We asked Michelle Huneven, author of Off Course, some questions about her favorite books, her earliest books, and what books make her cry.
What’s one book you return to over and over again?
Persuasion. To me, this is a perfect novel about a family coping with the dual hits of grief (the loss of the mother) and parental narcissism. It’s so beautifully balanced, so gently told, but Anne’s struggle to make her own way in life is a mortal one.
What book would you consider an ‘ancestor’ of your own most recent FSG book and why?
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James—for its willful heroine, who against all the advice of people who love her, insists on doing things her own way. I have a terrible streak of that, and fictionally, it interests me: how to make a compelling heroine who nevertheless makes quite insupportable decisions. What demons haunt us? What compulsions rule us? Why does it take so long to see them clearly?
What’s one book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
I got lost in Sodom and Gomorrah by Proust, which I loved, but I was listening to the audio version, which played ahead a few hours and I haven’t yet found my place in all those long dinner parties. Soon enough, I’ll figure it out, and get back on the horse. But for now, it languishes, unfinished.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
I’m a spongeface—I love to cry reading books. But Karl Ove Knausgaard’s description [in My Struggle: Book Two] of his wife Linda giving birth made me sob out loud.
Can you send us a photo of your bookshelf?
If possible, can you rummage through the books on your shelf to find the things that you have left in them?
I LOOKED! I DON’T HAVE EPHEMERA, although I do have the occasional volume attacked by my parrot, Helen. You can see in the photo above that she got to Michael Gorra’s book, Portrait of a Novel. Once, she got at one of my paperbacks—Round Rock, my first novel—and had messed it up so much, I just put it into her cage to shred. (Parrots need a lot of shredding material.) My friend Lily Tuck saw it and said, “Helen! You’re eating Round Rock! What do you think? Is it any good?”
What’s your favorite indie bookstore?
I am a staunch lover of Vroman’s, which is the bookstore of my childhood. They’ve had to expand into all sorts of merchandise to survive, but survive they have, with aplomb. There’s a steady stream of top-notch authors reading there for free—the readings take place where my mother and I used to have our purchases gift-wrapped.
What are you reading now?
I am reading an advance galley of Edan Lepucki’s California, a charmingly domestic, vigorously written dystopian novel of what I very much fear is our near-future, post climate change and earthquakes.
I am also reading Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love—I can’t get enough of Pym’s wry, observant wit. She is one of my heroes. For fourteen years in the prime of her writing life, Pym couldn’t find a publisher, but she kept going. She never gave up on herself.
I just finished My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, which I loved twice as much as Book One (which I loved enough to read Book Two). I have a few months before Book Three hits the stands.
I also read Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which hasn’t come out in America just yet. My husband had one shipped over from England, because he knows how much I revere Penelope Fitzgerald—now THAT’S an adorable husband.
What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
A Little Golden Book about Grandpa Bunny Bunny who died and then there was a rainbow.
What’s one book that ended up different from what you expected, whether for better or for worse?
Hah! Well. I had tried many times over the years to read Moby Dick, but it never took. One night, I couldn’t sleep and I went into my husband’s office and looked for a boring book to put me to sleep. Oh, there’s Moby Dick, I thought. That’ll do the trick. Five chapters later, I was wide awake and practically shouting with pleasure. What had I ever been thinking? It is the most astonishing, idiosyncratic, encyclopedic, beautifully written, sprawling and endlessly fascinating book I’ve ever read. I wasn’t bored for a second. Even the cetology was so stunningly written, with such an unerring eye for the amusing, arcane detail. I spent the next few months listening to it, then reading what I’d listened to, and sometimes listening and reading at the same time. Joy. Melville’s prose is so incantatory, that hearing it read aloud by even just a decent reader sucks you right in. So much for a soporific!
MICHELLE HUNEVEN is the author of four novels — Off Course, Round Rock, Jamesland, and Blame. She teaches fiction writing at UCLA and lives in Altadena, California with her husband, cat, African gray parrot and terrier.