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The LAist Interview: Michelle Huneven

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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:

51, Writer

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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?

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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.

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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.