3.9k Share this
My parents met and married in New Orleans but moved 6 hours away to Houston, Texas. I grew up driving back and forth between the two cities and believing fervently that New Orleans was the most important place in the world, the epicenter of food, music, beauty, fun, and everything that mattered. My mother used to cry in the car every time we crossed the state line back into Texas.
My mother’s New Orleans family is a family of women. The only men were married in and remained peripheral to the intense drama and loyalties of sisters, mothers, daughters, throngs of girl cousins. Boys were a remote afterthought, vague and mysterious, of little interest.
The House Uptown started as a story about Ava and her friend Deedee, a homeless runaway Ava meets at the train station when she first arrives in New Orleans. As the story progressed and the relationships between Ava, her grandmother Lane, and Oliver intensified, I had to cut Deedee from the book. But I fervently love Deedee and she’s still very alive in my head. Lately she’s been learning Tarot from a deck she stole in the French Quarter.
My dog Zimmy is in a poem in The New Yorker and an essay on LitHub. Imagine a Blue Heeler the size of a cat with a great sense of humor. Because he lives with two writers (me and my husband Chris Offutt), and exudes charisma, Zimmy’s fame was inevitable. (He’s also heavily featured on my Instagram, @chickenpoet.)
Before I began writing seriously I studied visual art in Houston and Boston. The Boston winters and my discovery of poetry conspired to lead me to drop out of art school when I was twenty, but that education was foundational. I wasn’t surprised to find myself writing about a painter in The House Uptown.
I lived in Iowa City, Ava’s hometown, for 8 years. The children I knew there—including my stepsons—were the sweetest, most wholesome kids I’ve ever met. I was baffled by their sincerity and assumed it was an elaborate form of Midwestern irony that I could not understand. When the boys first met my mother, they could not decipher her New Orleans accent and asked me if she was from Europe.
The titular house in the novel is based on my late grandmother’s old house, a magical place in the mythology of my family. The costume closet where Ava sleeps was my mother’s bedroom. All of us girls used to play Mardi Gras on the raised front porch, taking turns throwing beads down to our cousins in the yard below.