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First published in 1886, The Story of My Heart, by Richard Jefferies, is a slim, mystical volume—a nature-writer’s exploration of his own soul.

Three years ago, well-known naturalist and author Terry Tempest Williams and her writer husband, Brooke, stumbled upon an old copy of the book in an independent bookstore in Maine. They were immediately caught by its stunning prose.

“My heart was dusty,” Jefferies writes in the opening paragraph, “parched for want of the rain of deep feeling; my mind arid and dry, for there is dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge.” Who was this eloquent writer from another century, they wondered?

Their search for the answer would lead the pair to England and then France and the Louvre, as well as on a journey into their own hearts. Jefferies, it turns out, was an English nature writer, essayist and journalist. He did not lack 20th-century admirers; Rachel Carson supposedly kept two books by her bedside: Thoreau’s Walden, and Jefferies’ book.

The Williamses’ quest culminated in this sincerely felt tribute, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies: As Rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams.

Jefferies’ writings, the Williamses note, are relevant today: He was a great proponent of exercise, for example, in particular daily walking, as well as of the benefits of being idle. But his real message was a spiritual one, urging the reader to “go higher than a god; deeper than a prayer.”

After each chapter by Jefferies, Brooke Williams balances the Victorian prose with a chapter of his own commentary. He sees in Jefferies a kindred spirit, someone he could imagine being friends with today. “This story,” he writes, “is about living in this modern world, vastly different from the natural world we evolved into.”

As Terry Tempest Williams (a Corona native who now lives in Utah and Wyoming) writes in the introduction, readers who have never heard of Jefferies before may “rediscover what it feels like to fall back in love with the world.”

Torrey House Press and the Williamses have done a great service for the 21st century with this reissue. The Story of My Heart speaks across the ages, and belongs on the same shelf as Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Muir, Beston and Leopold.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Story of My Heart, by Richard Jefferies: As Rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams

By Richard Jefferies, Terry Tempest Williams and Brooke Williams

Torrey House

233 pages, $21.95

Published in Literature

Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is a wide-ranging, obsessively detailed and oddly inspiring book—an intriguing tapestry of scientific exploration and natural history that also takes turns as a eulogy, a love letter, a poem and ultimately a plea.

In Relicts, Christopher Norment—a professor of environmental science and biology—sets out to consider the nonmonetary value of six “relatively obscure” Great Basin and Mojave desert species that we can’t eat, hunt or sell: black toads, Inyo slender salamanders and four species of pupfishes.

Why these six species? In part because of their obscurity: Due to their small sizes and relative inaccessibility, Norment writes, they “carry little of the innate appeal” of charismatic megafauna such as grey wolves or whooping cranes, nor do they play much of an economic role. That obscurity allows us to ponder their worth without immediately reaching for our wallets.

They are also, however, aquatic species restricted to tiny patches of habitat in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts—vulnerable to water prospectors, the bright tentacles of Las Vegas and the thirsty whirlpool roar of Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.

Norment points out that similar species have also survived withdrawing—Pleistocene seas, earthquakes, uplift and hot water—only to succumb to thirst or thoughtlessness: Tecopa pupfish, for example, which could endure temperatures up to 108 degrees, but went extinct after hot springs outflows were developed and combined for bathhouses; Las Vegas dace and the Vegas valley leopard frog, lost in the 1950s and 1940s, respectively, to groundwater pumping and the expansion of Las Vegas itself; and the Ash Meadows montane vole, likely extirpated some time in the 1960s as alkali meadows devolved into peat mines, alfalfa farms and ranches.

After a pause to remember the fallen, Norment moves on to the precarious living, one species and one chapter at a time. As he weighs the animals’ worth, Norment visits the animals themselves, the people trying to save them, and those who might someday have a hand in their destruction. He travels from the deep past—describing a volcanic eruption 760,000 years ago that could have buried or burned Inyo slender salamanders out of existence, but somehow didn’t—to the present and near future, examining the threats the pupfishes face from Las Vegas’ and Los Angeles’ ongoing searches for water, among other things.

He explores abstract concepts such as loneliness and hope while circling back to concrete and enchanting tidbits of information, such as the world’s remaining weight of Devils Hole pupfish—measured in raisins—and what their vocalizations sound like underwater (squirrels gnawing on walnuts).

Norment loves his diminutive subjects enough to actually risk using the word “love.” Not everyone feels the same way; as one woman in the book says about extinct Tecopa pupfish, “I think they were pretty tiny, not good for much of anything. You couldn’t eat them. Not like trout.” Norment’s arguments in favor of these species turn out to be surprisingly good ones. He doesn’t try to make a direct appeal to the people who prize false fountains and alfalfa farms far more than desert springs and species (and who—let’s face it—are unlikely to read this book). Instead, he writes a thoughtful and thought-provoking letter to the rest of us: those who didn’t know desert aquatic species existed, those who take them for granted or rationalize that they’ll survive our tender inattention, and even those who have almost given up, who are already privately lamenting the loss of the tiny beleaguered species and places they love. Especially those.

“Think about how resilient the pupfish are, and what they have endured,” Norment writes, “and then contemplate, gently, your own struggles and what you have endured. For all of us, at some time or another, this can be a dogshit world, unbelievably cruel and sorrowful and painful. ... But I will say this: that in my own life I have been consoled and heartened by the strength of pupfish and salamanders. ... Their presence in the world, their insistent example, helps me to endure and go on, too.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World

By Christopher Norment

University of North Carolina Press

288 pages, $28

Published in Literature

Best-selling author Andrew Neiderman holds two prolific jobs.

The Palm Springs resident writes novels under his own name—46 so far, in fact. Seven of his novels have been made into films—most notably The Devil’s Advocate, starring Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron.

He’s also the ghostwriter for the famed V.C. Andrews series, for which he’s penned 73 novels. The franchise by the late Virginia Andrews was at 30 million books sold after Andrews’ death in 1986—and is now at 106 million books sold. It’s one of the world’s biggest and longest-lasting literary franchises.

Every time I’ve visited Neiderman at his south Palm Springs home over the last 15 years, he’s been working on yet another project—a book, a script, a play or a production venture. His newest novel, The Terrorist’s Holiday, was published March 10.

The Terrorist’s Holiday was a novel always in my mind to write,” Neiderman said. “I grew up in the setting, the Catskill resort area of New York State. It was basically a resort created by Jewish hotel owners. Movies like Dirty Dancing depict the ‘season.’ My familiarity with the area and the resort world helped me bring it to life on the page.”

In this novel, Neiderman touches on a subject that’s all over the news nowadays—terrorism—and connects sentiments from the past with today’s political realities.

“I remember all the major hotels were always opened during the Jewish holidays,” he recalls. “Many times, there were visiting dignitaries from Israel, so I imagined that period of time, those events and a major opportunity for terrorists to strike at Israel. I wanted to create a pair of terrorists who were ambiguous about their motivations and challenges. The New York City detective who stumbles on the plot is Jewish as well.”

The novel’s publishing date couldn’t have been more timely, given that it fell just one week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress. Neiderman said he actually met Netanyahu, in the United Kingdom, on the day of the 2005 London bombings.

“I was at The Langham hotel across from the BBC,” Neiderman remembers. “We met in the hallway the day of the bombing, July 7, 2005. Since the Brits were somewhat critical of Israel and its stance at the time, I talked about the irony of him being there that day, when England was suffering at the hands of the same terrorists.”

Neiderman gave me an advance, uncorrected copy of The Terrorist’s Holiday before the book's release. Such copies are printed for marketing purposes—and for movie producers. There’s always a chance that another one of his novels will reach movie audiences in a big way, like The Devil’s Advocate did in 1997.

“Unless (the book) gets picked up by a major studio, it can’t be as big as The Devil’s Advocate, because a feature from a studio opens up world markets,” Neiderman said. “However, we are getting great reviews and reception, and hope to see it do very well.”

A few years back, Neiderman told me it took him only a one-line pitch to sell The Devil’s Advocate’s movie rights to Warner Bros. The line was: “It’s about a New York law firm that represents only guilty people—and never loses a case!”

The Devil’s Advocate continues to pay dividends for Neiderman. Warner Horizon has been developing The Devil’s Advocate as a TV series for NBC, while Neiderman is working on developing The Devil’s Advocate into a musical for British and German theaters. The Devil’s Advocate is set to be a stage play in Holland later this year. Neiderman has already written Judgment Day, a prequel to The Devil’s Advocate, and Pocket Books/Gallery has a contract to publish it.

Judgment Day is going to be published in June this year,” Neiderman confirmed. “The novel depicts Satan, who took over a New York law firm. It introduces a prime new character in the guise of a detective with spiritual insight.”

Since moving to the desert in 1989, Neiderman has written quite a few novels that take place in Palm Springs. Among these notable titles are Dead Time, Unholy Birth, Angel of Mercy and The Magic Bullet.

Now 74, Neiderman is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, his contract to write V.C. Andrews novels continues through at least 2017.

Published in Literature

Brazilian-born novelist Adriana Lisboa’s latest novel, Crow Blue, depicts a precocious young woman’s quest for a place inside a splintered family.

Vanja is only 13 when her mother dies. That loss sparks her journey from Rio de Janeiro to Colorado, where she reconnects with her estranged stepfather, Fernando, an ex-guerrilla in his 50s who works as a security guard at a public library.

“It wasn’t an adventure,” Vanja says of her move to Fernando’s home in Denver’s sprawling suburbs. “It wasn’t a holiday or fun or a pastime or a change of scenery; I was going to the United States to stay with Fernando with a very specific objective in mind: to look for my father.” Fernando agrees to help Vanja search for her biological father—an American Vanja has never met, and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Fernando and Vanja create a patchwork family life as the teenager starts school, befriends a neighbor and is enchanted by the sight of her first snow. They track down old friends in search of clues about Vanja’s father. As Vanja begins to learn about her past, the story gains momentum; it’s no longer simply Vanja’s story, but her mother’s and Fernando’s, too. Even her absent father has a part.

This multi-layered narrative, deftly translated from Portuguese by Alison Entrekin, holds some surprising plot developments but comes to a beautiful conclusion. The novel is rich in poetic references, with a title that refers to a passage from in Marianne Moore’s “The Fish”:

wade

through black jade.

Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps

adjusting the ash-heaps. …

Vanja reads and rereads this poem, and comes to see how Moore’s “crow-blue mussel-shells” represent the unlikely connections across time and space between far-flung places and people: “the molluscs in the sea at Copacabana drowned out the world in their crow-blue shells. And crows flew over the city of Lakewood, Colorado. Shell-blue crows.”

In Crow Blue, Lisboa succeeds in writing an imaginative story that keeps its interconnected plotlines moving simultaneously. With lyrical prose and keen insight, Crow Blue shows how the search for a long-lost father can reveal the meaning of family itself.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Crow Blue

By Adriana Lisboa; translated by Alison Entrekin

Bloomsbury

240 pages, $16

Published in Literature

Set in modern times, in a small “passing-over place” in northern Utah, the debut novel by Idaho author Braden Hepner, Pale Harvest, follows Jack Selvedge, a 20-year-old dairy farmer working his grandfather’s land, struggling against his own indifference.

Young Rebekah Rainsford shakes things up when she returns to town, fleeing her abusive father. She becomes Selvedge’s obsession, a symbol of hope. “She had brought with her an essence. … It was a sullen thing she carried, in some ways frightening and in some ways appealing and in all ways maddening. It was something he needed but could never get in the remote and meager collection of houses.” As their relationship forms, her dark history forces him to confront the chasm between his ideals and reality, while two major betrayals threaten everything.

Hepner captures the nuances of the dramatic landscape of the Cache Valley, where cultivated fields give way to desert, and mountains rise up against open skies. He employs a meditative language drawn from the land, delivering the richness of Selvedge’s inner life: “On the gentle hillside bones stood from the sand and yellow grass like ruins, the white architecture of death. How to describe what flowers grew from those bones in the springtime. Of deep purple and yellow, blue and red and white. Each one a marvel worth contemplation. How many times had he stopped to watch them tremble in the wind among the white bones.”

Pale Harvest is a dark novel by a deft storyteller, a modern retelling of the legend of Adam and Eve. It explores tensions between good and evil, ignorance and knowledge, and hope and belief. The occasional appearance of phrases like “primitive and beautiful squaw” does nothing to further the characters; Hepner does a superb job of making them full and authentic, and doesn’t need to resort to language of exoticism and conquest. Pale Harvest walks the reader into the liminal spaces between life and death, and shows how a human being can be made anew: “Hope was his faith, his religion. It was the consequential vestige of maturity, of knowledge, a remnant product of adult sin. In the end they had nothing more than a hope commensurate with their fear, and in this way they were purified and set free.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Pale Harvest

By Braden Hepner

Torrey House

360 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

Fourth of July Creek, the robust debut of Portland, Ore.-based novelist Smith Henderson, follows the life of Pete Snow, a state social worker in the fictional town of Tenmile, Mont.

At work, Snow is steady and skillful, able to calm frightened children and parse messy domestic situations. But after hours, he’s an alcoholic prone to unbridled benders, alienated from his own land-baron dad and fugitive brother. He has lived in an isolated cabin ever since he left his cheating wife.

One day in the early 1980s, a disheveled child named Benjamin wanders into the town, west of Glacier National Park. Pete buys Benjamin new clothes and medicine for giardia and scurvy, and returns him to the remote spot the boy calls home. Benjamin’s father, Jeremiah, a wild-bearded, scripture-quoting, shotgun-toting survivalist, collects his son while threatening Pete with a “fatal wrath.” But Pete refuses to give up on this odd family, gradually befriending them as you might a pair of skittish wild animals.

Meanwhile, after Pete’s hard-partying wife moves to Texas, their 13-year-old daughter, Rachel, runs away. Pete, who blames himself for neglecting his daughter, takes off on a cross-country mission to rescue her. As he tells his estranged wife, “I take kids away from people like us.” We learn what’s happening to Rachel through question-and-answer sessions interspersed throughout the novel, in which she details all she endures as she drifts.

Fourth of July Creek is rife with painfully honest, hard-won insights about kids out on the street or caught up in the system; the author once worked at a group home for juveniles in Missoula, and his experience brings a unique authenticity to the story.

At times, the novel is so bleak that only the precision and beauty of Henderson’s language keep you from flinching away: “Medallions from the quaking aspen lay about in a golden hoard, blowing up in parade confetti as he drove through them.” But keep reading, and you’ll find yourself caring about the wounded people who stagger through this book too much to ever want to leave them.

It seems as if Henderson felt the same way—he ends the book in mid-sentence, the fate of one character not fully revealed. Expect the praise for this rich, heartbreaking novel to continue for years to come.

This review was originally published in High Country News.

Fourth of July Creek

By Smith Henderson

Ecco

480 pages, $26.99

Published in Literature

In her debut novel, Steal the North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom draws on her own childhood in eastern Washington and current life in Northern California to share the tale of a shy Sacramento teenager inhabiting those same locales. Bergstrom offers a riveting story of first love entwined with faith, family tragedy and the power of place.

Steal the North begins with 16-year-old Emmy reluctantly heading north to Washington to spend the summer with an aunt, Bethany, about whose existence she has just learned. Emmy’s mother, Kate, had always insisted that she had no living relatives. Now married and expecting a baby, Bethany tracks down her estranged sister and begs her to send Emmy to Moses Lake, Wash.—because Bethany has suffered earlier miscarriages and believes that she needs Emmy’s help, along with a special faith healing ceremony, to carry this child to term.

Staying at her aunt’s trailer park, Emmy meets Reuben, the beautiful, athletic boy next door. As their friendship grows, the socially awkward Emmy begins to feel at home for the first time in her life. Reuben, who is Native American, shares his spiritual connection to the windswept scablands and rivers. The first time she touched the Columbia River, Emmy says, “He told me to close my eyes so I could feel the river’s pulse. It was faint under all that backwater, but it was definitely there.”

As the family drama unfolds, Emmy discovers more about her mother’s secret past and begins to bond with her aunt. Unfortunately, Bergstrom’s narrative strategy occasionally gets in the way; she lets different characters take turns telling parts of the story, and some of those characters are simply not as well-realized as her young leads.

The novel’s strong sense of place prevents Steal the North from becoming just another tangled melodrama. Emmy learns that the rugged eastern Washington landscape is central to her identity. Walking into a wheat field “in the land of my father,” she says, “the land pulled on the bones of my feet. I kept my hands in the dry, rustling wheat and just breathed.”

Bergstrom reminds us that the landscape is more than just a scenic backdrop; it is also the thing that anchors us to our lives.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Steal the North

By Heather Brittain Bergstrom

Viking

336 pages, $27.95

Published in Literature

Jervey Tervalon adores Los Angeles—and he wants you to adore it, too.

The author, who also teaches literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara, challenges the notion that New York City is the cultural center of the cosmos. “Los Angeles is wonderfully diverse,” he says. “I’ve been dedicating myself to creating a model in which L.A. never has to take a back seat to New York.”

Born in New Orleans, Tervalon grew up in South Central Los Angeles and earned his MFA at UC Irvine. He taught high school in L.A. and co-founded Literature for Life—a nonprofit online literary salon and journal dedicated to bringing the work of multi-ethnic local writers and artists into area schools.

His sixth and latest novel, Monster’s Chef, tells the story of a former drug addict who lands a job as personal chef to a wealthy but suspiciously reclusive hip-hop artist. It’s a thriller (with recipes included) that pays homage to Tervalon’s New Orleans roots while casting a critical eye on L.A.’s celebrity culture.

Melissa Hart recently interviewed Tervalon.

The author Héctor Tobar once wrote that you’ve been “engaged in a 20-year battle to be taken seriously as a writer who also happens to be African American and who most often writes about black people.”

My first book, Understand This, got great reviews and was taken seriously here in California when it came out in 1994, but The New York Times barely mentioned it, and I’ve not been mentioned again in the NYT. People in the literary world can be snobby—they think of themselves as post-racial, but 90 percent of The New York Times book reviews don’t represent authors of color.

Thankfully, there are West Coast institutions that are very helpful—Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation multi-genre workshop, Squaw Valley Writers Conference, and PEN Center USA’s emerging writers program are embracing diversity and open-mindedness in a way that smaller presses, in particular, have not.

Why should we wait for New York publishing to have some kind of revelation? Instead, we’ve gone out to find the best-quality literature we can to put into Literature for Life that reflects the diversity of Los Angeles. We’re going to offer an award for a short story or some other kind of writing that best shows Los Angeles at its core.

How have you adapted—or refused to adapt—to the literary world as an African-American writer?

I try not to listen to what people say about my work. A woman in a writing workshop once said she didn’t think my black dialogue was “authentic enough.” I was stunned. I write out of anger when I feel like I’m underestimated or when I feel someone’s been high-handed with me.

My newest book, Monster’s Chef, is all about issues of identity—what it means to be sexually ambiguous and racially compromised or identity compromised. People are constantly misleading the reader and each other about who they are. My own identity is pretty complex. I come from New Orleans, where I’m considered black, but my mother was Irish. We moved to a black neighborhood in Los Angeles, and I became a big strapping kid, so no one ever challenged me. I think of myself as a “pootbutt”—it means you’re a nerd. As a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on. Now, I think of my tribe as being a tribe of nerds of color. And that tribe is getting larger and larger.

You’ve been instrumental in organizing literary events in and around Los Angeles. Why is it so important to talk about writing and literature?

At Locke High School, where students are largely African American and Latino, I’d teach American literature and photocopy work by Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda. One day, I brought a fictional story about a girl being raped and a guy getting shot, and this one black kid read it, and he said, “This isn’t a real story, is it?” He thought it wasn’t legitimate because it was interesting. That was the ultimate compliment for what I was trying to do—circumvent textbooks by bringing in stories that create a sense of immediacy.

I read recently that black kids see themselves in textbooks 3 percent of the time, while Latino kids see themselves 1 percent of the time. That needs to be addressed. Publishing houses are extremely white, which creates a self-perpetuating machine. Every so often, a Junot Diaz or a Sandra Cisneros breaks through, but textbooks haven’t changed substantially.

When you hear about indifference to literary cultures at the school level, that reflects teaching that says you don’t need to make stuff come alive—what you need is a prompt so that computers can grade an essay. If you want kids to be passionate about poetry, show them Pablo Neruda. Have an actor inhabit the persona of Maxine Hong Kingston. Kids will always remember this and respond positively. But if you chain them to a desk and tell them to study for an exam, you’re killing whatever spark they have to become passionate readers.

If you’re not a passionate reader, I’m not sure how civilized you are.

Published in Literature

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

Published in Literature

Growing up on a farm outside Prescott, Arizona, writer and researcher Rafael de Grenade learned how to survive in rough country. At age 12, she dropped out of school to work on a nearby ranch; at 14, she began attending college classes at night.

Since then, de Grenade has traveled to more than 30 countries, worked on construction crews and fishing boats, worked as a field botanist, and earned a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing and a doctorate in geography from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her Fulbright Fellowship took her to Baja California, where she studied the cultural and conservation role of desert oases. At the Tucson Desert Oasis Initiative, she helped city and county government collaborate with nonprofits on projects to make Tucson a “model of sustainable desert living.”

Her memoir, Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback, was released in June, and traces her season on a cattle-mustering crew in a remote corner of Australia’s Outback.

“The place was as far as one could go without falling into the sea,” says de Grenade, “the ragtag and rugged crew almost a parody of the cowboy myth.” De Grenade examines how humans forge both communities and themselves in challenging landscapes—the way we push against land, and the land pushes back.

Kati Standefer caught up with de Grenade recently in her office at the University of Arizona’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, where she is beginning post-doctoral research.

How did your upbringing in Arizona help you adapt to life on the other side of the world?

The American West is very similar in ways to Australia. I think the only reason I was able to make the transition over to Australia and the cattle station was because I had been raised in the American West and formed on a ranch in north-central Arizona. It was a mountainous, very rugged ranch, full of granite boulders and oak brush and wild cattle. We rode all day, every day, and we didn’t carry water, and we didn’t carry food, and I was treated as an adult. I learned how to shoe horses and pack salt on mules, to put in irrigation systems and fix fence and fix vehicles—the entire range of ranch work. We spent years, literally, in the saddle.

That kind of multifaceted ability to step into a problem and understand what’s going on and then use your mental and physical capacities to address the problem—that carried across easily to Australia. There’s almost no difference, in the sense that cattle cultures in one part of the world or another part of the world are based on the same animal. And animals have certain instincts and work in certain ways.

You write in Stilwater of the people you worked with: “Most of those Outback characters had a fighting sense still in them, born of wide spaces and the struggle for existence, a certain hardness built up in layers over time.” Do you think this sort of “hard” personality is inevitable as a way to adapt to a gritty, challenging landscape?

I think work shapes us, and places shape us. Being involved in work that is close to the land tends to erase the gap between romanticism and reality. The day-to-day experience of being involved in intense, physical work that was very dangerous didn’t allow much space for tenderness.

And yet tenderness emerged everywhere. Like the crew members that would take in orphaned calves. And though we all had some degree of callousness, one of the fascinating elements of this story is that we were all very compassionate beings. You see that in the complexities of peoples’ characters. It’s not on the surface. But perhaps working with animals, on a day-to-day basis, creates more tenderness than working in an office day-to-day. So even though you have to be very coarse on the outside, perhaps it fosters more compassion on the inside.

In addition to being a writer, you are a qualitative and quantitative researcher. How do you see these crafts working together?

For me, science and writing are not even two sides of the coin; they are just two different ways to know more about this place we live in. Writing is seeing and thinking and being creative—pondering, working with images, with ideas. Writing is a way of questioning, stepping into mystery. And science, at its basic level, requires some of the same elements. Science is a way of understanding mystery, and quantitative and qualitative methods within science are simply a structure by which one asks questions.

The level of creativity and imagination that writing can take is also a key to effective science. Science, I believe, sometimes is seen as more credible, and we do have millions of researchers around the world, and a system of peer review, where your work is always put out before other scientists, and they make sure that you’re staying on track. Perhaps there’s less of that feedback in writing, and so in a sense writing can be more daring, can be more dangerous.

Writing is a form of taking, and science can also be a form of taking. And we don’t necessarily compensate those from whom we take the data or from whom we take the stories. So both require tremendous sensitivity. I’m hoping that I can continue to pursue both equally. Science does pay better!

You’ve spent quite a bit of time studying how communities live in arid landscapes. As an Arizona native, has your work changed the way you view your home?

Living in the desert is a bit of a quandary. Cultures have lived in arid environments for millennia, and have done so brilliantly. They have not only survived, but thrived. And the innovation and creativity that people used to gather water, to collect water from remote sources and transport it to where there’s fertile soil—it’s kind of a positive-feedback mechanism. If you live in arid lands, water is everywhere. It’s in small quantities, and yet it can host tribes, villages, even cities.

The difference is that today, we can live in the desert and forget that we live in the desert. We use water as if we lived where it rained. We contaminate the water as if it were not a limited resource. I do think it’s possible to live in the desert in a sustainable manner. But at the scale of the urban areas that we have today, we’re going to need every solution that we can find. And that would include traditional techniques like water-harvesting and agriculture that uses desert-adapted varieties. It’s also going to have to incorporate science and technology.

The situation, especially in the context of global climate change, is going to be pressing. Already is. And yet we’ve been denying this to some degree. We are going to have to reallocate our water; we’re going to have to reprioritize what we need water for. Food is one of those. Drinking is another. Our sewer systems? I’m not so sure that that’s necessary. In the same way, growing crops which are shipped out of state, or growing food for animals—we’re going to have to re-think how we use this water.

Your new post-doctoral position involves studying “water towers” in the South American Andes. Why are these high-mountain water sources important to the conversation about global climate change,  and what does this mean for the American West?

Climate change never has a straightforward impact. The snowfall and glaciers in high-altitude mountains, like the Andes, supply rivers, and the river then supplies an entire series of communities on its way to the coast. Change at the top has great ramifications everywhere downstream. The mountains are complicated—they’re being affected in all these ways—and then you have these societal responses to the changing weather, changing water. You can look at how people are acting together, working with others—or not—on policy, all types of decision-making.

I think that parts of the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies could also be thought of as water towers, especially since many people in the American West depend on those faraway water sources. None of us are truly independent. And the greater that distance, the more vulnerable we are to disruptions, both environmental and social. I think both will be exacerbated in the future. Our hope really lies in focusing closer to home, while keeping an eye on global challenges.

How do we make decisions about the challenges we’re facing so we don’t continue to have this gap between rich and poor, people who will be more affected by climate change than others? Water towers, I think, are just one way of looking at these permutations of change. By shifting our focus to make sure that the water we drink, the food we eat, the people we interact with, and where we spend our money are closest to us, we can begin to take responsibility for our actions, and seek longer-lasting solutions.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback

By Rafael de Grenade

Milkweed

256 pages, $16

Published in Literature