GUEST INTERVIEW BY DANIEL A. OLIVAS
Michelle Huneven is the author of three novels including her most recent, Blame (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which has already garnered raves including a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Her nonfiction writings include restaurant reviews for the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Weekly, other food journalism and, with Bernadette Murphy, the Tao Gals Guide to Real Estate (Bloomsbury). She has received a General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers and a Whiting Writers’ Award for fiction. Michelle lives in Altadena, California with her husband, Jim Potter. Michelle kindly agreed to take time out of her rather hectic book tour to chat with TEV about her new novel.
DANIEL OLIVAS: When you’re asked to explain what Blame is about, what do you say?
MICHELLE HUNEVEN: I say it’s the story of a smart young history professor named Patsy MacLemoore who is also a terrible chronic alcoholic, who wakes up from a blackout to discover that she’s hit and killed two people, and then spends the rest of her life dealing with it. She goes to prison and lives through the next few decades atoning and trying to be a good person, then learns more about the accident, which makes her rethink everything
And then I say, But it’s also funny.
Or maybe you want a more abstract take, in which case I might say that Blame is about a character who leads a life based on a desire to be good, to atone, to be of service to others only to discover that maybe she didn’t really HAVE to live that way. Blame asks the question: Is a life based on goodness, service, and humility worth living, even if the trigger for living such a life was misbegotten?
But it’s also funny!
OLIVAS: Choosing a title for a novel can be both exhilarating and exasperating. The one word title of your novel is unflinching, almost accusatory. How did you decide upon it? Can you share with us some titles that didn’t make it?
HUNEVEN: This was the hardest title to find!
I started writing the book thinking that one of the key characters would have a part time job giving scrapbooking workshops and selling scrapbooking supplies—such people are sometimes called “memory consultants.” So the original title was, The Memory Consultant. But then the character never became a scrapbooker, and I didn’t have a title.
When I finished the draft I sent to my agent, I had the most spineless title—After All, I think. I don’t really remember. I knew it was terrible, but wanted something on the title page. My agent, who has since retired, suggested Patsy’s Fault, which had resonance, but I found a little too jaunty for the book. A close friend, also a novelist, suggested Blame, and that’s how the book went out to publishers. After she bought the book, my editor Sarah Crichton wanted a title that was a little less thematically pointed. We looked long and hard for something else. I had all my friends helping, or trying to. For All She Knew was one contender, but I could never remember it, and if I couldn’t remember the title of my own book, how would other people recall it long enough to get to the bookstore? Another contender was Patsy MacLemoore, but to me it was a little too Olive Kitteridge-ish—same syllabic count. Blame was memorable. It may not be the very best title for this book, but after months of searching (and I paged through the Bible, most of Shakespeare, not to mention Yeats, Stevens, Bishop, and Rumi...) and boring my friends to death, I came up empty handed. By then, my editor had decided that Blame was the best and only title for the book.
OLIVAS: You do a bit of a head-fake in the first chapter focusing on high school girl named Joey who ends up in the drunken care of her handsome uncle, Brice, and Brice’s girlfriend, Patsy MacLemoore. It isn’t until the next section of the novel that you focus on the true protagonist, Patsy. The effect is wonderfully disconcerting. Why did you begin the novel in this way?
HUNEVEN: The first part of the book was written a long time ago as a short story. Years later, when I decided to write about a young female blackout drinker who runs down two people, I knew exactly who she was: Brice’s girlfriend, Patsy, from that story. Then, it turned out that the story was an interesting oblique first glimpse of Patsy in action.
I know it’s odd that I start the novel from Joey’s point of view and then, after 18 pages, shift over to Patsy’s for the remaining 286 pages. I tried many ways to ease that transition, adjust the point of view, but nothing I tried worked. And that’s been the story with this book: stubborn flaws. Better title? No luck. Better beginning? None to be had.
I’m glad you find the effect wonderful in a disconcerting way. To my mind, it allows the reader to meet many of the book’s main characters in a tight little side narrative, thus finessing any need for big hunks of back story in the main narrative.
OLIVAS: Altadena, Pasadena and other parts of Southern California are almost characters in the novel. Are you a native? Do you have favorite authors who have been able to capture the complex and ever-shifting So Cal milieu?
HUNEVEN: I am a native. Here in Altadena, I live one mile due east of the house where I grew up. As a kid, I always thought I’d live far, far away, Brasilia or Mumbai. But then, I was unaware of the deep pleasure of feeling deeply at home to a geography, of belonging. Altadena is a funkathon, a hoot, a beautiful messy little scrap of rustic suburbia and it suits me to a T. I aspire someday to write the great Altadena novel.
I think nobody captures the complex and ever-shifting milieu of So Cal better than Jonathan Gold, restaurant writer at the LA Weekly.
OLIVAS: Patsy’s experiences in California’s correctional system ring true. How did you research this?
HUNEVEN: I once worked on a long investigative article about the California Youth Authority system, and the children’s prisons—er, detention centers—sunk a deep root in my imagination. The filth, the institutional lack of any nicety, the noise, the lack of privacy, the burnt out guards—all these factored into the punishment. I also read up on women in prisons—I read Jean Harris and Wally Lamb and Jennifer Gonnerman and a how-to guide entitled, You’re Going to Prison. I looked at all the rules for visitors on line, and descriptions of all the prisons, the photographs. I also talked to all the people I knew who had spent nights in jail or time in prison. One idea came crystal clear: I never want to go to prison, and neither do you.
OLIVAS: Now that you’ve made book appearances for Blame, have you gathered any unusual or interesting responses to your novel?
HUNEVEN: A few people have said that Blame has helped them rethink and/or come to terms with a dark incident in their pasts.
Some people seem really FURIOUS and OFFENDED that I didn’t use punctuation marks. One woman sent me an email saying that after a few pages, she took my book right back to the library because it had no quotation marks! She was going to try my other books, she said, but if they didn’t have quotation marks, she’d take them back too!
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of five books including the newly released short story collection, Anywhere But L.A. (Bilingual Press). His writing has been widely anthologized including in the forthcoming Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America (W. W. Norton, 2010). Olivas has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Jewish Journal, the El Paso Times, and shares blogging duties on La Bloga.