Pam Houston is the author of two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat. Her stories have been selected for Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the author of a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, a stage play called Tracking the Pleiades, and a novel titled Sighthound. Houston is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, and The Evil Companions Literary Award. She is the Director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis in Colorado.
Superstition Review: Although Waltzing the Cat was a series of interrelated stories surrounding one main character, Sight Hound is the first work “officially” identified as a novel. When in the writing process did you realize that you were working on a novel? How did this knowledge affect the way you work?
Pam Houston: The first thing to say about this question is that I don't put a heck of a lot of stock in the categories and genre options that we have set up for ourselves in literature. I see every book I write more or less the same way, a lot of hunks of the physical world transcribed on to the page, combined with a lot of other hunks, organized in some manner, and put between two covers. Waltzing was reviewed as both a novel and a collection, and that was fine with me. Cowboys contained one “story” that had been previously published as an essay, and was what we seem to like to call “true.” When I began Sight Hound I thought it was a collection of 12 short stories all revolving around the life and death of this dog Dante, each story told from the perspective of someone's life he touched. So I started writing those stories, but then I ran into the problem of time, which, it turns out, is one of the bigger problems one faces when writing a novel. I wanted Dr. Evans to narrate Dante's death, but I didn't see how the book could work unless he also narrated an early story. I wanted Dante to speak at various times in the process of his diagnosis, treatment, and recurrence. I decided Sight Hound would be a collection of not 12, but 24 stories, and each narrator would get to speak twice. By the time I had upped it to 36 stories, each narrator speaking three times, I thought, “Hey. Maybe this is what they mean when they say novel.” I am really not exaggerating how back-asswards I came at it. In retrospect I see that I was pretty afraid of writing a novel, and that it had to come along and hit me over the head. But even having said that, I am not all that invested in Sight Hound being called a novel-it still looks like a bunch of pieces to me that I found an (hopefully) artful way to stick together-of our current possible options, the word novel is the one I would pick.
SR: The structure in Sight Hound depends upon several shifts in perspective ranging from Rae to her love interest and even her dog, Dante—was this a structure you had in mind early on, or was it something that you developed after a few revisions?
PH: I think I have answered this above. After Waltzing the Cat I was really sick sick sick of the sound of my own (more-or-less) voice. I was really eager to experiment with other voices. In my original drafts Rae had no narration, no POV. All the other voices took turns telling her story. But then I realized that in trying to get away from that thirty-something-woman-trying-to-get-her-shit-together voice I had made her even bigger, even more all encompassing by not having her speak on the page. It seemed like all anybody in the whole world ever wanted to talk about was Rae! Talk about grandiose! I had managed to write a book where even though I wasn't talking about me, everyone else was. It was a little embarrassing. So I decided to let Rae speak for herself, and worked hard to try not to let her take over the book entirely. But I learned something in that process about what writing is for me. It is trying to capture something important about my experience of being alive on the planet...a this is how it is here right now. Sherman Alexie once told me that in his culture if you steal someone else's story you may as well have stolen their car. And I think that is something very like how I feel. I have one story, my own, and I try to know it broadly and deeply, try to tell it from multiple angles, from multiple depths which sometimes crank it around enough, elongate it, smash it, do whatever to it enough to call it fiction. I felt a little apologetic about that when I was younger. Now it just feels like what I know how to do.
SR: How did you go about developing Dante's voice and character? The book is dedicated in part to “the greatest dog who ever lived”-was he the total inspiration for Dante, or is Dante a compilation of several dogs you have known?
PH: Dante was my dog, and his name was Dante, and that representation of him was as close as I could get to absolutely accurate, if I even have the vaguest understanding of what absolutely accurate means(and perhaps I don't). I said something like this in a radio interview once, and the interviewer said, “You mean you had a Dog who studied Eastern philosophy?” and I said, “It depends on what you mean by study.” If you have a hardcover of Sight Hound, there is a dog's head kind of ghosted in the sky above the mountains. That is Dante, the very dog.
SR: Your stories have often been described as being about strong women who are unlucky in love-how do you view these characters? Do you find this description limits the type of audience your work finds?
PH: This question made me laugh. I try to view these characters with compassion and empathy, having been them, and having been them, I do not always succeed. The second question makes me wonder if you are suggesting that I would limit my audience less if I wrote about strong women who are lucky in love, or unlucky women who are also weak. Of course luck has very little to do with it. They are strong women who are stupid about love…but they are getting a little smarter.
SR: I read an article written in April of 2000 where you said "Everything I write is 82% true." How does that affect the way you feel when your work is published? Does it make you feel more exposed than you would otherwise? Do you suspect much fiction published today is also 82% true?
PH: I've spoken to this one already above too. I'm not sure this is necessarily the good news, but I don't really worry about feeling exposed. I feel like we fall in love with the characters we fall in love with in literature via their flaws and missteps, their imperfections, their semi successful attempts to do better. When I write I am always pushing on the pain spot, and if I reveal myself as a fool, I always think, there are way worse things to be than a fool, and next time maybe I will do better. I have been called shameless, and in the literal sense of that word, it may be true. I might not exactly get shame. It seems to me we are all here, stumbling around, messing up, trying to get it right, very occasionally succeeding. I have never had the inclination to be silent about my failures…they are less likely to sneak up on me at night if I get them out there on the page. I do worry about exposing others, of course, especially those who feel much differently about this than I do, and since I am upfront about the autobiographical nature of my work, how to protect those people is a concern for me every time I sit down to write.
SR: You write both creative nonfiction and fiction-do you know when you sit down which form your writing is going to take? How does that process unfold?
PH: I used to answer this question by saying that if I was writing about some event, and I basically understood what it meant before I started writing, it would be nonfiction. And if it felt like a big black scary dark hole of conflicting metaphor it would be fiction. But since the whole Jim Frey whoo-ha I am even less sure that I understand the purpose or the nature of the lines we are drawing between fiction and nonfiction and so most of what I am writing these days is in some way willfully straddling the line between both.
SR: With the inevitable clutter of life and a busy schedule, how do you make time to write and write efficiently? Do you have a set schedule that you try to follow?
PH: I do not have a set schedule. In order to have a set writing schedule I would have to radically change my life, and I have never been sure if that would make me more productive or not. I have always thought one of the best things about the writing life is that you don't have to do the same thing every day…and I nearly never do the same thing, one day to the next, one week to the next. In the month of April I will be in Davis, Creede, Denver, Santa Fe, Toulouse, Mallorca, Barcelona, Seattle, back to Santa Fe, and then back to Creede. How do you make a regular writing schedule out of that? I will write though, for four solid days in Creede, and maybe one afternoon in Denver, and with a little luck six early mornings in Mallorca (before daily teaching) and maybe on all the airplanes, and maybe even an afternoon or two in Barcelona, though there will probably be too much to see. May is a little calmer. That is how I think ahead about writing. The good news of course is that out there is where the stuff to write about happens, so it is good to be out there.
SR: What is your favorite piece that you have written? Why does this writing stand out to you? What are you currently working on and where are you in the process?
PH: I am nearly finished with a new book. It is called Contents May Have Shifted: An 82% True Story. It is made up of 144 very short chapters, each of them named with the place they occur…Juneau, Alaska; Istanbul, Turkey; Davis, California; etc. There are 11 groups of 12 mini-chapters, thematically, associatively linked, and there are 12 mini-chapters that take place on an airplane(no place). It is kind of like a Rubix cube and kind of like giant photo album, and also like a novel, with an arc and a payoff (I hope) and I am having more fun that I have ever had writing a book.
Prior to this I would say my story The Best Girlfriend You Never Had was my favorite, and for similar reasons, in it I am doing what I love to do best: Putting as many little pieces together as I can, and making them mean something new and pleasing, by virtue of their placement.
SR: You wear several hats at once—director of creative writing at U.C. Davis, teacher, multi-genre writer, book reviewer and interviewer for O Magazine—which of these do you find most fulfilling? Why?
PH: To be honest, I like all of the things I do almost equally. A balance between teaching and writing is essential for me. Writing, at least autobiographically driven writing, is a strange self obsessed way to spend a life. When I go into the classroom and make and hold a space for somebody else's creativity, it gives my life a necessary balance. Most of my writer friends hate directorial duties, but it has been good for me. As an only child of much older parents, I never had to learn to play well with others, and being in the role of mediator, moderator, has taught me many things I would have had no way to know. And interviewing Toni Morrison, just to name one example of an opportunity I had at O, was quite simply the best professional day—maybe the best day period—of my whole life.
SR: How did your relationship with O Magazine develop?
PH: I wrote for many years for the world's greatest magazine editor. Her name is Pat Towers and I am not anything like the only person who would say she is the best of all time. I wrote for her at Mirabella, and then Elle, and then when she moved to O, I moved to O. I wrote for her for 20 years and would follow her anywhere.