Altadena resident (and native) Michelle Huneven is one of our finest writers, and if you doubt it for a moment, pick up her third novel, Blame, just published by Farrar Straus Giroux. A quietly captivating tale of a talented and beautiful Pasadena professor who struggles with alcoholism, men and, most of all, the guilt for a terrible accident that occurred when she was in a drunken blackout, Blame takes on good and evil, guilt and shame, responsibility and commitment. As Ariel Swartley writes in the current Los Angeles magazine, Michelle builds on the strengths of her first two novels, Round Rock and Jamesland, and the result is her best work yet. As Entertainment Weekly‘s Leah Greenblatt just wrote in her glowing review, Blame “combines the compulsive pleasures of a page-turner and the deeper satisfaction of true, thoughtful literature an accomplished, memorable and thoroughly enjoyable book.”
Michelle will be reading from Blame, and signing copies, at Vroman’s Bookstore on Thursday, September 10, at 7 p.m. She took some time in between writing and gardening to talk about her novel and her life here in Pasadena and Altadena.
There’s a timelessness in Blame that seems to be partly of Pasadena and Altadena. Do you think this place is more timeless than most communities?
I do, especially Altadena, which has changed relatively little from when I was a child. Still no sidewalks, no parking meters, and the walk up the Arroyo past JPL is as shady and compelling as it was when my father was a boy in the 1920s. The percentage of artists and soreheads remains steady — Altadena has been a notoriously tolerant town. The whole area — including Pasadena — retains an Old California feel, especially in the older residential neighborhoods, with their mature trees and early 20th-century architecture. The steady presence of the San Gabriel Mountains counters our frenetic pace and progress with the inarguable example of geological time.
Alcoholism and sobriety are focal points in all your books, none more so than Blame. Are those issues you think you’ll be exploring in your writing for your entire career?
As I wrote Blame, I thought, “This concludes a trio of books dealing with alcoholism, recovery and the perennial spiritual dilemma, How do people live in this world?”
In the new book I’ve started, I wanted to write about love and economics in the Reagan era. But already, everybody in it drinks too much… hmmm.
How much of you is in Patsy?
What I share with Patsy — who, unlike me, is long-legged, tall, yellow blonde, academically brilliant and annoyingly beautiful — is an uneasy sense that I am not automatically a good person, that I am inadvertently doing something wrong, hurting someone without knowing it, certainly without wanting to. I suppose you could call it a sense of original sin.
There are more talented writers in the San Gabriel Valley than most people realize: you, Victoria Patterson, Charlie Kaufman, Mark Salzman, Jim Krusoe, Denise Hamilton, Jonathan Gold and others. Do you think this area sustains writers? If so, how?
Thanks for including me in that list! Here, I think, is what sustains me: the nearness of wilderness and superb walking and hiking. The presence of old trees. The mountains. A really easygoing local culture. I lived closer in to Hollywood for a decade and life is much more relaxed and elastic here. The traffic is less stressful. Vroman’s Bookstore — where I’ve shopped my entire life — sustains me, as does Euro Pane bakery and the Huntington Gardens.
Sandy Gillis asked you this before in Hometown Pasadena, the book, but some time has gone by, so we need an update: What’s your perfect Pasadena/Altadena day?
Wake up early and take a hike either up Chaney Trail (the fire road, steep and glorious) or the Sam Merrill trail up to Echo Mountain. Not only are these bracing walks, but I get to see a lot of people and dogs I know. Then, to work in my backyard studio. Out to a late lunch (Euro Pane, Little Flower, Golden Deli or Din Tai Fung) — or, if he’s not going too far afield, out on a review lunch with my friend Jonathan Gold. On the way home, we might do a little shopping: Schreiner’s in Montrose, Howie’s in San Gabriel, Fish King in Glendale. In the late afternoon, I might work in the garden (slowed down by my new “extremely close focusing” binoculars — aphids and pistils and stamens never looked so big and clear). Pick vegetables, make dinner, eat with Jim Potter (husband). Back to work for an hour or two, and to bed. Perfect!
Alternative? Replace gardening with a trip to the Huntington cactus gardens with those binoculars (by they way, they’re the Pentax Papilio 8.5).
Finally — why Altadena?
I was born here. When I was house hunting in the spring of 2001, my old friend from high school, the Altadena historian Michele Zack, told me there was “a crummy little house on a beautiful piece of property,” behind her. I looked at it and couldn’t get it out of my mind. Turns out, this was precisely the property where my father spent a cold and restless night when he ran away from home at age 9. Something draws Hunevens to this address.
At first, I was afraid to move back, afraid I’d be swamped by bittersweet memories and grief for lost times. Instead, I’ve felt grounded, full and very happy here.