An Interview with Michelle Huneven, Author of Off Course

Michelle Huneven

Michelle Huneven

Michelle Huneven is the author of Off Course, one of my favorite novels of the year.  In this short, graceful novel, set in the ’80s, the heroine, Cressida, cannot write her dissertation. Cressida moves to her parents’ A-frame in the mountains to write, but after falling in love with Quinn, a married, semi-literate carpenter, she works as a waitress and procrastinates writing for four years.  If you have ever hesitated about your future after school (or some other pivotal time in your life), you will identify with Cressida.  (You can read more about  Off Course in my post here.)

Michelle has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing at UCLA.  She is the author of four novels, three of which, Round Rock, Jamesland, and Blame, have been finalists for the L.A. Book Award.  Blame was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  Her awards include a GE Younger Writers Award, a Whiting Award for Fiction, and a James Beard Award for food journalism.  For many years she supported herself as a food critic for The Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, and other publications.

The Interview

Mirabile Dictu:  I love everything about your perfect novel:  the characters, the style, the detailed descriptions of the mountain setting.  When the heroine, Cressida, moves into her parents’ cabin on the mountains to finish her dissertation, she not only abandons her dissertation but gets involved with the wrong man. So many of us identify with Cressida’s experience (especially reviewers at the Los Angeles Review of Books and Pop Matters, who loved your novel), or at least have had  friends who procrastinated writing their dissertations and went wildly off course.  What inspired you to write Cressida’s story?

Michelle Huneven:  Thank you, Kat, for saying such kind things about Off Course, and for conducting this interview.

Off Course by Michelle HunevenIn my own life, I had a hard time in my late twenties. That age can be so perilous.  It’s the time when we’re done with school and we’re released into the world at large and must make our way. If there is unfinished business, or you haven’t been given certain tools, or there are destructive family patterns, this is when they can start to surface and wreak havoc in a young life.  It’s also the time when certain decisions start to crop up concerning marriage, children and career The late twenties are also the years when you start building your resume, line by line: So–do you take the ill-paid internship consistent with your professional path, or do you wait tables and make enough so you can live on your own without a roommate and afford to buy the occasional book?

In Off Course,  I wanted to write a novel about a woman who took a misstep and ended up in a place where family dysfunction and her own immaturity came home to roost.  I wanted it to be the book that I should have read back in my own twenties, when I got myself into a situation I couldn’t see my way out of, when my psychological problems were acted out rather than addressed.  I don’t think reading Off Course or a book like it could have changed me overnight, but it might have made me less lonely, and given me additional ways to understand my predicament.

Mirabile Dictu:.  I am always so grateful to read a short literary novel, because often even the best long novels sometimes ramble.   But do short novels get the same respect as long novels?  (Obviously they do from me.)

Michelle Huneven:  Many short novels are beloved and respected:  The Great Gatsby, My Antonia, Pnin, Housekeeping, etc.  That said, I think I know what you mean.  I have lost patience for what I call “mid-novel sag”–a lull in the tension during which the writer slowly sets her ducks in a row for the ending.  (I’ve been guilty of this myself, which perhaps is why I’m so sensitive to it.)  Nobody wants to get deep into a novel only to find themselves  in the doldrums… I love being immersed in a novel, but my attention span isn’t what it used to be.  (Whose is?)  The challenge, clearly, is to keep a novel taut and lively throughout without sacrificing depth and meaning and characterization.

Mirabile Dictu:  In Off Course, Cressida encounters a half-tame bear who leaves paw marks on the cabin windows.  In your earlier novel, Jamesland, the heroine encounters a deer in her dining room. Obviously you’re fascinated by wild animals.  Do you use them as symbols?

Michelle Huneven:  Rather than symbols I prefer to think of the animals in my books as resonances—there’s something ancient there that twangs between fear and attraction, but we can’t quite pin it down.

In Jamesland, the deer serves as a kind of spiritual “figurehead,” for lack of a better word.  As you say, a young woman wakes up to find a deer in her house.  She chases it outside and in the morning, she can’t quite tell if the whole episode was a dream or not; at any rate, she is sufficiently disturbed by the deer to discuss it with a minister. The minister suggests that the young woman explore “what deer mean to you.”  Over the course of the novel, the young woman looks at deer from many different perspectives, and by the end, although she still can’t articulate “ what deer mean to her,”  her entire life has changed.

In Off Course, the bear appears in various forms, too: as bearish men, as a rug, as food. The reader can make of him what he or she wants.  I suppose I saw the bear variously as a shadow or other, a creature of deep appetites, indifferent to civilized customs.  I’ve always loved that Delmore Schwartz poem, “The Heavy Bear That Goes With Me” and thought of it often when writing Off Course.

Mirabile Dictu:  Did any writer(s) influence you in your writing of Off Course?

Michelle Huneven:  Yes.  I was constantly checking with various writers to see how they obtained certain effects, among them Charlotte Bronte, Mona Simpson, John Muir, Alice Munro, Tolstoy.

Mirabile Dictu: What are you reading now and who are your favorite writers?

Michelle Huneven: Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of rereading, which is the deepest pleasure, because once you know the story, you can relish all the smaller touches in a book, and the cleverness of its construction.  Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, Willa Cather, Alice Munro, Mona Simpson are some of my longstanding favorites.  Also: Evelyn Waugh, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Herman Melville, Giuseppe diLampedusa, Proust—I could go on and on…

Presently, I am listening to Jane Eyre—which means that as I drive or walk or garden or do dishes or fold laundry, I have my earbuds in place.  It’s heaven!  I just finished listening to Juliet Stevenson read Mansfield Park, and before that, Persuasion.  (I have listened to Persuasion 3 or 4 times now. And this is a second time through hearing Jane Eyre read by Amanda Root.)  As for reading—i.e. holding a book—I’m presently doing a second pass through A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym. Recently, I read and admired Molly Antopol’s collection of short stories, The Un-Americans. And, like thousands of others, I loved all three books in Elena Ferrante’s (presumably) autobiographical project: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

Mirabile Dictu:  Thank you so much for the splendid interview, Michelle!

You can read more about Michelle at‎

Mirabile Does Literary Fiction: Michelle Huneven’s Off Course

old-fashioned woman with computerLately I have been lazy about book-blogging.

Perhaps that is because I take books seriously. And perhaps it is because I need to pretend I am writing for somebody. I might be Rosalind Russell writing for her ex-husband/editor Cary Grant in His Girl Friday.  It takes less time to jot down an essay about bicycling, or a pop critique of Dancing with the Stars, than to scrawl even a short blog entry about books.

Some of us read books, others write them. When a friend was dying of cancer, bitter and in such pain that she would no longer receive her friends, she said on the phone that her whole life had been about reading.

“Do you think that’s good enough?”

Yes, I do.

She had regrets.

But perhaps being a reader is as important as being a writer.  If a writer’s work is not loved and kept in print, the pages soon disappear.

And here is a short digression. Our favorite book was Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl.  We once had an informal two-person book group discussion of it.  Both of us identified with Polly, the  country mouse who preferred simplicity to urban fashion, and who grew up to be an impoverished music teacher; we preferred her to Jo in Little Women, whom we loved, but…were we really tomboys?  And we were sure that reading Alcott had made us better people. Alcott’s novels are about making good moral choices.   Honestly, there is a difference between those who read Alcott and those who don’t.  (Can the same be said of today’s Harry Potter fans?)

This is a catch-up piece, dedicated to my friend.  “Do it,” she would have said. Oh, and she would have had her own book blog, too.

Off Course by Michelle HunevenMichelle Huneven’s Off Course, set in the 1980s, is a literary novel about a woman who cannot finish her dissertation.  Forget the fact that I am the kind of woman who finishes everything; I completely identify with Cressida Hartley.

Cressida Hartley moved up to her parents’ mountain cabin to finish her dissertation.  She would not become one of the aging lurkers around the Econ Department who hoped for sections of Intro to teach while the tenure track shimmered eternally on the far side of two hundred pages.”

A half-tame bear periodically visits the cabins.   Cress has to clean paw marks off the windows.  Nature is terrifying and yet domestic.  The episodes with the bear, and, later, with a bear rug which molds in the trunk of Cress’s car, reminds us that there is true wildness in the wilderness.  Not  even the bear rug is manageable.

Huneven’s writing is pitch-perfect:  few novelists write such graceful, unassuming, spare prose. And it is a quieter experience to read about the ’80s; I appreciated the time off from the 21st century.   Of course Cressida is distracted, but not by email, Facebook, or cell phones.   No, she is distracted by sex.  (We all were in the ’80s.)  She has a short relationship first with Jakey, the lodge owner. After he dumps her,  she has a long-term relationship with Quinn, a married carpenter, a semi-literate mountain man.  He asks her to marry him on the phone, and says he will divorce his wife; it is then that she falls in love with him.

Never trust a married man.  (Better:  don’t have a relationship with him.)

Cressida supports the sexual revolution, but some of her friends desert her because of her adultery.  This surprises her. And we do understand their harsh judgment of Cress: she is irresponsible at times.

But near the beginning of the novel, she wonders,

Wasn’t there romance that flowered differently, that didn’t morph right into marriage, pregnancy, childrearing, and monogamy for its own sake?  What was the sexual revolution for, if not to allow for more varied experiences, a wider range of happiness?  Cress was in no hurry to re-create family life–at least as she knew it.

The years pass, and she works as a waitress, always waiting for Quinn, who is sometimes there for her, other times with his wife.  Eventually Cress realizses nothing is going to happen and returns  to writing.  .

This is a very realistic novel, beautifully-written, and fast-paced. Yes, it makes my Best Books of 2014 sidebar.