Writeliving Interview – Pam Houston

I am thrilled to feature our first fiction writer in our interview series – Pam Houston. I have been reading her work for almost 20 years now (better be careful not to date me or Pam too much!).

Soon, I plan on announcing a new blogger to join the Writeliving team. In the meantime, enjoy the interview and feel free to comment.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

It has been suggested to me that the poet, Larry Levis has been the very most influential writer to my work, and it may be true. He taught poetry at Utah when I was there studying fiction, and though I was too scared to take a class from him, (and man, do I regret that) he was writing The Widening Spell of the Leaves at that time, and I paid really close attention to how he made that book. That book taught me about making associative leaps (wild ones, and yet, in retrospect, inevitable somehow), which is, in my opinion, the most fun a writer can have, the thing that keeps the process always new and exciting. It may be true that he, more than anyone else, taught me what to reach for in my work. I feel like there could never be a conclusive list of writers whose work I have read that has left an imprint on my own, but a few of my strongest influences follow: Ron Carlson’s work taught me pacing, and how to bump humor right up against pathos as many times as the story can bear. Lorie Moore’s work taught me the particular way humor works for a female. Toni Morrison taught me the importance of making my characters multiple, no heroes, no villains, and also the unlimited number of layers a story can have. Russell Banks’ stories taught me how form follows function. Richard Ford’s Rock Springs taught me that the landscape of the west has its own voice, and Gretel Ehrlich convinced me that I had a place in it. Tim O’Brien’s work introduced me to the rich territory that exists between fiction and nonfiction. Jack Driscoll taught me that if you don’t risk sentimentality you are not in the ballpark.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I feel like my first job as a writer is to pay really strict attention out in the world, and then to bring the resonant images, scenes, moments, glimmers, back to the page with me and turn them into language. Every single thing I have ever written has begun with the question, “What glimmered at me lately?” In this way I am sort of a collagist. I don’t ever say, for example, “I think I would like to write a story about…., or, “I have an idea for a character who…” I pay strict attention, both to what is going on in my physical proximity, and also to whenever something that is happening out there in the exterior landscape resonates with what is happening in my interior landscape. I trust those shivers of recognition more than I trust anything. Whether I am at a sky burial in Tibet, or in the check out line at the Whole Foods, hearing the crack of my turned ankle on an ancient stair in Greece, or listening to the sound of goat bells over the sound of the waves of the Agean…I collect those, and do my best to represent them fully in language, and then combine them with other resonant glimmers and they cook for a while in there and over time, a story emerges.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Well, I am not sure this really qualifies as adversity, but it is a nice story. I went to graduate school at the University of Utah, and my work was pretty much uniformly disliked by all of the fiction teachers there. David Kranes, the playwright, liked it pretty well, but in my years there I collected a stack of evaluations, the worst of which said, no kidding, “Pam should find something else to do with her hands.” It was my class at Utah, along with some professors, that started the conference called Writers At Work in Park City, and one of the things we got in exchange for our volunteer work on the conference was a 30 minute one-on-one with a visiting writer, editor, or agent. Because I had become so convinced at Utah that my work was awful, I had turned in the name of three writers on my preference sheet, and when they hung up the pairings I didn’t find my name anywhere, and when I asked, the woman at the desk said, “Oh, sorry, all of the people you chose had full plates, so we couldn’t get you in.”
This was pretty much the way I was used to being treated at Utah, and it was pretty much the way I had been treated in my family of origin, which is likely why I picked Utah, so I just sucked it up and walked away. But Shannon Ravenel, who was one of the editors at the conference (Best American Short Stories series editor all through the 80’s, founder of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.) followed me out of the ballroom, and said, “You know, my plate is not full. If you have a copy of a story you want to give me, I would be happy to read it.” Now let me just say that this was an entirely unprompted act of kindness on Shannon’s part. She had no reason to think I was any good, in fact, I was not, at that time, very good (though not quite as bad as my professors said). She had simply witnessed my dismissal by the pairing lady, and reached out to me in a human way.
 Shannon read my story, and was so excited about it, she showed it to Carol Houck Smith, a W.W. Norton editor at that conference. She also called her friend, agent Liz Darhansoff, and told her to contact me. Pretty much my entire career grew out of that moment of un-asked for kindness. Carol was my editor until the time of her death, and I have published five books with W.W. Norton. Liz Darhansoff is still my editor to this day.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

That I was Chaplin of Delta Delta Delta sorority at Denison University, which meant I was in charge of 80 girls “spirituality” when I was little more than a girl myself. But perhaps you mean something less silly than that. When I was four years old and my mother was a night club singer, I would go to the bar with her, wearing my thigh high white boots and sing “These Boots Were Made For Walking,” and at the part in the song where Nancy Sinatra always said, “Come on, Boots, start walkin!” I would walk across the top of the baby grand. Only marginally less silly. How about this? Nothing terrifies me quite like the prospect of playing co-ed softball.

About the author:

Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published in 2012, by W.W. Norton.  She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays called A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century.  She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, and The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards.  She is the Director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world.  She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.


Filed under Fiction, Interview

4 responses to “Writeliving Interview – Pam Houston

  1. What great stories! We all have so much to thank Shannon Ravenel for. Fascinating interview.


  2. I was a graduate student at UC Davis before Pam Houston took over the program there. If only I had waited a few years! Pam Houston is a writer who strongly influenced my writing.


  3. What a pleasure to read the story of the grand gesture, an accomplished editor who reached out with empathy to an unknown talent and gave her the opportunity to be acknowledged.


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