” Ginsburg explains. “My poems are tiny, short, and intricate. Every word and every space between every word; every punctuation mark is considered. This was just a break from that and I was surprised at how fun it was.”
Several reviews called the novel a literary crime novel, but Ginsburg says she isn’t overly concerned with the literary part of that title: “I’m happy to call it crime novel,” she says. “That was my intention. The term literary is a little confusing to me, and I don’t have any kind of snobbiness about genre. I think of the crime genre as a form in the way that a sonnet is a form, and you can write a good sonnet or you can write a boring and shitty sonnet. There are great novels in every genre.”
She’s currently at work on a new novel, also in the crime genre, set in New Orleans. While it’s too early to say anything else, it’s safe for Ginsburg to say she wants to it to be similar in tone to her first: “When [people] go through difficult times, they can access something really important during those times that’s not available in everyday life,” she says. “Crime novels can explore that in a way that really interests me.”
Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. Her stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review and Parcel, among others. Find her on Twitter.