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Jamesland by Michelle Huneven
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Jamesland by Michelle Huneven
Paperback $21.00
Sep 14, 2004 | ISBN 9780375713132

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    Sep 14, 2004 | ISBN 9780375713132

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  • Dec 18, 2007 | ISBN 9780307426451

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“Irresistible. . . . This divine comedy offers a glimpse of transcendence that’s refreshingly believable.” —The Atlantic Monthly
“Michelle Huneven is a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent, and Jamesland is a marvel.” —Richard Russo

"Michelle Huneven’s joyous new novel, Jamesland, is the best thing for the blues since lithium. . . . Squeaking, squelching, sloshing, the hearts of Huneven’s characters beat a shaky rhythm, beside which a reader’s own can’t help thumping along. Like Anne Tyler, whom readers found long before the prize-givers ever did–or like the foxglove, which was soothing hearts centuries before apothecaries ever pestled it into tablets–Jamesland is good for what ails you." –San Francisco Chronicle

Offbeat and vigorously written. . . . Engrossing . . . Jamesland is a winning place to while away some time." –The New York Times Book Review

“Generosity, humor and tolerance shine in Huneven’s writing.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A delicate tale of personalities and longing. . . . The real landscape of Jamesland is an interior one, the intersection between the tangible and the not-quite-real.” –The Oregonian

"A great L.A. novel. . . . One of the goals of the novel since the beginning of the form has been to realistically capture love, that ever-flitting butterfly, in its contemporary incarnation. Huneven is one of our few writers who can deliver an authentic love story, with characters as unlikely for redemption as possible, as failed and weird and hopeless as ourselves. She somehow nudges them into relationships that change the feeling of everything." –LA Weekly

"Jamesland is gold. Michelle Huneven gives as good as any reader can hope to get." –Amy Bloom

“Michelle Huneven’s endearingly comic second novel, Jamesland . . . looks steadily at the convoluted relationship between religion and spirituality. . . . She regards her creations with a benevolently comic eye.” –The Columbus Dispatch

"Jamesland is a blessing of a book. Michelle Huneven proves again that forgiveness has a wisdom of its own, and that real joy can grow in the compost of failure and frailties. Huneven’s characters embrace each other in all their brokenhearted striving; they renew our buried hope that we all may be loved as life finds us—imperfect, lost, blameworthy, full of good intentions. The compassion in this book is a rare and welcome gift. Gracefully written, shrewd in its observations, precise in its generosity, Jamesland is a wonderful book." –Anne Michaels

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Michelle Huneven

Q. What was the seed–the first idea–for JAMESLAND?

A: There were two, actually. When I was in seminary in the early nineties, I had a dream about finding a deer in my house–a vivid, discomfitting dream, dim and full of racket and resonance. I was taking a graduate seminar on Freud and Jung (and therefore studying dream analysis), and I had the idea that this could be a kind of seminal dream for a character to investigate.

Around the same time, researching a paper on William James, I was paging through an old Time Life book on the occult and read that William James had appeared in more seances than anybody except Elvis. This made me laugh–and think.

Q: The title refers to William James, who wrote THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE–is JAMESLAND a version of THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE for today?

A: Maybe it’s more The Variety Show of Religious Experience for today.

I did want to write about the state of religion as I see it. I was particularly interested in writing about religious experience for the irreligious–like most of my friends. These are people who have grown up with little or no religious upbringing (like my character Alice), people who have rejected their religious upbringings (like Pete), people who are creating their own religions out of bits and pieces (like Helen) and even religious denominations (like Unitarian Universalism) that have rejected most religious trappings.

I wanted to play with such questions as: Can people who have rejected religion–its trappings, doctrines and vocabulary–actually have religious experience? Or do those kind of liminal, “mystical” experiences–dreams, visions, conversions, sudden beneficial shifts in outlook–become merely psychological or emotional experiences if stripped of religious language?

Helen, the minister in Jamesland, wonders how to minister to people who can’t hear the word God without associating it with religious fundamentalism and all the ills organized religion has cast upon the world. And what good is a religion that disallows the usual consolations of a loving omnipotent God, a personal savior and an afterlife?

Q: In JAMESLAND, Alice Black is the great great granddaughter of William James. Is she based on William James’s real-life famous sister Alice James?

A: Not in any big or specific way. The James family had the habit of giving the same names to people over and over again. They also married people with the same names as their family members. William James’s sister, wife and daughter-in-law were all Alices. William and his sister Alice had an Aunt Kate just as Alice Black does. I use the names to suggest a legacy, a connection–and perhaps to indicate that much of who we are is predetermined, and inescapable.

Q: Alice is in her thirties and seriously depressed; she’s underemployed and has gone through a series of bad boyfriends. She has three different relationships just in the course of the novel. Does she finally get it right?

A: Who knows? I do think that there’s a progression. She finds a job that interests her. And she goes from a deeply obsessive affair with a married man to being with someone for whom she has little affinity. It’s the lack of affinity, the lack of attraction that appeals to her. Everyone she’s gone for in a big way has been a disaster, so she thinks the solution might be someone who doesn’t awaken her grand emotions, someone who even bores her, someone she has to talk herself into. She thinks being deliberate about choosing a mate may be the solution to choosing unconsciously and in passion, but really, it’s just as fallible, or more so. As for her third relationship: time will tell.

Q: When we first meet Pete Ross, he’s a mess. He is rude
, uncontrolled fat, and obnoxious. Was it a challenge to make him appealing.

A: Oh, he was just afraid of meeting new people. Pete’s a good egg. Usually, he says what’s on everyone’s mind anyway. Over time, his friends–and, I hope, his readers–come to rely on his honesty. And his cooking.

Q: You’ve been a restaurant critic for many years now. Is Pete based on any of the chefs you have known?

A: As a restaurant critic, I try not to “know” any chefs. I’m mostly anonymous although after fifteen years, I have, through repeated contact, become friendly with a couple. Pete’s story is built from bits of many stories and many things I’ve eaten, plus a big helping of pure imagination.

Q: The setting in the Silverlake and Los Feliz districts of Los Angeles is quite vivid. Did you set out to write a Los Angeles novel? Do you think of yourself as an L.A. novelist?

A: I don’t know what an L.A. novelist is, except someone who lives there and writes books. If anything, I occasionally think of myself as a California novelist, in that I’m interested in the history and culture and geography of California. But this novel happens to be set in Los Angeles. I wrote it when I was living in Atwater, which is across the river from Silverlake and Los Feliz. I shopped at the Mayfair, and often walked along the river and hiked in Griffith Park. That made research a snap. People often ask a novelist what part of the book is biographical. In the case of Jamesland, I’d say the geography is most biographical part.

Q: Where did Reverend Helen Harland come from? Her work at Morton Unitarian Universalist Church has the convincing whiff of reality about it.

A: I went to seminary for two years with the idea of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, but I stopped to write my first novel Round Rock, and never went back. However, I still hung around with enough ministers and in enough churches to imbibe quite a lot of their reality.

Q: Unitarians are generally considered among the most progressive of Protestant denominations. They were the first to ordain women in the 19th Century and the first to ordain gays and lesbians in the 20th, and for years have celebrated unions between gay and lesbian couples. Yet you portray Helen’s congregation as uptight and homophobic. Why is this?

A: Unitarians, like most people, come in all stripes. Helen’s is a small, ingrown church of mostly older people. They don’t view themselves as religiously intractable or homophobic–it’s just that seeing men holding hands in church makes them uncomfortable.

In seminary and afterwards, I watched in horrid fascination as several friends took jobs with such small, difficult, hidebound congregations–churches that any minister with any seasoning wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. But young, idealistic, prophetic, fresh-out-of-seminary new ministers eager to have their own churches can and do walk right into such deadly situations. A few hang in there and eventually, over years, transform such congregations into churches they can live with. Others are defeated, and some leave before their contracts are up. Some even give up ministry altogether after such a church has its way with them.

Q: Those who have read your first novel, ROUND ROCK, will recognize Helen’s boyfriend Lewis as one of the protagonists of that book. Do you see JAMESLAND as a sequel, or connected in any other way to ROUND ROCK?

A: Jamesland is not a sequel to Round Rock, but both are concerned with how people who don’t consider themselves religious–like almost all of my friends–still have these crises, these emergencies that are essentially spiritual or religious in nature and therefore require a spiritual or religious solution.

In Round Rock, such crises came in the form of alcoholism, and the solution was found in AA and personal recovery. But even AA spirituality is somewhat institutionalized, and certainly has its own vocabulary. After finishing Round Rock, I wanted to write about people who didn’t qualify for any such program, who had to forge their own spiritual paths, invent their own religious vocabularies, find their own like-minded communities simply in order to survive.

As for Lewis, his role in Jamesland is really very tiny. I just wanted to keep him in the running. I have more plans for him. I’m not done with him yet.

Q: Both of your novels, then, are about redemption. Do you really believe that people can change and actually get better?

A: Incrementally, maybe. The term “redemption” makes me nervous. It sounds so much bigger than what actually happens, which is really quite a subtle process. So much a part of “getting better,” it seems, is accepting one’s limitations and personal shortcomings and the enormous disappointment of not being all that transformable!

Author Essay

"The geography is the most biographical part," Michelle Huneven has said of her novel Jamesland. In it, a chef, a Unitarian minister, and a young woman struggling to find her way in life come together. But they might never have if not for their shared stamping ground—the Los Feliz and Silverlake districts of Los Angeles, which Huneven is intimately familiar with. For this reason the author sent us personal photos of Jamesland’s setting, and explained how the scenery helped her to develop these vivid characters.

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