Writer Pam Houston became an almost instant byword for a new breed of nervy, earthy women writers with the 1992 publication of her story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness.
Now, with her new book Contents May Have Shifted out this month, she’s stretching out that same sort of voice. This time, however, the line between fiction, autobiography and travel writing is more nebulous, even as she digs deeper for narrative riches.
She’s written a Mexican jumping bean of a book, with more than 132 segments dispersed across the world, from a glow-worm cave in New Zealand to three locales in Utah, where Houston spent five years studying fiction writing at the University of Utah. Despite its initial connect-the-dots feel, the book reveals uncanny patterns the longer you read. True to its title, each snippet harbors small dips and rises that add up to cumulative wisdom by book’s end, and a satisfying arc of anecdote that makes a convincing whole.
Despite Utah’s claim of Houston’s fame, the writer never finished her doctorate from the University of Utah after five years of hard work — “It’s a complicated story,” she said by phone from Davis, Calif., where she directs the University of California at Davis’ Creative Writing Program. But she did garner an honorary doctorate of humane letters from her undergraduate alma mater, Dennison University in Granville, Ohio. “I liked that a lot,” she says of her degree, “because it sounded like it had something to do with dogs.”
Technically, the book’s called a novel. But with a central character named “Pam,” how much is really autobiography?
The same amount as all my books. It’s 82 percent autobiography, but only because people seem to want a number. That number felt right to me. “Autobiography” means it begins in autobiography, or in all these things I’ve witnessed, then changed or molded to make a more shapely story. That’s what I do. You pay attention, go to all these crazy places in the world, then write it down and shape it.
Sitting down with my editor, we radically condensed the number of girlfriends and friends throughout. In many ways, they’re composite characters. There are other things that are changed to protect people’s identity. I changed everyone’s name, except for the writers I know.
I want people to believe it’s fiction, and it is. I’ve changed those people radically, and that’s why it’s fiction. The reason I called myself “Pam” is because I get tired for apologizing for what I do. I don’t want to pretend.
It’s divided into so many small parts, more than 132. Were you at all worried it wouldn’t have enough structure?
Sure. I’m always worried about that. This book is sort of doing exactly what I do. You can almost trace the writing process in this book. It’s just that, in my other books, I smoothed everything out to make it look more linear. In this book I was committed to not doing that. I had really strong beliefs that meaning is something we make associatively, rather than logically or chronologically, and we feel that in a different part of our bodies.
And I’d say it’s different than meaning that gets made chronologically. Associative leaps are, I think, embedded in us more deeply than things that we tell ourselves in life. Like the sight of an orange sweater that reminds you of the time you saw your mother crying in her bedroom — those sorts of things.
The question is whether these associations will translate to the reader. But I wanted to try to write from associative logic, rather than chronological meaning. By the same token, when the book was done I wanted to feel that the sleeping dragon of narrative arc is still there, even though the book is sort of a denial of what that should be. I wanted that imprint of classic narrative arc behind it all. But, of course, they’re not random. I moved them all at least 78 times so that they’d seem random, but are not.
Some people reading this book might be given the impression that the life of a creative writing professor and writer is all about travel to exotic locations.
If anyone thinks I have a trust fund or something, they’re wrong. A lot of this writing arose while on assignment for magazines. Those are connections writers work very hard to make. But it’s also true that I’ve made choices in life. I don’t have children, and I don’t spend money on things that a lot of people spend money on. One thing teaching at a university does give people, if they do it right, is time. One of the many strings that pull through the book is “Pam’s” decision not to have children. ... We all make choices, and that’s one of the things that happens in the book.
Pam Houston reading
The former Utah writer of Cowboys Are My Weakness reads from her newest novel.
When • Thursday, Feb. 9, 7 p.m.
Where • The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Info • Free. Call 801-484-9100 or visit www.kingsenglish.com for more information.