Treasures of the Imagination
by Susan Warmbrunn
When Michelle Huneven ’73 sits down to write, she drops her body into a black Aeron chair in front of her computer, pulls her yoga-limber knees up to her chest, and circles her arms around her legs to reach the keyboard. She looks like the kid she once was who “wanted to read because I could see that books held these treasures,” who couldn’t wait to find out what lay on the next page, believing anything could happen there.
“One of the best things about writing is privileging the imagination, coaxing it into giving up its gifts,” Huneven says. “It’s like a dream when you think, where did that come from, from what weird archive in my unconscious, what drawer got pulled open?”
In that weird archive, Huneven has found the alcoholics, the academics, the nuns and sons of citrus farmers who variously populate her novels Round Rock, Jamesland, and Blame, which was a finalist for a 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Huneven describes some false starts and false summits along the road she took to becoming a novelist whose prose the New Yorker called “flawless.” She won a national writing award while in her early thirties, but it took her two decades to finish her first novel. She spent about 15 years penning food columns for the Los Angeles Times and won the James Beard Award for feature writing. At one point, she gave up fiction writing altogether to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. But ultimately, her imagination wouldn’t let her leave some stories untold.
When she begins writing a novel, she usually starts with an idea or a scene, “something I’m thinking about.” Blame began with some questions: “Do we really know what’s best for us? Do we really know enough to redeem ourselves? Do we really know what path to take?” she says. “We construct our lives out of the narratives that we tell ourselves about who we are. And what if we got the facts wrong?”
She spins her stories out from that initial nugget of a notion, preferring to mine her imagination, rather than her life, for material. The novel she’s working on now—basically the story of a disillusioned economist in her late twenties who falls in love during the economic bubble of the Reagan era—started off more autobiographical than her previous works. This proved problematic.
“The book didn’t get interesting until I started to invent,” she says.
While she believes in making stuff up, she insists on getting the facts right. Huneven calls fiction writers “gobblers of content”; for Blame, she had to learn about life in prison, fire fighting, and plea bargaining. For her fourth novel, she’s becoming an armchair economist.
When she started working on the draft of her new novel, she tried to turn out about five pages a day working in a 10-by-12-foot “hut” that she and her husband built in the backyard of their Altadena home. Surrounded by a drought tolerant Eden of fruit trees and native plants, the hut has a day bed “because you’re either writing or napping” and a wall lined from floor to ceiling with books. Her pets are literary too: Piper, her “mutt-terrier,” was named after William James’ spirit medium, and Mr. Pancks, a short-haired black cat, got his moniker from “a little steam engine of a man” in Dickens’ Little Dorrit.
Huneven eventually transferred to Grinnell College in Iowa after finding the 30 miles between Altadena and Claremont too little distance to separate her childhood world from her college life.
She went on to get her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, then waitressed for a while before moving to her family’s cabin in her late twenties, what she calls “such a vulnerable, dilated time” in a woman’s life. Living in the mountains, she says she drank too much and got mixed up with the wrong men, but kept writing.
After winning the General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers following the publication of a short story called “The Foot,” she began getting assignments from newspapers and magazines. Ruth Reichl, the renowned food critic and editor, recruited her to the Los Angeles Times. Huneven also reviewed restaurants for the LA Weekly, where she referred to herself as “the other food writer” working in tandem with Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold.
Although she went into journalism largely to support her creative writing, she found one medium informed the other. “I was such a perfectionist and such a literary writer— so dense and slow and turgid in my prose,” Huneven says. “Journalism helps you develop a voice and learn not to be so precious about your writing.”
She kept churning out weekly food columns, but her novel sputtered. After working on it for 17 years, Huneven began to wonder if maybe she got the facts of her life wrong and she wasn’t really supposed to be a novelist.
“I got so discouraged with fiction writing, it was taking me so long to write a novel, that I quit. I just said, it’s too hard, there’s too much psychic pain.”
She decided to go to the Claremont School of Theology to become a minister instead. She was attracted to the pulpit in part because she had a minister who was “literate, erudite, spiritual, funny” and in part because she thought, “Maybe I can’t write novels or short stories, but I bet I can write sermons. They’re a beautiful little form, like an essay.”
But some drawer in her imagination refused to shut. About two years later, she figured out how to rework her novel. She left the seminary. When she finally sent a 735-page draft of Round Rock to a literary agent, she got a quick response back: “I can’t read this, it’s too long.”
Huneven cut the manuscript almost in half and sent it back, not knowing the agent thought she had roundly rejected the draft and would never hear from Huneven again.
One Sunday Huneven came home to a message from the agent: “It’s marvelous. Call me.”
An enthusiastic teacher, she is also a ruthless editor. “I can kill my babies and I can kill your babies,” she says, using the writing world’s shorthand for cutting favorite phrases and precious passages.
She’s living the life of a successful writer near the hills of Altadena, where she hikes, does yoga, and eats extremely locally from her own garden. But she warns against idealizing the honorific “published author” too much.
“When you’re a young writer, you think it’s going to change your life to publish a book. I thought it would validate me as a human being.” Looking out from behind sexy-librarian glasses, she smiles. “But you’re really just stuck with who you are and what you do.”
When her next book comes out, Huneven will probably rethink her profession again. “Every time I get published, I think I don’t want to be a novelist any more. I hate the weirdness, getting reviewed, having to promote your book.”
But then she sits back down in her chair, pulls her knees up to her chest, and, with a view of her backyard, begins to write, never knowing exactly what she’ll learn, where she’ll go, and who she’ll meet.
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