Ask the Author | Michelle Huneven

Author Michelle Huneven discusses her new book “Search,” and her writing career. From assessing Faulkner’s influence on her writing style to debunking the mystique around achieving a “flow” while writing, Huneven provides her writing wisdom.

Ariana Lessard, Assistant Arts Editor

On April 26, author Michelle Huneven released her fifth book Search based on her time on a search committee. Huneven is a veteran of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, as she both received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa and served as a visiting professor in the spring of 2011. Huneven was born in Altadena, California, a mile from where she lives now with her husband and nine chickens. She has received the GE Younger Writers Award, a Whiting Award for Fiction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. For many years her “day job” was reviewing restaurants and writing about food for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, and other publications. Among other awards, Huneven has received a James Beard award for her food journalism. She is presently teaching creative writing to undergraduates at UCLA.

The Daily Iowan: What first got you into writing?

Michelle Huneven: Reading. I was one of those kids that was saved by books. I just read and read and read, and you couldn’t hear my parents arguing. You couldn’t hear my sister practicing the violin. I just read, and then I wanted to give back.

DI: What was the inspiration for “Search?”

Huneven: Well, there were a couple, but the first one was I was actually on a search committee, but it was a little search committee, just for an Assistant Minister. So, it only lasted for like two months. But the way that we had to get to know the characters really quickly, and I thought this would be an interesting way to get to know characters in a novel. It was kind of like a detective story to get to know the people, talking to references and then going a little deeper and talking to references that didn’t just gush over the person and a more neutral reference. We were about to hire one person. We thought she was magnificent, and then we talked to a neutral reference, and it turned out she had kind of Perry’s problem and that she couldn’t be trusted with the money. The other inspiration was waking up on Election Day. The day that Trump was elected, I was with a friend in upstate New York — a painter — and she said that democracy was really her subject, and I said, “Well, not mine.” And then I thought, wait a second. I’m thinking of writing a book about a search committee about how intelligent, educated, well-meaning people select the wrong person. So, I wanted to explore that. How did we as a country select a person that wasn’t qualified?

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DI: What has influenced your style and its development, and who were your inspirations?

Huneven: I have some inspirations [that] probably weren’t so good for me, like Faulkner. I had a writing teacher who really loved dense prose, and so part of my growth as a writer in terms of style has been to loosen that up and to make my writing more accessible. I remember my agent after my second novel was published said, “You know, I love your second novel, but it’s almost as if you could lose every third since, it’s just overwritten.” And she’s right, she was right. I really need to, I needed to make my writing more accessible and swifter, not indulge in too much description and density. After a while, you’re just stuck with who you are. The dust settles. But when I was teaching at the workshop, one day I looked around the room, and I had like — I think ten students — each one of them completely talented, and each one of them completely unique. They couldn’t write like each other. They could only write like themselves. And sometimes a workshop gets competitive, and I thought, how can you be competitive when you can only write like yourself? I mean, your literary voice is the result of everything you’ve ever heard, everything you’ve ever listened to, every conversation you’ve ever had. You’ve been molded by such a unique set of circumstances and input that it’s impossible to replicate.

DI: What would you say your best writing tip is?

Huneven: I would say consistency — showing up to the page. I’m not saying you have to write every single day at the same time or anything like that, but my big revelation when I first wrote a novel was that when I showed up to it every day after a while, it took over. It told me what I needed to write it. It showed me what was happening next. It’s kind of like, in order to reach that stage of flow, it’s like running. I had a friend who said, “Oh my god, I finally got a runner’s high. I’d been running for three months — three months — almost every day for three months, and I was three miles in, and I finally got a runner’s high.” And it’s sort of the same with writing, you write consistently for three months, and three hours in, you’ll reach flow. There is no way to get it if you’re just bouncing in and out. You have to be consistent, a certain level of consistency.