Home is where the art is
Award-winning novelist Michelle Huneven finds her muse in and around her native Altadena.
By Scarlet Cheng 05/01/2010
“When my father was eight years old,” says novelist Michelle Huneven, “he ran away from home, and he spent the night on this property. It was the East Indian Gardens then. Later he recognized these very old eucalyptus trees, he just recognized the place.”
We’re sitting in the backyard of Huneven’s house in Altadena, looking up at two gigantic eucalyptus trees that stand along the back edge of the lot. Huneven, 56, was born and raised in this town, then spent 30 years away––first at college, then living in Pasadena, the Sierras and Los Angeles. In 2001 she bought the single-story house with the sprawling lot we are strolling around now, the site of her father’s childhood misadventure. She returned with some trepidation. “I thought I was going to be swept by melancholy moving back,” she recalls. “Both sets of grandparents lived in Altadena, my mother lived here. But instead I just really feel whole. I love being here.”
And why not? It’s a beautiful spring afternoon, slightly cool, flowers are in bloom and there are oranges and lemons in her trees. Huneven is an easy conversationalist and a natural storyteller. Every question uncovers a story.
Her third novel, Blame, has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Set in Altadena, Pasadena and La Cañada Flintridge, it’s the compelling tale of Patsy MacLemoore, a beautiful young history professor with a bad drinking problem. For years she has laughed off her irresponsibility and recklessness. Then one day she wakes up in jail, accused of running over a mother and daughter in her driveway. Racked with guilt, she goes to prison, learns to do what she’s told and eventually joins Alcoholics Anonymous. And that’s just the first third of the book. How Patsy slowly reenters regular life––aided by her pal Brice and his new boyfriend, Gilles; her therapist, Silver; and her eventual husband, Cal––and learns to be good takes up the rest of the book.
“But isn’t there a higher, truer self, a self that’s free of addiction and obsession, that knows what’s best for you?” Silver asks her in a session one day. “And isn’t that why you come here? To find and nourish that authentic, unenslaved self?” Patsy says no, that hadn’t occurred to her. What she wants to know, she says, is “how to live to with guilt.” Ultimately, Patsy does come around to exploring what’s best for her, but in the meantime it’s fascinating and satisfying to see a person wrestle with––and try to right––the consequences of her wrongdoing.
Blame has garnered widespread praise. Maria Russo wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the novel “is firmly rooted in the moral ambiguities of addiction and recovery, probing responsibility, guilt and exoneration with a philosophical elegance.
Huneven’s prose moves like a hummingbird, in small bursts that are improbably fast and graceful.” The New Yorker praised Huneven’s prose as “flawless, with especially arresting descriptions of the Southern California landscape, and her strong but fragile heroine is mercilessly honest.”
Huneven has had literary ambitions since childhood. “I remember very clearly being in my bedroom and thinking I want to be a writer,” she says. “I was 8 or 9 and thinking I can’t be a writer because I’m not a man.” Nobody told her she couldn’t; she just thought it was impossible from what she saw around her.
When did she get over that obstacle?
“How thoroughly does one get over it?” she replies. “Male dominance in literature is still alive and well.” Still, she began reading more women authors––not least of whom was Jane Austen––and saw that she could be one too. After attending a series of colleges, she ended up at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1976 and got her MFA there.
For a while, she made her living as a restaurant critic and food writer for the LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times. She was good at it, winning a James Beard Award, and restaurant reviews left her enough energy to do what she considered her serious writing. In 1997, Huneven’s first novel, Round Rock, was published; in it, a lawyer ruins his life through drink, then tries to redeem himself by establishing a recovery center for alcoholics. Six years later she came out with Jamesland, about three people whose lives intertwine in Los Feliz. Her efforts earned her a General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers and a Whiting Writers’ Award for Fiction.
Huneven’s latest novel was prompted by two ideas. “I wanted to write about someone who had lived a good life, then had reason to question the very principles of that good life,” she says of Blame. Then there was a real-life story she had heard from an acquaintance. “He was a terrible blackout drinker, and at one point he was arrested for murdering his ex-wife. He’d assumed he’d done it; he couldn’t remember. But despite himself he had an ironclad alibi, and the charges were dropped. What a close call that was. He did eventually stop drinking.”
Alcoholism is a subject the author returns to again and again; she is, she acknowledges, a recovered alcoholic.
Many of the main characters in Blame bond through regular attendance at AA meetings, and Cal prides himself on helping other recovering alcoholics, even letting them use his home as a halfway house. Huneven believes that AA “is designed to make a person aware that there are these deep forces that can take them over, like addiction.”
She’s already at work on her next novel, which she writes in her office, a one-room building in the corner of the lot. Nearby are elevated garden boxes in which she grows lettuces and gigantic spring onions. Her terrier trots around while we talk, and every so often her gray parrot lets out a squawk from her cage.
“I’m a really chauvinist Altadenan; I’m a West Altadenan,” she says with some pride. “It’s one of the truly integrated communities here. It’s been that way ever since I grew up. Interracial marriages, gay-friendly...My parents were very progressive. It’s a place to live out one’s principles.”