John Gardner once said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Michael Bourne’s debut novel Blithedale Canyon is the former, beautifully written, with the ring of truth. Observant. Bleakly funny. Honest about life’s darkness.
Trent Wolfer is an addict who is trying and failing, and failing, to find another way to live. So he journeys home—and because he’s on probation, has to work the counter at the local burger joint, where he’s humiliated to see a pretty girl he once knew intimately. Soon enough, the man finds himself hanging out with his old dealer buddy from high school, who then as now brings out his worst tendencies. Has Trent helped or hurt himself by returning to his hometown of Mill Valley, California? The answer, Bourne hints, is both.
This is hard stuff to get right, and Bourne, a contributing editor at Poets & Writers, gets it right. I emailed him to ask him how. In this interview, he talks about the inspiration behind his debut, as well as its 20-year incubation process and path to publication.
Catherine Baab-Muguira: Where do you think the strength to change one’s life comes from? Did you set out to dramatize how people sometimes totally fail to do that on a desirable schedule?
Michael Bourne: I do think Trent, the novel’s narrator, eventually changes. He’s lived to tell the tale, right? But one of my goals with this book was to tell the other part of the addiction story, which is what happens after a person decides to change their life. We’re drowning in addiction narratives, but so many of them seem to stop when the person takes their last drink or drug. Like, that’s it, they’re cured! But most addicts are like Trent. They stop and start and stop and start endlessly for years. I wanted to dramatize what it’s like to know what you’re doing is wrong and self-destructive, and still keep doing it. Trent is onto himself right from the start of the book. He lies and cheats and uses, but he’s pretty clear-eyed about himself. That’s where the pain is, and also the humor.
I don’t think most people have the strength to change their lives on their own. They do it with the help of family or community. In my case, the only reason I didn’t end up dead in a ditch somewhere is that I come from an intact, supportive family and found a community I could rely on. Trent doesn’t have that and it’s killing him. He pretty much raised himself and what he did learn from his parents was how to lie so people will believe you. I wanted to write a story about a guy learning how to build that community, that found family, out of nothing.
CB: What’s it been like to live with Trent for so long?
MB: A pleasure, honestly. I like Trent. He’s a screw-up, yes, but he has an essential decency. And because he’s had to be a little bit of a grifter to survive, he notices things most people miss. He possesses a first-class bullshit detector, probably because he’s such a bullshit artist himself. Trent sniffs out people’s vanities like some kind of psychic bloodhound. As he says in the book, if you know the lie a person is telling about themselves, it’s a lot easier to lie to them, and that’s true. But it’s fun to write a character who’s always seeing through people, including himself.
CB: How about other forms of inspiration? Were there any novels or stories you had in mind as you wrote?
MB: Publishers Weekly said Trent is like an older Holden Caulfield, and though it wasn’t a conscious influence, I might have had The Catcher in the Rye in mind since the book meant a lot to me when I was a kid. All American books about screw-ups you can root for owe a debt to Salinger, I think. A more conscious model is probably Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, which is one of the few books I’ve read that gets addiction right, both the ups and the downs. Like Blithedale Canyon, it’s fundamentally a book about lying, but it’s so dead honest it breaks your heart. I was going for that. But really, the roots of Blithedale Canyon lie less in books I’ve read than in all the hours I spent sitting in church basements listening to people talk about their lives. I don’t mean I took people’s stories and literally put them in the book. But the way Trent thinks, all the stratagems and self-justifications, that came from listening to addicts talk—and talk and talk.
CB: What about your writing process, what did it look like?
MB: My writing process with this book was looong. I wrote the opening pages of the novel 20 years ago. The characters, the setting, the basic premise, it was all there, but I had no idea what to do with it and I set it aside. A few years later, I picked it up again and wrote another hundred pages, but again, I didn’t have the writing chops to get any further. In the meantime, I wrote a couple other books and finally learned enough about how stories work to finish this one. I do not know why I’ve been such a slow learner. I don’t consider myself an especially stupid or slow-minded person, but it’s taken me decades to figure out what others pick up in just a few years. On the other hand, I do feel like I finally have a better idea what I’m doing. For so long I felt like this big, dumb klutz crashing around in my narratives. Now I don’t feel quite so klutzy.
CB: Can you talk about how you found a publisher, and how you’ve found the publishing process?
MB: I’m living proof: You can publish a novel with a legit publisher without an agent. I shopped Blithedale Canyon around to agents, who are, despite what you might hear in some corners of the internet, great people who love books and writers. I came very close with several who loved the book and its voice, but times are tough for literary fiction and they worried they couldn’t sell it. This is happening more and more with literary novels, especially debuts. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a crop of new, entrepreneurially-minded indie presses is stepping in to pick up the slack. I probably would have made more money if it had sold to a corporate press, but I couldn’t be happier with my editors at Regal House.
CB: Tell me about why you chose this setting, geographically and era-wise.
MB: Mill Valley, California, where Blithedale Canyon is set, is my hometown, though I haven’t lived there in decades. I wanted the town to be a character in the novel, one on the cusp of change. Like so much of California, Mill Valley boomed after World War II when people who had worked the Bay Area shipyards crossed the Golden Gate Bridge for the suburbs. There was another wave of refugees from the Summer of Love, who lent the place a hippie vibe in the 1970s. Blithedale Canyon is set in 2001 when those earlier residents are getting priced out by the dot-com crowd. In the book, Trent works at a family-run grocery store, which is trying to innovate to stay in business. I wanted this to be a secondary plot in the book, what it takes for a small town to stay a small town, how hard that is. It’s not unlike a person trying to stay true to him or herself. It rarely works out well.
CB: As I’ve been reflecting on your book, I realize one of the things I like about it most is that Trent is an anti-Mary Sue. We live in an era beset by Mary Sues, and they’re by no means all female. Every character in every show and movie, no matter whether it’s Pixar or a high-end prestige drama, they’re all rising above their circumstances, showing preternatural emotional maturity, solving rather than managing their problems, all while surrounded by functional, emotionally honest relationships. I love that your book is not that. Do you think it’s more difficult to dramatize failure than to dramatize success? What was the most difficult part of the book to write?
MB: As I’ve said, I was trying to write against the standard addiction story, which I think is essentially false. People romanticize addiction, make it all about rebellion and pushing boundaries, but real addicts don’t rebel or push boundaries; they’re too busy getting high. A true addiction story is unreadable—it’s just a person doing the same damn thing over and over and over for years. It’s not remotely interesting to anyone. My goal was to tell a story that felt true, but that also worked as a story that would keep you reading and interested. So Blithedale Canyon isn’t just an addiction story, but also a love story and a story about hometowns. I’m not sure it’s more difficult to write these kinds of stories than the uplifting Mary-Sue tales you’re describing, but it’s probably harder to sell. People like to see characters transcending their circumstances. It makes them feel better. I was trying to make people feel better in a slightly different way, by showing them life as it’s actually lived by a whole lot of people.
CB: Just out of idle curiosity, exactly how many people have read the book and told you: I dated this man?
MB: Asking for a friend, are you? I’ve heard this a lot, actually. When I was passing the book around to writer friends to get feedback, friends would respond to the book and then include a little note at the end saying they’d dated a guy like Trent or somebody in their family was going through something similar. As I was writing the book, I was very aware that I was writing a kind of user’s guide to the mind of an addict for people who are having to deal with one. And when I say people, I really mean women, because it’s so often the moms and wives and girlfriends and daughters that end up with the caretaking duties. Blithedale Canyon is not autobiographical in any literal sense, but I think I was that boyfriend for a few women who had the misfortune of meeting me in my early twenties. I’m not that guy now, but I still remember how my mind worked and that informed my depiction of Trent.
CB: It’s been a few weeks now since I finished your book and as I look back on it, one of the things I’m most impressed by is the everyman, every-town feel. Trent’s experience of running into old classmates from high school—the girl he liked, his druggie buddy—has an archetypal feel. It’s all very resonant. Were you trying to reach the universal through the specific?
MB: It’s gratifying to hear the book is having these resonances for you. With Trent and Mill Valley, I was trying to capture them in all their particularity. It was important to me, for instance, that in addition to being an addict and felon, Trent is a fan of bad horror movies and has a childhood nickname he hates. Likewise, with the setting, I wanted the reader to know what the Little League ballpark looks like and how to get to the World War II bunkers on the Marin Headlands. In my favorite books, I end up feeling like I know the characters and setting as if they were people and places from my real life. That’s what I was going for in Blithedale Canyon, that this story is happening to people you feel like you know. So maybe what you’re saying when you say the characters and setting feel archetypal and universal is that they’re real to you. You know them. If that’s the case, well, I can retire right now because that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.