Interviews

If Earth Is Doomed, Pam Houston Wants to Go Out Singing

If you know anything about Pam Houston’s body of work, it should be no surprise that her newest book, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, is full of powerful, fully-realized, and honest prose that describes a love of the Earth, and gratitude for being alive on it. On every page is a quote, a sentiment, an ode to the gifts she has observed and been given since purchasing her ranch in Colorado when she was 31-years-old.

I first came to Houston’s work through Cowboys Are My Weakness, a 1992 collection of short stories full of daredevil, self-aware characters who experience emotional and physical hardships. Nearly 26 years later, Deep Creek echoes the same authenticity and richness as Houston’s debut, though both are radically different in the best of ways.

Labeled as a memoir, but broken up into sprawling essays that mirror an almanac, Deep Creek chronicles life on Houston’s 120-acre ranch in Creede, Colorado. Hers is a story of resilience, and it was even before she had to take care of ranch animals, and learn to cook with elevation, and survive winters and fires at 9000 ft. But the ranch has taught Houston many things about herself and about the world – and now she teaches us.

Pam Houston is in possession of a deep, heart-achingly beautiful love for her own personal piece of earth. And as equally deep is her ability for hope. In a time where the world is either drowning, or burning, or being drilled-into, Houston’s outlook promises a better tomorrow – even if that means we’re no longer here.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Houston about her new book, and she told me a little about how memoir was a new challenge for her, the beauty of Uruguayan horses, and how to sing in the face of turmoil.

Sara Cutaia

I’ve heard you speak to the difficulty of writing this book and getting it out into the world. Why was that?

Pam Houston

The first difficulty was my unease with memoir generally. There are many memoirs in the world that I love, but in terms of myself writing one, I wasn’t sure. I’ve trained as a fiction writer, it’s my first love. Even though my fiction is all autobiographical, the idea that fiction can deviate from what happened is a real source of power and comfort for me. I was afraid that if I wrote a memoir, I would bore people to death. I’ve come to realize, in writing this book, that my biggest fear is being boring. The way memoir relies on reflection and a lot of soul searching and interpretation of the past… even when I say those phrases, something in my head goes “blah blah blah…” So I was afraid. But not of revealing what happened to me, or revealing my inner most self, just that I would literally be boring on the page. Fiction tends to rely on the object or the metaphor, and I love relying on those, but memoir doesn’t. Memoirs seem to ask for more telling, or reflection.

Another reason it took so long was because I wrote a proposal that my editor loved. But when I turned in the book, she really felt I hadn’t written what I’d said I would in that proposal. In my mind, I had written exactly what I said I was going to write. There were two realities, and probably both of them valid, but I didn’t know how to write the book she wanted me to write. I still don’t understand what that was. So then there were two years of revision, where in a normal case there would’ve been maybe six months of revision. It was about us trying to come together, even though we didn’t understand each other’s vision. To this day, I don’t know what she wanted, and I don’t know what I did that made it ok. But the fact is, she sent me back into the book repeatedly. I believe very strongly that when you go back in, odds are you’re going to make it better. And we managed to come to a place of agreement. And for what it’s worth, I’m glad I had to keep going back in. I think the book has come to a really good place between her pushing me and me reimagining the book several times.

Sara Cutaia

Speaking of the proposal, was it always a ranch almanac structure that you had in mind? Or did that come later?

Pam Houston

For me I’m most comfortable knowing the form going in, when I feel I have a set of boxes to fill, or an idea of a shape I’m making. So my very first impulse with this book was the calendar, the almanac. A book that literally had chapters called “January” and “February.” Because that is the dominant shape of the ranch. If you were synesthetic and said, “what is the ranch?” the ranch is a calendar. It’s doing the same thing every January, every season.

But I couldn’t make that work, and so I went away from it. That was partly because I decided to include childhood stuff. My agent steered me in that direction. She said, “Isn’t this the book where you actually talk about what happened to you as a kid?” And I said, “God, have I done anything except that?” You know, again my fear of being boring. But I had never written directly at that. I couched it in metaphor, in dream, or shadow. So that got added and made the calendar difficult to maintain. And then, as we all became more and more aware in the last 6, 8 years, of the imminent threat of climate change, that became part of the book, and made it even harder to negotiate a calendar. So I let the idea go.

But later, in revision, I noticed I had these shorter essays that were a little more lyric, and lighter, and prettier. I thought, oh that’s how I integrate that idea. And that’s how I got to this structure. And in the last year, it really gave the book a spine I could write around.  

Sara Cutaia

You said memoir was a new form for you. You have a collection of essays already, A Little More About Me. How is this one different from that?

Pam Houston

As usual, I’ve written between things, between genres. We had a giant discussion if we were going to call this a memoir or essays, and I don’t think it ever exactly got resolved. I didn’t really have a dog in the fight, because to me it was a collection of essays written as memoir. To me, it was both. So when I got the book, I noticed hilariously that, right on the back in big letters it says MEMOIR. And then, on the jacket copy, it says, “In linked essays…” I don’t know if anyone noticed that, or if it was intentional, but I love that, because it is both.

The real difference between the two is that A Little More About Me was a compilation of essays I’d already written for other anthologies, and magazines, etc. This was entirely different because I started from nothing and had the awareness that I was writing a book the whole time.

Sara Cutaia

This book covers a lot of years, from when you first bought the ranch, to as recent as last year. How did you decide on ordering the sections, and what is the significance of that?

Pam Houston

It doesn’t exactly go chronologically, and I worried about that. But those almanac pieces are in the order of the year. Again, they’re the skeleton. There were a few pretzels I had to wrangle to make sure things fell in order. I actually had to rewrite the mini essay called the “Persieds” and make it the “Leonids,” to make it fit in the year.  I’ve seen both meteor showers countless times, so it was no problem, that but that was the length I went to to make sure the year stayed intact. And those pieces gave me some freedom to move around the longer pieces in terms of timeline.

But I did worry about how that movement would be for a reader. Because the essay on the fire, those dates are so important. And the one about the killing of the sheep. When I just read the book the other day for the audio book, I wished they hadn’t jumped so much, but what can you do? I did my best, and I used the almanac as the tether pole.

Sara Cutaia

There’s a new genre of writing called Climate Fiction, and it tackles the changing of our climate and planet. And when I read this line: “And even if the jig is up, even if it is really game over, what better time to sing about the earth than when it is critically, even fatally, wounded at our hands.” I couldn’t help but think about how there is joy even in your most painful and terror-filled writing. What are your thoughts on writing about (or creating art) in this time of climate turmoil?

Pam Houston

That quote could be the thesis sentence of the book. There’s a word I think of all the time now when I’m teaching: self-implication. In memoir especially, it’s the very most important thing. That’s something I didn’t have when I was 27 years old and wrote Cowboys Are My Weakness. Culturally, our impulse is to turn away from the idea of climate change, of course. Because it’s a terrible thing to think about! Not only are we going to die, but we are to blame for killing our beautiful home. We don’t want to fess up to it. One of many things we don’t want to fess up to.

A colleague said to me, early in the writing of this book, “Do you really expect me to go to this department and ask them to hire a poet who celebrates nature unironically?” That was the sentence that gave rise to the essay, “Mother’s Day Storm.” This idea, that we can only be ironic now, because we’re so doomed – that’s not my response to being doomed. My response is, let’s go out singing. Let’s celebrate what’s left before it’s gone, and let’s fess up to our role in this devastation. That’s the only way we’re going to change our behavior. And even if it’s too late, at least we’re whole humans admitting what we’ve done, feeling sorrow for it, and living on the Earth in what might be its final days. At least as we know it.

Sara Cutaia

You have a quote in the book: “How do we become who we are in the world? We ask the world to teach us. But we have to ask with an open heart, with no idea what the answer will be.” What do you think is the most important thing the world has taught you?

Pam Houston

Oh, just a little question! (laughs) I guess, to simplify, the world has taught me gratitude, that gratitude is an appropriate response to everything.  All the things that have happened to me, good and bad… I’m grateful for being alive on this planet. People are always asking me, “How did you survive all that with your parents?” First of all, being a writing teacher has shown me that what I survived is so common, somewhere around a 4 on a 1-10 scale of things that people survive. My privilege for one, like the fact that my parents had money to feed me… some people didn’t even have that.

But another thing is, who would I be without that history? Who would I be if I didn’t think my father was going to kill me every day? Would I be a writer? I don’t know. Would I have compassion? I don’t know. Would I be so thrilled when my students’ stories of their pain get published? All my joys, in addition to all my fears and sorrows, are related to that story of origin. So in a weird way, I’m grateful for it. That’s the drumbeat in my life now, and I am so grateful, especially for the natural world, and the beauty I found there. I think awareness of suffering increases the intensity of the beauty, and the way I appreciate the beautiful moments in my life. So, yeah. I guess, gratitude. The one-word answer.

Sara Cutaia

You’ve traveled to so many wonderfully beautiful places and seen some fantastic things (the Narwhal chapter made me cry on the train). Where is another place you can’t wait to see? And do you think you’ll write about it?

Pam Houston

I’ll probably always write about it, wherever it is. But I just went to Uruguay a couple of weeks ago because a couple of friends have told me about it and loved it. And it was amazing. Here’s a thing: no one told me about the horses! Every bend you go around, there’s another pasture full of these incredibly self-possessed, radically beautifully Criollo horses. And if someone had said that, I would’ve been to Uruguay 10 years ago!

I got married four months ago, and my new husband Mike Blakeman is retiring after forty years in the Forest Service at the end of February. This late summer, I’m taking him to Iceland as a retirement present. We’re going to spend a little over three weeks there, so that should be enough time to really begin to see the place.

I have a little less wanderlust than I used to. It used to be such a driving force in my life. Now, I’m so invested in my teaching and my students and my ranch… I realized that Uruguay was the first time in four years I’d really traveled in that way. I’d been to France, and been to places for work, but I hadn’t up and gone somewhere. And that was mostly by choice. I was dedicated to this book, and this new relationship. So I stayed home.

It’s not like I’m done, by any means. I want to see more of the Arctic. That’s partly a climate change-driven choice. You see the change in the climate nowhere more than in the Arctic. I want more of that type of experience.

And of course, my own home. Mike has walked basically every square inch of seven counties in our part of Colorado, so I’m looking forward to him showing me more. Going deep with backpacks into places that, even though I’ve lived there for 25 years, he knows all of them and wants to show me.

Sara Cutaia

Assuming the world still has a good little while, what do you plan to do with the ranch in the future?

Pam Houston

One of the most important things in my life at this time is mentoring young writers. That’s increasingly the center of my life. The ranch has become a place for young writers to be. For a year, six months, or three weeks, whatever amount of time. I definitely see that continuing. I love that. I love that people go there and work on their books and then go back into the world. And I love what I learn from those writers being there.

It has been suggested to me that once this book is out, people will want to come to the ranch. And short of doing bus tours, you know (laughs)… I think it could be nice to have some teaching at the ranch. Some gatherings, some private Pam Houston workshops. I have a nonprofit called Writing x Writers, and we may do an occasional ranch event through it for writing instruction, surrounded by the beauty of the ranch. Otherwise, I think just let it keep going along as it is.

NONFICTION – MEMOIR
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
By Pam Houston
W. W. Norton & Company
Published January 29, 2019

Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country; two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound; two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat; and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me.

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