|The Sunday Gazette|
Arts & Entertainment
Author Pam Houston Blends Autobiography into her Writing|
Author Pam Houston admits that she has lived an exciting life as a licensed river guide, accomplished horsewoman, thrill-seeking downhill skier and world traveler. “But sitting down alone and writing is something I need to do,” she said recently in a phone interview from her home in Colorado. “I’m not a pleasant person to be around when I’m not writing.”
Houston has written two story collections, the critically-acclaimed “Cowboys Are My Weakness” (1992) and “Waltzing the Cat” (1998), which won the Willa Literary Award.
Her long-awaited first novel “Sight Hound” (342 pages, $23.95, WW Norton) has just been published, and on Tuesday she will read from her new book at 8 p.m. at the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. Earlier in the day, at 4:15 p.m. she will present a seminar in Room 354 of the Humanities Building on the uptown campus. Both talks, which are free, are part of the New York State Writers Institute.
“When I first started working on this book I didn’t know it was going to be a novel,” said Houston. “I thought it was going to be a collection of twelve interrelated stories, but I began to have problems with time when certain things were happening in the stories, and I soon realized it was going to have to be a novel.”
“Sight Hound” is a love story with alternative chapters from different points of view. Some of the chapters are even told from the point of view of a dog and a cat. “I wasn’t too intimidated writing from a dog or a cat’s point of view,” said Houston. “I knew reviewers and readers would focus on it, but it was easy for me to write from the mind of a dog. I spend so much of my life with dogs. I often think what they would think.”
She was writing this book when her favorite dog of all time was dying of cancer. “Like all my stories this novel has a lot of autobiography in it,” she said, “especially the sections about the dog Dante.”
What she loves about dogs is their purity of emotion. “They feel things with their whole being,” said Houston. “I also love their capacity to forgive. They really embody the true meaning of unconditional love.”
Writing the book she didn’t want to admit it was a novel because she was scared she would never be able to complete a novel. “When I write I don’t like to know where my characters and where the plot are going,” said Houston. “That’s the fun of writing, to discover where all these metaphors are taking me. At one time I got stuck for about one year with this book, but my unconscious was able to guide me through to the end.”
Her stories typically feature women who embark on dangerous outdoor adventures in order to earn the love of tough, uncommunicative men. “I’ve been able to blend a lot of my own physical world in the world of my characters and my stories,” she said.
As a writer who has written numerous essays and given many interviews about her love of freedom, she admits that currently she’s working a bit too much. She lives part of the year at her ranch in Creede, Colorado, and part of the time in California where she is the director of the creative writing program at the University of California at Davis.
“There was a time when I used to ski 100 days a year,” she said, “but now I’m very busy with the writing and the teaching. I still travel about 100,000 miles a year to various places, and I did a lot of backpacking last summer. I don’t have any children, and I’m married to a stage actor, but I’m making my own decisions, and I like where I am and what I’m doing.”
She finds that teaching energizes her as a writer. “I don’t think I learn how to be a better writer because I teach,” said Houston, “but I love the community aspect of teaching. So much of my time is spent alone as a writer, and I enjoy teaching these 22 and 23 year olds. I know teaching takes away some of my time as a writer, but I also know I’m doing a valuable thing when I teach. It’s a great way for me to spend my time. It keeps me from becoming so self-obsessed about my own writing.”
Although most of her readers associate her as a West Coast writer, Pam Houston was actually born and lived her first sixteen years in New Jersey. “I was probably born on the wrong side of the country,” she admits. “I love living out here, but I also love New York City. I try to visit New Jersey as much as I can. I went to the Jersey shore last summer and loved it. There will always be part of me that’s a Jersey girl, but the pace of life out here suits me better, the slow way of revealing yourself. Back East people always seem to love getting in each other’s face, and I just love the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.”
She expects her next book to be another novel. “I’m playing around with a few ideas,” she said, “but it will take me a few novels to get confident in the form.”
ADVICE TO WRITERS
Her advice for beginning writers is to take in your physical world and become a person who uses all their senses and notices every thing. “A good writer must also be able to tell the truth,” said Houston. “In this country so much of the time we’re expected to not tell the truth, but a writer must be a person who often tells the unpopular truths. I also tell writers that they must make a commitment to their writing. They should enroll in a graduate writing program, quit their law job, and make a claim to the act of writing. Once you say that you’re going to move to Alaska and write every day for a summer, then you begin to take yourself more seriously as a writer. This is an activity in which everyone can get better if they work at it.”