Michelle Huneven is a writing teacher at UCLA and author of the novels Round Rock, Jamesland, Off Course, and Blame, a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the Los Angeles Times and the National Book Critics Circle Awards. She is the recipient of a James Beard award for feature writing with recipes, a Whiting Award for Fiction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Huneven’s fifth novel, Search, follows Dana Potowski, a restaurant critic and author who is struggling to come up with her next book idea. As a longtime member of a progressive Unitarian Universalist congregation, she is asked to join the church’s search committee to help select a new minister. Dana makes the search more exciting and fruitful by secretly writing a memoir with recipes all about the process.
I spoke with Huneven over Zoom about sermons, restaurant criticism, writing rituals, obstacles, and so much more.
The Rumpus: Can you tell me what it was like to write your first novel, Round Rock?
Michelle Huneven: I got an MFA at Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then moved back to California and had been working on a novel for like seven years. And then—I don’t know if you know this, but I went to seminary and didn’t become a minister. I went because I couldn’t finish writing the book and because I wanted to do something meaningful in life. I was writing restaurant reviews at the time and, you know, puff journalism. I wanted to do something that was a little bit more taxing or meaningful or strenuous. And I thought that maybe I’d become a Unitarian minister.
Rumpus: So, there is a lot of you in Dana, the main character in your latest novel, Search?
Huneven: Yes, there is a lot of me in Dana. I was sitting in contemporary theology when it occurred to me what was the matter with my novel and why I couldn’t finish it. I’d been starting the book in the wrong place—in medias res—the middle of the story. When seminary let out for the year, I began the book again, this time from the beginning, when the main characters first meet one another. In fact, today, when you open a copy of Round Rock, my old beginning sits exactly, to the page, in the middle of the book. For my next book, Jamesland, I swung into writing to make use of my seminary education. It’s about three people having spiritual emergencies around a small church in Los Feliz.
Rumpus: What about your third novel, Blame?
Huneven: I have been sober many years. And I thought, What if I actually wasn’t an alcoholic? Would all those years of not drinking and AA and therapy still be years worth living? And then I thought, Let’s just up the ante here. What if I thought I’d done a really bad thing and lived my life repenting it and then found out that I didn’t do it. And that was the idea for Blame. It’s about a woman who kills a mother and a daughter in a blackout in a car accident and goes to prison for twenty years. Her whole life is sort of recalibrated around it. And then twenty-seven years in, she finds out that she didn’t do it, that there was somebody else driving the car who walked away.
Rumpus: How devastating. But I like the way you got into that via the idea of thinking about your own life from a different angle. Was that hard to write?
Huneven: It was so hard to write because what I wanted to write about was that nugget of “what if you had to recalibrate your whole life.” In order to do that I discovered I had to completely give the background: I had to tell a story. It was another case where I was writing from the middle to the back. I just kept adding more and more stuff on so that we would know that character and know what her life was before and then after the accident and her prison life and on and on. I think all books are hard to write. But that one was particularly tough. I felt like I was writing at the very edge of my abilities, which I do most of the time anyway.
Rumpus: Don’t we all though, write from the very edge of our abilities? I know I do. Tell me about your fourth novel, Off Course.
Huneven: Off Course is my most autobiographical novel. It’s about longing. For some years in my late-twenties, early thirties, I was lost in that painful, bittersweet state. I wrote the novel for other young women on the brink of adulthood, who’ve been sidetracked by impossible love. If I’d read a novel like Off Course when I was so stuck, I might not have been cured, but I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
Rumpus: You teach writing at UCLA. What are you teaching right now?
Huneven: I’m teaching fiction writing. I also taught a short story intensive on reading like a writer. We read ten short stories and everybody has to read each one three straight times and write about each reading. We got in deep.
Rumpus: Most people don’t read with that much depth. I love that idea because I often find that the more I read a poem, depending on the time of day and how I’m feeling and where the sun is, I take it in with a different lens, different eyes, different body. I think that’s such a great exercise to teach students.
Huneven: And I don’t even think you get to what the patterns are and the motifs until usually the third reading. Although, because of all of these deep readings, we’ve all gotten a little bit more canny, even in our first readings. Next quarter I start a food writing class. And then I’m teaching two novels by Willa Cather.
Rumpus: The thing that struck me as so unusual about your recent novel, Search, is that it’s a memoir tucked into a novel or a novel tucked to a memoir. I don’t quite know how to describe it! The main character, Dana, is planning to write a memoir about the process of being on a committee to choose a new minister. At the same time, the novel is the memoir she ends up writing. Was it confusing to write?
Huneven: Actually it was a lot of fun, and it wasn’t confusing because the character was so close to me. But then I got to make up stuff because it was a novel! I love these novels by British women who are kind of quiet and hilarious at the same time, like Barbara Pin and Penelope Fitzgerald and Nancy Mitford. I mean, they’re my idols. I want to be an old lady British novelist. That’s my goal in life!
Rumpus: Search is actually quite suspenseful, but it took me by surprise. There is a slow sort of meditative build because you have to lay the foundation for the reader to understand the process of selecting a new minister.
Huneven: It really is intense for the people that are on these committees—putting so much on the line. One of the things that so interested me is that gap between how people self-present and then who they actually are.
Rumpus: In your book it’s really clear how there can be a big difference between what a minister looks like on paper and then what they’re like when they’re in action at the pulpit. It is a form of performance, isn’t it?
Huneven: There’s a little scene in the book where Dana’s husband tells her she’s going to have to write the sermons because otherwise she’d be plagiarizing. And that was sort of a moment for me when I realized, Oh God I’ve got to write some sermons!
Rumpus: Reading your book brought back such lovely memories of my grandmother sending me copies of her favorite sermons from church. Can you talk about the process of writing sermons?
Huneven: I love the sermon; it’s such a capacious, challenging literary form. I’ve preached some, in seminary and afterwards, but not for a long time, and never often enough to become adept at it. In my homiletics preaching course I’d learned to keep a folder for each sermon I was going to write. So, for Search, I had folders on my desktop for each of my characters’ sermons, and I dropped in ideas and research as I went along. I also read and listened to a ton of Unitarian Universalist sermons online, and that gave me courage, as there’s a huge range in style and quality. Sadly, I found that I had to write a whole sermon, or most of one, before I could excerpt and/or summarize it for the novel. This left me in awe of ministers who write a sermon every week.
Rumpus: Did you have a sense in your head about the arc of the story and the members of the committee?
Huneven: I created a big obstacle for myself at the get-go because one day I sat down and I wrote this thing that was thirty pages long about my relationship to church after twenty-five years—how I hated the bell choir and how I was sick of hymns and of responsive readings. It was a sort of comic diatribe. I showed it to my friend Mona Simpson and she said, Oh, this is your next novel. Unfortunately, I spent years with that clump of prose at the beginning and then tried to attach it and it wouldn’t attach and it wouldn’t attach. And I got the search committee characters together and it was a really tough problem to solve. It took me far longer than it should have.
I shouldn’t have started with those thirty pages. I should have started someplace else. Start at the beginning—you would think it was something I should have learned from the first novel. But I wonder about these obstacles that we put in front of ourselves that keep us from getting further along or finishing. Maybe it is a way that our unconscious stalls us so it can work stuff out. Or, are we truly just fucked up and locked?
Rumpus: A little bit of both perhaps? You have a collection of recipes at the end of your novel. This seems very appropriate since food, to me, is a very strong character in your book.
Huneven: Food and institutionalized religion are so tied together because there are always picnics and coffee hours and potlucks and fundraisers. I made the main character a restaurant critic because I was a restaurant critic and so it was kind of fun to put in all of those little things that you know people don’t realize. Jonathan Gold [longtime food critic for the Los Angeles Times] and I used to go out to lunch and sometimes he’d say, I’m really behind in my eating so it’s got to be a review lunch. I mean, who else besides restaurant critics gets behind in their eating?
Rumpus: Sometimes it’s a wonderful problem to have, and sometimes it’s a terrible problem to have! I do love the enthusiasm from the character Jennie, [one of the youngest members of the church’s search committee]. She’s so opinionated about the restaurant meals but maybe not very accurate in her observations?
Huneven: There are some people who think that because they’re going out with a critic, they have to review the food, and Jennie is one of those people.
Rumpus: Tell me about how you came up with the people on the committee.
Huneven: Much like the main character Dana, when I get nervous, I get critical. Who are these people? And then you learn one of them was in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan in their fifties and another one is a psychoanalyst and they just bloom and all of a sudden you realize that you’re the least interesting person in the room. That sort of was Dana’s experience with the search committee and my experience in writing the characters.
Rumpus: You wrote the different characters on the committee with a lot of sensitivity toward gender and race inequities. It feels very 2022. Is this new for you to make sure the fictional characters are up to date in terms of what’s going on culturally?
Huneven: Well, in my mind—because I didn’t want to get into Trump—I put the year in, about 2014, but Unitarian Universalists had been awake to this stuff for a long time. So, I felt like if I was to write about the church, I would be naturally sensitized to those issues because they started big programs to integrate churches and to try to integrate pulpits a long time ago.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process and rituals?
Huneven: I’m pretty much a daily writer. I have dossiers, and I write and draw stuff for each character. I really go in depth. It helps me go places into their personalities beyond brown hair and brown eyes and a dapper dresser.
Rumpus: Like a kind of a free writing? You see what comes out as you’re building the character?
Huneven: Actors call it doing the plumbing, where even if they’re just doing a commercial as a woman with a mop on the floor, they’ll do a whole history of her so that they can embody her more fully. I have a list of questions that I look at for characters. What’s their toothpaste brand? What’s their favorite color? What’s the worst thing that ever happened to them? What’s the best thing? Things like that.
Rumpus: Do you find that when you’re writing the novel, if you have that background on the characters that these details make their way into the dialogue? Does it make the writing process a little smoother?
Huneven: It can make things a little bit more serendipitous. I talk to my students about the work of imagination. They’ll say: The old lady was sick. And I’ll say: Well, what did she have? And they’ll say: I don’t know. And I’ll say: You’ve got to know because it’s going to make a big difference. Can she be cured? Is she going to be crippled? Does she have pain? You’ve got to know even if you don’t put it in the story. And they’ll say: How do I know? And I’ll say: Well, that’s the work of imagination. You have to answer those questions that come up and sometimes it just comes to you. But most of the time it’s a problem that has to be solved. You know, what disease does this woman have? I want her to end up here, so what will get her there? It’s like a big puzzle.
Rumpus: Are you working on another novel?
Huneven: The narrator of Search, Dana Potowski, has written three memoirs. One of these fictitious books is Our Best Year, about Dana’s senior year in high school, when she took over cooking from her working mother and radically improved their relationship, if only for that year. At the suggestion of the YA author Sara Zarr, I’m trying to actually write Our Best Year and thus transform the fictitious into fiction.
Rumpus: Have you written a young adult novel before?
Rumpus: Well, those lucky young adults.
Huneven: I’m always surprised at how sophisticated YA novels are. They’re unapologetic. No punches pulled. They really deal with the issues.
Author photo by Courtney Gregg