Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Q&A with writer Pam Houston

Acclaimed writer Pam Houston's books include Cowboys Are My Weakness, Waltzing the Cat, and her most recent, Contents May Have Shifted. She is the director of creative writing at the University of California, Davis.

Q: Travel is one of the major themes in your most recent book, a novel titled Contents May Have Shifted. Why did you choose to highlight journeys featuring potentially disastrous flights?

A: It happens that I have been told to get into crash position on commercial air carriers seven times.  In other words, I choose to highlight it because it happens to be my experience, and not just once but over and over again.  Each time it happens I feel like somebody is trying to tell me something, but oddly, I never think the thing they are trying to tell me is to stop flying.  I think they are telling me something about how to be alive.

I fly over a hundred thousand miles a year, on United alone, and you have to admit it is one of the stranger things humans do, hurl themselves from one side of the country or the world to another in these aging hunks of tensile steel.  But it has become so very normal to us we act amazed when a flight is late or they lose our luggage. 

Also, I love Mark Doty’s poem Heaven for Paul, which is about a time he and Paul Lisicky were on a flight that made an emergency landing.  (I just had the good fortune to hear Paul read his version of that same near crash from his new book, Unbuilt Projects, and it was also very wonderful).  Hearing Mark read that poem aloud years ago inspired me to write about some of my own near misses in the air. 

Q: You have named your heroine Pam, which leads to the question of how autobiographical this novel is. Could you give us a sense of how much this fictional Pam is like you?

A: The fictional Pam is a lot like me, in as much as any character made with words can resemble a human being made with flesh and blood, which is only, I have found, so much.  We are a little hung up, at this literary moment in time, I think, on policing this borderline between fiction and memoir, which I find curious, and possibly, I think, not the most valuable use of our time and energy. 

All of my books have contained some character in them who resembles me, whether my name is Lucy, or Rae, or Pam, because what I am trying to do when I make a book is take the things I experience when I am out in the physical world and translate those things into language so that the reader can experience them too.  Certain kinds of accuracy are very important to me—to describe the color, say, of the steam that rises up when molten lava falls into the sea on the big island in twilight.  But is it important that I make sure all of the people on the tour boat are accounted for?  Is there any reason not to make the tour guide a little funnier, or saucier, or angrier than he actually was?

 And that is why I prefer to call my books fiction, even though they are all, to some extent, versions of things I experienced in my real life.  Getting the details right is super important.  Whatever it was that drew me there in the first place (in this case, the lava and the steam) that made the experience seem writing worthy—it is super important to me that I get that right, because that feeling of resonance that says, “Hey writer, look over here!” is the God I pray to, and it (he/she) knows more than I do about my story.  Then I have to wait around for the story to develop out of that initial glimmer.  Sometimes it is simply what actually happened, sometimes it is what actually happened with a little twist, and sometimes it has an entire life and mind of its own and goes places I never would have imagined.

I called Contents May Have Shifted a novel because right now there is a kind of law that says you are not allowed to call it a memoir if you can’t prove that every single thing is true and there is (as far as I know) no law that says you are not allowed to call it a novel even if you hardly made anything up.  Language can not replicate actuality exactly, I learned that in grad school so it must be true.  Since we can’t get all the way there, I’d rather be free to shape my glimmers, my raw materials, into the best story possible.  I like to hang out in that fault zone…in that space between what we want language to mean and what it falls short of meaning. 

Q: Dogs often play a big role in your writing, particularly in the novel Sight Hound. How do dogs compare with humans, in your opinion, when it comes to empathy and friendship?

A: They are better at it, by a whole lot.  Which is not to say I don’t love my friends, because I do.  But even on my own personal very best day as a friend, I would not be able to do what my dog does effortlessly and unselfconsciously, 24-7, 365 days a year.  Anybody who thinks dogs don’t feel complicated emotions, like empathy and devotion, has not spent enough time around dogs.

Q: One of your best-known books, the short-story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness, was first published more than 20 years ago. How would you say your writing has changed over the years, and how has it remained the same?

A: My writing has gotten structurally more complicated, linguistically more generous, and hopefully quite a bit more emotionally mature.  Which is why it baffles me just a little how many times on a book tour someone says, “Well, Cowboys is still my favorite.”  Not that I am complaining.  I have great affection for the girl who wrote Cowboys Are My Weakness, and I can just about remember who she was.  But I have read hundreds of books in the last 20 years and had countless experiences and a whole shit ton of therapy, so let’s hope some change is in evidence.

Having said that, I still always begin the same way: with something that has glimmered at me from the concrete physical world.  There is still nothing that sends me to the page faster than getting to experience a brand new landscape.  I still write about men and women trying to speak to each other meaningfully across the ever changing but no less wide canyon that separates them.  Faith has emerged as a more prominent theme in my work.  Not organized faith, but something like “looking for faith in a faithless age” the way Contents touches on Buddhism and Islam and Christianity and the New Age and Pam is, in her own way, seeing what they each might have to show her.  It is hard for me to imagine now and forever, a book of mine that was not at least in part about dogs.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am working on three long pieces that all have a particular setting: Serifos, Greece; Creede, CO; and the Gobi desert in Mongolia.  I don’t yet know if they are essays or stories, or even three parts of a novel, which at this early stage is par for the course.  I also am working slowly on a book of essays on writing, not how-to essays, but essays that investigate the conundrums of writing, like time and memory and structure and truth.  One of these, Corn Maze, is widely available on line.  

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I am about to add to the menagerie at the ranch (which currently consists of: two elderly horses, two chickens, one ram, two ewes, a feral cat named Mr. Kitty, and of course the wolfhounds): two miniature donkey jacks.  Very excited.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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