Even before she set off for college, Michelle Huneven knew she wanted to be a novelist. But she found no fast track to literary success. A less dogged writer surely would have given up.
There was, for example, the instructor at Scripps College, who wrote, “Although Ms. Huneven's writing improved over the course of the semester, she has no talent and should not be encouraged.” And while Huneven, undeterred, was certain she had a great idea for a novel, it refused to come together. She worked on it for more than a decade – at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and while working as a journalist (including a stint as this newspaper's restaurant critic) – only to finally give up, heading to seminary to become a Unitarian/Universalist minister.
It was there, she recalls, that the thunderbolt struck: “I was sitting in New Testament or something, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was starting my novel in the wrong place.” She dropped out of seminary and finished the book in three years.
But even then, the agent she consulted refused to read it, saying it was far too long. “She later told me that she had roundly rejected me,” Huneven says, amused at the memory. “I didn't hear rejection. So I cut it in half.” After six months and 300-plus pages of cuts, Round Rock was finished – and Michelle Huneven became, at 44, a novelist.
Today Huneven has four novels to her credit, all critically acclaimed. (Her third, Blame, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.) But it was upon finishing the fourth, Off Course, which was released in April, that she suddenly realized the enormity of her accomplishment.
“I thought, 'You've written four novels,'” she says, admitting, “I impressed myself. It's just something – no one can take that away from you. That's probably the best feeling – it didn't last, of course – but the best feeling I've had in the way of writing.”
A native of Altadena, Huneven, now 60, grew up with schoolteacher parents and an older sister, a violin teacher. Her childhood home is just a mile from where she and her husband, attorney James Potter, live today with cat Mr. Plancks, a mutt named Piper and Helen the parrot.
Their house is situated on the large, rambling sort of lot you seldom see in the L.A. area outside Altadena; there are two vegetable gardens, a small writing studio and citrus and olive trees. Because tomato seedlings are incubating in Huneven's studio, she's recently taken to writing in the tent, which is grander than its name suggests – it has a high-pitched canvas ceiling, a bed and a desk, like a safari tent in a high-end travel magazine.
Huneven's great topic is alcohol – how it clouds our judgment, how we let it consume us, how we learn to live without it. Blame is about that explicitly, but it's also a thin wire running through Off Course, the story of a grad student coming of age in a small mountain town in the Sierras in the 1980s.
In that, it echoes Huneven's own life. She is 26 years sober, and she lived in the Sierras after grad school – an era she considers “my lost years.”
“Edith Wharton said something like it's from the blank, uneventful, seemingly lost parts of your life that you end up finding material,” she says. “The redemption for me is to get to make art out of those years. I sort of wrote the book that I wished I'd read in my late 20s.”
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