Talking with Pam Houston
In April, OtP editor Carolyn Foley attended a joint reading and musical offering with Pam Houston and Nerissa Nields at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage Coffee House. Later she had a conversation with the author of Cowboys Are My Weakness, A Little More About Me, and Waltzing the Cat, on dogs, adulthood, parenthood, and the creative process.
On the Page: In this spring's issue of The Bark magazine, you state that many people, yourself included, moved to the mountain town of Park City, Utah, "because it offered us the chance not to be tied (or chained) to the conventions of a confining city life." In what respect does this impulse—to escape conventional jobs, regions and attendant lifestyles—suggest a rejection of traditional notions of adulthood?
Pam Houston: First let me say that all the answers I'm about to give you are personal, entirely specific to me. I've always been uncomfortable when asked questions like, "What do you think this means about the role of women in twentieth century literature?" because really, I usually have no idea. The way I wound up pursuing what we are agreeing to call an unconventional lifestyle was very personal. My father, when I was growing up, was very fond of saying, "Pam, one of these days you are going to realize you spend your whole life lying face down in the gutter with somebody else's foot on your neck."
"I have a hard time with 'maturity' being defined as having a nine-to-five, fifty-week-a-year job, or even as having a family....Sometimes I think maturity might be best defined as something like figuring out what makes a valuable life, and then moving towards it, taking responsibility for your actions along the way."
In many ways, the aim of my life has been to prove my father wrong. I live in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, where the air is clear and there are no gutters. I live a life where, generally speaking, I am my own boss. I've been to fifty-five countries, almost all of them on one magazine or another's money. I've been on my own financially since I was sixteen, and I have worked very hard to earn the money that pays for all the rest of my fun, and I know how to have fun on ten dollars a day or one hundred. I have good friends and good dogs and good horses that are priceless. I am not always happy, but I've never lived for long with anybody else's foot on my neck. In that sense, I have rejected the traditional notions of adulthood.
OtP: Also in The Bark, you write that, "Civilized people, I'm told, don't let their dogs run loose." You discuss the friction between the residents of Park City who want the town to grow up, become "civilized," and enforce leash laws, and those who want to let dogs continue to run free and be allowed in places such as the post office. In the minds of most self-consciously grown-up or "civilized" people, is there something suspiciously liberated about dog owners and dog sympathizers? Do free-roaming pets and so-called alternative lifestyles (whether you're a writer or a seasonal ski-lift operator) allow a kind of freedom that many adults envy but only a few seek out?
PH: I do think one of the things I have always had in my life is a lot of freedom, and I know that many people envy me my freedom, everyone from my father, to some of my friends, to the people who come to my readings and signings and come up afterwards to shake my hand. I feel that I have led a good life, one full of excitement and change and freedom, but I don't feel that it is necessarily the best kind of life, or even the bravest. I am currently contemplating motherhood (here, at 39, at what feels like the last minute) which of course would take away a great deal of my freedom, and hopefully bring a different set of pleasures in its place. People think I'm brave to go to Bhutan alone, or to not have health insurance, or to ski down avalanche shoots or run class five whitewater, but none of that is even touching the bravery it will require for me to decide to dedicate myself to a child.
"My father, when I was growing up, was very fond of saying, 'Pam, one of these days you are going to realize you spend your whole life lying face down in the gutter with somebody else's foot on your neck.'"
OtP: Few of your characters (with the notable exception of the parents in Waltzing the Cat) live conventional lives in terms of where they live and work, and they are seldom married with children. Their occupations are often seasonal or less-than-stable in the nine-to-five-with-benefits sense. What do these kinds of occupational and lifestyle choices say about Americans of a certain age, background, and inclination? Would you agree that these elements of independence and relative instability are associated more with an evolving definition of one's self rather than with the kind of "maturity" society general defines as constituting adulthood?
PH: The reason my characters have "less-than-stable" occupations, is because frankly, all of my friends have "less-than-stable" occupations. We are, largely speaking, products of parents who had conventional lifestyles and who hated every minute of them (including the fact that we, as their children, tied them to these conventional lifestyles). We all went off to liberal arts colleges in the Midwest where we were told we could do anything we wanted as long as it was, in the loosest way, good for humanity, and it made us happy. We are, I think, as a group (my friends and I), quite a bit more satisfied with our lives than my parents and their friends.
I have a hard time with "maturity" being defined as having a nine-to-five, fifty-week-a-year job, or even as having a family. My generation didn't live through the Depression (as my parents' generation did), so I don't think poverty particularly scares us. Many of my friends live, quite happily, below the poverty line. Sometimes I think maturity might be best defined as something like figuring out what makes a valuable life, and then moving towards it, taking responsibility for your actions along the way.
OtP: Much has been written about your male characters. While the term "adult adolescence" does not necessarily connote negative character traits, would you agree that a large number of the men in your short stories are suffering from a severe case of adult adolescence? Would you go so far as to say that you're making a statement about modern American manhood?
"...once you decide you want an emotionally mature man, you can find him as easily on the river as you can on Wall Street, or in an artist's studio as easily as you can in a bank."
PH: One thing I am definitely not doing is making a statement about American manhood. Because my father was (in spite of his nine-to-five job and his paid-off car and his benefits) an extremely emotionally immature human being, I tended to date, in my twenties, and, I'm sorry to say on into my thirties, emotionally immature men who happened not to have nine-to-five jobs. It was a lesson it took a long time to learn. Because my experience was largely with those men, that is what I wrote about for years. If my father had been an emotionally immature river guide, I probably would have dated emotionally immature accountants and executives for ten years. But once you decide you want an emotionally mature man, you can find him as easily on the river as you can on Wall Street, or in an artist's studio as easily as you can in a bank.
OtP: You recently toured with the musician Nerissa Nields. You read, Nerissa played her guitar and sang, but both of you told stories. In America, we constantly discuss the fact that teenage angst is mitigated by the power of music, but we tend to ignore its potency for adults. How has music served you as both muse and consoler? Has your taste in music changed during the course of your writing career?
PH: Music does serve me as muse and consoler, and no, my musical taste hasn't changed very much. I've always been more lyric focused than music focused, and Nerissa writes some of the best lyrics around. We have had a very strong impact on each other's lives and work in the years we have known each other, which is why performing together seemed completely natural. I feel as though I could have written some of her songs and I know she could have written some of my stories. Being on stage with her every night for almost three weeks this spring was one of the great honors and pleasures of my life.
"I also learned...that it is really important to take at least some responsibility for every situation we find ourselves in.
OtP: You have described Waltzing the Cat as your favorite book. You've also said that your stories have roots in your own life. In what ways has your writing style evolved or changed since your first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness? How do these two books reflect different stages of your own life?
PH: I feel that my writing has become more complicated, and that I have become more generous as a storyteller, more generous to my readers and to myself. For me, writing a short story is like juggling, and while in Cowboys I could probably only juggle, say, ten or fifteen balls at once, in Waltzing I feel I can juggle more like twenty, and sometimes they aren't even balls at all, they are apples and chainsaws and toasters. I also learned in the interim between the two books that it is really important to take at least some responsibility for every situation we find ourselves in. That is probably the essential difference between the narrators of those two books. The ones in Cowboys stand in wide-eyed wonder, the ones in Waltzing are starting to suspect that they put themselves right where they are.