In Blame, Michelle Huneven unwinds the tangled, painful story of Patsy MacLemoore, who believes she accidentally killed a mother and daughter during a drunken blackout.
Where'd you get the idea for your plot?
I heard a man tell a story that he was arrested for killing his ex-wife. Because he'd been in an alcoholic blackout, he assumed he was guilty; the motive was there, and he had no memory of it. Luckily, he had an alibi in spite of himself, and that story stuck with me for about 20 years. I also wanted to write a book about somebody who didn't feel like she was a good person. What if you don't know if you're owned by darkness or not? Finally, I was really interested in a life spent pursuing goodness and atonement, and then finding out that maybe you weren't as bad as you thought you were.
Your main character, Patsy MacLemoore, spends time in prison. What kind of research did you do to make those scenes feel real?
I knew an older woman who'd been to prison and she spoke to me about the experience. During the interview, we both got more and more quiet and deeply depressed, and I realized what a gift it was for her to talk to me, because for her to have to go back there in such detail was obviously incredibly painful to her. Also, a close friend of mine spent a night in jail for parking tickets years ago, and she explained how traumatic that was for her. And I read a lot of prison literature: Wally Lamb's collection of stories by women in prison, Jean Harris's They Always Call Us Ladies. I even found a how-to manual called You Are Going to Prison.
Alcoholics Anonymous plays a prominent role in the novel, and you show the pluses and minuses of the organization. What are your feelings about AA?
Some people in AA are really good at talking about themselves. At first I was afraid I was making the blackouts too wild, but I heard many, many stories every bit as crazy. I, myself, have been in recovery for over 20 years and consider AA one of the great grassroots organizations of the 20th century, but this book is specifically about Patsy's relationship to AA. Just as she has a changing relationship with her family over the years, she also has an ongoing, changing relationship to AA. Sometimes it's very positive; sometimes it is not so positive.
What would you like readers to take away with them when they read your book?
I would like people to come away with the sense that they know these people, and that their dilemmas mattered to them and resonated in some way, and ideally enriched their lives. I think we all have our demons and our various shortcomings, and it would be nice if people felt more gently about other people, but also about themselves.