(if she’s not cranky, she will be)
Whether at 9,000 feet above the Colorado plains, at sea-level in the Sacramento Valley, in Mongolia for her fiftieth birthday, or in the Gobi Desert, where she was “bitten by a dog and [her] hand turned black," PAM HOUSTON tries always to remember what Carlos Castaneda once told her: "face your life with love instead of fear." The author of two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, as well as the novel, Sight Hound, and the essay collection, A Little More About Me, Pam is in the middle of yet another book tour, this one to promote her new prose collection, Contents May Have Shifted, just out from Norton. Booklist calls it “unapologetic and empowering…Houston hammers home the idea that if you don’t have problems, you probably aren’t living.” Elle observes that “[Houston] has...concocted a tale so vivid, intricate, and intimate that it puts high-def TV to shame...”
I caught up with Pam just as she was laying siege to Ticketmaster in an attempt to snag tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert:
K: Okay, Pam. The One More Crank timer is ticking, but we’ve got to know: Will you be seeing The Boss?
P: I will absolutely be seeing The Boss, in San Jose, in the Shark Tank.
K: Do you credit an “inexplicable force” or simple boneheaded determination for your ticket-buying success?
P: I credit advanced technology purchased by Ticketmaster. I was actually in and out in twenty minutes, which might be the shortest amount of ticket buying time on an on sale date ever.
K: You have said that your life was defined by a wildly wondrous event in LAX just after you had missed your plane and were feeling understandably cranky. But then Carlos Castaneda mysteriously appeared.
P: Yes. He told me he was the reason I missed my plane. I told him I didn't even think he made the top ten. Then he told me who he was, and, once I had that information, I noticed all the light shining out of his eyes. He told me to live in sight of open water, and that I would meet a man who thought with precision, and that he would change my life (by whom I think he meant my therapist), and then he told me to act with love instead of fear.
K: Imagine for us what a cranky day in the life of Carlos Castaneda might look like.
P: Quite honestly, I am pretty sure that, at that stage in his life, Carlos Castaneda had moved beyond cranky. But I suppose the obvious answer is, "Who ate the last of the peyote?"
K: Along with writing and promoting your books, keeping your ranch, directing the Creative Writing program at U.C. Davis, and teaching in the Pacific University low-residency MFA program, you travel extensively, present at writers conferences around the world, and subject yourself to countless interviews. If you stop moving, do your arms fall off?
P: It’s true...I inherited the workaholic gene from my father. Some days, literally I can't stop moving, and I wind up coming home after an eighteen-hour day and doing something like sorting the recycling. But I am fifty now, and the big project for my fifties is to try to learn to be still. I mean at least every so often. For at least a couple of hours. But you can already see how I am qualifying...
K: You and I first met in McCall, at the Idaho Writers and Readers Rendezvous, after Cowboys Are My Weakness had gained a kind of cult status. At that time, you were accompanied by a handsome man, whom some at the conference discretely and enviously referred to as your Sherpa (he often seemed laden with luggage). You were also being trailed by several adoring young women. It has always seemed to me that you’ve handled your success with humility and grace. Has there ever been a time when you were not only made cranky by the attention but were truly frightened by it?
P: That is very kind of you to say. I feel like what I’m here for is to make a human connection, you know? And I am so endlessly interested in people. I have had stalkers, and, in a couple of instances, they have been truly frightening, but for every stalker I have had, I have met 100 or even 500 perfect strangers with whom I have been able to connect in some meaningful way, even if it was only for five minutes. It doesn't serve me not to give people the benefit of the doubt...to walk around all paranoid.
As it happens, I got to meet Jeff Tweedy from Wilco just two nights ago. His music has been so important to me, so the rolls were reversed: I was the quivering uberfan. If he had asked me to, I would have carried his bags up any mountain--even his amp. Sometimes, people simply want to say: my life is improved significantly by the art you make. I wanted to say that so badly to Jeff Tweedy, and I was given the chance. We don't do ourselves any favor by being fearful. (I know this is a long answer, but you hit on something I feel pretty strongly about.)
K: What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve been given, and how did you know?
P: "You will never write anything meaningful until you learn to write like Dostoyevsky." I think the answer to the second half of your question is obvious.
K: Carol Houck Smith was your long-time editor and dear friend. I admired her a great deal, and I never knew her to mince words, just like I never knew her to be wrong. Was Carol ever cranky with you about something you had written?
P: That would be putting it mildly. Carol and I loved each other a whole bunch, but we fought just like mother and daughter about manuscript issues large and small. I make this one particular grammatical mistake a couple of times in every manuscript. I can never explain what exactly it is I do, but I get the "him and me, he and I" thing wrong in some particular sentence structure every time it comes up. She used to write in the margin, “PAM!” Like, how can you even call yourself a writer? But it came up so infrequently that I couldn't seem to learn to do it right.
K: Contents May Have Shifted might be seen as a new take on—or even an antidote to--Eat, Pray, Love. Is that a crankiness-inducing observation?
P: You were going to work at it until you made me cranky… I didn't actually read, or see, Eat, Pray, Love, though several people mailed me copies of it, implying that I ought to. So I can only refer to my idea about what it is, rather than the book/movie itself. From what I've heard about it, you might say that Contents May Have Shifted might be saying to Eat Pray Love, "That isn't how it is for me...this over here is how it is for me." That is, if I had thought about that book in relation to my book one single time during the entire writing of my book, which I have to admit I did not.
K: Okay, Pam. Our time is up. Enjoy The Boss, and remember--stay cranky!
P: Thanks, Kim!