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Pam Houston’s Backstreets

"I've never had a dog that wanted to cuddle quite this much, or quite this? humanly," Pam Houston tried to explain in an essay about her young Irish wolfhound. "But it is also true that Dante has a wider range of emotions than any man I dated during my twenties."

Pam Houston Years later, Dante's sweet, short life gives a framework to the author's first novel. "Sight Hound was my attempt to do justice to one of the most important relationships I've ever had in my life," Houston says. "It was only after I turned in the final version that I realized [it] is actually a book about faith."

She's written about dogs before Jackson and Sally, then also the free-roaming canines of Park City, Utah and relationships push many of Houston's stories forward, fiction and nonfiction alike.

When Richard Ford selected "How to Talk to a Hunter" for Best American Short Stories 1990, he introduced a revelatory new voice to fiction rough but intimate, independent but openhearted. Cowboys Are My Weakness catapulted Houston to the top rung of western writers. More stories followed in Waltzing the Cat John Updike chose "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" for Best American Short Stories of the Century and next came a "thrilling, exquisite" (Mademoiselle), "fearless" (New York Times Book Review) collection of essays, A Little More about Me.

In the progress of things, Houston says, it was time to write about a few good men. That one of those men happens to be a dog, well, who would call it a surprise?

Dave: Lots of people grow very close to their pets, of course, but what is the attraction for you, personally? What is it about animals? Why do you value your time with them to this degree?

Pam Houston: I think, at least in part, it's because they do things with their full attention. If a dog wants to go outside, he wants to go outside entirely. They want the steak off your plate; they want it entirely. They're happy to see you; they're happy to see you with their whole being. There's something in me that wants to be more like that.

As a writer, one of the things I try to do is shed all the encumbrances that keep me from living with my full attention, with my entire being. Sometimes I feel like my dogs are living better, more complete lives than I am. To write from their point-of-view is natural for several reasons. I spend a whole lot of time thinking and talking for them, as Amy Hempel used to say, talking on their behalf in my own mind, to me and back.

In terms of the larger issue, I think it's about seeing life lived with a kind of purity of emotion, wanting to be close to that and to emulate it. A lot of people say animals don't emote, but I don't fall into that camp.

Someone asked me, "Do you really believe Dante was sent to you to teach you these lessons, or do you think you made that up in your head?" I said, "I don't think it matters. I think the answer is somewhere in between."

Dave: While I was reading your books these last few weeks, I was also dipping into a memoir coming out this fall called The Tender Bar. It's a long, lyrical book, entirely chronological, from page one. I've read about two hundred pages so far and only once since the opening chapter has the story jumped out of its chronology, and then only for a few lines. That kind of straight-line narrative ordinarily bores me to tears, but it's a compelling voice, very well done. I haven't wanted to put it down.

In your stories and essays, and now the novel, the structure feels more like a dragonfly's afternoon it flutters here and there, landing for a minute and taking off again, sideways, front, or back. Do you ever imagine yourself writing something linear?

Houston: No, though I shouldn't answer so quickly because there might be a project that suggests itself down the line. Right now, I can barely imagine myself writing in the third-person, but one day I might like to get there.

The way work happens for me? I am a collector of shiny objects and this has been true all along, no matter the subject matter or the form the book ultimately takes. I'm like those birds, keas in New Zealand, who collect the shiny objects: I go out in the world, certain things glimmer at me, they resonate with something inside me it could be the waiting room of a veterinary clinic, an overheard moment of conversation, the way the light is coming through the trees. Whatever it is, it hits that spot in me that says, "Writing-worthy."

I talk about it with my students as "glimmering," though of course it's not necessarily pretty. But it has that sheen around it that says, "Take me home and write me down." Then for me it's all about putting those things in an order so that they inform each other; together they make something more complicated than the parts.

If I wrote something linear it would probably be a total accident; it would be one random assemblage that would happen to go in order. It seems that, numerically, the odds are very much against that.

Dave: Did you feel compelled to work from structural guidelines of any kind as you approached the larger canvas of a novel? Did you outline at all, or did you work from instinct, stitching the pieces together?

Houston: The very word outline sends chills up my spine. If there's one thing I'm adamant about, it's that I don't know where I'm going. If I think even for a second I might know, I do everything I can to confuse myself so I won't know anymore.

I had never written a novel before, and unlike a short story or an essay I couldn't keep the whole metaphorical field in my mind at one time. My fear was that I would just keep collecting and collecting and the story would never make that happy turn a short story makes that says it's starting to close down. The one concession I made was the section dividers "The Hockey Player," "The End," "The Future" and I was sure those were going to come out; I was sure those were just a crutch I was using to get the book into pieces I could handle.

I was positive my editor was going to say, "Get rid of them. They're not doing anything." I really didn't think they were. But they just stayed. No one ever told me to get rid of them. I thought, Okay, I'll leave them in. Maybe they'll be some sort of guide for the reader. It's funny the conversations you never have with your editor, but of all the conversations we had through seven drafts, we never had the conversation What are these doing in here? and Should we take them out? They just stayed.

The other thing is that I thought this was a collection of short stories until about a hundred and twenty pages in. I thought it was twelve stories, each told by a different narrator, around a series of events, the life and death of the dog. But then I ran into the problem of time. I wanted Dante to be able to speak at two different points in time. Then I wanted Dr. Evans to be able to speak at more than one point. How do I do that? I imagined a 24-story collection with everyone speaking twice. I was well on my way to imagining a 36-story collection and what my editor would say about that nothing good when I sort of went, Oh, this is what they mean when they say novel.

That's how I came to it. Denial was how I handled my fear for those first hundred and twenty pages, and the section dividers were the way I got to the end.

Dave: And it worked. At some point you realized all the pieces were there.

Houston: When I did feel the book start to come in, start to turn back, I was greatly relieved. I thought there were probably about fifty or sixty pages left to bring all the metaphors around and gather everything in. Eighteen pages later, somehow, I was done.

That was thrilling for me. I'm such a believer in how the subconscious and the unconscious takes care of a story, even as your analytical brain is trying to screw it up. One of the reasons I concentrate so hard on the physicality of the story both the physical stuff of the story and the actual physical pieces of the story is that if I can keep making it physical I'm not analyzing it too much and heading to a false ending. This was a big test of that because there was no way I could keep it all in my conscious brain. When it came back around I was thrilled. I couldn't wait to do it again, for that one minute of happiness when I realized it was all there.

Dave: After you published Waltzing the Cat, you told Salon.com, "My next book is going to have a really good man in it." Now, in Sight Hound, we meet Howard and Dr. Evans. Did you have any concept five years ago what you might be writing next?

Houston: I can only guess. I'd written Cowboys Are My Weakness, which was the book where I didn't take responsibility and I blamed the guys. In Waltzing the Cat, I wasn't writing about a particularly better group of guys, but at least I knew it was my own fault. Maybe I was thinking that the next step would be to actually see some different kinds of men out there; it might not lead to disaster every time.

There are a lot of good men in this book. Certainly Dr. Evans and Howard, even Brooklyn Underhill I think he's going to turn out to be a good man. And Dante, of course. I'm afraid to think that I might have been dating someone at the time that I thought was good and wasn't that's probably the real answer. But in the progress of things, it was time.

One of my goals with this book was to try to make every character sympathetic in some way. Even Eddie Kominsky. The books that I truly love, let's take for instance Toni Morrison's books? In Love, her new novel, she has a line that says, "He was either a good bad man or a bad good man, it all depends on what you hold dear." That's what I wanted: complicated, multifaceted characters. One of the challenges was to write everyone with compassion, with a sympathetic eye.

Dave: In your INK Q&A, you referred to the "particular physical detail that stretches, but does not snap belief." Can you think of any favorites from other authors' work?

Houston: There are so many. That's the way I think of stories I love. I referenced one earlier one of my favorite details is in an Amy Hempel story called "Nashville Gone to Ashes" [from Reasons to Live]. The old woman in the story talks not so much to her dog as for her dog. She does this dog-speak that's fantastic.

What have I read lately that I loved? In a book that's just come out by Elizabeth McKenzie called Stop that Girl, on the very first page, the narrator walks down the street past a self-hating mynah bird that says "Kill me." It's so perfect. It's on the first page, and I was committed to the whole book after that bird spoke.

Dave: What's your ideal altitude?

Houston: I live at nine thousand feet, and I quite like it; I feel very comfortable there, but when I come down just a little bit I have more energy. If I come down too far I have too many red blood cells and I feel listless, which is the excuse why the Denver Broncos didn't win all those Super Bowls: they had too many red blood cells.

I would say my ideal altitude is seventy-five hundred feet.

Dave: Bruce Springsteen makes a cameo in Sight Hound. Was that the bit of New Jersey that Pam brought west?

Houston: Probably. I'm still a pretty big Bruce fan. That is certainly a part of my upbringing that I won't let go of. I've let go of a lot of my east coast stuff, but I'm not letting go of that.

I had an amazing experience this summer. I went back to the Jersey shore because I might write about it this new book I'm sort of flirting with is about a young girl. I went back with a girlfriend from California who'd never seen the Jersey shore. It was my first time there in about twenty-five years.

The very first night we were there I went to Seaside Heights, which is where I went as a little kid. It's about as crummy as it gets. We went to the boardwalk and there were all the rides and the Kohr Brothers Frozen Custard and everything else. The whole drive down from Boston, I'd been saying to Tammy, "The thing we should have brought was early Bruce." I'd brought all these CDs, and I was saying, "I can't believe we came to the Jersey shore and I brought The Rising." Terrible choice. Should have brought Greetings from Asbury Park. I said, "We can probably just turn on the radio," and of course it was all just hip-hop. There was no Bruce to be found.

So we get to the boardwalk, and I'm on total sensory overload: We've got to get a cheesesteak, and a here's where they squeeze the lemonade? I can hardly even speak, I'm so overwhelmed with memory. And I'm paying the cheesesteak lady, and she says, "Are you a Springsteen fan?" I said, "Yes." She said, "I thought you looked about the right age." She said, "There's a Springsteen cover band playing down at the end of the boardwalk tonight. You should check it out. Last week there was a Beatles cover band, and they were really good."

Well, when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, every single night we went to Art Stock's Playpen in Wildwood Crest to see this band called Backstreets play nothing but Springsteen all the time. We would get up in the morning and sleep on the beach until we had to be beach inspectors at ten that was our job, to make sure everyone had their beach tags on. From ten to five, we'd walk the beach, then from five to eight we'd go to whatever happy hour had free food, and from eight until five in the morning we'd go to Art Stock's Playpen again and dance to the same songs every night: "Jungleland," "Rosalita," "Growing Up," "Blinded by the Light."

Anyway, Tammy and I walk down to the end of the boardwalk. I hear "Jungleland," and I swear to God I get chills all over my body. This is a band that's playing at Seaside Heights; it doesn't get any worse. There are all these people in lawn chairs out on the beach, the sun's going down, the sky is all pretty, and here are these guys. I say to Tammy, "They're old."

She looks at a flyer they're handing out, which includes weddings they're playing, and the band is called B-Streets. Tammy, who's much more up on teen culture than I am, says, "They had to change their name from Backstreets to B-streets because of the Backstreet Boys." Well, it's the same guys! Twenty-eight years later. On our first night we had just arrived! It was amazing. I went up to them with my camera. I was like, "Art Stock's Playpen? 1978?" They were all, "Yeah!"

That's a long answer to a short question, but I'm a fan. I remain a fan. There's an anthology coming out called Meeting across the River, which I contributed to. We all had to listen to the song "Meeting across the River" and write a story from it.

Dave: Why that song?

Houston: It's a weird choice. It's a strange, quiet, little song. I don't know why. But you know the line, "Cherry said she's gonna walk 'cause she found out I took her radio and hocked it"? I wrote a story called "Cherry Looks Back." I'm kind of excited about it.

Dave: You say in the INK Q&A that you've always had a thing for the kid in Richard Ford's "Communist" [from Rock Springs]. "I might like to date the man he might have grown up to be," you admitted. I'd never read Ford's books until college, when a teacher played a reading of "Communist" on tape?

Houston: Read by William Hurt?

Dave: Yes. So the kid in that story has always looked and sounded like William Hurt to me.

Houston: I was at Symphony Space the night William Hurt read that story because my story was read, too. Mia Dillon read "How to Talk to a Hunter." Or was it a different night of the same season? I can't remember, but I was there when William Hurt read that story. It was a brilliant reading.

Dave: In Sight Hound, a passage describes Rae watching people perform her play. There's a moment when she realizes that the person on stage has turned her work into something entirely beyond her vision of it. You could say the same thing about a novel or a story, how the audience gives it shape in its reading. Sometimes an author's vision of the work isn't as incisive as the readership's.

Houston: Jonathan says of Springsteen's music, "I bring to it a complicated understanding. More complicated, I'd wager, than they bring to it themselves." That's definitely what I'm talking about. I absolutely believe it.

I bring my whole life experience to some series of events. I turn those pieces of the physical world into language, and in that process they change. Likewise, here's a book on a table; now someone comes along with their whole series of life experiences and reads it. It's going to be different for every single person. That's the beauty of it.

People tell me things about my work all the time that I can hardly believe. Sometimes, I think, That's really cool, and sometimes I think, Wow, that's out of left field.

Dave: How would you describe the difference between your fiction and your nonfiction?

Houston: I think it's a matter of narrative stance, but I can answer that question two ways. I can tell you what becomes nonfiction as opposed to what becomes fiction. It all comes out of the same set of life experiences.

What becomes nonfiction are events or stories where the metaphors are in alignment with each other and I'm not too afraid of what's going to happen if I look closely at them. A good example would be an essay I wrote called "I Was a Captain in Colonel Bob's Army" [from A Little More about Me], which was about a hugely important event in my life, something so important to me that I can't even measure it. That would tend to knock it over to the fiction category because I tend to believe in fiction more than I believe in nonfiction, and yet it's a simple story that works out well in the end and all the metaphorical evidence lines up in one direction. It doesn't have that fear factor and the potential for unlimited complication that sends something over to the fiction side.

A different way to say all that is to talk about narrative stance in other words, where I stand as narrator, whether I am me or I am Rae or I am Dante or whether I am Dr. Evans. In fiction, as the writer, I don't want to know where I'm going. I don't want to know how it turns out. I don't want to know what it means. I really don't want to know what it means.

When I'm writing nonfiction, it's okay a little bit to know what it means, to have more of a retrospective stance, which is really another way of saying the exact same thing: If everything lines up and I feel comfortable about the outcome, then I feel fine having a retrospective stance. If I know that I'm opening a can of worms that's going to take me somewhere I don't understand, and it's probably darker than I would care to go on any given day and is going to reveal truths that are going to surprise me, probably not all in a good way, then it's fiction.

Those are not definitions that apply to work in general, but they apply to me. That's how I divide it up.

Dave: You call yourself "a paint-my-face Colorado Avalanche fan." How are you handling the lockout this winter?

Houston: It's grim and it's getting grimmer. I have friends who are more or less connected who say it's going to be another year after this one before they start playing again. One more reason to move to Canada, is how I feel about it.

I love hockey so much. The only consolation, of course, is that I'm on a book tour. At least they picked a winter where my attention is somewhere else. But how lovely would it be to come back to the hotel rooms, turn on ESPN, and watch the replays? That would be so much better than the Weather Channel.

Dave: I worked at a sports bar in Colorado the year the Avalanche first won the Cup.

Houston: Their first year in Colorado?

Dave: Right. It was a strange experience. I grew up in Boston, so I was raised with the Bruins. At the beginning of that first season in Colorado, none of our customers even knew the rules. We would be at the bar explaining offside and icing.

Houston: Of course. It wasn't even in the paper. I remember when they were in the quarterfinals that year I grew up a serious Philadelphia Flyers fan I was asking, "Where is this team?" I thought, If they were in Denver, the Denver Post would be covering them, but they were in the quarter round of the playoffs before there was anything in the Post. It was Broncos, Broncos, Broncos?

Dave: That's Colorado, too. Those were the Elway years.

Houston: I know, but you'd be surprised. Over the years? They love the Avalanche. In fact the Post this year, I opened the paper one day and saw, "Sauve Records First Shutout." It stopped me. What? They're printing an article every single day, a short hockey article from another year. Isn't that bizarre? To assuage our sadness.

Dave: I didn't know that.

Houston: You can't believe how hockey-crazy Denver got.

Dave: It's the nature of the people there. They're not fair-weather fans.

Houston: Witness the Colorado Rockies.

Dave: And growing up in Boston, we booed everything. If someone wasn't playing well, or God forbid not giving a full effort, they were going to hear it.

Houston: Right, I know.

Dave: I'll never forget a Raiders-Broncos game at Mile High I saw on TV when I was living there. The Broncos played so poorly in the first half that they got booed going into the tunnel at halftime. In the newspapers the next week, all the letters talked about how disrespectful the fans had been and how embarrassed Coloradoans felt for their behavior.

Houston: Absolutely. It's true. I'm a Broncos season ticket holder. It's one of the things I love about Colorado, the innocence of their sports fans. And I love being innocent myself. It's why I can't move out here. I like this coast and I teach on it, but I can't let go of the Broncos and the hope that one day the Avs will return.

You probably know this, but when Ray Bourque was winning his Stanley Cup and everyone was wearing his half-half jerseys, the one major billboard in downtown Denver it's massive, you can't avoid it it said, "Good luck, Ray, from the people of Boston." And it was so great. Every time you saw it you got choked up. We felt like we were sister cities during that time.

Dave: Dante was the name of your dog, and now the name of the dog in Sight Hound. He was not named after the Italian poet, however; you named him after Dante Bichette, the baseball player.

Houston: That's true.

Dave: Did you have a problem with Andres Galarraga? Why Dante Bichette?

Houston: Well, if it were a cat? [Editor's note: Galarraga's nickname is "The Big Cat."]

It wasn't so much that I loved Dante Bichette as a player in fact, the year that I got Dante wasn't one of his better seasons. It was really the sound of the announcer's voice saying "Dan-te!" every time he came out.

One day I got to meet him on the field a long and uninteresting story but I got to shake his hand, and I said, "Hi! I named my dog after you!" He didn't seem to be all that excited.

Dave: No knock on Dante or Rose, but I found myself oddly attached to Stanley the cat in his short sections. There's a note in the acknowledgements about someone in Greeley, Colorado, who told you to let the cat speak for himself. What's that all about?

Houston: When I was in Greeley, I read from an early draft of the book that included Darlene's monologue, which talks about Stanley but just the briefest mention. There was no first-person cat at the time. This kid raised his hand and said, "Aren't you gonna give the cat a chance to speak for himself?"

I'm really not a cat person, as is probably obvious, and I never would have thought of it. I spend half my day wondering what my dogs are thinking, so that was a natural.

I went home and tried to write Stanley. I don't have fun writing very often I'm satisfied or dissatisfied or whatever I am but writing Stanley was about the most fun I've ever had spending two or three hours at the computer.

Dave: What do you have going on that we don't know about?

Houston: I might team up with Rick Reilly on Colorado Public Radio, which would be so much fun I can't even think about it. I mentioned in the Q&A that I read Sports Illustrated cover to cover every week; that's something most people wouldn't know about me. You could say that professional sports are my untapped resource.

Dave: And next you might be writing a book that takes a character back east?

Houston: The very first thought about this book, the very first feeling, was that it was an ocean book. You know, Enough with the mountains already. Let's describe a different landscape.

I keep writing about the mountains because I find myself in them more often, but I live near the ocean when I'm in California and I grew up at the Jersey shore. I love southeast Alaska about as much as any other place on the earth. I'm always getting myself to watery places.

I think the primary relationship in the book is about a young girl, pre-teen, and an older woman who she's not related to. That's a relationship I've had in my life both ways: with my godmother, Martha Washington, who basically taught me everything good I know; and now I have a goddaughter who is very important to me. I wanted to write about that particular relationship. That would be one facet of the book. You never know whether that becomes the subplot or the main plot or whatever.

I don't know, but I imagine it will go to New Jersey. I grew up in Pennsylvania, but all my summers were at the Jersey shore. That's the thing that sticks. That's the only thing about back there that I get nostalgic about.

Pam Houston visited Powell's City of Books on February 4, 2005. This coming October, she'll be teaching at The Tomales Bay Workshops alongside Richard Bausch, Brady Udall, Kim Barnes, Ron Carlson, Jane Miller, and Carl Phillips.

Among the titles rejected for this interview were: Pam Houston Looks Back. Pam Houston Stretches but Does Not Snap. Woofing it up with Pam Houson. Pam Houston, Shore to Shore. Pam Houston Spent Teenage Summers as a Beach Inspector in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Pam Houston: Barks, She Wrote. Locked Out with Pam Houston. A Little More (Again) about Pam Houston. Pam Houston Should Title the Interview Herself.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Best American Short Stories of...
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  2. Waltzing the Cat 1st Edition
    Used Hardcover $4.95
  3. A Little More about Me Used Trade Paper $4.95
  4. Cowboys Are My Weakness: Stories
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  5. Sight Hound Used Hardcover $8.50
  6. A Little More about Me Used Trade Paper $4.95
  7. Sight Hound Used Hardcover $8.50
  8. Rock Springs (Vintage Contemporaries) Used Trade Paper $3.95
  9. Stop That Girl: A Novel in Stories Used Hardcover $11.50
  10. Reasons to Live New Trade Paper $14.99
  11. Love
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  12. Waltzing the Cat 1st Edition
    Used Hardcover $4.95
  13. Cowboys Are My Weakness: Stories
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  14. The Best American Short Stories of...
    Used Trade Paper $6.50

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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