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Q&A With Author Pam Houston

Blurring the lines between truth and fiction.

Pam Houston, whose latest collection of stories/chapters is Contents May Shift, is a master at taking the facts of events, people and places she's encountered, and creating characters that resonate with the truth about all of our lives. Here's more from this prolific author:

Jennifer Haupt: How much of your latest book is autobiographical? Are you the narrator?

Pam Houston:

When I was a young writer Tim O'Brien wrote a beautiful book called The Things They Carried in which the main character was named Tim O'Brien. It was filed under fiction, but nowhere on it did it say fiction. It was made of short stories that also hung together in a longer arc that suggested the form of novel. That book made deep artistic sense to me in my formative years.

Pam Houston:

My books always come from events, people and places I have experienced or at least witnessed, but I also want to be free to mold and shape those events into the most meaningful story, the emotionally truest (as opposed to the most factually accurate) story, which sometimes means merging and shifting and tweaking reality to fit whatever demands the story begins to make on the material.

My editor says, "We want them to think it is Pam, and it is not Pam," and that is exactly how it works in my head too. I couldn't write a character who was "me" even if I wanted to. Language is too limited—it won't sit still, and memory is too shadowy to trust; throw in an average sized dose of pride and shame, and it seems impossible not to fictionalize oneself to a certain extent, even when we are trying with all our might not to. On the other hand this is not a novel in the traditional sense. It is important to me that there was a witnessing presence here, seeing all of these many things, and that that presence is in some sense or another me.

When I wrote my first book, this was the first question everyone asked me. How autobiographical? Very, I said, but that did not seem to satisfy the ones who asked. They seemed to want a number. So I came up with one: 82%. It is a number that still, all these years later, feels just about right.

JH: Contents May Shift is described as both a novel and a collection of short stories. Even after reading it, I'm still a bit confused. Is that your intent-to blur the lines?

PH: I have never been a big fan of lines, of mutually exclusive categories. I live more comfortably in the between spaces. I see my work as collage. Lots of little pieces that have value on their own, that put next to other interesting pieces are sometimes transformed. In a certain way I want each sentence to stand alone, each paragraph as well, each chapter. But then I want all the sentences to add up to something more than the sum of its parts, all of chapters, even all of books. I want the pieces to have integrity, in other words, no matter what the size of the frame.

I don't mistake the "this happened then this happened then this happened" way of describing the world for "realism" or "reality." My reality is much more fractured than that, far less logical and chronological and far more associative. I'm driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and I hear Tom Petty's America Girl and that takes me back to eating a cheesesteak hoagie on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey in 1979, and that makes me think of my father who threw me in the ocean when I was two to see—I guess—if I would sink or float, and that sends me straight to hurricane Gordon, which I rode out off the coast of Bimini Island with my dear, now deceased friend Shelton in his 52 Irwin named Phaedrus, which makes me think of the riots in Athens this summer and how nobody wanted to make change and so gave us food for free... etc. That is how meaning gets made inside my head. So rather than say my intent is to blur the lines, I would say that those lines are not useful to me as an artist. They don't help me to get the story written.

JH: How did you come up with the idea to write a collection of 144 short stories/chapters in thematic sets of twelve? Where did you begin?

PH: This book began when I was invited to the Wisconsin Book Festival and asked to be part of an evening called Unveiled, where four or five of us were asked to read utterly untested work. I took the assignment so seriously that I did not start writing until I was on the plane to Wisconsin, and in my panic I took my own advice to my students: when you get stuck just jot down things that have happened out in the world lately that glimmered at you. That attracted your attention.

That, give or take, is how I got the first 12 glimmers. Then it became a kind of rubix cube-like puzzle. I wanted each group of 12 to have tight associative relationships, recurring images (used different ways) and as you said, a more or less identifiable theme. I got the idea later to put the airplane chapters in between each group of 12. That way 132 of the chapters are all named with a place, and the airplane stories take place no place... in the air, and are named only with the flight numbers. I have always loved the number 12. Something about moons or months, rather than apostles, I imagine. My last book had 12 first person narrators.

It shows more in this book than the others, but I am a big believer in the old poetry adage that form will set you free. Once I have a form in mind, as I did here, the gross, the 144, the 12 12's... I was really free to get to work filling those 144 boxes, and see what kind of story emerged.

JH: The narrator in this travelogue finds her comfort zone in the air, while many people experience some degree of a fear of flying. Tell me about your own feelings about being above the clouds.

PH: I love to fly. I love airports. I love the energy of all those comings and goings. I love to walk out on the tarmac with the big planes. I even like security okay, though I usually opt out of the one where you have to put your arms over your head. I have a flown a million miles on United Airlines alone. I am perhaps happiest of all on an airplane with letters on the side I can't even pronounce.

JH: Do you enjoy traveling or is staying at home your preferred option?

PH: Every time my parents got ten dollars ahead we went someplace, and they gave their passion for travel to me. Of the two options, staying home makes me far more nervous. I find travel incredibly calming, incredibly freeing, even when I am going to a country where there is deep political unrest and/or serious amoebic dysentery. I am happiest when I have one plane ticket in my hand and another in my underwear drawer.

JH: Do you have a writing ritual that you maintain, wherever you go?

PH: I tend to be a kind of binge writer, whether I am traveling or not. When the writing is happening, I can work for days straight without really looking up, eating, or sleeping, but when it isn't, I can go for weeks or even months avoiding those files on my computer.
But I do have one ritual, since you use the word... now don't laugh... It is a rare week that I am not on an airplane, and sometimes I am on as many as six in a week. There is a moment on every flight when the pilot always comes over the load speaker and tells everyone we will be starting our initial descent soon. Anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before landing. From that point until wheels on the tarmac I have to be writing, doing a kind of glimmer brain dump of everything that has been hanging around in my memory, taking up space.

JH: What is the One True Thing you learned while writing this book?

PH: In a certain way that is exactly what this book is about. Paying close attention, going from place to place looking for true things.

There is a character called Janine in the book. She is an acupuncturist. Very late in the book she says, "Swimming is great, but you might have to learn to drown a little." I give a lot of different people in the book voice to say one of their true things, lots of writers and thinkers, actual ones, (Bob Hass, Nelson Mandela, Barry Lopez) make cameo appearances and say things they have said, at one time or another to me, or to the larger world. All of those things feel true to me, which is why I have included them, but I think what Janine says, for me right now, feels the truest of all.

Pam Houston teaches creative writing at the University of California, Davis, and lives on a ranch in Creede, Colorado. She has been a frequent contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine, and her writing appears regularly in More and other publications.

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