The LAist Interview: Michelle Huneven
Writer Michelle Huneven delves into all aspects of life in Southern California, from the material to the spiritual and everything in between. She is the author of two published works of fiction, Jamesland (2004) and Round Rock (1998), as well as many pieces of non-fiction journalism. She’s also familiar to readers as a former restaurant critic for the LA Weekly.
1. Age and Occupation:
2. How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?
I have lived in Los Angeles County 41 out of my 51 years. I grew up in Altadena and live in Altadena now. I spent some of my young adulthood in Pasadena, in two different bungalow courts a few blocks apart from each other. One was said to be the best example of Japanese-Swiss-inspired Craftsman architecture and the other, also Craftsman, was designed by the same architect who designed the first motel (which is in San Luis Obispo), Arthur Heineman.
After I got tired of miniature living (those bungalows were teeny) I moved to Atwater Village, across the river from Silverlake, a vague place which is also described as Baja Glendale. I lived over on the less-bougie side of Glendale Blvd., in an ethnically diverse working class neighborhood that was visually bald and a little bleak, though convenient and not expensive. I walked up and down the concrete banks of the LA River for exercise.
After nine years in Atwater, I had to move. I decided to buy a house and cast a wide net, from Alhambra to Burbank, Monrovia to Los Feliz. I ended up buying a house in Altadena, a mile east of where I was born and raised. So now I live in West Altadena, again not on the bougie side of town. My block is in itself transitional. There are some architecturally significant mansions on the north side of the block, and a row of those quaint Janes cottages on the south side of the block. And me, on a big piece of dirt, right in the middle of the block.
3. Why did you set your latest novel, Jamesland, in Southern California? Could this story about spiritual seekers have been set anywhere else and if so, why did you select LA?
I could have set Jamesland elsewhere, but the characters would have been somewhat different people if grown in different soil.
I set Jamesland in the Atwater/Los Feliz/Glendale area because that’s where I lived at the time. I’m a lazy researcher and this made research very easy for me. I walked all over the place there -- not only along the river but all over Griffith Park. I saw these places season after season, year in and year out, and formed an intimate connection with them, and intimacy is always a good thing to write about, even when it’s with wrecked rivers and modest neighborhoods.
Setting Jamesland in Los Angeles did generate certain plot lines -- I have, for example, a chef who was present for the boom and bust of the late 80’s early 90’s in the L.A. restaurant scene. I have a middle-aged movie star who thinks (not atypically) of opening a restaurant. I have a young biologist who came to town hoping to do something more creative than labeling bodily fluids for the test lab. Los Angeles is common ground for them. If I’d set the book in Bakersfield, for example, there would be no movie stars, and my chef’s plummet probably l would not have been so spectacular, and my searching, dissatisfied biologist would have driven right past town without stopping.
4. What is a manifestation of the spiritual impulse in LA?
The desert garden at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino. I say this because it is here you see what strange and varied forms cellular life can take, how peculiar and defended, innovative and downright psychedelic its adaptations. I always feel as if I’ve gone to the best cathedral after I’ve gone to the desert gardens.
5. Why do people come to Southern California seeking redemption? Does this area grant it?
Southern California has always been a Mecca for seekers and dreamers. It’s on the edge of the world, the weather’s good, it has the reputation (deserved) as a paradise. It’s also a charlatan’s delight and fertile ground for lost souls, serious seekers and street schizophrenics alike.
Sunlight redeems much.
6. Do you think LA is a religious city? What is the Unitarian church's unique link to the area?
I don't think of LA as particularly religious, although it's full of churches--small storefront churches, mega churches, lovely and not so lovely architectural/ landmark churches.
Unitarian Universalists are a small but potent force wherever they are. It was the popular and powerful Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King who almost single handedly kept California in the Union during the Civil War, and tirelessly raised funds for the incipient Red Cross (he raised, in fact, one quarter of their initial operating budget). He also campaigned for his parishoner, Leland Stanford, for the governorship, and later urged him to found a university.
Similarly, right here in Pasadena, the Throop family, ardent Unitarians, gave the city a church, a lumberyard, and Cal Tech.
7. Many of your stories revolve around people trying to cope with having an illustrious and influential relative or ancestor -- is that a common Southern Californian trait, struggling with the history of this place?
I am very interested in the idea that we're all just parts of huge patterns -- genetic, historical, cultural‹and that even things like our dreams and idiosyncratic irritabilities may have been passed down wordlessly yet effectively from our ancestors. That happens everywhere, of course, and many of us don't have illustrious or particularly influential ancestors. My own ancestors were restless, rebellious, and adventurous sorts who were also afflicted with depression and alcoholism -- thank God there were a number of strong, energetic women who added their input to the bloodstream. My ancestors tended to cut and run; I have a radical rabbi on one side who left a number of places because of his politics. On the other side, I have a whaling great grandfather who abandoned his family for the sea. All four grandparents moved cross country, to the orange groves of California, for a fresh start in life. You could say that I rode the tide of Western expansionism and California dreaming into town.
8. You included a chef as a character in your latest novel; is he inspired by any Angeleno restaurant fixtures?
Pete Ross's specific restaurant-owning history was borrowed in part from the wonderful Evan Kleiman's unhappy experience with her west side Angeli cafe. She'd redesigned a beautiful, innovative space and had a wonderful and quite successful restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd. for a few years. Then, when the lease came up for renewal, her landlord doubled his price. He wanted the place back so that he could put a restaurant there. He did, and it flopped miserably!
9. Are there any specific mutual benefits of working as both a novelist and restaurant critic?
Yes -- several benefits. First of all, being a restaurant critic does not require great amounts of intellectual or creative energy (though small amounts are helpful), therefore a writer has sufficient energy for both journalism and fiction. When I started writing journalism, I was doing features for California Magazine, which meant I was getting obsessed by a subject for a month or three before writing about it. It was really impossible to write fiction at the same time I was writing features. But
reviewing restaurants only involves eating in a restaurant and an occasional few hours of culinary research -- which freed me up to write fiction even when I had a weekly restaurant column.
Conversely, having a weekly column and that paltry but guaranteed income gave me a secure base, which is necessary for writing fiction. It's very hard to be financially insecure and highly creative at the same time. Worry depletes creativity more than it fuels it.
Also, reviewing restaurants fed me, got me out of the house, and made me have a social life. I have taken hundreds of people out to dinner.
10. What are some of the more exciting aspects of restaurants and cooking in LA now? How does it compare with the scene 5 years ago?
Here's a confession. I have actually stopped writing restaurant reviews. It's been a full year now since Jonathan Gold took over the column in the LA Weekly, over a year since I've eaten professionally (though I do go out to lunch with Jonathan a couple times a month). But I haven't been to any of the hot new restaurants and I don't even know what they are. I'm an eastside gal now and even when Jonathan invites me out for an all expense-paid lunch, I prefer to stay in the hood, which includes Monrovia, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Alhambra, where the most interesting restaurants tend to be, anyway.
I want to add that not-reviewing is a form of bliss. Having to keep abreast of what's new and who's new, and who's cooking where, and what's being cooked -- well, that's not my problem any more. Somebody else can have all that anxiety.
I ate out for so many years, I became a kind of walking database. Surprisingly, I have no interest in keeping my data up to date. I'm becoming obsolete.
Also, toward the end of my reviewing, I began to develop an aversion to a lot of restaurant food, the fussy food, the artery clogging, butter drenched food, and food that had been touched too much. At the French Laundry, for example, I was served a very pretty, very clever little architectonic appetizer and all I could think of was that fifteen to twenty people had had their fingers on it along the way. Ew.
11. What's your preferred mode of transportation? How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
Oh, I like to drive. But I'm growing fond of both the bus and the MTA. My fiancé Jim Potter works in downtown LA is a big fan of public transportation and he's got me enthused; it helps that he has a dish full of tokens on his dresser. I'll take the Gold line to meet him for dinner or a play or musical event. I am still too excited by having public transportation to just sit and read or listen to the iPod, I'm looking out the windows and into people's backyards the whole way in.
During Christmas, I rode the rails with a few young choristers, who sang a cappella all the way to Union Station. That was more fun than driving.
12. What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
Double Indemnity is right up there. Also Pulp Fiction I liked that it was filmed all around the seedy area of Atwater near where I lived, and immortalized a scary, mauve-colored hotel on Riverside that was blown up and 'dozed shortly after the movie came out.
13. Best LA-themed book(s)?
I love Cruising Paradise by Sam Shepherd. It's a bit of a mishmash, but he gets down both Hollywood skank AND growing up in the orange groves and flood channels in the north east parts of LA County.
I'm also a big fan of Michael Jaime Becerra, who lives and writes in El Monte, in his story collection, Every Night is Ladies Night, I love Media Vuelta, a novella about an aged mariachi musician who comes north looking for his gentle first wife. The writing is full of perfectly selected details, mariachi history, not to mention the cultural dislocation of disembarking at the El Monte bus station and starting one's American journey at the Valley Mall.
14. What's the best place to walk in LA?
The JPL trail up the arroyo in Altadena. I've been walking it my entire life. I park at the west end of Altadena Drive and enter the arroyo via the descending dusty path lined with poison oak overlooking Jet Propulsion Lab. In minutes, JPL is a memory and you're walking up a canyon full of oaks and sycamores, a year-round scenic stream, old bridges, crumbling rockwork (the canyon was once full of resort cabins before the 1938 floods). It's like going back fifty, sixty years, except for the occasional kamikaze mountain biker. You can walk all the way to Switzer's Camp, though I never have.
15. It's 9:30 PM on a Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?
I'm home reading. I've been home all day. I've gone out to the back yard to get wood for the wood stove. I've gone to the back yard to get lettuce and fresh peas for dinner. I've cooked dinner. I've been periodically yodelling for the cat who slipped out a few minutes ago. When he comes in, I'm going to bed to read a good book. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.
16. If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?
Any era when we don't elect movie stars as governors and frat boys as presidents.
17. If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
When I bought this home, my first home, here in Altadena, I was like a mother with a young baby‹completely in love. I loved my house with unswerving pride and devotion. You could show me a modernist masterpiece, a Mission Revival mansion, a coddled Craftsman bungalow, and I would shrug with indifference. I had eyes only for my own 1100 square foot stucco box. It does sit on a huge flag lot so we're not on the street, and we have great privacy. The only other place I've seen such a sweep of sky locally is at the Huntington Gardens. There is only one house nearby, within full sight, and that's the identical twin house that shares my driveway -- the two were built for brothers. Jimmy (betrothed) bought that other house a couple of months ago, so we now have two small architecturally insignificant 1953 homes and well over half an acre. We conceivably could sell both properties and buy, say, the Myron Hunt mansion around the corner. But we prefer not to. We like our own odd compound. Why is that? Maybe it's because we're right where we want to be.
18. Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?
I've made friends, lost friends, made more friends--it's hard to know what to attribute to the city and what to my own oscillating extroversion. I think it's hard to see friends, especially when you live east. Nobody likes to drive east. East is a highly unfashionable direction. If you have a friend who drives east to see you, well, that is a good friend. If you have friends who drive west to see you, I can't guarantee them.
19. What is the city's greatest secret?
Despite the smog, despite the traffic, despite whole impoverished sections of the city, Los Angeles is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The mountains, the ocean, the sunshine, the year-round flowers, the light, the wacky and diverse architecture-- every time I come home from Europe or elsewhere, I think, It's gorgeous here too. Nobody says LA is beautiful. But it's drop-dead gorgeous, and we're blessed to live here.
20. Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?
17 years without a drink. I am an ever-designated driver.
21. What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?
You're welcome to your dreary winters, expensive produce, and short growing seasons.
22. Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
23. Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
Right here. Home. In a doorway in my wood frame house, where I can huddle with my future husband and dog and ride it out.
Interview by Adrienne Crew and Jessica Ritz.