I was privileged to ask questions of our most recent guest writer, on the occasion of the 3rd Annual Writers’ Feast. Pam Houston was most open and direct to my questions of her, for which I am delighted. I believe you, too, will find her responses to my questions provocative and especially helpful should you be a writer or have secret wishes to become one. Enjoy, and begin with grand play and hard work. Write!
Gary D. Swaim,
Pony Express(ions) Editor
Pam Houston is the award winning author of books including Cowboys Are My Weakness, Waltzing the Cat, A Little More About Me, and Sight Hound. Her stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and the Best American Short Stories of the Century. A collection of essays, A Little More About Me, was published by W.W. Norton in the fall of 1999. Pam teaches in the graduate writing program at University of California, Davis.
Gary: Our world seems to divide fiction into two broad categories, at the very least: pop fiction and literary fiction. What are your attitudes about that division? What separates one category from the other, if anything?
Pam: It seems in bad form not to have an answer for the very first question, but honestly I don’t read pop fiction—I probably couldn’t name a recent book of pop fiction if I had a gun to my head–so I feel radically unqualified to speak about it. When a work of literary fiction squeaks onto the bestseller list, I often don’t read it simply because I figure plenty of other people are reading it, so it doesn’t need me.
Gary: Certainly poetry is not at the top of American readers’ lists. It seems fiction runs not all that far out in front of poetry. In relationship to that idea, what is the greatest problem facing today’s writer? Is there anything she/he can do to best address this apparent reality?
Pam: The biggest problem facing today’s writer is the same problem that has always faced writers, which is how to make art that is beautiful and in some definition of the word, true. What people are buying, or reading, or liking, or turning into movies will never be a subject that interests me very much because it just seems a distraction from the work I have to do. But to try to answer your question in the spirit in which it was asked: In our culture we have too many writers and not enough readers. If everyone in America who said they wanted to be a writer bought and read twenty hard cover books a year, our problems would be solved and our community would be financially viable and healthy, but a lot of the people who say they want to be writers don’t buy three books in a year.
Gary: Writers, historically, had been cited (especially in ancient times) as something akin to prophets. It appears the singer/songwriter has taken much of that role from the writer. Do you agree? Why or why not? Are there areas a serious writer almost has a responsibility to address today, as a “prophet?”
Pam: I love singer songwriters. Deeply. But I don’t see them as prophets, any more than I see writers as prophets, which is really not at all. Record keepers, yes. The best writers are able to represent what it means to be alive on this planet in all of its emotional and psychological complexity (not always by recounting that complexity in painstaking detail but by gesturing at it extremely effectively) and that often looks like prophecy, only because we as a culture are so very bad at seeing ourselves. Didn’t Ray Bradbury say, “I was not predicting the future, I was trying to prevent it.”
Gary: What do you regard to be the serious writer’s primary responsibilities to be? To the self? To the reader?
Pam: Emotional honesty and artistic rigor. Complexity of mind and heart.
Gary: Would you dare to “prophesy” where fiction might go next? Subject matter? Styles?
Pam: I think the most interesting thing that is happening in literature right now is the willful blurring of the lines between genres, and the attack on that blurring by the more conservative readers who want to keep those lines thin and straight. I do not believe, with David Shields, that the novel is dead, but I do believe that what can constitute the form of the novel is changing. (In other words, I believe that if David really thinks the novel is dead, he has been reading the wrong novels.) I believe much else of what David says in Reality Hunger, that most great works of literature either create a genre or destroy one, that associative connection can be just as valuable an organizing principle in fiction as it is in poetry, that collage is an infinitely interesting form.
Gary: In your writing, how do you begin: in a knowing way or a way of discovery? An image? A word?
Pam: I like the expression “a way of discovery.” That is what I call living in the “not knowing.” The three questions I never allow into my writing room are “What does it mean, where is it going, how does it end?” I can’t imagine what the point would be of writing if I knew where I was going when I started out. I suppose I start with an image, though I call them glimmers, so that the category can include things other than something strictly imagistic, like a line of dialogue or even a feeling made physical through one of the senses other than sight. Something happens out in the world that beckons me, it says, “hey writer, look over here, are you paying attention?” It could be an Armenian playing Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime on accordion and trumpet on the ferry from Kevala to Thassos, Greece. It could be the smell of pork souvla on the graffittied alleys of Thessaloniki. (Can you tell where I am at the moment?) It could be a few notes of Rebetika drifing out a fourth story apartment window at dawn.
Gary: What do you suppose most human are struggling toward? Can fiction help us get there?
Pam: I don’t think I would want to guess what most humans are struggling towards. What I am struggling towards is being broader in my understanding, more multiple in my responses, quicker to move to compassion, more forgiving of everyone, especially myself. And yes, fiction can help get me there (and when I use the word fiction here I mean my variety of fiction, which is more like loose autobiography shaped into story, though I feel certain that other types of fiction could help me get there too.) Humans have always been storytellers. Like singing and dancing (which we as Americans do far too little of) we feel lifted up in spirit when we are telling stories, or listening to a good story well told. Storytelling is at least one of the primary things, in my opinion, that we humans were put on earth to do.