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In the new novel 'Search,' a church searches for a new minister

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Clinton versus Trump. Trump versus Biden. The really contentious campaign is for the new minister of the Arroyo Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Southern California. Dana Potowski, a local restaurant critic and donkey owner, is recruited to join the search committee, even though she attends services only irregularly. But she thinks it might be a good idea for her next book. Let's ask Michelle Huneven, author of the new novel "Search" to read a section in which Dana takes minutes of a committee meeting.

MICHELLE HUNEVEN: (Reading) Charlotte called the meeting to order, lit chalice. Jennie - read poem by Angelou. Week 3 minutes approved. Belinda demoed how to fold surveys - in fourths for the order of service, in thirds for mailings. Discussed while folding - how people could fill out more than one survey. Belinda - why would anyone want to? Jennie - I'd do 20 surveys so we get a woman. Except filling out even one is too boring. Belinda - that's why we'll be lucky to get even a 60% response. When done folding, Charlotte produced mailing labels - to near rebellion - but it only took 15 minutes. Adrian - another great night on the search committee. Jennie - groan.

SIMON: And Michelle Huneven, the novelist and James Beard Award-winning food writer, by the way, joins us now from Altadena, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

HUNEVEN: I'm always happy to talk to another James Beard Award winner.

SIMON: (Laughter) So am I. Let me put it that way. OK. It's a search committee for a minister. But, oh - I mean, millions and millions of Americans will find this landscape familiar, right? - surveys, seminars, workshops.

HUNEVEN: I like to think that anyone who's ever done time on a committee will find something to relate to in this book.

SIMON: Yeah. Does Dana, however, find that she cares more about this assignment that she's kind of given herself than she thought she would?

HUNEVEN: Yes. She comes in rather cynically. She's just finished touring for her latest book. She's getting pressure to come up with her next idea. The search committee comes up as a possibility. It's a yearlong commitment. It involves a series of procedures that will give structure to her book. It involves people. It involves recipes and eating. So she decides she's going to use it as her next book, which is a little cynical. But as time goes on, she finds that she cares more than she thought she did. And she gets into quite a battle towards the end.

SIMON: I say this with respect. Unitarian Universalists are a distinct group in the religious landscape of the world. They can - I hope I say this correctly. They can have ambivalent feelings about God.

HUNEVEN: Well, they certainly can. A Unitarian Universalist can believe anything. It's really whoever you are, wherever you are on your spiritual path, you're welcome.

SIMON: We get vignettes of the number - a number of the candidates that the committee considers. One of them, by the way, is a Wiccan. How did you feel about these characters? I recognize you created them. But they had to come from somewhere inside of your experience.

HUNEVEN: They all sort of came out of different facets of Unitarian Universalism that I've looked at. For example, there's Perry, who is actually an ordained Buddhist monk. There's Mayeve, who, as you said, is a Wiccan. And then she's a self-identified environmental warrior. And then there's sort of just a fantastic preacher. She's such a good preacher that her churches keep getting much bigger than she even wants them to get. And there's more, too.

SIMON: I wonder if anyone in almost any kind of business will, as you suggest, recognize this whole territory, this landscape of committees and seminars and groups and declarations and mission statements and, I will call it, blah blah blah that sometimes drowns out what's really vital.

HUNEVEN: Exactly. I mean, people have a common goal, and they also have personalities. And those frequently come into conflict with each other.

SIMON: Yeah. There're recipes in the back. I, by the way, particularly want to try Dana's escarole salad with favas, mint and pecorino. Why are recipes in the book? It's a wonderful added value for novels. And I think novels might do a little better in today's market if they added recipes. But tell us what they're doing here.

HUNEVEN: Well, this goes back to the James Beard Award because I won for feature writing with recipes. And the with-recipes part always amused me because, in one way, it seemed a little bit like a pulled punch. It's a feature, but it has recipes, meaning, how serious a feature can it really be? On the other hand, it's, like an added bonus, like a crackerjack prize. Oh, it's a feature, but it has a recipe. And for some reason, I just always thought it would be fun to have a novel with recipes that would sort of maybe provoke the same - oh, the same feelings.

SIMON: I found myself wondering, why doesn't "Ulysses" have recipes, you know?

HUNEVEN: Well, actually, I got - partially - the idea from my second novel, "Jamesland." I went to a book group. And they'd cooked the food that I had mentioned in the group. There's a chef from...

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.

HUNEVEN: ...That book. And it was so touching and fun.

SIMON: Michelle Huneven - her novel is "Search." Thank you so much for being with us.

HUNEVEN: Thank you, Scott, for having me. It's been a lot of fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF PILLY NEWTRON SONG, "W.W.P.D.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.