Rainbow ending in the barn on Pam Houston's Colorado ranch

Place of Solace: An Interview with Pam Houston

By Melissa L. Sevigny

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It took me some time to understand that gratitude was the right response to almost everything.

Introduction

Pam Houston
Pam Houston.
Photo by Mike Blakeman.

Pam Houston’s 1992 collection of short stories Cowboys Are My Weakness was a surprise hit, with its sharp, funny, painful stories of female protagonists navigating wild places and rough relationships. Houston, then 31 years old, took the modest advance from that book and impulsively bought a 120-acre ranch in the Colorado Rockies.

In an era when climate change stirs up wildfires and wilderness slides further from wild, that ranch is still Houston’s refuge. “I finally realized I could be the cowboy,” Houston writes in her 2019 memoir Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. The book remains rooted in place, though it drifts in geography and time—to the childhood trauma Houston endured and the remote places she visits and mourns. She returns, again and again, to the ranch: its animals, its rhythms, and its clearly defined borders in an unmoored world. Deep Creek is a book about the profound vulnerabilities and rich rewards of love.  

Houston is also the author of acclaimed fiction Waltzing the Cat, Contents May Have Shifted, and Sight Hound and the book of essays A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton.  She teaches at the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and at the University of California-Davis, and directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers.

There’s nothing happening to us right now in terms of fire, flood, inundation, that we didn’t make.

Interview

Air Mail: Letters of Politics, Pandemics, and Place, by Pam Houston and Amy IrvineEditor’s Note: This interview took place prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Pam Houston’s next book, Air Mail: Letters on Politics, Pandemic, and Place, is a collaboration of letters between herself and Amy Irvine. The letters are a tribute to wilderness and a chronicle of an evolving public health crisis. Air Mail will be published by Torrey House Press in fall 2020.
 

Melissa Sevigny: So you saw this ranch in 1993 at the age of 31. Buying it with your $21,000 down payment, everything you had, was a huge risk. What made you want to do that?

Pam Houston: I don’t know. There’s a lot of answers I could give, and all of them are true in some way. I could say it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. I could say I’m addicted to adrenaline. I could say that Donna Blair, by agreeing to sell it to me… I interpreted that as a vote of confidence, rightly as it turned out. Someone asked me the other night, well, how do you know she wasn’t just desperate to sell it? I don’t think she was. My 25 years of knowing her led me to believe that she in fact saw my book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, liked it, and it made sense to her that I would have the ranch. I thought, If she believes in me, maybe I believe in myself.

But I also think there was something magical in it. If I have a supernatural ability, I’ve always felt the energy of places. I can feel stuff about the ground, good and bad. I can feel jagged energy and positive energy. I wrote a story a long time ago, when I didn’t know anything, called “Like Goodness Under Your Feet,” referring to this way Earth emanates welcoming or off-putting energy in different places. I always had that, ever since I was a little kid. So I do think the ranch spoke to me, and said, at the very least: This is good. As I say in the book, maybe the ranch chose me to tend it.

Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston

Melissa Sevigny: I feel like there’s this archetypal Western story of an outsider coming and falling in love with a ranch or a place. In your book it struck me that the land, the animals, were so easy to love, and it’s the people who are hard to love.

Pam Houston: Well, animals are better than people. Animals are easier to love than people, generally. They love unconditionally and they don’t have hidden agendas. I hadn’t thought of that, that the people were difficult. Of course my parents were difficult, so I guess so. I guess there’s a lot of difficult people.

Melissa Sevigny: And just the act of love itself being difficult.

Pam Houston: Sure. I do talk about that directly; that animals taught me how to love. I have a lot more trust—even to this day, sitting right here at 57 years old—I have a lot more trust in the love of animals than in the love of humans. I mean, I love a lot of humans and a lot of humans love me. But I don’t trust it the way I trust my dog! I don’t think I ever will. People are complex beings, myself included. It’s harder to love a person. Animals love with this kind of gale-force wind, and humans are always hiding and feinting and dodging. Hence the ranch—why the ranch became my place of healing. Because it was, for most of the time, just me and a whole bunch of animals.

Melissa Sevigny: You talked about that with my friend Kim Rogers who interviewed you for Longreads. There’s a line in that interview that really struck me, where you said, “You have a different kind of love for somebody you can’t trust.” You can trust animals, but also in the book you trusted the landscape, the seasonal changes of the landscape. That was something you could rely on.

Pam Houston: Absolutely, right.

Melissa Sevigny: But as I’m saying that, I’m wondering if it’s right to feel that way about the landscape in an age of climate change.

Pam Houston: It’s hard, isn’t it? My little parcel of 120 acres I have now protected, I’ve put it into an environmental land trust. No one’s going to frack it, no one’s going to put a cell phone tower on it. But all around me, that could happen. My little 120 acres won’t mean very much if my neighbor decides to frack the land. But it’s not the land betraying us. It’s us betraying us. We’re back to trust again. It’s the men who want a lot of money who are betraying us and betraying the land.

During the fire, during the flood, during the 80-mile-per-hour winds, when I’m stuck out in a blizzard, I don’t ever think: Oh, the land is betraying me. I think: I was too stupid to check the weather report. I believe the land is on our side. When I say “our,” who do I mean? I teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the relationships the Americans who were here before the Europeans came had with the land—they lived here for eight, ten, twenty thousand years in relative harmony with the land. It’s only us, the Europeans, who can’t seem to do that. I’ve always felt like the land itself can be relied on. If we break it, that’s us.

But the land is always a place of solace to me, and always will be. I’m 57, I’m not going to live long enough for every blade of grass, every tree, to die. I hope I don’t see that. There will always be something to look at, something to take solace in. It’s not Earth that’s betraying us, it’s the other way around.

Deep Creek, by Pam HoustonMelissa Sevigny: I wanted to ask you about the chapter on the wildfire. You crafted the ranch as such a place of safety, and then that incredible experience of having it threatened—it speaks to that visceral fear that Westerners have of wildfire in this age of megafires and climate change.

Pam Houston: We’re right to be afraid, no question. A lot of the West is burning and is going to burn. California, where I spend some time each year, is unbelievable. The entire fall you’re just waiting for another town to burn to the ground. But there again, we’ve mismanaged our forests for a hundred years, we’ve created climate change which is making extreme wind, extreme drought, extreme everything that leads to fire. There’s nothing happening to us right now in terms of fire, flood, inundation, that we didn’t make. Again, that’s not the land turning on us. That’s us having abused the land and the land reacting.

Melissa Sevigny: So you can still draw solace from the land, even while watching—

Pam Houston: Oh, of course. I will say: for so many decades of my life, I’ve had the good fortune to travel, and it always seemed like there was somewhere further out…. Even as recently as 2014, I was up in the eastern Canadian Artic, and they were talking about the ice sheet melting and all that—but even then I had the feeling that there’s so much untouched stuff up here. It’s only really in the last decade that I’ve realized that’s not true. There isn’t anything untouched by oil exploration or our incessant need for more, more, more. That is a great sadness, that we have used it up.

I was in Alaska last summer. It was hot and the salmon couldn’t get up the river; there was no water in the river. We’ve done that to Alaska in 100 years since statehood. We’ve killed all the salmon and killed all the king crab. It’s terrible, our consumption machine. I have to say, I’m a person who eats sushi and didn’t notice it came all the way from Japan, I’m as guilty as anyone of not understanding. We’re so used to living in this way that isn’t local and isn’t small.

I was in Iceland in September —see, I keep getting on airplanes—but it’s so much a part of their culture to use every single thing. It’s a culture of simplicity. If you go to a grocery store in Iceland it’s about as big as a coffee shop, and there’s two kinds of yogurt and two kinds of smoked salmon, instead of a hundred. It’s very practical. They turn logs that wash ashore from Siberia into houses. There’s no plastic. We were there for three weeks, we had a little garbage bag in the car, and we didn’t fill it. Because everything’s reusable or refillable. Just a very different culture.

I’m trying to raise my own consciousness, I’m trying to make changes in my own lifestyle about eating meat and flying less and keeping the thermostat lower, all these little things we do. But we’re all guilty. I miss—in a very naïve and childlike way—I miss the idea I used to have that there was always a bigger wilderness, there was always somewhere—Siberia!—you could go and get lost in the wilderness, because that was the thing that healed me. I experienced the death of that idea as a real loss.

Pam Houston with her dogs
Photo courtesy Pam Houston.

Melissa Sevigny: This idea of the ranch, the wilderness, being healing: so for example in the wildfire chapter, you render in this amazing detail the experience of that wildfire, but you go back and forth with these really sharp, painful memories about your father in your childhood. Was that something that happened to you at the time, when the wildfire was burning?

Pam Houston: Oh, yeah. My father—may he rest in peace—comes back every time I’m afraid. I can be afraid in any context. I can have someone tailgating me on a winding road, wanting to pass me, or I can be driving on black ice, or a fire can be bearing down on me, or I can find myself in the wrong neighborhood in New York at a weird hour, or I can have two hunters following me and the dogs on a hiking trail by myself—whatever. You name the scenario, my dad appears. That’s just a fact of spending 17 years afraid he was going to kill me.

Melissa Sevigny: Talking about that desire to be safe, which none of us really have right now, anywhere—

Pam Houston: And we never did, but we thought we did.

Melissa Sevigny: So how do you find the courage to be so vulnerable on the page? You’re writing about things that are incredibly difficult to write about, and that desire for safety—how do you get past that?

Pam Houston: Audre Lorde says, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” And that’s the truth. If we ever didn’t know it, this last year, the war that is being waged on women—women are not the only group that war’s being waged on, of course—but as a woman I’m hyperaware of the war that’s being waged on women by this administration. I think there’s almost a civil war happening. We talk about the civil war between red and blue, but I think there’s also a civil war between men and women—which is not to say there aren’t wonderful men in the world right now; there are.

I think, I hope, I trust, we are almost to the point where we’ll be like Chile, or Hong Kong, where a whole lot of women and maybe men, and Black people, and Native people, will stand up and say, it’s not worth living this way. We have to speak up. I have to speak up. I’m 57—I keep saying that, I don’t know why— I’ve lived a good life. If it ended tomorrow, it was good. I’ve got a bit of a platform and a voice and I know how to use words to convince people of things. It’s imperative that I speak up. If I don’t now, when every single thing I value is under attack—you name it: women, the environment, the wilderness, animals, plants, also education, diversity, the arts—you know, Amtrak! The list of things goes on and on and on. Everything I value about this country is under attack. If I don’t speak up, what’s the alternative?

I think we’ve seen in the last few months the sanity and the courage of women. We’re seeing the weakness and obsequiousness—that’s probably too nice a word—of men. If we’re ever going to pull out of this, we’ve got to elect women. It seems so obvious. Look at the countries that are tackling climate change—Finland, New Zealand, Iceland—they’re all women prime ministers.

I feel like there’s no alternative; I have to speak up. And yeah, I’d like to be safe. But if there’s anything good about what’s happening now—and it’s hard to find anything good—it’s that it’s showed us we were never safe. We had the illusion of safety. This is what African Americans, this is what Native Americans, have been trying to tell us. We finally got it, because it’s in our kitchen now.

At some point in my life, maybe 40, I realized if I met somebody and really didn’t like them, it was because they were like me.

Melissa Sevigny: So you’ve been an outdoorswoman all your life. One of the things I found endearing about Deep Creek is how willing you are to admit when you don’t know how to do things. You paint the water tank the wrong color; or you don’t know how to deal with the plumbing; or you don’t have the courage to pick up a gun and deal with that elk that’s suffering; all of those moments that add up to your willingness to talk about, “Gosh, I don’t always know what I’m doing out here.”

Pam Houston: I was so ill-equipped to own a ranch. I’m from New Jersey and I thought hot water came out of the wall when I bought the place. I guess in a way, it’s the same answer as: How can I be vulnerable talking about what happened to me as a kid, or how can I be vulnerable when I say something stupid in public? I believe that we see each other through our flaws and mistakes and vulnerabilities. I believe that with my whole heart. As a teacher I always walk into a new classroom, and the first day of a class I always try to tell a story about myself, like some idiot thing I did on my first day of graduate school, because I think we all live in these holes of self-loathing and self-defeat. For an artist that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re all down in our little holes, but if you knock on the side of your little hole there’s somebody on the other side knocking back. I think that kind of vulnerability is what makes art.

There’s a chapter in Deep Creek about when a housesitter got raging drunk and killed some of my animals. I was so angry at him, and when I started to write that essay I was full of righteous anger. As life would have it, I found myself in a situation where I had to kill one of my own animals, and that gave me a new perspective. I wasn’t not angry at him anymore, but self-implication, I think, is the key in a memoir. If there’s a hidden secret beneath a memoir—nobody wants to read a memoir by somebody who doesn’t self-implicate. Frankly, nobody wants to hang out with someone who doesn’t self-implicate. Self-implication is how we see each other.

At some point in my life, maybe 40, I realized if I met somebody and really didn’t like them, it was because they were like me. Those strong feelings of dislike for someone are often self-loathing turned around. Fessing up to our weaknesses, mistakes, and flaws—it not only makes for a better book, it makes for honestly a better world. I do consciously try to set an example like that for my students. Toni Morrison said, “You could call him a good bad man, or bad good man. Depends on what you hold dear.” What I’m trying to say to my students is that we all contain multitudes and we all have ugly corners we don’t want to show, but it makes a better book, a better piece of art, if we do.

Snowy ranch with horses
Photo by Pam Houston.

Melissa Sevigny: It’s interesting to read this book as a continuation or maybe a counterpoint to Cowboys Are My Weakness.

Pam Houston: Whatever happened to that cowboy woman?

Melissa Sevigny: Right. Did you get pushback from any fans who wanted you to be more—I don’t know—

Pam Houston: The truth is, I wasn’t that brave in Cowboys Are My Weakness. People think of it that way, they’re like: she’s so badass! But I was always scared. I haven’t read those stories in a long time, but I certainly didn’t feel confident when I was on the river or in hunting camp. I was doing it, but I was… I have never in my life pointed my skis down a double black diamond run, or run a river at high water, and thought, “Oh man, I’ve got this.” Not one time. Ever. I’m always afraid. But I also want to go. I want to run the rapid. It’s really not different in my mind; it’s not like I wrote Cowboys when I was a badass and now I’m all scared. I just, here, wrote about where the fear came from.

Melissa Sevigny: Let me ask a process question. This book is a memoir and spans your whole life. What was your process for mining those old memories or reconstructing old scenes?

Pam Houston: A lot of the older scenes I already had written in my computer. I write little scenes—I call them glimmers—often close to when they happen. For instance, there’s a chapter called “The Season of Hunkering Down,” and there’s two scenes in there that happen from when I was much younger. In one my mother washes a skirt to shrink it on purpose, because she thinks I look fat. In another she goes to visit her father on his deathbed; she’s never met him. Those scenes have been living in my computer for 30 years. They just found their home.

I’ve spoken and written in the past about not believing in nonfiction, and thinking that it’s all fiction, but I tried in this book—almost just to see if I could do it—I tried very hard to not willfully fudge details. Do I remember word for word something that my mother said to me when I was 27? Well, no. But I could recreate a conversation that was close. Recreating anything is tricky business, but I tried to do this in good faith.

I have a big belief system around how language cannot describe reality, and I believe that with all my heart. I also believe 25 people will describe the same car accident differently. I don’t believe there’s some objective reality even if we tried with all our might. For one thing, language doesn’t represent—it only reaches after—reality. But in this book I made a good faith effort not to make any factual errors, and also not to exaggerate to make the story better. I think that’s the best you can ask for.

I have never in my life pointed my skis down a double black diamond run, or run a river at high water, and thought, ‘Oh man, I’ve got this.’ Not one time. Ever. I’m always afraid. But I also want to go.

Melissa Sevigny: There’s so much gratitude in this book. There’s a lot of grief, as well. Does that come naturally to you, or do you have to work at it—the gratitude?

Pam Houston: I don’t have to work at it anymore. My father’s whole life mantra was, “One of these days you’re going to wake up and realize you’re lying in a gutter with somebody else’s foot on your neck.” So that’s what I was raised with. That was my dad’s lifeway. It took me some time to understand that gratitude was the right response to almost everything. I say in this book that Martha Washington, my childhood nanny, taught me that, somehow. So did therapy and good friends and a lot of life experiences where I got lucky.

I honestly believe that gratitude is its own reward. So is generosity. I feel happy when I’m being generous. If I can be grateful for something even if it’s a mixed bag of stuff—if I can say, “I got hurt by this in a certain way but I learned this.” If I can find a way to turn an experience into what it gave me, even if hurt me or took something from me—not in a Pollyanna way; I don’t have that Zen whatever it is—but if I can say, okay, what is the good that came out of this? How can I be grateful for this lesson, or this gift?

It just makes for a happier life, to approach with gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for. I found these angels who got me through my childhood. Then I made exactly the life I wanted. I went to Denison, this liberal preppy college in Ohio, where I learned the alternative advice to my father. They said: “You can do anything you want in your life as long as you keep the greater good in mind and work hard.” So I picked that advice. I have this beautiful ranch, I do what I love for a living, I have these jobs working with amazing young people getting their books into the world. I’d be crazy not be grateful.

Pam Houston with lamb
Photo courtesy Pam Houston.

Melissa Sevigny: What is your next project?

Pam Houston: Honestly I’m trying not to think in terms of a project, because Deep Creek took so long, and I want to write freely and see what happens. I have a collection of short stories underway. They’re all told by this woman named Maggie. She worked in maximum security prisons and now trains young people to work in maximum security prisons. You can see the relationship between me training young writers and holding everybody’s trauma…. She has a lot to say. She has a lot of opinions, and she’s crustier than I am. It’ll be in some ways autobiographical and it’s also in close third person which isn’t common for me.

I really just want writing to be fun again. Deep Creek wasn’t fun for one minute. It was rewarding and hard and sometimes intense in a good way, but never was it fun.

The last thing I’ll say is just how important my teaching is to me these days. For a long time I loved teaching and had mixed feelings about writing. That was sort of uncool; all my friends were like, “I can’t wait to get the semester over so I can go back to writing!” and I felt the opposite. But now I’m not embarrassed by that. There are so many books that I’ve had my hands on that are coming out in the world. That’s the real reward of my life right now. It really makes me happy. It’s like the difference between loving animals and loving people. I love teaching in a simple way; it’s all good. When I write, it’s like loving people—it’s all conflicted. It’s the exact same relationship.
  

Read Pam Houston’s 2016 “Letter to America” and her “Twenty Words During Lockdown” series in Terrain.org.

 

 

Melissa SevignyMelissa L. Sevigny is the interviews editor for Terrain.org. She is the author of two nonfiction books about science and the American West: Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016) and Mythical River (University of Iowa Press, 2016). She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Read essays by Melissa L. Sevigny appearing in Terrain.org: “The Bighorn’s Dilemma,” “On the Trail of Mountain Lions,” and “The Thirsty Tree.”

Header photo by Pam Houston.

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