Melissa Ginsburg (’02)
Melissa Ginsburg (’02) is the author of the novel “Sunset City,” published by Ecco earlier this year. She is also the author of the poetry collection “Dear Weather Ghost” and two poetry chapbooks, “Arbor” and “Double Blind.” In addition to her B.A. in English from UH, she holds an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi, where she is assistant professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Mississippi.
Congratulations on the publication of your first novel! What inspired you to make the switch from poetry to prose for “Sunset City”?
I was curious to see if I could write a novel. As I was working on a bunch of non-narrative experimental lyric poems, I read a ton of crime novels. I’ve always loved to read crime, and I am fascinated by books that are driven by plot, because that is so different from the way my brain tends to work. So I wanted to give it a try, partly because it seemed so foreign to me.
Had you written a novel or concentrated on writing fiction before? How did your experience as a poet play a part in the process?
Before Sunset City I wrote one bad short story in college, and that was it. This is the first piece of fiction I have ever published. My experience as a poet did help me on the sentence level, and in terms of constructing scenes. And I am a compulsive reviser of both poetry and prose. Sunset City went through many, many drafts, so that part of the process was pretty similar.
But with the novel, I wanted the language to become as transparent as possible, to fall away and allow the scenes to unroll. There are a couple of moments in the book that revolve around an image or an emotional state or a striking sentence, but in general I wanted to limit that mode and keep the story moving forward.
Narrative prose demands logic, cause and effect relationships, explicit transitions, and clear movement through time. Lyric poetry does not have to engage any of those things if it doesn’t want to, and I had to teach myself to write that way. It was very hard at first, because it felt artificial, and I had never done it before. In poetry you can skip around in time, play with it, or stay in one moment for an entire poem. But narrative has got to move.
The city of Houston almost functions as a main character in “Sunset City.” Did you set out to write a story about Houston, or did you develop the story first before realizing Houston would be a fitting locale?
It was always a Houston story. I began writing the book when I’d been away from Houston for about four years, and I missed it in ways that I had not anticipated. I wanted to write crime, and I wanted to write about home. These characters are Houston characters, their lives are shaped and enabled by the place. You can get lost in Houston, and these characters do. They can act without drawing much attention. The city’s compartmentalized spaces allow Charlotte, Danielle, and the other characters in the book the anonymity and freedom to live their particular lives.
You attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City and now teach at the University of Mississippi. What was it like to go from Houston to two small college towns? How does your location affect your writing, if at all?
I never imagined that I would live in a small town. The most difficult adjustment was losing a sense of privacy. In Houston you can go out into the city and be alone, surrounded by strangers. In Iowa City and Oxford, that is impossible. Every time I leave the house I run into folks I know. I’m very conscious of being seen, being looked at. There is a responsibility to engage socially when I’m in the grocery store or the post office. I may never get used to it, though it’s been 13 years since I lived in Houston.
The tradeoff for that privacy is community. Oxford has a wonderful community of writers and creative people, which inspires me. There’s no shortage of smart folks to talk to, and it’s a very generous and talented group of people. I write well here. I live on some land outside of town, and it’s very peaceful and beautiful, which also helps my work. Mississippi does show up in my poems sometimes, but my next novel is set in another city, New Orleans.
What originally brought you to UH?
I grew up in Houston and left after high school for a couple of years. I moved back to Houston in 1997. When I decided to go back to school, UH was a natural choice. It was affordable, and my sister was a student there and loved it.
How did your UH education shape your path as a writer and creative writing instructor?
I fell in love with poetry when I was there. And I met a bunch of enormously talented graduate students in the creative writing program. Two of them, the fiction writer Amber Dermont and the poet Michael Dumanis, were very influential in my decision to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I had the opportunity to work as an intern at Gulf Coast, to attend tons of readings and literary events. I was exposed to the possibilities of a writing life.
Did you have a favorite professor or class at UH, or any other favorite UH memories?
I had the opportunity to study with the poet Marie Howe while she was a visiting professor. She is an extraordinary writer and a wonderful, compassionate human being. Our workshop that semester was a rare and lovely thing: many of my classmates became friends, and we saw each other outside of class and continued to read one another’s poems. One student in that class wrote a beautiful poem that mentioned Taub Hall by name. That was a revelation to me, that art could be made about a dorm room, about the mundane things surrounding us. At the time it seemed to elevate experience, to transform it.
What advice would you share with UH students, or aspiring writers?
To aspiring writers, I would say read widely, and write every day. Practice. Don’t wait for inspiration. If you are doing the work, you will be available for great ideas when they show up. Don’t fret about writing badly, because you can always improve a piece through revision. Revision is crucial. Don’t allow your feelings about your writing to influence you too much — lots of writers alternate between thinking our work is terrible or brilliant. If you ignore those emotional responses and keep working, you will end up with something solid that you can be consistently proud of.