Michelle Huneven, back on course

Michelle Huneven

Surviving alcoholism and seminary, a novelist finds depth and comedy in Unitarian Universalism.

Image: Novelist Michelle Huneven (© Jerry Garns)

© Jerry Garns


Some novelists I’ll follow any­where. Whenever Julia Glass, Barbara Kingsolver, Elinor Lipman, or Stephen McCauley comes out with a new book, I’m in. I know I’ll find my people: foodies, dog lovers, funny gay men, and smart, strong, likable but flawed women who could be my friends. Best of all, I can let myself be carried along in the hands of a good writer, caught up in a story I can’t wait to get back to.

Michelle Huneven is my latest addition to the list.

I had a hunch Huneven was a Unitarian Univer­salist. Off Course, which came out in 2014, had a tiny line about two minor characters who get married—at a fictional Unitarian church in Burbank. Hmm.

In Blame (2009), a Jehovah’s Witness declares Jesus was just human. “You sound like a Unitarian,” retorts her cellmate, a young history professor who has been sent to prison for running over two people while drunk. Who says that?

Jamesland (2003) was a dead giveaway. A passionate young minister, Helen Harland, delivers one of my favorite lines in any novel: “I need friends I can say ‘fucking’ in front of. And to answer your question, no, I don’t like being a minister, not at Morton. It’s like having a hundred disapproving parents.” It turns out that Harland is loosely based on a ministerial intern the author adored at her own UU church “who took things too personally and was too inclusive, to say the least,” always inviting two or three extra people any time they got together.

In real life, Michelle Huneven is just as witty, warm, and wonderful as any of her characters—with her own checkered backstory.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. She liberally draws inspiration from her own life: a friend who called a cop a “pin dick” and got hauled into the station. A free, cast-off Mercedes she drove for two years, though it belched plumes of white smoke. A woman she met in Alcoholics Anony­mous who went off her meds for manic depression, stole a hundred grand from a business partner, and drove cross-country dispensing it at McDonald’s, saying she’d do it all over again if it wouldn’t land her in jail. And lots of bad boyfriends. They all go into her novels.

“The standard line among writers is, ‘You put your life in the blender and pour out these funny little concoctions,’” said Huneven. Last year she published an essay, “You’ve Been Fictionalized!”, in the Paris Review about finding vestiges of her own life as a second-rate writer character in East Is East, by her friend T.C. Boyle.

Huneven grew up in Altadena, California, on the east side of the Los Angeles Basin. She lovingly calls her hometown a “funkathon”—mansions mashed up alongside bleak, Depression-era cottages with yards gone wild; blocks of Pentecostal storefronts along the main artery with a stray hipster bakery-cafe thrown in. A precocious kid, she went off to college at 16, dropped out, and became a hippie, following boyfriends and professors to towns and schools across the country. Ten years later she returned to California, MFA in hand. That’s when her life really went off course.

For the next several years she holed up in her parents’ Sierra Nevada cabin, waited tables, and tried to write, but ended up mostly having bad love affairs and drinking a lot—much like Cress in her latest novel. Off Course is painful to read, and I might have put it down, if only the writing and narrative weren’t so very good. “It was incredibly redeeming for me,” she said, “taking those years I was ashamed of, that I felt were lost years, and making a work of art. I really didn’t want young women to do what I did.”

Themes that run through all her novels are recovery from alcoholism and bad-news men—the guy who’s so much fun and always there, but then he’s not, and definitely not when you need him; the one who’s obsessed with you but very married. “I’m an expert on bad boyfriends,” she said.

When Huneven was in her thirties, her latest boyfriend had broken up with her, her mother was sick, and she had a moment of clarity. “I realized men are like this big fortress. I’m knocking on all these drawbridges, saying, ‘Hey, look at me. Do you like me now? How about now?’ Then I realized I, too, was a fortress, and I wasn’t letting anyone in, and I had no idea what was inside those walls. A little voice inside said, ‘And you never will if you keep getting drunk every night.’” She drank her last beer on a Saturday night, called a friend in AA, and went to meetings for the next seven years, when she finally found “my own reason to stay sober: I really value a clear mind, which God knows is fleeting enough,” she laughed.

The same year she got sober, she found church. The fictional minister Helen Harland’s “hundred disapproving parents” are actually the flip side of Huneven’s real-life experience discovering Neigh­borhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasa­dena. Her own family was so undercutting, she said, “it was like I suddenly had 100 approving parents, which was very healing for me.” In short order, she went from Prodigal Daughter to Church Lady. Over the years she has served on the board and on ministerial relations and search committees, organized an arts camp for elementary schoolers, and taught writing as a spiritual activity.

When she first started attending, she was struggling with a novel while making her living reviewing restaurants. Writing was making her miserable. “The minister, Brandy Lovely, was erudite, literary, funny, and really spiritual. I thought, ‘Maybe I could do that.’” She enrolled at the Method­ist Clare­mont School of Theology, a beautiful 28-mile drive away, and enjoyed every minute.

One day in Class Backgrounds of Contemporary Theology, it hit her: she had started the novel she’d been working on for twelve years in the wrong place. That night she wrote a new first chapter for Round Rock (1997), about a cast of characters in a small town with a “drunk farm” among the orange groves in the Santa Clara River Valley.

The next semester she dreamed about waking up in the middle of the night and chasing a deer in labor out of her house—which became the startling opening and a metaphor for the main character’s spiritual longing in her next novel, Jamesland, my favorite.

What really turned her around, she said, was the psychological testing the school required. “They find your weak point and poke and poke for two days.” At the end, one examiner challenged her: “You could be a journalist, teacher, minister, or writer, but when are you going to go deep and take the vertical plunge? You’re just skating on the surface.” Claremont recommended her as a minister, saying, “If the UUs don’t want you, the Methodists will.”

She decided then that what she wanted was to take that vertical plunge as a writer, to stop worrying about contracts and fame. “It took the ego out of it. I was writing every day. It completely unlocked me,” she said. She now has four novels published, and another on the way. Both Round Rock and Jamesland became New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and Blame was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Her life finally felt whole: getting published; surrounded by friends; living with her dog, cat, and a parrot named Helen in a tiny stucco house she’d bought and rehabbed; and feeling healthy, after “years of therapy to develop the values and sanity I have now, such as it is,” she laughed.

Then, a good boyfriend appeared. Both she and Jim Potter, an environmental lawyer, mentioned to friends they’d like to get to know each other better. “I thought we’d have two dates,” said Huneven, much like her character Patsy in Blame says about an overeager suitor. “I was so exhausted presenting myself, I said I had to go home. He was really disappointed.”

Soon after, Huneven got a call from her father’s senior residence saying he would be kicked out if he continued to drive. “Dad got really mad, demented mad. For a year he wrote me letters addressed ‘Dear Shithead’ and told everyone, ‘My daughter stole my car.’” For weeks she had no time for a date, so she and Potter only talked on the phone. That allowed some space for her to realize how funny and smart he was and how much she really did like him, she said.

On their first date, Potter called her as soon as she got home at 11:30 and again at 5:45 the next morning. “I said, ‘No, no, no. I’m an intimacy-phobe. I’m 52 years old, and I’ve never been married. You’ve got to go slow.’ We now call 5:45 our time.” Every Thursday they get up early to walk the stunning grounds of the Huntington Library in nearby San Marino.

In 2005 Huneven and Potter, now a California deputy attorney general, married under the persimmon tree in her front yard, both for the first time.

Her world now, much like her novels, is circumscribed by places and people close by, in the east-side towns hugging the San Gabriel Mountains. In our two days together, she entertained me with running quips on those places: a walk around the 120-acre Huntington Botanical Gardens (“The cactus garden is as close as you can get to a psychedelic experience without taking drugs”); Golden Deli for more Vietnamese cha giò rolls than we could eat (where, when someone off in a corner said “Good writing,” her ears visibly perked up, exactly like her terrier Piper’s at a rustle in the bushes during a postprandial walk); and Neighborhood Church (“When I first came, I cooked for Dining for Dollars—the kitchen had twelve melon ballers and not a single sharp knife!”).

Driving a ten-year-old Toyota truck missing a side mirror, she took me back to her house on an off-road flag lot: “This is pretty much the Huneven Trail: Huntington, Golden Deli, church, home.” She checked the fitness tracker that Jim gave her for Christmas: we had walked 8,300 steps, burning 1,200 calories.

Search, her next novel, will be her churchiest yet, set in the thorny heart of congregational politics. It’s about a ministerial search committee: seven church members chosen for their alleged diversity, bound by confidentiality, each harboring their own dark secrets, locked together for a year of touchy-feely exercises, charged negotiations, and an unfathomable time commitment.

The opening chapter is a litany of everything that bugs Huneven about church: all the standing up, sitting down, clapping along, the unsingable hymns, handbell choirs with their suspenseful pauses, and annoying ministerial tics. With one minister, as soon as she sat down on Sunday morning, Huneven started dreading the benediction, when the minister would instruct everyone to turn to a neighbor and say some thematic greeting: “We shall overcome” (MLK Day), or “Happy New Year, almost” (end of December). “I just couldn’t stand it. For an introvert, it was excruciating and embarrassing.” Into the novel it goes.

But on the whole, she loves church. Like therapy and yoga, the act of going to church was a huge decision to take care of herself—also a line she used in Blame: “Something is addressed that is not ad­dressed in daily life, whether you call it your spirit or your soul. It’s like a load being lifted off. It feels very nourishing. For all you can make fun of it, it’s such a powerful place, church.”

Michelle Huneven is a little like the Episcopal novelist Gail Godwin, or the Anglican Barbara Pym of years past, but in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. She writes real literature about contemporary characters who believe that spirituality matters. Church, with all its exasperating and restorative and confounding sides, is simply part of life.

Michelle Huneven
Jerry Garns