Pushing outward at the constraints of the novel, Pam Houston’s newly-released Contents May Have Shifted is composed of 144 mini sections, all set in different locations, bringing into examined focus three complicated life-sustaining impulses: leaving, loving, and writing. Houston is perhaps best known for her short story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness, which follows ass-kicking female protagonists as they hunt Dall sheep in the Arctic tundra and fall hard and fast for the beautiful and violent (men, but also landscapes). Contents has the voice of a more reflective and analytical Houston, one who has lived and written like a motherfucker (not coincidentally, Houston and Cheryl Strayed/Dear Sugar endorse each other’s work and will tour together this spring), but who now wants to love a lot and maybe not leave quite so much. Houston writes in Contents, “I have spent my life trying to understand the way this rock and this ache go together, why a granite peak is more dramatic half dressed in clouds (like a woman), why sunlight under fog is better than the sum of its parts, why my best days and my worst days are always the same days, why (often) leaving seems like the only solution to the predicament of loving (each other) the world.”
Though originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Houston now calls a ranch at an elevation of 9,000 feet outside Creede, Colorado home. In addition to writing, she’s also the director of the creative writing program at U.C. Davis. Emma Eisenberg met with Pam Houston at U.C. Davis, where they discussed the American west, writing and politics, and freedom.
It seems to me that a kind of “east goes west” journey is present in a lot of your stories. How did you first go west?
I first got interested in the outdoors when I was going to camp. A guy named Colonel Bob Miller would put me and all the other kids in the neighborhood in station wagons under blankets and tell us we were going to the west. He would cover us with heavy blankets so we couldn’t see where we were going. He would jerk the car to a stop and get permission to enter the reservation from the “Indian Chief.” We were really just headed for a park about six miles away from our subdivision in Bethlehem, PA, but it felt like the west to us. I can’t remember ever not thinking that’s where I was going go as soon as it was up to me to decide. In that time — in the late seventies or so — that’s where everyone was going.
After college, me and my friend Mary went on a bike trip across New England and into the Maritime Provinces of Canada. She had to go back to school. I was in great shape and wanted to keep going. I had my sights set on Eugene, Oregon, but it rained all the time and I was broke. I turned back towards the east, and I got as far as Colorado before I completely ran out of money. And when I say I had no money, I mean I had no money; I didn’t have ten dollars to buy dinner. I saw a woman working for the state roads who was holding a “SLOW” sign and I asked how much that paid, and if they were hiring. I did that until the snow closed the road in late October, and then I got a job driving ski buses at the nearby resort.
Do you feel at home in the western U.S.?
I never really feel at home anywhere. Of all the places I live, or spend a lot of time, Denver is the one where I feel the most at home — it feels like Denver was made for me. It has the mountains, and it has sushi. Yet I’ve never found a way to live there. I’ve found a way to do pretty much everything else I ever really wanted, to do, and I think it says something that I’ve never found a way to do that. I think there’s something good for a writer about not feeling at home, about the friction or tension, that’s productive for a writer. I chose Creede, Colorado, because it’s isolated and that’s good for writing, but also because in a community of 300 people at 9,000 feet, you can’t pretend we don’t come from animals. You have to survive — you have to know what to do if the power goes out, or if the pass is closed and so they don’t deliver milk to the grocery store in town. It’s elemental. It’s great to have a big brain and all, but sometimes it is just about keeping your hands warm enough to work your car door handle. When life gets really, really simple, there’s a kind of focus, or clarity, that I have never found in the intellectual life.
Maybe it’s a kind of spiritual home — a place you’re not from, but you feel spiritually connected to?
I wouldn’t say spiritual, I wouldn’t use that word. I consider myself a spiritual person, but for me, it’s more physical. I like the way the air feels and how the light is in Creede. When I step off the plane in the Rockies, my body just feels good. I feel it in my body — it’s animal. But I certainly don’t fit in, in Creede, in the least. They don’t know what to do with me because I’m an “intellectual,” which makes them suspicious, and also I get to leave all the time. I mean, I’m not really an intellectual, I just —
“Play one on TV?”
Exactly. But also I have art on my walls that is not so much like the art they have on their walls, and I really wanted to put a bay window on the north side of my house so I could look at the mountains. People were like, a bay window on the north side? That’s just lunacy. And it is not my nature to do like they do in Colorado — how no one talks to each other; not like in the east, where you can’t go to the store without having fifty million conversations with people. In Colorado, people are very “every man for himself.” I think I could go back to New Jersey and fit in better there, even now. And I don’t fit in in Davis, in California. I’m not really an academic and I don’t like how much everyone agrees with each other here in their liberal politics. I mean, I agree too, of course, with everyone around here — but I am not sure that is the very healthiest way to live.
In many of your stories, your characters come close to dying. Why do your characters get in such near proximity to death?
I think it’s playing out issues from my father, an abusive alcoholic — it’s very Psych 101, but I put myself in extreme situations where I can have control; get control back. And I write very autobiographically. In my real life, I’m always making things hard on myself. I always want to go to hard places. Like how my boyfriend and I were in Italy, and he wanted to go to Venice and I wanted to go to Naples. Or like I how I went to Cambodia last year, and it was the most dangerous place I’ve ever been to — I have been to more than sixty countries, but Cambodia is the only one where I wouldn’t go back. It’s got a real malevolent energy. But yeah, I like to be in control of my own life, my own money, my own car, because my mom never was. I used to love to tempt death in the outdoors all the time: the rivers at high water; the back country when an avalanche was only a matter of time. I haven’t put myself in those kinds of situations in a long time. But I still do things to try to get that same adrenaline rush, like reading brand new material at a reading. That’s a big adrenaline rush.
Your writing often features relationships between women that are intimate, but never cross the line into being sexual. Is there a kind of love that’s possible between women, that you are suggesting isn’t possible between men and women?
Yeah, I think so. My closest friends here in Davis, are a lesbian couple and the big joke all the time is that I’m a lesbian. I’ll say I did something, and they’ll go, “Oh, that’s so gay,” or something like that. I’ve had intimate experiences with women, but I really think at the end of the day, I’m straight. I don’t think I’m gay and in denial. My friends would say that I just haven’t met the right woman yet, and that may be totally true, but I think I just like the unknown. I want something unexplored. Men just have such a totally different energy, and I think that’s why my sexual relationships with women have felt unfulfilling. But the last thing on earth I would ever give up — except, possibly, my dog — are the non–sexual relationships, the tight tight friendships I have with my female friends. The female relationships in my stories mirror those patterns, I think.
I think it’s also that I’m just kind of a butch woman. I like to be in good shape, I like to be strong — those things matter to me. I like to know how to sweep my own chimney. The people I’m closest to in the world fall somewhere in the middle on the gender spectrum. They’re either deeply sensitive men or kind of butch women. I have only one very girly-girl friend and we give her a really hard time. I have a lesbian friend who says she’s really a man in a woman’s body. I feel a little like that. I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out what I am, and I think I’ve pretty darn near figured it out.
Your female characters are certainly strong women, which is one of the things I like best about your work. Do you consider yourself a feminist writer? Do you feel that you’re participating in a feminist tradition?
It’s funny that you ask me that now, in particular, because up until recently my answer would have been very clear. Writing and politics don’t mix, because as David Mamet says, “Writers write only to lessen the unbearable disparity between their conscious and their unconscious mind, and so to achieve peace.” Meaning, when you are trying to get your reader to a certain conclusion — if I had a feminist agenda, per say, then I would close down the unconscious mind’s ability to participate or explore, which is so important.
Maybe now that I’m fifty I have something universal to say. Before that, I always thought it was better to say, “One day I was walking down the street, and this happened.” Tell a story, a narrative. I got so much hate mail from self-assigning feminists, saying they were going to kill my dog over Cowboys, at the same time that a copy of the book was being auctioned off at a N.O.W. benefit. I want to talk about all the ways we fall down as people, women included. And if feminism isn’t every woman’s right to her own story, then what the hell is it?
I’ve noticed that there is a lot of violence between men and women in your stories. Do you mean to suggest that all there is between men and women is violence?
I don’t believe that all there is between men and women is violence. I stopped writing those violent guys a long time ago. I did a lot of work in my own life, worked really hard, to not repeat those same stories over and over again. You know, people often call my work confessional. I write very autobiographically. I think what they really mean by that is “shameless.” They think my work is shameless. People say, “But aren’t you embarrassed?” I say, “No, there’s nothing in there I wouldn’t tell anyone, that I wouldn’t tell you.” That’s what being a human being in connection with other human beings is all about for me: sharing those experiences. There’s one thing that I’m the most ashamed of, of anything I’ve ever done. …. I’ll tell you right now: When I was in high school, I stole a gold bracelet that my mother really loved and pawned it. Just to get a bus ticket to see my boyfriend, or something completely odious like that.
But I’m never cavalier about revealing other people. You have to treat every character with compassion. When I’m done with a draft, I sit down and read the story just for that — just to see if I have been able to see it from every character’s perspective. I try to have compassion for every character. Now that I’m saying this, actually, there’s a character in my new book that I just can’t have compassion for. I really tried, but I just can’t. And the stalker character in “Sight Hound” was really hard. That character was a woman in real life, but my lawyer said I had to make her a man to put her in the book. That was probably the right decision; I mean, what better way to invite her back into my life than writing about her, right? So I made the switch, to protect myself, but I really didn’t want to.
I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about freedom: about how to feel free, and what freedom is, and how we get free of where we were raised, and all that. Does writing make you feel free?
Yes. Writing is gratitude. It is like writing a thank you note to the world. I’ve been writing a piece about writing as flight, about my prom, for Tin House. But there have been moments in the writing when it just seems to write itself; when the writing transcends you as a writer. Moments that are sublime, where it just happens, you produce something that transcends your abilities as a writer. Parts of “Dal” were like that. Almost the entirety of “Symphony.” The part in “Best Girlfriend” where it switches into the second person, about why the character did not get out of the Pathfinder. It is in those moments when I really feel like I am part of something bigger, some collective thing that is going on up there that I am just one of a million mouthpieces for. Some energy that gets out into the world every time an artist of any kind picks up a brush or a musical instrument or a pen. David Mamet would say it is in those moments when we are bridging that gap between the conscious and the unconscious, but I can’t help but wonder if we are bridging an even more elemental gap than that.