Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Chris Tusa’s second novel, In the City of Falling Stars (Livingston Press, September 2016), tells a tale of paranoia and intrigue. Maurice Delahoussaye witnesses dead birds falling from the sky, and becomes convinced the air is toxic. With equal parts humor and depravity, the novel chronicles a fractured family amidst a crumbling city and examines the withering psyche of a man prone to obsession. Of Maurice’s mental state, the author writes:
I’m a soldier, Maurice thought, a soldier of the Lord. As he stood there, a frenzy of static-filled visions flashed in the back of his brain—a glowing heart tangled in flames and thorns, stars falling from the sky like rain, the black cries of a baby mingled with a melee of bloody screams— all swarming around in his brain like a crackling burst of signals bouncing off a satellite dish. He took another swig of Maalox, imagining the ulcers bleeding in his gut, his insides sacred and glowing.
I spoke with Tusa in person in late October about how he approached writing about Hurricane Katrina, what makes mentally unstable characters so compelling, and using humor in unique ways.
The Rumpus: Novels surrounding real life catastrophes, especially recent events, are hard to pull off without it seeming like the writer is capitalizing on the pain of those afflicted. Often, and we’ve seen this with fiction about 9/11, it seems as if the work is disingenuous. There haven’t been very many novels on Hurricane Katrina, and perhaps much of that is because the wounds of New Orleans are still healing. You obviously put a lot of care into using Katrina as a backdrop. Can you talk a little bit about how the aftermath of Katrina shaped the narrative, and what steps you took to ensure authenticity?
Chris Tusa: After Katrina slammed into New Orleans, I noticed a number of books (mostly nonfiction) that examined the aftermath of the storm. Because I love the city, I couldn’t help but view those books with a sense of disdain, mostly because I felt they were a bit opportunistic and because many of the books were written by people who hadn’t been born and raised in NOLA. I did want to write about the storm’s impact on the city, but because I wanted to give myself and the city time to heal, I decided to wait a few years before beginning the project.
As in my first novel, Dirty Little Angels, I wanted to truly and accurately convey the city. So often, NOLA is publicized in Jazz Fest ads and travel brochures as a city crammed with music and award-winning food. While all of this is true, my goal was not to reiterate this message, but instead to reveal the shattered hopes and landscape that resulted from the storm. New Orleans is a wonderful city, but it also contains a certain darkness and mystery that is extremely appealing. It’s that mystery that visitors never truly experience, that eeriness that brochures often fail to capture. And that is what I wanted to reveal. In short, I wanted to show New Orleans in all its dirt and glory.
Rumpus: Paranoia is a key element to the plot, and to the existence of our protagonist, Maurice Delahoussaye. He is obsessed with obscure statistics about dying and lives under constant fear that the government is watching him. How much research went into the stats behind his fears?
Tusa: Tons of research. But the research became fun at some point, mostly because Maurice was an interesting character. As I wrote, I noticed that I could create fears for Maurice, and researching those fears became very interesting. The statistics also became a way of conveying comedy in scenes that were overly dark.
Rumpus: Writing mentally unstable characters is complicated for many reasons. Was it easy for you to stumble across the character of Maurice, and what made you want to write about a mentally unstable character?
Tusa: Even as a reader, I find mentally unhinged characters extremely interesting. Most of my favorite books (Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Choke, etc.) involve mentally unstable characters. Characters such as these fascinate me and make the writing/reading more engaging and authentic, namely because they often possess some sense of impending doom, and for this reason, their worries and fears are able to create a plot which always seems to me to feel more organic and unique.
Rumpus: Given that, can you tell me which authors and books have influenced your writing the most?
Tusa: Again, most of my favorite books contain unhinged characters or at least some unhinged world within which they struggle. My absolute favorites include: 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Cuckoo’s Nest, Catcher in the Rye, and Rosemary’s Baby.
Rumpus: I think that in books that deal with particularly dark corners of life (like natural disasters and mental illness), it’s important to combat the horrors and depravity with comedy. There are some real laugh-out-loud moments here that are unexpected. What role do you think humor plays in fiction?
Tusa: Though literature containing humor seems to by a dying art, I admire writers and screenwriters who use humor (especially black humor) in a unique way. In this book, because I knew the characters were dysfunctional and at times unlikeable, I really tried to implement humor as a means of making the reader more sympathetic to the characters’ struggles. I also hoped it would provide a break for the reader when they felt overwhelmed by those same struggles.
Rumpus: With that being said, how would you classify the novel? It feels like it’s a blend between a literary thriller and a black comedy. Are you conscious about genre and audience when you write?
Tusa: I think that’s a fair assessment. I wanted a character-driven book, but I also wanted one that would keep the reader engaged. Many literary novels fail, at least in my opinion, because they get so bogged down in the characters that they forget about plot. Chapter by chapter, I consciously attempted to add dialogue and images that created tension so that the reader would feel more engaged.
Rumpus: Some of my favorite Delahoussaye family moments take place at the dinner table. They are quite obviously a dysfunctional family, but at the same time, they are incredibly relatable. Were you considering the family dynamic when you were writing these ensemble scenes?
Tusa: Certainly. I find families extremely intriguing, mostly because they always seem to contain people who wildly disagree with one another, people who (without sharing DNA and a common upbringing) would most likely never agree to associate with one another. That dysfunctional element was one that I wanted to investigate in the book, specifically the idea that family members often find themselves so enveloped in their own struggles that they are unable to successfully communicate with one another.
Rumpus: Your dialogue is energetic and playful. It feels as if it would transcend well onto the stage. Do you have a special process for writing dialogue?
Tusa: That’s interesting. I am very fond of plays, and I tend to prefer them to novels because the dialogue always seems more vital, more electric. When I was writing the dialogue in this book, I tried desperately to create conversations that surprised the reader. I think the best writing surprises and engages the reader.