For author Swan Huntley, the truths embedded in her third and latest novel were not stranger than fiction. But they were just as dramatic as anything she could have made up.
Like the heroine of “Getting Clean With Stevie Green,” Huntley grew up in La Jolla, where the beauty and ease of her outer life did not match the turbulence of her inner life. Like Stevie, Huntley was a teenaged Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, taking all the right classes and making all the right friends at La Jolla High School, while also drinking, taking drugs and hooking up with guys she didn’t know.
And like Huntley, acknowledging the truths behind her dysfunctions sets Stevie free. But getting the thirtysomething Stevie past the high-school traumas that haunt her made her writing “Getting Clean With Stevie Green” the emotional equivalent of a Marie Kondo-style makeover.
It had to get messy before it got better.
“I felt so insecure in high school. I felt like I really didn’t belong. I just felt so out of control. Which is why I started smoking pot and drinking. I was so sensitive, that all the drugs and the alcohol protected me from reality. It saved me until it stopped working,” said the Los Angeles-based Huntley, who will be discussing the new book on Thursday, Jan. 27 during a Facebook Live event with Warwick’s bookstore.
“It was hard to go back and feel what I felt like then. The flip side was, it ended up being really healing. The book just came out of me. It was time.”
When “Getting Clean With Stevie Green” kicks off, the 37-year-old Stevie has left her disastrous city-hopping, binge-drinking life behind and returned to La Jolla to help her mother move out of the family house. Much to Stevie’s surprise, she ends up being very good at organizing. So good, in fact, that she starts her own decluttering business and begins to get her personal house from her in order.
Stevie stops drinking and starts running. She makes peace with her annoying younger sister and gets back together with a high-school boyfriend. Everything’s great! Or it would be, if only Stevie could forget about the mysterious high school incident that derailed her run for class president and ruined her life.
Who leaked the scandalous secrets that wrecked everything, and why does Stevie still care? Why doesn’t her do-over with the handsome and successful Brad feel as perfect as it looks? And why ca n’t she stop thinking about her former best friend, Chris? What’s up with that, anyway?
To find the answers to these questions, Stevie will have to get beyond the fog of denial that keeps uncomfortable truths about her drinking and her sexuality at a fuzzy distance. And she is in no big hurry to take in that particular view.
Despite the heavy subject matter, “Getting Clean With Stevie Green” is a fast, funny read, spiked with sharp observations about online shopaholics, surfer-dude culture and the big lie that is Instagram perfection.
But that journey from delusional darkness to painful clarity? Huntley is serious about that.
“I am always interested in looking at the way my narrators are lying to themselves. Being gay and being confused about that and being an alcoholic and being confused about that are two big examples of my own denial,” said the 39-year-old Huntley, who came out when she was 26 and got sober two years later.
“Before I got sober, my outside life looked good. I was in grad school. I had a really cute apartment in New York. But I was drinking by myself because I didn’t trust where I would end up when I went out. And that was scary. So when I write about characters that seem to have a sparkly exterior, but have secrets lurking beneath the surface, I’m really writing about myself and a lot of other people.”
Huntley’s first novel, 2016’s “We Could Be Beautiful,” was a tense, psychological thriller about a wealthy woman whose new flame is not the perfect man of her upscale dreams. Her second novel by Ella, 2017’s “The Goddesses,” was a dark drama that finds its heroine moving her family to Hawaii for a fresh start that comes with a price.
Neither book dealt with Huntley’s revelations about her alcoholism or her sexuality, but they both took a piercing look at women who seem to have it all but are totally lost to themselves.
Women like the one Huntley is happy not to be anymore.
“Considering all of the denial I’ve been in so far, I assume I must still be in denial about other things, too. I must be lying to myself about something,” Huntley said with an easy laugh. “But I’m probably no longer lying to myself about the core pieces of my identity, which I am very grateful for.”
Swan Huntley discusses “Getting Clean With Stevie Green” at 4 pm today ia virtual event with Warwick’s bookstore. Go to warwicks.com for information.