Interview with Pam Houston

Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:

An interview with Pam Houston

By: Nancy Au

Pam Houston
photo credit: Adam Karsten

Pam Houston is the award-winning author of Contents May Have Shifted, Cowboys Are My WeaknessWaltzing the CatA Little More About Me, andSight Hound. Her stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and the Best American Short Stories of the Century. She teaches in the graduate writing program at University of California, Davis.

“Fenton the dog kissing me.”
~Pam Houston

1.) In reading The Best Girlfriend You Never Had, I was thrown through loop after loop; each character, scene, movement, even the sensory details such as smells, in your story built upon one another — not in a linear way — but around, down, up, and upside down. What does your writing process look like to develop a story this intertwined?

Pam Houston (PH):  My writing process is nearly always the same.  I try to pay really strict attention when I am out in the world, and when I do that, certain things have a kind of vibration around them—I call them glimmers—they are the things, small or large that say, “hey writer, look over here, listen up, feel this!”  Or something in that department.  Sometimes they are obvious things, like the moment the vultures tear the corpses apart at a sky burial at a monastery in Tibet, moments anybody would notice.  But more often they are particular to me, something in the outside world that resonates with something inside of me, that will help me tell my particular story.  The way a mother backhands a child in the checkout line, the way the light hits the surface of a river at dusk. I write them down—“get in and get out fast,” I tell myself.  Don’t try to make sense of things, just write where the power is and then move on to another one.  Then I combine that glimmer with a whole lot of other glimmers.  Because they have all been filtered through the consciousness that is me, they tend to talk back and forth to each other, to resonate individually, but even more so, when brought into proximity with one another, so the whole equals more than the sum of its parts.  This, I think, causes the intertwining you are talking about.

“A brown bear that let me watch her clam for hours.”
~Pam Houston

2.) After reading your work, I had a strong desire to call up my friends and say, “I just read the most amazing non-fiction story!” One reader on your blog labeled your writing “autobiographical fiction.” How would you characterize your work, particularly the stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness and in A Little More About Me? Are any of your stories non-fiction or memoir?

PH:  Well, just literally speaking, Cowboys Are My Weakness is published as a book of fiction, and A Little More About Me is published as a book of personal essays (nonfiction).  So we can start there.  I have said in the past that my work comes in at about 82 percent true (though apparently sometimes I say 86% — even in this I can’t be absolute, apparently).  Generally speaking I turn in a book and then my publisher and I decide together whether it is going to be called fiction or nonfiction, because the same ratio of “how it really happened” to “things I shaped in order to make a better story” is always more or less the same.  I have written an essay about this subject, about the fact that all of my work is essentially, but not absolutely, autobiographical, and why I think that is an important conversation.  The essay is called “Corn Maze” and it is widely available on line if you type in the title and my name.  But in brief, just suffice it to say that because of my writing process, which is described above, most everything I have written, both in fiction and in nonfiction, are things that I have experienced.  Everybody has gone crazy lately over nonfiction that turns out not to be factually accurate, but there is so far no law against fiction that is 82 (or 84 or 86) percent true.  Because of language’s essential failure to mean, because of the failure of memory, because of the failure of courage, because of the 25 people who saw the same car accident, because my first loyalty is always to the shape and beauty of the story, and not to representing reality precisely, I choose to call the vast majority of my work fiction.

“Me and Cheryl Strayed getting make-overs at Nordstroms.”
~Pam Houston

3.) How To Talk To a Hunter is written in second-person point of view.  How did you decide this was the point-of-view the story needed? What advice would you give to a writer attempting to write in second person, a point of view that I’ve personally found very difficult to write from?

PH:  In my opinion, the second person is the most consistently and unfairly maligned form in the instruction of creative writing.  If I had a dollar for every time a student of mine told me professor X told them that they were not allowed to write in the second person, I could take a week’s vacation to Hawaii. The second person, like the first, and the third, is just another tool in the writer’s arsenal and to reject it out of hand is as absurd as saying you can’t use flashbacks, or you can’t use the present tense (two other “rules” the students report).  We would sure have to sweep a lot of great books off the shelves if we start making rules like that. I personally love the second person.  Not for every situation, but when it is right it is so right.  In the first place, it is the language of the American street corner.  “So you are standing there, and this guy comes up to you.”  Speaking as a Jersey girl, there was a time in my life when all I ever heard was the second person.  Also, it nicely deflects responsibility and is, therefore, essentially American.  It creates a wash of shame over a narrative presence who doesn’t quite want to fess us, who doesn’t quite want to say “I.”  It sets up beautiful rhythms in the prose that are entirely different than the rhythms of the first or third person.  I once wrote an essay in second person negative, and it was almost like singing.  As far as advice, I guess I would say if you are truly having a hard time using the second person, it probably means the second person is not right for the situation in which you are trying to use it.  But if you are having a hard time because some ghost of a teacher in your head shamed you for using it, I say lock that bastard ghost in the closet and start fresh.

“Me with baby goats.”
~Pam Houston

4.) I recently read your story The Long Way to Safety so I have to ask: do you yourself own or ride “psychotic horses” on your ranch in Colorado?  How can you tell if they’re psychotic?

PH:  My horses are too old to be psychotic anymore, and quite honestly, if I were to reevaluate with the wisdom of the fiftenn years since I wrote that essay, I would say they were definitely more on the neurotic side of the line.  Deseo used to take every opportunity to display his unease with his surroundings.  His favorite trick, on hearing a tree creak or a hawk scream, was to jump straight up in the air, turn something close to 180 degrees and come back down.  Roany was more of a hard head than a neurotic.  One winter he tried to kill Deseo by not letting him approach the water trough in deep snow (which was especially bad because Deseo was also afraid of the water trough.)  But now there are like a couple of old bachelors who have lived together a very long time (and they have).  If you take one out of the pasture, the other one goes completely nuts.

Thank you, Pam Houston! See you/hear you Oct. 13, 7:15 pm.