Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pam Houston on love, life after ‘Cowboys’

The perfect gift for Valentine’s

Express Staff Writer

Author Pam Houston returns to Ketchum. Photo by Adam Karsten

    Part of writer Pam Houston’s sweeping popularity can surely be attributed to her ability to put the real in realization.
    Her observations of her own navigation of life and reflections on her responses to it have continued to garner her a loyal following since her debut novel, “Cowboys Are My Weakness.” She is a frequent contributor to “O,” the Oprah Magazine.
    Older, wiser yet largely, realistically, only slowly changing her endearing ways, Houston will make a stop at Ketchum’s Community Library as a guest of Iconoclast Books on Valentine’s Day for a lecture and book signing to celebrate the release of “Contents May Have Shifted” in paperback. It joins her other notable works, “Waltzing the Cat,” “A Little More About Me,” also emerging in paperback, and “Sight Hound.” Each is heaped with justification for awards that include the O. Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prize and the Best American Short Stories of the Century.
    She’s the West’s Bridget Jones, applying self-deprecating humor, a sense of adventure and a way with words, always delivered with a comely, unsardonic smile.
    Her debut collection of short stories had The Washington Post’s Book World columnist crowing that reading her work was “exhilarating, like a swift ride through river rapids with a spunky, sexy gal handling the oars.”
    Though one reviewer back in the 1990s said Houston didn’t always search far enough for the “reason smart women behave like dishrags,” the same cannot be said today, as her latest collection in “Contents” attests. She hasn’t found a cure for it, but she has taken a closer look at her own affinity for bad decisions with men that has readers nodding along knowingly. Her harrowing, life-threatening adventures remain gripping, even with her casual delivery. Her vignettes often draw simple but poignant conclusions about her motivations.
    In a chapter on a trip to Mexico, she wrote, “I take a deep breath for the first time since Loreto, and realize that the real reason I have come on this trip is to meet Rori and to see the constellations, just this clearly, in just these positions, in this dark equatorial sky.”
     Anyone who loves well-written prose about love and friendship can find a passage or 20 that resonates.
    When not traveling or writing, Houston is either on her ranch in Colorado or at the front of a classroom at the University of California at Davis, where she is director of the Creative Writing Program.
    Despite her accolades, Houston still answers her own fan mail and doesn’t send a media call to a publicist. She answered a few questions for the Express in advance of her appearance, Thursday, Feb. 14, at 6 p.m. in Ketchum.

IME: Reading you, it doesn’t appear you have much free time to write and live, but you manage to do both, vividly. Even if the locales or perils are elusive to some readers, you still manage to engage an enormous cross-section of people. Have you figured out the magic formula?
    It’s not exactly a magic formula, but I don’t sleep all that much. The one “aholism” I got from my parents—only one, thank goodness—was workaholism. I love my work, all the various permutations of it, teaching and writing and speaking and traveling, and it’s more interesting to stay up and work than it is to go to sleep. I’m older now, though, and trying to work at least a little sleep in. I also don’t have a lot of the things that most people fill their time with: children, primarily, and to a lesser extent, television. It frees up time for other things. I always try to take Henry James’ advice, which is to “strive to be a person on whom nothing is lost.” That striving may be where the vividness you’re seeing comes in.

What’s more important for a memoirist to be: A person most people would like to hang with? Someone who is unabashedly—even shockingly—candid? Neither? Both?
    Well, this won’t be a popular answer, but I think a memoirist, or a novelist, or a poet, or a short story writer needs to be, first and foremost, someone who had a natural affinity and some serious training in working with language. That requirement has kind of fallen out of the equation somewhere along the way and I mourn its absence. Having a story is only one part of the equation, and I would argue the much smaller part, or I would at least argue that we all have a story.
    Knowing how to make that story beautiful and compelling on the page, knowing how to shape it into something others can have access to, is far more important than the story itself.

As a teacher, you must see some interesting trends in writing developing. Do you see the next wave?
    The trend among my grad students is to imitate the great George Saunders. They get the sarcasm right, but as I tell them weekly, they forget to bring the compassion, which is a problem. It would be like trying to imitate Toni Morrison and forgetting to be black. Memoirs seem to be what people want these days, but one day they will want something different. To go back to your earlier question, writers write what they need to write, the best ones do that every time, regardless of the trends, which, by the time you get your book done and sold, will probably have moved on to something else anyhow.

What does it mean to a writer when their work is out in paperback? To me, it means ‘Yipee! I can buy a couple of them now!’”
    Paperback?  For me it means that instead of going to the cities my publisher sent me to on the hardcover tour, I get to go to the cities where my real fans live, like Ketchum and Telluride and Juneau. Which usually means I get to bring my dog. (William the young wolfhound will be accompanying me to Idaho next week.)

On the subject of Valentine’s Day, I love the story in “Contents” where Ethan is cooking for you because, although you are broken up, he has yet to move out or on and he wants to make sure you have a good day. And you said he left lasting memories with women. Obviously, you endeared yourself to him too, cad that he was. Other V-Day stories stand out?
    Valentine’s stories … one time a friend and I had returned from a difficult and marvelous trip to Bolivia on Feb. 13. We had both gotten really sick down there, but also seen so many wonders, met so many people, our heads were kind of turned around backwards when we woke up groggy on the morning of the 14th. We went to one of my favorite cafes in Oakland for breakfast, and the waitress approached our table. “Morning, ladies,” she said, “How are you on black Tuesday?”  We had, of course, forgotten completely that it was Valentine’s Day. That’s not much of a story, but then, my life is not so traditionally
Valentine-y either.

Should single cowboys come to your reading?
    Single cowboys should come to my reading, because there they will find a whole bunch of super cool, strong, funny, honest, with perhaps a tiny weak spot for a certain type of man, women of all ages. That is who comes to my readings, along with a few other subgroups, of course.

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