We had the chance to shoot the bull with Chris Tusa this past spring at a writer’s conference in lovely Fairhope, Alabama (you should go, if you haven’t been). We were captured by the bleakness so readily apparent on the cover of his debut novel, Dirty Little Angels. We like grim, morose, and desperation, and not to mention Cajun food and hurricane aftermath (we live there, too). So, we dug in and got dirty with Chris and his angels. Here follows that quagmire:
Tell us a little bit about the book. Where did the characters come from?
In many ways, Hailey is the female version of me. Like Hailey, I struggled with the temptation of drugs and with the slow deterioration of my parents’ divorce. Verma is an actual person who helped raise me (though her name was actually Ferma), and Hailey and Verma’s relationship (which is based wholly on my relationship with Ferma) is a fairly accurate account of our actual relationship, and Verma’s character in the book is identical to the woman she was in life. The character of Cyrus is based on a drug dealer who I once knew, and Moses is based on a man who had taken over an abandoned bank near my high school. Though he never demonstrated an obsession with religion, he was known for selling local students pints of gin from the drive-thru window of the former bank. The other characters who populate the novel are mostly sketches of people I knew while living in New Orleans.
Why does your story focus so much on the grittiness and poverty of these people?
Though my family was not poor like Hailey’s, most of my close friends lived in neighborhoods similar to hers, and their lifestyle (specifically the obstacles they were forced to overcome on a daily basis) always intrigued me, mostly, I suspect, because their lives were so much different than mine. Because I tended to befriend kids who were poor or who were part of extremely dysfunctional families, I often encountered situations that, for me, were life-changing. I once saw my friend’s father throw his wife (my friend’s stepmother) from the steps of their house after he punched her in the mouth. On another occasion, I witnessed a boy light a cat on fire. For me, these situations (and many others) scarred me, and jarred me from my safe, comfortable middle-class life. More importantly, they demonstrated to me that many kids were stuck in extremely chaotic and violent environments, and that for many kids, simply surviving adolescence was an accomplishment.
What is it about New Orleans? You’re from there. It’s in your blood. But what is it?
Anyone who had grown up in New Orleans (or spent a great deal of time there) quickly learns that New Orleans is not simply a place. In many ways, it’s a character in itself, a person you love and miss, a person, who for some strange reason, has the ability to make you feel as though you have a better understanding of yourself. When Katrina struck, I like many people from New Orleans, felt as if a close relative had been murdered. As I watched the news coverage, I felt both grief and anger, and to this day (almost six years later), I find myself getting emotional whenever I watch coverage of the aftermath.
Who are some writers you admire, and why?
I admire Harry Crews for his gritty and vicious depiction of the world; Sylvia Plath for her ability to convey anger through violent imagery; Raymond Carver for his ability to juxtapose dysfunction and beauty; Chuck Palahniuk for his bizarre plots and pacing; Charles Simic for his beautifully grotesque and compact images; and Flannery O’Conner for her quirky yet tragic characters;
What are you working on next, if we may inquire?
I’m currently working on a collection of flash fiction entitled Mean Blood and on two novels: In the Valley of Falling Stars, a dark tragicomedy set in post-Katrina New Orleans featuring a middle-aged man who’s convinced his wife has been chosen by God to give birth to Jesus Christ; and a second novel set in New Orleans in 1878 involving a young girl who is abducted to work as a prostitute in a brothel.