Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pam Houston talks about Contents May Have Shifted, why she loves the publishing business, writing students and much more

Every since I read Cowboys are my Weakness, I've been a deep admirer of Pam Houston's writing. Prickly smart, gorgeously written and wryly moving, her work doesn't just stay with you, it wins prizes, including being part of the Best American Short Stories and nabbing the O'Henry and Pushcart Prize awards. Her latest, Contents May Have Shifted, is a thoughtful and sublimely written look at a life's journey. I'm really thrilled to have Pam here and I can't thank you enough, Pam.

I love the whole idea of your new book, that problems are part of life, and what we do with our “baggage” affects our life. Is this hard-won knowledge or is this something you’ve always known?

That’s such an interesting way to describe my book.  I think in order to more accurately reflect my own experience I would have to change the language just a bit.  First I was numb, then I went to therapy and learned to feel my feelings, which included a lot of extremely unpleasant ones, then I learned to feel the difference between what felt good and what felt bad, and that, more than anything else, changed my life.  Not that I don’t still carry about fifteen suitcases and a couple of trunks of nonproductive sludge around with me, maybe a snowboard and a guitar or two…one of those wedding dresses they won’t let you hang up in the closet on the airplanes anymore…but I digress. 

As I tell my students over and over, we only love the flawed characters, by which I mean the realistic ones.  It is like Ruby says in Contents, ““Oh, Pam, Sofree lives in a hole.  You…me…everybody lives in a hole.  But what’s great is if you go over and tap on the wall of your hole, you find out we’re all connected.” 
What struck me so much about your novel was the voice, which felt different to me than in your other novels (all of which I’ve loved.) Was this a conscious choice? How do you usually find your way into character?

I would be interested in hearing in what ways you think this voice is different.  I’ve grown up some more, I hope.  One always hopes for that.  When I asked myself how I wanted this book to be different I knew what I really wanted was for the language to work harder than ever before.  I read a ton of poetry, and this book in some ways owes itself to the books of poetry I love best.  Once I had the book essentially done, like draft 15, I spent four months doing nothing but compressing the language.  I pulled up all the widows, the words that spilled onto the next line at the end of a paragraph, and the widowed sentences that spilled over onto a new page at the end of each section, seeing how tight I could make it.  There is also something about turning 50, I think, which I did this year.  There is something in me that is tired of hearing my own voice apologizing.  I hope there is less apology in this book, more celebration of voice. 
Can you talk about your process? Do you outline or are you a more organic sort of writer? Do you ever get writer’s block and wish you had become an electrician instead?

Outline is one of those words that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  Likewise: index cards.  If you had to use index cards to be a writer, I would take up watercolors. 

My process is pretty simple, and endlessly renewable.  When I sit down to write I ask myself what out in the world glimmered at me in recent memory…the check out girl at the Tattered Cover with The Incredible Lightness of Being hat tattooed on her chest, the sound of my elderly horse’s thirty year old teeth crunching his sweet feed, the I-phone emoticon that is a pile of shit with a smiley face on it, the sunset pastels on of a rare clear coastal January Oregon sky.  I collect those, until there are so many of them I fear I will start to lose track of them.  Then I find a form to fit them into.  Sometimes that just means I line them up in some kind of semi logical order and make a roughly chronological story out of them.  In the case of Contents, I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to keep them more or less discreet from one another, and arranged them in an order that was governed by association, rather than logic or time.  I believed that narrative progress would happen in spite of my attempts to thwart it, story arc--whatever you want to call it—character growth.  I believed story is a big sleeping dragon that lies under every book and even if you don’t tend it, it will let you know it is there.  I was counting on that this time, and it didn’t let me down.

I have never said the words, I have writers block.  I don’t know exactly what it means, in the same way I don’t know exactly what a nervous breakdown is either, though it is conceivable that I have had one.  It is conceivable that I have both.  It is certainly true that I have gone for long periods of time without writing.  But then one day I just can’t stand myself anymore and I sit down at the computer.  What would I be if not a writer?  Maybe a chef or an organic gardener or a designer of adventure trips for the good natured and well heeled.  Maybe one of those people who teach Border Collies how to run those courses.  Definitely not an electrician. 
You live on a ranch, but you also teach at a bustling university. Do you ever feel shell shocked going from the peace of the ranch to the hustle of a school? And do you feel that teaching helps your own writing?
Teaching does not help my own writing, but I don’t believe it hurts it either, and when I turn my attention to helping others find their voices, it does help me feel like I am doing something of value in the world.  I love to teach.  I love to talk about contemporary literature.  I love to judge contests.  I even love sitting down with a whole pile of student manuscripts—still--love trying to unearth what it is they were going for, and what I might say to help them get there.  I love this whole business.  The book tours.  The book clubs.  Writing reviews and blurbs.  I used to keep my mouth shut about that because I know it is seriously uncool to say so.  But really, I am so grateful to have this occupation where I get to do something different nearly every day, and all of it involving people,  language and story.  I even like the bouncing back and forth between Davis and Creede.  Though in Creede I get accused of being an intellectual elitist, and in Davis they think I am so quaint as to be absurd.
What’s obsessing you now?
I want to write about being 50.  I want to write something about how obvious it is (though no one tells you til you get here) that the 50’s would be, for women, the best decade of all.  It takes a couple of decades to stop making it be all about the men…and then another stretch of years to really own our own successes I think, our own voices…to fess up to the knowledge we have acquired and for God sake to stop apologizing.  I have been 50 for seven days now and I have never felt better, freer, more likely to do just about anything.  
I also have an essay to write about Mongolia, where I spent this last September….that one might have to come first. Travel-wise, I want to go back to Istanbul, and this time travel widely in Turkey.  

What question didn’t I ask that I should have asked?
Oh, I think you did very well…..Thanks!  Pam


Christy Williams Dunton said...

This is a message for Pam as well as for Caroline. The strange intersection of force de la femme, social utility and common love of wild places (in and outside self) allows pure recognition. Thank you for the magic of Cyber Valley, Castle Valley too. Sending gratitude for embracing a world turning, circulating the Great Conteninent of the heart.

Sally Koslow said...

Pam is spot about the index cards & outlines. Just let it grow. Great interview, Caroline.

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