Pam Houston is the author of eight books, including the novel Sight Hound and the short story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness, named a New York Times Notable Book. Her stories have been selected for The Best American Short Stories 1999, The 2013 Pushcart Prize, and The Best American Short Stories of the Century. She served in 2000 as a prize judge for the O. Henry Awards, alongside Michael Cunningham and George Saunders. She currently is Professor of English at UC Davis and lives on a remote ranch in southwestern Colorado. Pam served as the 2014 Fiction Prize Judge for plain china.
Much like her characters, Pam loves to travel. I had the opportunity to interview her before she headed to a small eco-resort in the Bahamas.
—Bruna Dantas Lobato ’15
PLAIN CHINA: I just finished reading the novel Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, and her protagonist is called Elizabeth. There are a lot of great works of fiction that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. The protagonist in your latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, is also a woman named Pam. Can you talk about the fine line between fact and fiction?
PAM HOUSTON: Well, I don’t think of it as a fine line, I think of it more as an ever-widening grassy field, and I wanted Contents May Have Shifted to sit right in the middle of it. My task as a writer has always been to take the scenes, the concrete physical objects, the moments, and the sensory details the real world offers, and shape them into story. The shaping is an all-important part of it, and that is why fiction is my true love, but not fiction as in something that didn’t really happen, just fiction as in something for which the shaping is as least as important as the representational qualities. The things that happened to Pam in Contents May Have Shifted are also things that happened to me—and yet, we know language, for all our trying, won’t stand still, won’t mean absolutely. That is the good news, of course, and why we are in a lifelong unrequited love affair with it. That slippage of language, of memory, of what was true, and what we have convinced ourselves might have been true—this is rich ground for fiction (and in my opinion, nonfiction). It is at least as important to me to wind up with a scene that is shapely, as it is to represent the scene as it really happened. I want the scene to serve the story, whatever the story becomes as it goes along. And yet I do believe in all my raw materials coming from actual happenings. I call it fiction so the nonfiction police don’t come after me, and because so far at least, there is not a law against saying it is fiction, even if everything in it actually happened.
PC: What was it like to read undergraduate writers for plain china?
PH: I enjoyed reading the plain china manuscripts a great deal. I know I only saw the cream of the crop but I was so impressed with the pile I got, and with the winners and honorable mentions I chose. I teach undergraduate creative writing as well as graduate creative writing, and quite honestly, some students—by the time they get to grad school—can be a bit jaded, a bit arch, a bit too reliant on what we call in my house, the hollow chuckle. But for undergrad writers, the whole world is opening up in a particular way all around them…It’s a thrilling thing to witness.
PC: Who are the writers who have influenced you the most? What kinds of stories are you drawn to?
PH: A short list of writers who have influenced me the most: Larry Levis, Mark Doty, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Ron Carlson, Lorrie Moore, Robert Boswell, Carl Phillips, Amy Hempel, Mary Gaitskill, James Baldwin, James Joyce. I am drawn to a strong narrative voice, and stories that are full of the concrete physical world. I also like to be invited into the story. I think a big part of story writing is about knowing what not to tell, what connections to leave to the reader to work out. I like stories that ask me to be an active reader.
PC: Do you have any advice for young writers?
PH: The most important part of my writing practice is paying very strict attention to and in the specifics of the world. I move through my days waiting for something to arrest my attention, to glimmer at me. It could be a line of dialogue overheard in a coffee shop, or the way the light reflects off the surface of the river at sunset, or a big bull elk walking through my pasture at dawn. I watch and listen, and wait until I see something that feels a little like it hits a gong inside me that says, Hey writer, over here, pay attention. I think the most important thing I would say to your question is to develop your own curious attention, to start noticing everything.
PC: Can you tell us about what you’re working on right now?
PH: I am working on a memoir about the 120-acre homestead I have lived on for the last 25 years. It is, I suppose, a memoir of place. Contents May Have Shifted was all about velocity, about flying and flying and jumping rapid fire from place to place and grabbing the thing that shined the brightest in each one. This book is just the opposite. It is about sitting still. It is about what can be found by looking deeper, and then deeper into the tall grass. It is a giant challenge for me, because I do so love to go fast, but I love challenges most of all that ask me to reconsider everything.
Bruna Dantas Lobato ’15 is a fiction editor for plain china. She studies comparative literature and creative writing and was recently awarded the Bennington Undergraduate Writing Fellowship in Fiction.