Spike Note: Usually I run author interviews over at my Write With Spike blog, but since this blog gets more traffic, I'm running this piece here. Please be sure to check out Pam Houston's reading with Stacy Bierlein at BookPeople on May 26th at 7 pm.
Today I am pant-peeingly excited to present an interview with the Super Awesome Pam Houston. I've been reading Pam's books since 1996, and if she put out a book a week, I'd find time to read them all. She is so real and so funny and so arrive-at-wisdom sideways, and all of these things she presents in an inimitable way that makes you want to be her BFF.
Somewhere, I want to throw in here, that so compelling is her work, that I was able to totally circumvent the old baby-with-the-bathwater behavior in which I frequently engage. You know how, when you date an asshole, and when you finally get out of it, sometimes there are just places you can no longer go or songs you can no longer listen to? Okay, good. So Pam was first brought to my attention by someone who, let's just say, prompted me to toss a lot of babies out with every last drop of bathwater when I escaped. And yet, despite an association that lingers between that other and Pam's work, there was no way I was going to relegate her to the let's-put-all-that-behind-us-now pile. Oh no.
I wolfed down Pam's new book, Contents May Have Shifted, just as I wolfed down her collection Cowboys Are My Weakness and her novel Sight Hound. Everything else got set aside. This time around, I sent her a note of thanks, about sixteen years later than I meant to. I was delighted to hear back, and more delighted that Pam was up for a little Q&A. I really hope y'all will go to her reading at BookPeople on May 26th at 7 pm. And I really hope you'll help me spread the word. This reading is a major score for Austin. See you there.
SG: I just whipped through yet another one of your books—the new one, Contents May Have Shifted-- because I couldn't make myself slow down. Midway, I knew I needed to buy a copy for a friend. I called BookPeople to have them put a copy on hold, and they informed me it was in the fiction section and I turned into one of those annoying, know-it-all middle aged ladies and "corrected" the young clerk, telling her they had misfiled the book, that it was non-fiction. Then when I got it, I saw FICTION on the back (something I hadn't noticed when I downloaded the audio copy, which is how I "read" it). I was confused, then thought of Exley's A Fan's Notes, and then saw in an interview with you a reference to O'Brien's The Things They Carried. So with that idiot James Frey's "non-fiction" book that turned out to be fiction, and with Mike Daisey's bullshit with Ira Glass, and the whole Three Cups of Tea crap...well those are instances where fiction is portrayed as truth and that is frowned upon. But you (and O'Brien and Exley) seem like you are presenting that which seems an awful lot like non-fiction as fiction. Is this mostly to cover your ass legally? Why not just call it creative non-fiction?
PH: Well, there are so many reasons not to call it creative non fiction, the first being that I make it a policy not to believe in anything that is defined by its negative and also because I go to an accountant called “Creative Accounting” and everybody on earth knows what that means. Also, when you add up the failure of memory, the failure of language to really mean, our individual failures to speak the truth even when we are really trying, I just can’t see holding a gun to people like Jim Frey’s head and saying “you lied to the American people,” when so many other people lie a lot more and with far more devastating results. Presidents, for instance.
Jim Frey is not an idiot. He was a guy with a novel to sell, and he tried really hard to sell it as a novel and then an editor came along and said, no wait, that is creative non fiction (whatever that is) and he, like most of us would, said, okay, whatever you say if is going to get me published. I was Jim Frey’s first writing teacher in college, and I read that book years after that when it was a novel and all I said about it is what I say to every other person who hands me a manuscript which is, “it will be better if you cut 20,000 words out of it.”
Anyhow, I want no such gun to my head. If you will pardon the high falutin-ness of it, I am about taking things that I have witnessed in my life and turning it into art. I don’t mean Great Art. I just mean art. I want each piece of work to have a shape, and a kind of structural integrity that an art object has. It is far far less important to me whether or not anyone thinks it is me, or 82 percent me, or the me I wish I were if I were braver. The writer is dead, they said to us, when we were in grad school, and I believed them.
Having said that, I called myself Pam in this book, really because it felt almost equally false to call myself Melinda, or some such name like that. This is what I do. I take my loose autobiography and shape it into story, which sometimes involves changing the facts. That has been true about every book I have written no matter where in the bookstore it is shelved. What is strange to me is that that is not okay with people. The poets do it all the time.
If you want to hear more thoughts on this you can check out my essay Corn Maze, which is included in Jill Talbot’s recent book called Metawritings, as well as pretty easily found on line at various locales.
|Photo Credit: Adam Karsten|
SG: Back in the olden days when I would occasionally teach, I didn't feel entirely enthusiastic about it, probably had some of that "those who can't, teach..." voice in my subconscious. But in the past couple of years, I've been leading writing workshops that not only have been really fun and productive, but that have inspired me to approach my own writing in a different way (for the better). How does teaching help/hinder your own process from inspiration to discipline to time management?
PH: Well, I love to teach, and one reason I love to teach is that it makes me feel good about myself as a contributer to society in a way that writing never will. I understand of course, when I think about, say, Toni Morrison’s books, that she is contributing massively to society. But it is probably just as well that I don’t feel that way about my own books. Writing them still seems like a strange obsessive way to spend a life.
Teaching, on the other hand, making a space for someone else’s creativity, feels like I am contributing in a real way. Doing a good thing. If I taught less I would write more, there is no question, but I don’t know how much more because I have never really been an every day kind of a writer. Something about squeezing the writing in in the spaces between the teaching might be good for the writing, for all I know.
SG: This one has nothing to do with writing. When I read your books, I have a lot of moments of, "OMG! We are SO MUCH ALIKE!" But then I get to the parts where you spend a lot of time in sub-freezing conditions and, oddly (to me) seem to enjoy that. I die whenever the temperature drops below 75. What's up with this seeming addiction to the cold?
PH: I like big weather of all kinds. I am a giant fan of extremes. Cold, heat, tornados, blizzards, hurricanes…you name it, big weather gets me fired up. In general, I like when the degree of difficulty goes up a notch. Those are happy times for me.
SG: I have to always ask in these interviews about how the Internet has affected your writing-- and I'm interested in any angle you care to take-- e-publishing, marketing, the "need" for social media, the distraction of email, possibly decreased income?
PH: I have so little to say on this subject I ought to skip it. I learned how to do facebook and twitter for the sake of this book and 1.it has not been as painful as I expected it to be and 2. I do think it has encouraged attendance at the readings.
I like Twitter better than Facebook, 1. Because it is a form and I love forms, and 2. Because it is all about compression
SG: Getting back to my workshops. I tell students I can't "teach them to write," I can just try to impart some of what I know, and hopefully inspire them to get their asses in the chair. Do you feel like you teach your students how to write?
PH: I feel like I hold a safe space for students to take emotional, psychological, structural and artistic risks. I also feel like I can usually identify what is working and what is not in their stories. I also feel like I can provide writing exercises and put books in front of them that might make a spark. Everything else, they do themselves.
SG: Steve Almond had an excellent article recently in NYT about how, increasingly, people are turning to MFA programs and writing workshops in lieu of therapy. He teaches workshops and seems down with the idea. In my workshops we often joke about how it's more like Group than Workshop. Your thoughts?
PH: I mean to read that article, but I have not gotten to it yet. Most of the time, I agree with everything Steve Almond says 99 1/2 percent and that is hardly true of any other writer (except maybe Ron Carlson). There is no question that writing allows for the expression of those ulcer and cancer causing feelings that have sometimes gone unexpressed for decades and that as a result those things get talked about in workshop. To pretend otherwise is simply not to tell the truth about what happens in those rooms. But looking back on my own experience, I might be in serious trouble if I had only had workshop and hadn’t had real therapy. I am not quite ready to throw my wonderful therapist under the bus just yet.
SG: What's next? I think I read in an interview that you take chunks of time off from writing and also that you like to do a big blurt during a plane's descent (which, given how much you fly, seems like it would be a lot of writing). Are you resting between projects now or can we (oh please say yes) look forward to another book soon?
PH: I have not started anything big yet, unless you count a long short story as big, and that is something I am working on. It is set in Mongolia, where I spent September last year. I don’t even have a rough idea what the next book will be, but now that the tour is nearly over, I will have some time to start thinking about it. I also intend to rearrange my life somewhat so that I will be teaching a little less once I get rolling. I would like the next one not to take six years too.
SG: Take a guess-- on average, how many miles a year do you fly?
PH: I don’t have to guess. On United, just over 100,000 miles. Yes, I am the person who jets off to Sydney (or wherever is far and cheap) in December to knock myself over the top. On all other airlines combined, probably another 25, 000 all tolled.
SG: In Contents May Have Shifted, I loved the way it jumped around and circled back and touched on so many characters and locations and quotes. Does it just pour out of you like that or do you spend a massive amount of time with all this interweaving?
PH: Contents is very carefully arranged to seem like it was not very carefully arranged. There is obviously a loose and imperfect chronology, as you can see, but beyond that it is meant to seem “random.” I had about a million rules about the placement of the pieces as I went along, rules that I made, and broke and replaced with other rules. Probably every single piece was in 30 different positions at one time or another. Another thing I learned in grad school, (other than that the author is dead) was that meaning gets made two ways, metaphorically (by substitution) and metonymically (by proximity). This book is my adventure in metonym.