Monday, February 4, 2019

A love letter to her ranch. The perils of the writing life. Finding your center and healing it. The great, great Pam Houston talks about DEEP CREEK

I think I've loved every thing Pam Houston has written. She has that rare ability to be so honest on the page, so brave even as she's being vulnerable that you cannot help but follow every word. I'm a city girl, but DEEP CREEK, her latest masterwork got me in ways I couldn't quite explain, so that I was dreaming of a ranch life, thinking about horses and pipes freezing in snowy weather, and seeing the rare beauty of the world. But she also got me thinking about family, about the wounds they inflict on growing girls and we heal.

I'm not the only one who adores this book. Take a look at these raves:

"…good writing can make you envious, no matter how foreign the terrain. Other times, you read a good memoir and find yourself wanting to track down the author and become friends. A third kind of book is so insightful and evocative, you shelve it beside other favorite and instructive titles. “Deep Creek” might just do all three.”
-Nathan Deuel for the L.A. Times 

“Pam Houston is in possession of a deep, heart-achingly beautiful love for her own personal piece of earth. And as equally deep is her ability for hope. In a time where the world is either drowning, or burning, or being drilled-into, Houston’s outlook promises a better tomorrow – even if that means we’re no longer here.”
-Sara Cutaia for the Chicago Review of Books

“If Cowboys Are My Weakness was Pam Houston’s call to millions of women—blasting us with self-recognition of how we give away our own power—then her new book is the response to that call.”
-Amy Reardon for The Rumpus 

Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, as well as two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound, two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Short Stories of the Century among other anthologies. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA Award for contemporary fiction, the Evil Companions Literary Award and several teaching awards. 

I am so tickled and honored to have you here. Endless thanks, Pam.

I love that this book is like a love letter to your ranch. There’s a gorgeous line in your book about how your ranch saved you. I love the unexpectedness of what place does for you. All my life, I never wanted anything domestic because of my upbringing, and then suddenly, I had this old 3 story house, and I swear that house wooed me, and changed me. What I want to know is what you discovered that was new about your ranch in the writing, how you were even more changed by that ranch in writing about it? It surely must have deepened the bond.

I discovered several things writing this book. The first thing is that I wrote my way into a working definition of the difference between the action of fiction and nonfiction on the page.  In fiction writing the action is all vertical.  Fiction pops and dives.  If you were to graph the action of writing fiction it would look like a EKG.  Nonfiction is more about saturation.  It is water running out across a large field, sinking into all of the nooks and crannies. I got saturated with the ranch while I was writing this book, in a good way. I have spent so many of the years there just trying to figure out a way to pay the mortgage, writing the book was time to take stock. To enumerate all of the ways the ranch has grown me up, made an adult out of me, and they were more numerous than I ever imagined it. I knew I loved it in a romantic way, but I didn’t realize how much I loved it in a married people way, in a been through some stuff together way, in a learning each other all the way down to the bone way.

I also deeply loved the parts about your writing career (how is it possible that a university would be so snotty after you had published the incredible Cowboys are My Weakness?!!!), the travel involved. You went from struggling to fame, but what I love the most is you seem the same person, down to earth, knowing what is important. Do you think it is the ranch that helps you not let this all go to your head? I have a feeling that you don’t think you are as famous as you absolutely are, which makes me adore you even more.

I feel very lucky to get to do what I love for a living. And by that I don’t just mean writing, I mean teaching, which if I am really being honest is the center of my life, its deepest heart.  Because of how I was raised, and who I was raised by, I will never stop trying my hardest, never stop thinking that somehow I could have done an even better job, no matter how small or large the job it. I am a Capricorn, for one thing, and you know, we strive. Also, there are so many days when I fail as a rancher, when I fail as a writer, when I fail as a teacher.  So there is plenty of cause to try harder.  My friend Fenton Johnson calls this the price of admission to being a writer. You are never going to think the finished work is as good as it could have been and you are only as good as the thing you are working on right now. If I had let the good stuff that has happened to me go to my head, well, then I would be an asshole.  I feel lucky to be here, lucky to have gotten out of my childhood alive, lucky to have found a place in the world that feels like home, luckiest of all to do what I love for a living, but I don’t take one moment of it for granted. 

Your childhood was a horror house, yet I still felt your deep well of deep understanding and almost matter-of-fact mourning of what you did not have (and should have), and what you did with what you got instead. Do you think we can ever transcend our childhoods? And in a way, should we, since all those healed over wounds make us more compassionate if we let them?

Here is another thing writing this book solidified in my emotional center. I was born to parents who wanted me not at all, but that is far from the worst thing that can ever happen to anyone, and in my case it may have been the very thing that set me on this wonderful path. Being a writing teacher has taught me so many things, but one thing it has really taught me is that the abuse I suffered in my household was probably a 4 on a scale of 10. People do terrible things to children, and in my house, we had enough to eat, we weren’t on the run from the police, there were no guns (just to name a few things our privilege spared us). I don’t even know who I would be if I had not had the childhood I did. Would I be a writer?  Would I have compassion? Would I be so excited when the trauma stories of my students find their way into the world? Would I have found my way to the ranch? Nature was a much better parent to me than either of the people I was born to, but it is possible to see that as a gift rather than a tragedy. I am who I am because of everything that happened, good and bad, and I like who I am well enough.

I’m always obsessed by writing process. Do you feel that every book you write is built on the one before? Or is it always new?

I told myself, when I started writing this book, you are not going to rely on any of your old tricks. That is a terrible thing for a writer to tell herself, and I don’t even know exactly what I meant by it, but I knew each time I was doing that and made myself stop. The themes of my previous work appear in this book because they are the themes of my life, but in the voice of this book I am being much more generous with myself. I made space for self-discovery on the page. That made me very very nervous because I often think reflection, (as it has come to be called in NF classes) can be quite dull and can serve to shut the reader out of the story.  I did more of it than ever before here, and though it scared me I think it was the right decision for this book. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well, I got married last summer, and I have never thought of myself as a married person, and I find my own status therein a constant source of both humor and wonder. I married a Taoist Forest Service lifer named Mike and I want to find a way to write about that happiness. Another dangerous subject.  Other obsessions: The Arctic and the way it is showing us exactly how dire and imminent the climate catastrophe is. Also the beauty of the Arctic. I’m heading to Iceland this summer. The work of my students is obsessing me, especially my students at the Institute of American Indian Arts, who are putting so much good work into the world right now, creating a whole new Native American Literature Renaissance. My non-profit, Writing By Writers, which is growing into all kinds of new programs in several states and Chamonix France. See, I told you, teaching is almost always at the center of my life. 

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Not one.  These were great.  Pan

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