Synopses & Reviews
Relationships and extreme adventures collide with deadpan humor and female wisdom in Pam Houston's transcendent follow-up to her bestselling Cowboys Are My Weakness. Through eleven interlinked stories, we follow roving photographer Lucy O'Rourke as she survives a home life where her parents engage in rather peculiar feeding rites for the family cat in a "title story that deserves to be anthologized into eternity" (The Washington Post Book World), a near-drowning on a white water rafting trip, and a grand cayman attack in the Amazon. All the while her search for love continues with a string of rugged, exciting, and usually, it seems, inappropriate men. While it's not always easy for Lucy to find success in either the great outdoors or love, she rolls with the punches, never losing her sassy wit. When a surprise encounter with Carlos Castaneda at an airport boarding gate sets off a series of synchronistic events that lead Lucy to Hope, Colorado, and the life she has been searching for, we know that "Houston's triumph is that she has come to know the quieter adventures of the heart" (Arizona Republic).
"Fat with meaning...tastes oh so sinfully good." The Washington Post Book World
"Pam Houston's beautifully constructed sentences are peppered with observations that reveal us to ourselves in an unexpected, occasionally shocking light. And she writes with a sharp, subtle wit. Waltzing the Cat is a delight to read." Jon Krakauer
"Consider Waltzing the Cat an homage to the Equinox: equal dark, equal light; a book of truce. I love these fictions. I love Pam Houston. I love the inherent growth and confidence in this new work." Terry Tempest Williams
"Houston proceeds to dazzle you... [with] action stories rough rivers and hang gliding come into play and they are harrowing and fun to read." Arizona Republic
"Houston is a master of the deadpan sentence... this book is an impressive and creative marriage of two literary genres that couldn't be more at odds: the intimate self-exposure of traditionally female confessional writing with the laconic stoicism of the traditional male western." The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
"Waltzing the Cat is far from perfect, but Houston's vigorous voice and lively take on what it's like to be a woman both physically bold and hopelessly romantic are to be cherished nonetheless. After all, who says something's got to be perfect for you to love it?" Karen Karbo, The New York Times Book Review
"This is a vigorous, often lyrical rendition of a young woman's quiet but intense search for herself. It's an old story, but Houston twists the telling by sending the fearless but terrified Lucy on an untraditional path, one that is typically masculine a journey set against the dramatically rugged and unpredictable landscapes of rivers, canyons, mountains, furious oceans and even Manhattan." Paige Williams, Salon.com
"Houston's stories are so full of useable wisdom that she makes it seem like that's the least we should expect from the books we buy....If you had fun laughing at the woman in Cowboys Are My Weakness who keeps entering the ring, falling in love again and again with the same man in different bodies, you are really going to enjoy the company of the woman who actually wins a few rounds." Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"As beautifully written as one would expect, shot through with Houston's irresistible blend of tough lyricism and wry humour." Times (London)
"This book reflects Houston's strength: clean, insightful, and down-to-earth storytelling that brings the wilderness of our world onto intimate footing." Laura Rose, USA Today
About the Author
Pam Houston's collection of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, was the 1993 winner of the Western States Book Award, and now appears in eight languages. "How to Talk to a Hunter" was selected for Best American Short Stories (Richard Ford, guest editor). Houston is the editor of the anthology Women on Hunting, and has written the text for a book of photographs called Men Before Ten A.M. She has been a contributing editor to Elle and Ski, writes regularly for Condé Nast Sports for Women, and has been a guest on CBS-TV Sunday Morning, with "Postcards from Colorado." She lives at an altitude of 9,000 feet in southwestern Colorado.
Reading Group Guide
1. Pam Houston has said that in a collection of related short stories, an "active reader can find as much, or more, satisfaction than he/she finds in a novel." Did you find this to be true? How is reading interconnected stories different from experiencing a novel?
2. In "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had," Guinevere says that "choices can't be good or bad. There is only the event and the lessons learned from it." Does Lucy ever make any really "bad" choices, as friends like Leo and Henry so often imply? What's the "worst" choice she makes in Waltzing the Cat? What's the "best?"
3. After the rafting incident in "Cataract," Lucy says that what she wanted most was for one of the men to say, "tell me what it felt like under there." Discuss the relationship between experience and power as Lucy sees it.
4. Do Lucy's parents really love each other? Do they really love her? Why do they go to such lengths to spoil their cat?
5. Would any of the other story titles have worked well as the title of this collection? How does "Waltzing the Cat" take on new meaning as applied to the entire book and not just that particular story?
6. Does Lucy fall in love, or say she's in love, too easily? Or is her definition of love more complicated than that of those around her? Does Carter ever show himself to be "worthy" of her love? What does Lucy gain from giving her love to him anyway?
7. In "Then You Get Up and Have Breakfast," Lucy describes love as the "flip side of fear." How does this view of love and fear compare with your own? Discuss the paradox of Lucy's seeming to fear love yet love fear.
8. What do the women whom Lucy befriends have in common? Are they more likable than the men she encounters?
9. Do the coincidences in "Moving from One Body of Water to Another" test the limits of your imagination? Is any of it too far fetched? Do you believe that it was really Carlos Castaneda who approached Lucy in the airport? Is it, as Lucy suggests, just as interesting an encounter if the person only thought he was Castaneda?
10. What is the "full experience" in "The Kind of People You Trust With Your Life?" Why won't Erik ever have it? Which characters in the book, besides Lucy, are capable of it?
11. Compare several instances in which Lucy finds herself swimming. How is the water different each time? How is Lucy different?
12. Who is the title girl in "Epilogue?" Why is what she reveals to Lucy so important? Was it a complete surprise to you? Is the "new" Lucy that Lucy has been waiting for really just the "old" Lucy?
13. Lucy's friend Ellie once said that Lucy should "take the right picture and a man will walk into it." If Marcus had shown up in "Epilogue," would the book have been more or less satisfying? Discuss the impact of Lucy "stepping into the picture" herself.
An Interview with Pam Houston
Q. What inspired you to make Lucy a photographer? How are the art forms of photography and writing similar and/or different in your eyes?
A. The first reason I chose to make Lucy a photographer is purely practical. I needed to give her a profession that would require her to travel a great deal. In Waltzing the Cat I was fictionalizing a time in my life that was almost entirely defined by the fact that I flew almost a hundred thousand miles a year, that I visited forty-four countries on five continents, that there was a two-year period where the longest I was in one place was seven days. This has been the writer's life for me, a combination of promotion, teaching, and travel research that has kept me on the road much more than I ever imagined. I like it, though it makes for a rather unique and specific set of life lessons.
I am a pretty good amateur photographer. It is the art form, besides writing, that I know the most about. Once I had chosen to make Lucy a photographer, I realized I could use the metaphor of photography to talk about writing. The two art forms seem similar to me in terms of framing, the way everything depends on what you leave in and what you leave out. I often construct stories as if they are a series of photographs, a series of sharp and particular images, a physical landscape that will stand in for the story's emotional landscape, that will carry and convey the story's emotional weight.
Q. Your next book, A Little More About Me, is a memoir, yet readers of your short stories would probably feel as if they already know a lot about you. Why the shift to nonfiction?
A. I make no secret about the fact that my fiction begins in autobiography, and then shapes itself into something invented as the requirements of structure and form of the short story demand. I have also been known to say that no one can write a memoir, or any piece of nonfiction for that matter, without invention, without -- even if inadvertently -- making some things up.
For me, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction has never been and could never be whether or not it really happened, and there is, I hear, a movement afoot to bring memoir and the personal essay (what we now, laughably, call creative nonfiction) into the fiction camp. I spend a lot of time trying to put my finger on what the difference is, and I know it's got something to do with the voice and something to do with narrative stance. In nonfiction, my voice is me, Pam Houston, the voice I would use if we were speaking to each other, the voice I am using here. I bring to my nonfictional voice all of my education, all of my experience, all the wisdom of retrospect I can muster, and on the downside, all of the control that these choices imply. In fiction, my narrator is still me, but she's a much more naïve me, more vulnerable, more uncertain. I am always asking her to walk into situations that I have already walked into with the benefit of retrospect, to walk in blind and frightened, to surrender control. This is why fiction is more deeply true than nonfiction, and why it is more chaotic.
Q. The line "There's only one story" is repeated several times in "Epilogue." Is this a belief of yours that you apply to your writing? Did any of these stories go through drastic revisions, in which completely different outcomes were written?
A. I believe that we all write from places of deep unresolved pain inside us, from the darkest corners of our being that are trying endlessly -- with a hundred different sets of metaphor -- to turn into the light. Things have happened to all of us that have wounded us deeply, and the things in the world that remind us of those wounds are the things that shimmer at us and make us want to put them in stories. It might be a fig-eating horse in southern Italy, it might be the Black Student Union Choir singing Ooh ooh child, it might be the smell of sage in the high desert after it rains, all of these things the physical world offers us to help remind us of our pain and to help us heal from it. The intersection of our decision to honestly investigate these black holes inside us, and our undying hope that we might one day be free of their centripetal force is the place where the best writing happens.
Most of these stories went through drastic revisions, as all my stories do as I work toward the deeper truth. I start out with something that resembles the way I wish it could turn out, and move toward how it must really turn out. I surrender myself to the truth of the metaphors I have chosen (that's the scary part), and eventually, the story finds its own truth.
Q. Did you have a clear vision of the work as a whole before writing individual stories? Did you write the stories contained in Waltzing the Cat in the order in which they appear?
A. I didn't have a clear vision of the work as a whole, but unlike with Cowboys Are My Weakness, I did understand that all of these stories would be told by one narrator, and together they would form a larger arc, with the arc of each story inside it. I wrote these stories in roughly the order that they appear, although Cataract was first, and it was a last minute decision to reverse the order of Cataract and Best Girlfriend in the book. I wrote The Moon Is A Woman's First Husband and Moving from One Body of Water To Another simultaneously, something I have never done before. I revised The Whole Weight of Me about a hundred thousand times, and I'm still not entirely satisfied with it (I never got quite close enough to the truth of the metaphor). Epilogue was a gift that came very late in the process. I wrote it half-asleep and airsick on a United Air Lines barf bag somewhere over Nevada.
Q. The character Charisma, when asked if she writes novels, responds, "Novels, Lord no. I can't even stay married." Having pushed the limits of linked fiction to such heights in Waltzing the Cat and written a longer narrative in the form of a metaphor, are you now planning to write a novel? Does it really require a different kind of commitment?
A. I believe that every book requires a different kind of commitment, no matter if the writer changes genre or not. I can't imagine two more different experiences that writing Cowboys Are My Weakness and writing Waltzing the Cat, and writing a Little More About Me was entirely different yet again. Writing Cowboys was like running the Middle Fork of the Salmon, a class four river with surprises around every corner and a few tight spots, but nothing I believed I couldn't handle. Writing A Little More About Me was like sailing in the Bahamas, free and fresh, with unexpected pleasure everywhere, the starfish big as manhole covers in the turquoise shallows, or the pygmy dolphins that are suddenly nose to nose with your boat. Writing Waltzing the Cat was -- every minute of it -- like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
I am not planning to write a novel, per se, mostly because I love the form I'm working in. I see a story as a conglomerate of pieces that make a whole, and then I see each story as a piece of a larger whole, a book, an idea that makes sense to me right now in a way writing a novel does not. But plans change, as do the boundaries between genres. I won't know precisely what the next book of fiction is until it is finished.