Muskegon native publishes two books in two months


by Cynthia Price

For so many who love to write, having their book published is a cherished dream. Publishing two in a two-month period is almost beyond imagination.

But that is what has recently happened to local native Gretchen Van Lente. A writer since she was 11 years old, Van Lente first published a book of short stories, She-Thing and Other Righteous Tales, through Hammer and Anvil Press, in February of this year. As of March 1, Alternative Book Press has brought out her novel, Hydrophilica.

And, though her work is unusual, reading both books is highly rewarding. They are hard to categorize, but almost all of the short stories, as well as the novel, could fall under the heading “magical realism.”

Magical realism is a type of fiction which primarily describes realistic events and circumstances but adds an element of magic or “myth.” Associated with many famous Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, the term is also used to describe art, theater, and film. Many people saw the movie Like Water for Chocolate in the early 1990s or have since; that is a good example of the genre and is based on a book by Laura Esquivel that is textbook magical realism.

In Van Lente’s hands, the magic takes many forms and is a factor in several different ways. For example, a story in She Thing centers on the strange behavior of a beautiful Hispanic young woman, who first mysteriously comes to stay at a bar and then is ‘given’ to a construction worker. There are unexplained elements of the story but nothing really magical occurs. In another story, a mansion in Hack Town (for which Van Lente acknowledges Muskegon was the inspiration) attracts Millennial-like ghosts, but the way the narrative unfolds is more of a traditional ghost story than it is the often-whimsical magical realism style.

In She-Thing’s title short story, a woman turns into a swamp creature to get revenge on a controlling lover. The completely fantastic event nonetheless rings true because it is, whether we want to admit or not, similar to thoughts that have crossed our own minds.

The aquatic creature theme returns in Hydrophilica. The first-person book starts out with a woman who admittedly suffers from schizo-affective disorder reciting a number of the hallucinations she has had, some in the form of waking dreams. She then says that she was once in a coma and the rest of the book is what she either dreamed or lived ¬after that – the language is deliberately confusing about which.

Van Lente herself is a member of a large family who grew up in Norton Shores; some of her siblings still live in the area or have moved back. After she was driven to send her first submission The Atlantic Monthly as a starstruck 11-year-old who had decided her destiny was to write, she attended Muskegon Community College briefly, and won some awards from that prestigious magazine (Atlantic Monthly) –  fourth place in fiction and a Certificate of Merit for Poetry. That was enough to make her take off for Los Angeles, to be a Real Writer.

She worked for the Santa Monica newspaper, as a TV script writer for Children’s Educational TV, and as a book reviewer and features writer for other newspapers in the LA area. But then she ghost-wrote a chapter for a book published by Prentice Hall and the National Endowment for the Arts. She says, “Once I saw my writing published under someone else's name, I decided I had better go to college and earn a little respect.”

Her studies took her to the Creative Writing Program at UCLA, and later to Syracuse University’s Writing Program for her Master’s degree. There she studied with Tobias Wolff, a short story writer and memoirist best-known for the influential memoir This Boy’s Life, and one of her fellow classmates was George Saunders, whom she credits as an additional teacher. Both have won numerous awards, and Saunders was one of the prestigious MacArthur fellows. Later, Van Lente herself taught, Creative Writing at Florida Gulf Coast University, which she says she very much enjoyed.

Van Lente learned her craft well, and has been published in many literary magazines. She refers to her short story collection as “Literary Horror,” and most of them had been previously published, particularly in literary reviews that specialize in the genre. Many are very short.

But important to note is that, despite writing often on absolutely dreadful subjects and even dealing in a deliberately nonchalant way with the worst of what humans are capable of, Van Lente is very good at making things quirky and funny. It is a lesson she says she learned from her first attempt at publication, when the editor sent back an amusing rejection letter that made her mother laugh. “I learned that day, mostly from my mother’s reaction, that I could become a comedic writer and make people laugh through their tears,” she says.

It is rarely the type of humor that makes the reader laugh out loud, more of an ironic and amused way of looking at things. For example, the swamp monster in Hydrophilica says, “The lake is my mirror… I stare at myself for hours, marveling at how plain horrific I look. How scary and treacherous. On that subject I am vain.” She notes that there is not another like her in the world, “Not even in the universe, peopled with lizard extraterrestrials as it is.”

Hydrophilica takes place in Malibu, where Van Lente has lived. It is full of astounding details passed on casually, almost always with that same irony, making disgusting objects and repulsive emotions seem almost commonplace. Ultimately, the creature, who can switch back and forth between human and monster form, lives long enough and observes enough of human nature to become “pretty philosophical.” The details of her observations on the humans she devours or comes to care about are painful but feel exactly true. The book seems to say that both the monster and garden-variety humans are out for themselves, but the swamp creature is more honest about it.

Or, as Van Lente herself puts it, “The monster is humankind, a lover of nature as well as an abomination in nature, someone with a fear of death and a lust for immortality.”

To read Hydrophilica, follow the link to Amazon: There, by clicking on Gretchen Van Lente’s name, it is possible to find She-Thing as well.

As for Van Lente, she continues to write. She returned to Muskegon for a while a few years ago, but, she says, “Finally, I gravitated to where young people can retire, to Portland, so that I could spend more time writing.”