Author talks richness of the road
What is it that makes travel so addictive? Is it the promise of new experiences and the opportunity to meet people who are distinctly different than us? Or is it the hope that being pried from our comfort zone will reveal life’s deeper lessons?
Author Pam Houston explores how travel can transform us in her recent book, Contents May Have Shifted. The novel employs a fractured style of storytelling, which has caused a bit of grumbling from some critics. Still, Houston and others defend this travel tale mosaic, where the reader jumps from one experience to another, from one place to the next – much like Houston’s restless personal trajectory – as a vital element to the narrative.
It was no easy feat to lock down this nomadic scribe and UC Davis college professor, who, when she is not wandering, splits her time between Colorado and California. But just before deadline I managed to locate Houston. “I am actually on the top of a mountain at the moment… and cell service is poor,” she wrote in an email on Monday afternoon.
Houston, perhaps best known as the author of the renowned short story collection, Cowboys are my Weakness, will read from Contents May Have Shifted 7 p.m., Wednesday, August 27, at Teton County Library. She also is teaching a writing workshop on August 28, though it is currently full. To join a waiting list for the workshop, contact Leah Shlachter, adult program coordinator, at 733-2164 ext. 229; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Planet Jackson Hole: Is Contents May Have Shifted a narrative of your own real-life experiences?
Pam Houston: I get this question a lot, as you can imagine, and my answer is always some version of yes and no. But the precise way you have worded your question, I think the answer would have to be yes. This book is a narrative of my own real-life experiences, although I would be amiss if I didn’t say I have taken those experiences and shaped them into stories, which has, in some cases, altered the experience somewhat from what we might agree to call “how it really happened.” Which is one reason why we decided to call it a novel. Like all of my books, Contents May Have Shifted lives in what I would call the wide and widening borderland between fiction and nonfiction. Like many writers, I am made uncomfortable by what has become, only in recent years, a policing of the line between the two genres as if most novels and memoirs don’t exist somewhere in that grey area. Language cannot represent reality precisely, we all know that, and yet [look at the] James Frey – Oprah [confrontation], etc. I am in the business of taking things that happen in my life and shaping them into story… that is my job. It is fine with me, since I occasionally take small liberties with the truth for the sake of form and structure, to call that fiction, but this is my story, from any kind of angle you want to look, so to call myself Melinda seemed absurd. Mostly, I called myself Pam because I wanted to enter this conversation we are having at this moment in literature… the “perhaps we are focused on the wrong kind of truth” moment. Perhaps reality TV (which everyone knows is not reality) has made us stupid. I don’t know why we are trying to deny language, its inescapable fluidity.
PJH: Why do you think nomadic lifestyles appeal to a broad swath of people?
Houston: This is a question I have never been asked before, but I imagine you have a lot of nomadic types up there in Jackson. I honestly don’t know why, but I can tell you why it appeals to me. Nothing has ever or likely will ever get me as excited as a brand new landscape. I am not happy unless I have one plane ticket in my hand and another in my underwear drawer. I am an experience hog, I suppose, and the more varied the experiences the better. I guess I would ask the question the other way: Why does staying still appeal to so many people when we only have one life to live? Why doesn’t everybody want the richness that comes with living in and visiting as many places as possible?
PJH: What are some lessons traveling has taught you concerning yourself, relationships, other people/cultures and the world?
Houston: I can’t really answer this question because Contents May Have Shifted is exactly my answer (and it would take too long). Contents is a compilation of the most important lessons traveling has taught me about myself, relationships, other people/cultures and the world.
PJH: How have your experiences living in the American West shaped your writing?
Houston: Moving to the American West is what made me a writer. I played at writing as a kid in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and played a little harder at it in college in Ohio. But when I came West after college the landscape just opened me up in ways I would have never thought possible. I have always been a writer who gets inspired first by landscape, and next by the things that go on in that landscape. The West, the Colorado plateau, the Rockies, everything I would call the Real West was richer than I ever dreamed on both counts.
PJH: Discuss one of your favorite moments in the book.
Houston: Hmm. My first reaction to this question is to feel like I ought not to have favorite moments, or if I do have them, I ought not to say so. But if I sit and ponder it for a while, I do have moments that I especially like to read aloud because it puts me back in that place or with that person. I don’t have a copy of the book with me at the moment, but it seems like all the scenes that have Pam’s friend, Fenton, in them, especially the one that ends with the line, “The grapefruits from the tree in his yard are the sweetest in the world.” He’s a dear friend and I never get to see him enough … so that is like having a quick visit.
PJH: How does Contents differ from you other work?
Houston: I’m not sure that it does differ too much. In fact, I think of Contents as a kind of grown up Cowboys Are My Weakness. They have metrically identical titles on purpose. Contents May Have Shifted, Cowboys Are My Weakness … three troches.
I think the ideas in this book have gotten more complicated than in my previous books because the world has gotten more complicated and so has my brain. Also, I really let form lead the way this time, which was pure pleasure.
When I thought about how I wanted this book to be different from the others, what I said to myself is that I wanted the language to work harder than it ever had before. I mentioned above my love of poetry, and I wanted a similar compression to what the poets I love achieve.
So, after the manuscript was all finished and I had been through it 40 or 50 times and got it pretty much the way I wanted it, I invented a strategy for squeezing a few more words out of it.
Every time there was a word or two at the end of a paragraph that spilled over to the next line, I found a way to compress the language of the paragraph so that it got pulled “up” to the line above. My book is in 144 short sections, so I did the same thing if a sentence or two at the end of a section was “widowed” onto a blank page. You can see how this becomes a self-perpetuating process. If I pulled up a three sentence-widow from the end of a section, and then pulled up word-widows from every paragraph within that section, I might create, by the time I was finished, new widows to pull up at the section’s end. I knew, of course, that the layout of my Microsoft Word manuscript would bear no resemblance to the typeset book. This was simply a way to say to each sentence, ‘I know you think you’re as tight as you can get, now let’s tighten you up just a little bit more.’ It took four months and I wound up losing 17 pages, a couple of words at a time, and I can say without a doubt it was time well spent.
PJH: What do you find most difficult about writing? Most gratifying?
Houston: The most difficult thing about writing is hurting people, and, more accurately, making the endless decisions about what is mine to tell, what is not mine to tell, and when to make a decision in favor of the relationship and when to make a decision in favor of the piece of writing.
The most gratifying? The great Barry Lopez says we are pattern makers, and if our patterns are beautiful and full of grace they will be able to bring a person for whom the world has become broken and disorganized up off his knees and back to life. I borrowed that line (credited of course) for Contents May Have Shifted. That is the most gratifying thing about writing.