Interview with Pam Houston

by Marina Lewis

Appears in Other Voices #32

P am Houston's latest book, Waltzing the Cat, includes the story "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had," (Other Voices 29) which has been selected for Best American Short Stories 1999 (Amy Tan, editor). Her collection of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, was the winner of the 1993 Western States Book Award and has been translated into nine languages. "How to talk to a Hunter" also appeared in Best American Short Stories (Richard Ford, editor). She is the editor of the anthology Women on Hunting, and has written the text for a book of photographs called Men Before Ten A.M. and a book of essays will appear in fall, 1999. Houston has taught recently at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque as well as at many writers' conferences and festivals in the U.S. and England, and appears on CBS Sunday Morning from time to time with Postcards from Colorado. She lives in Colorado at 9,000 feet above sea level with her three dogs, Sally, Hailey, and Dante. Dante, her one-hundred thirty-five pound Irish Wolfhound is the "love of her life," and gets to travel with Houston, which probably makes the other two grit their jealous canines. Marina Lewis spoke with Houston on the telephone from Chicago.


OV: Considering the success of your 1992 book, Cowboys Are my Weakness, how sincere is Waltzing the Cat's acknowledgement "to the people who believed in it when no one else did"?

PH: Both my editor and my agent called it unpublishable.


OV: What exactly did they mean by that? Was that a commentary on the quality, or the saleability of the book?

PH: Well, they asked for very specific changes. I added the story, "Waltzing the Cat", changed the order of the stories, changed the ending of "The Whole Weight of Me" and added the epilogue.


OV: So unpublishable quickly became publishable?

PH: It was more that they were extremely negative about it. My agent suggested that I shelve it and focus more on essays. She said she'd had opportunities before to tell writers not to publish something that might ruin their careers but she hadn't done it, so now she suggested I might be ruining mine. My editor, who is a smart, smart, editor and who I have great respect for felt, I believe, that the book was too dark. It certainly has a different audience appeal. A lot of people used the word "jaunty" to describe Cowboys, and Waltzing definitely isn't "jaunty." This isn't to say I'm not happy with the book as it is now. The suggestions were good, and the subsequent work was good. It's not Cowboys. Cowboys was almost an accident. I wrote it because it was due; it was my dissertation. This book came out of my veins. Writing it was excruciating and exciting, and it's very deliberate, structurally. I had to fight for this book for eighteen months—I'd never had to wage a battle before. When they said "unpublishable," well, it was just a horrible, horrible day.


OV: Waltzing the Cat has the narrative arc of a novel, and a single protagonist, the photographer Lucy O'Rourke, yet the stories stand individually. Do you consider this book to be a novel, or short story collection?

PH: I don't worry about those distinctions. It is what it is. Everyone wanted a novel, but I wouldn't call it anything. It's not even fiction, in that very simplistic view of what fiction is. I didn't just make it up, it all comes from a very real place. For me writing is such an organic process. I write chunks, change orders, move things around. It's a very organic way of creating a book. I think of it as a tiled walkway. My favorite story in the book is "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" which I wrote in pieces, that, by the skin of their teeth add up to a story.


OV: Which other writers do you like and admire?

PH: In the mode we've just been talking about, Tim O'Brien. Certainly The Things They Carried is not, strictly speaking, a novel, but its cumulative effect is more than that of a group of stories. It's a brilliant book. I also like Alice Munro, Dale Ray Philips (have you read My People's Waltz?), Richard Ford. Lorrie Moore's influence on my work is, I think, apparent. Amy Bloom, especially the stories in Come to Me. Her novel's great too. Also Joanne Beard, Boys of my Youth. These are just some current writers I like whose names come to mind. In terms of real influence and inspiration, I'd have to say Willa Cather and D.H. Lawrence. Especially Women in Love. When I went back to that book I was amazed at how much I'd stolen—not material, obviously, but structurally and thematically.


OV: Several years ago I read an essay you wrote for Elle, where you commented on and critiqued certain women's responses to your work. Apparently, while on your book tour for Cowboys you were occasionally derided for your characters' search for and focus on love. In the article, you wrote that a central, and uncommon, concern of your fiction was a woman's relationship with the "wild land," which does not exclude the desire for passionate love. Have you encountered similar responses to Waltzing?

PH: A collection of my essays is coming out soon which was supposed to include that particular essay, but since it seems the climate has changed, that essay's been dropped. Some readers, at the time, were mad at me for glorifying what they considered an archaic form of masculinity. Lucy's desires are not so different from the characters' in Cowboys, but I haven't seen that reaction. I kept expecting to encounter that one person raising her angry hand, especially since those issues are still relevant in my work. I was ready for her, but this time, I never saw her. Maybe we're not as defensive as we were. Maybe definitions of feminism have broadened beyond Amazonian plus 100 percent independence.


OV: In "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had", Lucy "spent a long time under' the dark naked water of the Colorado River and [she] took it as a sign that the river wanted [her] away." She heeds this "sign." Much later, she looks to New York City's Hudson River for a sign, and discerns none. Is this a commentary on denatured urban landscapes?

PH: My intention is for Lucy to understand that there are no fireworks, and no signs. I certainly didn't mean it as a denunciation of the Hudson, as though it's a less relevant river than any other. I'm interested in pockets of wildness, in cultivated areas where they appear to have been tamed. Anything paradoxical. Pockets of wild. I remember seeing a highway overpass that lets deer cross from one side to the other. Sports, I sometimes see as an urge to return to the elemental. I see it when I take people down river—that return to the elemental.


OV: You've already said that Cowboys was originally your Ph.D. dissertation. How was your work received at the University of Utah?

PH: Bashed. Let's just say my work was not well received in grad school. The faculty absolutely did not like what I was doing. I learned a lot from some of the students, particularly Debra Monroe, who helped me with metaphor and imagery, which was something I really needed to work on. I like to think she got something about structure from me. I'm not saying I'm not glad I went to grad school—I am glad I went. Utah is a strong program. It's very strong on theory, which I really, really liked. However, I never confused it with the primary pursuit of writing. I enjoyed it the same way I enjoy chess—a complicated game or puzzle and I find that intellectually engaging. I found the writing program to be very rude. On my evaluations faculty wrote things like, "Para Houston should find something else to do with her hands. "Someone else said that my fiction was like "Ann Tyler goes to Colorado." I never did get the degree even though all I had left were exams. One day I just thought if I never had to walk into this building again I'd be a lot happier. Not that it was anything so dramatic; I just didn't need it at that point.


OV: Is it true that Zoetrope magazine wanted one of your stories, as well as film rights w the character you repeatedly use?

PH: Yes. They wanted the story with Ellie the dog, "Like Goodness Under Your Feet," but apparently the way their contract is worded when they buy a story they not only have film rights to that story, which might be fine, but they have exclusive rights to that character as well, which is just ridiculous. It's my character.


OV: Have you had any offers to film your work?

PH: Both my books have been sold. Universal bought the rights to Cowboys and Hallmark bought Waltzing, which is more likely to get made soon since they have a television production schedule to fill.


OV: Are you at all anxious about how they'll interpret your work?

PH: No, you just have to let go of it—you have to divorce yourself.


OV: Have you been asked to work on either script?

PH: It was talked about. At one point it seemed like f would write two episodes but that didn't pan out. I did write an original script for Michael Shamberg, who produced Pulp Fiction.


OV: Did you like that?

PH: (laughs) I enjoyed what I got paid for it. I have a knack for good dialogue, so it was fairly easy for me, but that doesn't mean it was good. l wouldn't mind doing it again—I love and have such respect for good movies. It just seems so unlikely, given all the steps and all the people involved, that the act of writing a script would actually lead to a good film.