Let’s clear one thing up first: Off Course, Michelle Huneven’s new novel, in which a young economics student moves to her childhood vacation home in the Sierra Nevadas in an attempt to finish her dissertation but is derailed by complicated romantic distractions, is not autobiography. Nor is it memoir. Huneven did, to be fair, move to those same mountains to finish her novel after graduating with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has also been involved in an obsessive relationship—one much like that which enwraps her protagonist, Cressida. But Huneven maintains the book is fiction, whether or not it started that way: “I wrote it a lot closer to my autobiography the first time, and it was so dead on the page,” she explains. “I had to really make fiction out of it.
The novel’s inspiration came from perhaps an unlikely source—a bit of friendly competition. “I had a good friend who was writing a novel about a bad love affair, and I thought, I could do that, too,” Huneven says. “I thought I could do it because I have experience in that kind of obsessive love and dating the wrong guy, falling for the wrong guy—losing years of my life to bad relationships.”
Huneven took her own history and twisted details and characters, crafting something altogether new. “I had to up the ante, make him a married man, make him really inaccessible,” Huneven says. “It was tricky, too, because I had to write a character that was sympathetic, even though even I got irritated with her for crying in the bucket.”
Though the story started in first person, Huneven quickly shifted to third, to insert some distance between the readers and the muddled interior of her lovesick protagonist. “I think it would be too irritating to live inside her circular thinking and blind spots and inability to get out of the loop,” she says, adding that “it also might have been too much at war with my own aesthetics. I like a certain clarity of prose, and prose that doesn’t call too much attention to itself.”
Huneven was also fascinated by the nature of obsession itself. “Obsessions are addictions, and if you have an addiction you think, ‘If I can’t drink anymore I’ll never have any fun, life will be so dull, all the pleasure will be gone, all the laughs will be gone.’ The truth of the matter is, being drunk all the time is pretty boring, drunks are pretty boring, and life is pretty fascinating on its own terms, but the addiction kind of flip-flops things. You get into that mindset, and it’s very powerful, I think.”
Again, in order to diverge from autobiography, Huneven made Cressida a PhD student in economics, rather than an artist. “I wanted her to be something other than a painter because so many painters sort of stand in for the writer figure,” Huneven explains. “And I didn’t know anything about economics, and I like to use fiction to learn about things I know nothing about.” She interviewed economists and dug into a stack of relevant books, including titles by Julie A. Nelson, Paul Krugman, Robert Heilbronner and more. Though she loved the process, she admits that the trick is balancing all that research with story. “You can love research too much,” she says. “The hard thing is to digest it sufficiently so it doesn’t sit in your book like a big lump.”
The book took nearly four years to write, but the time investment paid off emotionally for Huneven: “I have to say that even though I don’t feel like this is a book about redemption, it redeemed those mistakes for me,” Huneven says. “To be able to make art out of some of my mistakes was very redemptive for me.”
Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and content editor living in Austin, Texas. Her stories have been published in Parcel and Twelve Stories and are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review.