Deep in the heart of Houston

In an interview with author Pam Houston, SN&R learns what literary celebrity, a teaching career and the love of a good dog can do to a woman

Illustration By Joel Smith

As a daredevil horsewoman, river guide, world traveler and connoisseur of cowboys, writer Pam Houston has made a career of mining the events of her life for her emotionally resonant stories. Even at the relatively young age of 43, it’s clear from her work that Houston has already survived a series of life-threatening outdoor adventures and loved many an unmanageable man.

By phone, Houston said that she wants her tombstone to read, “She always wanted to see what happened next.”

The current director of UC Davis’ Creative Writing Program, Houston has seen her stories featured not only in well-respected anthologies like The Best American Short Stories 1999, but also, as if that weren’t honor enough, in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Her piece “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had” was novelist John Updike’s one recommendation for this anthology to beat all anthologies.

So far, Houston’s written two adventurous books of linked short stories, Waltzing the Cat and Cowboys Are My Weakness. She’s also completed a book of essays, A Little More About Me. She published her first novel, Sight Hound, this January.

Surprisingly, Sight Hound avoids breathless stories of near-death experiences and focuses instead on the slow demise of an Irish wolfhound, Dante, who explains in his own voice that his human, Rae, needs to learn to love and trust the world—even when he’s not there to protect her. Though the story is told in the voices of Dante, his veterinarians and other guardian angels, at the center of the novel is the same gutsy, emotionally challenged outdoorswoman that readers have come to see as an intimate friend.

Though SN&R’s reporter wasn’t able to run the rapids with Houston or ride horses on her ranch in Colorado, she was able to catch up with Houston in the middle of an insanely busy summer of writers conferences to ask about life both on the prairie and on the floor of the Sacramento Valley.

Chrisanne Beckner: Along with being a well-known writer, a teacher and a dog lover, from your earliest work, you’ve appeared in your stories as an adventuress, running rivers at high water, fly-fishing all night and hiking among mountain lions. When did you first decide to be the kind of person to accept those physical challenges?

Pam Houston: Well, the psychology of it is probably fairly complex. I lived in a household as a child where I was afraid all the time. It was kind of a violent household, so what the psychologists would say is that I was trying to recreate a dangerous situation for myself and master it. I think there’s an element of truth in that. … I knew that landscape was always going to be a huge part of my writing. I wanted to see as remote landscapes as possible. But I also think there was sort of a darker, obsessive element of it, where if someone said, “Here, jump off this cliff,” I had to prove I could.

When did you first develop a taste for being outdoors?

There was a guy in our neighborhood named Col. Bob Miller, and he was just a guy in our very normal, suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood, and he took all the neighborhood kids up camping for weekends in the Pocono Mountains, and that was really where my love of the outdoors began. Col. Bob had such a great imagination … and he was so playful, like on the night watches, you know, it was just two kids, and we had to share, like, one hot dog and three marshmallows. Everything was a lesson. Everything was about cooperation or survival. And there was the whole string of people we were supposed to wake up if anything went wrong. And, of course, Col. Bob was the last person to be woken up, but he was awake anyway. He was out in the woods setting off firecrackers or pretending to be a bear and making noise to see how we would react in that situation. And those of us who were in households where we were kind of forgotten, or worse, we just lived for these weekends.

How did you become a storyteller?

Well, that was happening for me all along. That was another escape from my household. I remember specifically, I went to a Disney movie called Ring of Bright Water. I don’t know how old I would have been, probably about 8 or so. It was about river otters. And at the end, these river otters got killed by a farmer—Disney was in his show-the-kids-how-it-really-is phase—and then the baby river otters came out, and you were supposed to feel better, but I didn’t feel better at all. And I sat in the theater and sobbed, and they had to call my parents to come and get me, and the whole thing was a big ordeal. Anyway, I went home, and I rewrote Ring of Bright Water so that the farmer got killed with a shovel and the river otters lived happily ever after.

How does storytelling help you interpret or remember events? What does it do to memory?

Well, it certainly changes it. I think that when I’m in the presence of what I would call “a glimmer” of the actual world that I’m going to try to put into language, even standing there at the site of my mother’s grave, or as the man is breaking up with me, or witnessing a sky burial in Tibet—whatever it is—as I’m standing there, it’s already changing. … And then the first time I tell it to someone else, it changes again. I might be trying my best to represent it as it really happened. But I think, for a writer, how it really happened is a slippery concept. I’m not sure you could even get back there if you tried.

How do you decide which glimmering event is a story?

Well, I think that the decision actually happens out in the world. But I think it’s just like a constant wrestling match. I tend to be very analytical. I mean, it’s my biggest problem. I have an excellent analytical brain. I know that because I got a perfect score on the analytical GREs, so it must be true. So, I’m constantly doing battle. Just a very simple example is when I’m in therapy, and my therapist will say to me, “Well, how did that make you feel?” And I’ll say, “Well, it’s because …” I’ll try to answer it intellectually. He’ll say, “No, no, not why did it happen. How did it make you feel?” And so then, like, I’m guessing. I’m like, “Angry? Sad? … Surprisingly joyful?” I don’t know the answer. So, for me, the way that I can get to emotion is seeing it reflected at me from the physical world.

One of the things I’ve noticed in your stories is that they often offer two different kinds of threats. There’s nature’s threat—like a rising river—that you always embrace, but then, if a threatening guy follows you down to a river rock, you’re going to turn tail and run.

One thing is how it would feel to die at the hands of a river vs. a psycho man, you know? Like, in the instant of dying, if I were to die in a rapid, or if I were to die by being struck by lightning because I was backpacking above tree line, or if a mountain lion, frankly, were to kill me, you know, I would think to myself, “OK, well, this is the deal I made. I wanted to be out there, and this is the deal I made.” Because my father had so much physical and emotional power over me when I was very small and really couldn’t do anything about it. … If it were a man, I would be so pissed off. I would see no justice in that. Kill me on the river, even give me skin cancer, which I deserve, but don’t let it be a bully. I will not die at the hands of a bully.

Now, you’ve said that your father reminds you of George Bush?

Well, probably not very much. Um, kind of the combination of bragging and feeling put upon. I think of Bush in the debates, when he would be like, “Pshaw,” as if anyone else’s opinion was completely outrageous. I guess the sort of bragging bully-ness that overlays the insecurity.

OK. You’re not a mother, but you mentioned in an interview that motherhood was really a much greater challenge than some of these physical challenges we’ve been talking about. Why would it be so challenging for you?

Well, my mother’s mother died in childbirth with my mother, and therefore my mother believed that childbirth was the death of her, even though it wasn’t literally. She believed she died as a human being when she gave birth to me. So, while I think there would be a lot of that I could overcome, there’s kind of a legacy. And while I certainly don’t think I would be violent—I mean, I’m not violent toward anything or anybody. I kicked a man through a wall once who was threatening me. That’s my one act of violence in my whole life, and I had to write a whole short story about it because I was so freaked out.

I think, in truth, at this point, I would be a pretty decent parent, because I think I’ve done a lot of work on myself. … But in my life as it currently is, I get to do a lot of things. I’m not willing to sort of turn things upside down in a way that [parenthood] would. There are all kinds of challenges, you know? I think running rivers at high water is a very, very, very small challenge compared to being a parent or loving another person with some sense of consistency and honesty.

What things do you value about your life today that you don’t want to put at risk?

Well, you know, my freedom—my freedom to travel; my freedom to go to the parts of the world that I want to go to; my writing time; my commitment to my students at UC Davis, which is huge. Of course, I try not to mother them. I try to mentor them. But to see them go through the process for two years and emerge with a book or half a book, it’s really thrilling. And I love it. But I’m also very mobile, and I thrive on movement. … I guess it’s just that, the rhythm of my life, which I quite love.

Pam Houston not only directs the UC Davis Creative Writing Program, but also visits places like the Aspen Writers’ Foundation as a guest faculty member.

How did you make the decision to direct a writing program?

I came to Davis just as a visitor, which was the largest commitment I was willing to make to a university. The reason that one quarter turned into a permanent teaching position was just because I’d never been in an English department where people were so decent to each other, where people sat around a table and made decisions together, where there was a true commitment to students and there wasn’t a ton of ego flying around. I became director of creative writing because the man who was director, Louis Owens, killed himself a couple of years ago. And so it was sort of an accidental thing. It was a desperate situation. And they came to me saying, sort of, it doesn’t matter how bad you are at this, but we need you to do it. And then it turned out I wasn’t so bad at it.

How has it changed your writing schedule?

Oh, I’ve been writing pretty well. I don’t sleep much. I’m not a sleeper. I’m too busy; there’s no question. I went on a very, very, very long book tour this spring and still tried to keep my eye on things in Davis but, you know, didn’t get a lot of writing done. But I finished Sight Hound as director, so it’s possible.

Do you still get to go outdoors?

Well, because I have the dogs, I go to Dillon Beach a lot, and I love Point Reyes. I realize that’s not exactly close by, but I do kind of make the pilgrimage out there most weekends.

What about inland?

Yeah, I don’t care for the foothills.

How come?

Like, gross-out men and crystal-meth shacks, that kind of thing. I mean I really love the high Sierra, but I haven’t warmed up to the foothills. I lived in Nevada City for one quarter before I bought my place in Davis, and it just seemed like every single time I went for a hike, something mildly scary happened. And, you know, I speak as someone who has hiked by herself all over the world and had only a handful of scary things happen in the whole rest of the world put together. I just didn’t have very good luck in the foothills. I just kept running into guys in prison suits and stuff.

What sorts of things are you constantly reminding your students to do or to think about?

Well, physical world, physical world, physical world. I mean, that’s what I say all day long until I’m blue in the face. Get out of your head and into your senses and into the tactile universe. Trust your reader, trust your reader, trust your reader. That’s another thing I would embroider on a pillow if I knew how to embroider.

Dante, Pam Houston’s Irish wolfhound, was the inspiration for her first novel, </i>Sight Hound<i>, released this January.

Who do you think are some of the finest working writers you can point them toward?

Oh, certainly Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee, Alice Munro. Those are probably my three favorites. But it really depends on the student. You know, I read really, really widely in contemporary literature. I review books all the time, so it’s completely dependent on what they’re doing, who I point them to. I’m a big fan of T.C. Boyle’s short stories. I’m reading Mary Gaitskill’s new book in galley right now. Um, I love Russell Banks and Richard Ford.

You’ve talked about Toni Morrison and how her work at its best and your work at its best have complicated characters. “Complicated” is an interesting choice. Not complex or multifaceted, but complicated.

Well, first let me say that I feel like a minion at the foot of Toni Morrison. Her work at her best is in such a different league as my work at my best that I can’t even comprehend it. But there’s a line in the novel Love, and it’s one character talking about another. The character says, “He was either a good bad man or a bad good man. It all depends on what you hold dear.” And, you know, that’s what I strive for in my own characterizations. It’s the way that none of her characters are villains or heroes. They’re all flawed, and they’re capable of terrible, terrible acts, but there is still something redeeming in them, or you can see sympathy. You can see the reason for those actions.

Was that something you were going for when you were writing Sight Hound? Were you looking for complicated characters?

Mm-hmm. I’m always looking for complicated characters, and in Sight Hound, I wanted all the characters to be sympathetic. I’m not sure that I totally succeeded at that. … I was trying to embody characters that are allowed to have contradictions and complications in their lives. In other words, I just tried to make them like real people.

You’ve published multiple books, but Sight Hound is your first novel. What made you think this was the right time and the right story for attacking this new form?

Well, that happened really organically. I thought that it was a collection of short stories around the life and the death of [the dog] Dante, each story told by a different narrator. That’s how the book started. And I got about a hundred pages in and realized that I really needed some of the characters to speak more than once. Specifically, I wanted [the veterinarian] Dr. Evans to speak very early. And then I knew that he had to narrate Dante’s death. And that got me thinking about other characters that I wanted to speak more than once. And that got me thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll have a two-tiered book of short stories with 24 stories, where everybody speaks twice”—so deep was my denial about what I was actually doing. And I had even moved on to the idea of a three-tiered book of short stories, with 36 stories, when I said, “Oh,” literally, “this is what they mean when they say novel.” And because it happened organically, it didn’t really freak me out.

How did the idea of a novel change the story? I mean, a novel isn’t just a longer collection of short stories. It’s actually a different form. What happened to the story once you made that decision?

Well, it’s not that different than the collection as I conceived of it. I conceived of it as a whole to begin with. But it sort of made the thing infinitely divisible. There could be any number of parts and any number of speakers and any numbers of times that each speaker spoke. So, it got more fluid and a little scarier.

A little scarier?

Oh, yeah, a little scarier. I was a little bit afraid that as I kept adding and adding pieces, that I would just stay in collection mode forever, because I couldn’t see it as a whole. I couldn’t put my hands around the whole thing, like I can in a short story. So, I was afraid it would never make a turn toward the end. … That was scary, but it wasn’t debilitating.

Pam Houston poses at UC Davis with other members of the literary elite, Jane Smiley, left, and the exquisite Toni Morrison.

If [the main character] Rae is based on you, which you’ve said, you’ve imagined this ideal partner in the character of Howard. Since so much of your work has been on relationships and on the complexities between people, I wanted to talk about the imagining of Howard and what he meant to you.

Yeah, well, Rae, like me, has these dependency issues. Right in the beginning, no matter how hard she tries, she can’t say, “I want someone to take care of me.” So, Howard’s interesting that way. He seems like someone who is fairly immature, fairly limited in his ability to care-take, and then, little by little, it turns out that he could after all. That’s sort of Howard’s arc. … Yeah, that’s probably wishful thinking on my part. It probably is me imagining who I would let in, someone who didn’t seem to have any chance of being able to have a comfortably dependent relationship with me but turned out to be able to do that. … That’s probably as close as I get to, like, real love stories.

Except for Dante.

Oh, right, of course.

If there’s something that Dante wants in the story, it’s that Rae, the character, is able to trust and love past the end of Dante’s life. As the creator of this world, is that a lesson you’re trying to learn after the death of the real-life Dante?

I work very hard in my life at very simple things that I think probably come easily to a lot of people but don’t come easily to me. And one of them I already mentioned; it’s knowing how I feel, knowing whether I feel good or bad. I met Carlos Castaneda in LAX airport—this is real, this happened, and it’s also in a story. He said, “Your life is about to open up in ways that you never imagined possible. And your challenge is to approach these changes with love instead of fear.” And as simple as that is, every single day, I think, “What am I doing here? Am I approaching this with love instead of fear?”

I have a little thing stuck to my dashboard. It says, “Love beyond words.” Writers especially, they’re very good at the words but not always at the follow-through. So, I guess I am absolutely trying to do what Dante wanted me to do. But am I succeeding? Well, no. I’m somewhere in between trying and succeeding, which I suppose is where we are our whole lives. But I’m working on it. You know, we started this conversation talking about challenges. And my challenges now are so much not about the river. They’re about loving. They’re about not letting fear take me over in every aspect of my life, whether it’s writing, or teaching, or administrating, or trying to be in love, or trying to be a good dog mother.

In a totally different vein now, your career has sort of put you in the spotlight. Your friends are very powerful, wonderful people. You’ve written about Toni Morrison and your friendship with Oprah. What has that celebrity changed in you or given to you?

I was thinking about that with Toni Morrison because, with whatever sort of minimal level of notoriety I have received, there are people who come into my life and think because I’m who I am, and I want to be their friend, that means something really good about them. And that often led to a sort of horrible friendship breakup six months later, when they realize that I’m just a person like any other person. So, when I got to meet Toni Morrison, and she took a liking to me, I completely fell prey to the same disease. I was like, “Oh my God, if the greatest living writer likes me, I must be so cool.”

Now, there was also the fact of being in the presence of the greatest living writer and that everything she said was this work of art already formed that came out of her mouth. She was the most articulate woman I’ve ever spoken to. She was funny, and she was human, and there were all kinds of reasons to like her, but I kept saying to myself, “Why does the fact that Toni Morrison likes me mean that I’m better than if my friend down the street likes me?” And I really struggled with that because I’ve seen it happen so much in my life, and it’s been a painful thing in my life.

You’ve said that Sight Hound was really about faith. There’s a lot in the book, and in your other writing also, that takes an interest in past lives or someone being able to tell the future. Do you believe in these things?

Yeah, I believe in them, with what I would call a kind of vague, probably not very sophisticated, New Agey version of the world giving us signs. I have the sense that if you pay attention to what the universe is offering you … well, there’s a kind of “living right” that brings gifts into your life. And there’s a kind of living at odds with yourself that keeps those gifts from coming. I’m kind of a faithful skeptic. One of the things I really believe in is the simple principle of karma. I believe that if you put out goodness, you get back goodness. The one thing I believe for sure is … the only thing that really makes us feel good consistently is when we act with generosity. It’s really great to win a prize, or it’s really great to be paid a lot of money for whatever, or it’s really great to have accolades upon you, but that is really great for about five minutes. And the only thing that has that lingering good feeling is when you act with generosity, when you give of yourself.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a book right now. I’m absolutely in the collecting phase, so I know very, very little about it. For a while, I thought it was set in Southeast Alaska. Now I’m thinking more Northern California coast. Or maybe both. But it’s an ocean book. I know that for sure. … I think there are whales in it.

And you can find time to do this and teach and travel all over the place and do writers conferences all summer? It seems like a tremendous amount of work.

It’s a lot of work. This year’s been especially ridiculous because of the book tour. But it’s going to calm down. I have a pretty busy fall. I have a busy summer, but I am going up for three weeks in August to Vancouver Island. A guy’s taking me out in a boat, and we’re going to go look for orcas. So, that’ll be sort of my first downtime, and I will be really down. I’ll be away from phone and e-mail for a few weeks, which will be nice.