Karen Tapia
Credit: Karen Tapia

Something about Michelle Huneven’s novel, Off Course, makes people want to talk about themselves. Women, especially.

I sit down at her wide, rough-hewn kitchen table, vowing not to be one of them. Her 14-year-old terrier mix, Piper, cuddles unabashedly at my feet; a black cat nuzzles my elbow. My resolve topples. While Huneven pours lemon-verbena ice tea into two large juice-jar glasses—“Is it sweet enough?” she asks—I let it slip that I, like Cressida, the novel’s protagonist, lost years of early adulthood to a love affair destined to fail. “Years I wish I could rewrite,” I confess. Then I catch myself. Stop. Talking.

Huneven narrows her eyes behind her fashionable glasses and pushes a fine dark-blond wisp of hair off her forehead. She listens more than tolerantly. “It’s good,” she says, the way her novel draws out personal stories. “It’s really good.” In fact, she says she wrote it for young women who might be stuck in that very place—transitioning awkwardly from years of schooling into career and adulthood, casting about in search of their life’s work, dangerously vulnerable to distraction. Especially the distraction of romance.

“I wrote it because I felt like if I’d had this book (at that age)—well, I don’t know that anything would have been different,” she confides. “But I wouldn’t have felt so alone.”

Cressida Hartley is in her late 20s when Off Course begins, in 1982. She has holed up at her parents’ A-frame in the Sierra Nevada mountains to finish her dissertation on the economics of art. It is a time of profound transition: The Reagan administration is introducing trickle-down economics, with Interior Secretary James Watt applying budget principles to land management. Cress sees evidence of their political handiwork all around her, in the “raw stumps and debris piles” accumulating at the edge of the forest, in the local men “grateful and defiantly happy for work,” even if it means decimating their beloved childhood woods.

But she is more concerned with love: the longing for it, the tantalizing promise of it, the wild cycles of vertiginous joy and wretched despair that accompany every mercurial affair. “She gets addicted,” Huneven says. “And that addiction completely structures her life.”

Place matters intensely to Huneven. Her other three novels document a California that is palpably part of the inland West: The foothill communities abutting the citrus groves, the raggedy mountains, the smoggy inland neighborhoods that seekers, carpenters and less-affluent artists transform. Huneven lives in such a place herself—West Altadena, where she grew up, a 107-mile drive from Palm Springs—in an airy, radically fixed-up ranch house with her husband, environmental lawyer Jim Potter. Fuerte avocado tree No. 19, “the tree from which 99 percent of all Fuerte avocados have been cultivated,” once grew on their half-acre property. It’s the kind of detail only someone like Huneven, with her deep feel for California history and the natural world that informs it, would even know, let alone consider spectacular.

The mountains that rise above California cities figure heavily in Off Course, mountains full of towns like the fictional Sawyer, “funny little enclaves that sit independently outside of real life,” Huneven says, “where oddballs and soreheads go to carve out little lives for themselves.” Bears come to the door in Sawyer, leaving their nose slime on the glass. Woodpeckers rattle the forest; Cress watches in amazement as a deer eats a fish.

“It’s like a picture postcard all the time,” says Huneven. “The autumn is like heaven. When it snows, it would still rise into the 60s and 70s.” It’s the perfect setting for a young woman to procrastinate before capitulating to adulthood, with all its responsibilities and ethical challenges. “Cress doesn’t have the tools to enter fully into life yet,” Huneven says. “She’s still working out how to get her father’s attention.

“We’re patterning beasts,” she adds. “We tend to act things out. Freud says that childhood is always a catastrophe. How do you deal with that catastrophe?”

In 1997, when Huneven published her first novel, Round Rock, she was freelancing as a restaurant critic around Los Angeles, including at the LA Weekly, where I worked as an editor. I saw her slender, congenial face around the office from time to time—I always think of her as smiling—and looked forward to her effervescent, vulnerable columns. (“I love bread,” she once wrote in a paean to the staff of life. “I’m drawn to it the way a love-starved child is drawn to anyone remotely kind.”)

“I liked her food writing for the same reason I love her fiction writing,” says her editor back from then, Sue Horton, who now edits the opinion page at the Los Angeles Times. “She always got that food had to be put in context—where you’re eating it, and with whom and how it’s served. And she likes nuance, which means she was always looking for the odd but important small things that make food delicious or not quite.”

Huneven had already won a prestigious James Beard award for food writing in 1995; still, none of us who knew her peripherally suspected she had great fiction in her. Then one day, a fellow staffer came in, waving Round Rock in the air—“Michelle’s written a novel, and it’s really good!” he crowed. A story as much about the California foothill landscape as it was about its wayward alcoholics and the recovering one who counsels them, Round Rock described people so vivid that we worried and grieved about them as if they worked in the building with us.

It wasn’t easy to create that world. “It took me 20 years to write Round Rock,” Huneven says now. She’d submitted it as a short story when she applied to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, back in the late ’70s, where one of her teachers persuaded her it was a novel. “I kind of agreed with him,” she says. “So I kept starting it. But I’d get 100 pages in and be all snarled up. So I’d start it again and then stop.”

After she graduated from Iowa with an MFA, she tried on and off for more than a decade. Then she gave up. “It was the early ’90s by then, and I thought, you know, this is heartbreaking. I’ve been trying to be a writer for so many years. I’ve been out of the workshop for 12, 13 years now; I’ve sold one story. It’s just not happening for me.” So she enrolled at seminary to study to be a Unitarian Universalist minister. “Then I was sitting in class one day, in seminary, and all of sudden, it occurred to me that I’d been starting the novel in the wrong place.”

After the revelation, she rewrote the book. “Now, when you open Round Rock, the place where I started, lo those many years, is now exactly in the middle of the book. Literally to the page.”

Round Rock earned a place on The New York Times notable book list for 1997 and a Los Angeles Times book-award nomination. It also broke down whatever barrier kept Huneven from producing. Jamesland, a novel that captures Southern California’s culture of spiritual questing, came out just six years later; her third novel, Blame, about the aftermath of a drunk-driving tragedy, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in 2009.

Off Course is the first of her books to draw heavily from her own life. “I had to make it all much more dramatic and intense,” she says. “But I did write about my love life, about this period of my life that I really thought of as my lost years, when I was living up in the mountains.” She began writing it in 2008—another time, like the early Reagan era, of economic upheaval.

“It really mirrored the time when I got out of graduate school, when you’re ready and up and willing to join the marketplace, and there’s no place for you. You’re stuck in this sort of nether adolescence, where you’re living at home or someplace rent-free to get your feet on the ground and get going, and, really, one wrong step can throw you,” well … off course.

So did writing get easier, or did Huneven just figure out how to work? “I think that you get smarter, and I have a lot more help,” she says. “I got out of Iowa, and I had this thing where no one could tell me what to do. My mother was like, ‘Why don’t you join a writing group?’ And I said, ‘I’ve been in a writers’ group; it’s called the Iowa Writers’ Workshop! I do not need a writing group.’”

She found one anyway, albeit a very small one. These days, she swaps pages with novelist Mona Simpson (Anywhere But Here) and a few other writers and friends. She is writing another “church novel,” she says, “in the sense that Jamesland is a church novel,” but also has ambitions to do for Altadena what Anthony Trollope did for his imaginary Barsetshire: “A long series of books,” she says, “that take place around here. I mean, why not?”

Some readers might find the books too narrow, but Huneven’s content with sometimes just thrilling a happy few. Off Course, she realizes, “is really a book that cuts down the line. Half the people who read it say that I took Cress too far down; the other half say that what they liked about the book is that I took her so far down.

“I wrote it for those people who understand it,” she says. “For those of us who never saw ourselves in literature.” And now do.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Off Course: A Novel

By Michelle Huneven

Sarah Crichton

304 pages, $26