Those days when you feel stuck beyond stuck, wondering how you got here, doing whatever it is you do, because whatever it is, you don’t feel like getting out of bed to do it—call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, self-pity, or straight-up depression—but those days, you might want to ask yourself: What Would Pam Houston Do? She’d probably pack up and fly off to some far-away spot you’ve never heard of, drink a potion made of goat tears and bamboo shoots, climb seventeen mountains barefoot, and pretty much live out Rilke’s “You must change your life” mantra X-Games-style.
Rebecca Solnit writes that places “become the tangible landscape of memory, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them. They are what you can possess and what in the end possesses you.” The narrator of Contents May Have Shifted, Pam Houston’s most recent book, is a woman named Pam who has been on many of the same wild adventures in remote locales as Pam Houston the author. Like Pam The Author, the character identifies more with distant destinations than she ever did with her home. She was never “possessed” in the positive, nurturing sense by her parents, but she is made whole as an adult by her journeys, from seeing a sky burial in Tibet (bodies cut up and offered to vultures), to hot springs and retreats from Colorado to Arizona, to a long-distance relationship with weekend trips between California and Colorado. Pam The Author is able to manipulate the details and placement of these landscapes to drive the emotional arc of the novel, which is divided into vignettes named by place, with larger section dividers named by flight number. Some of the places recur as touchstones, as Pam circles around discoveries about her dark childhood, lets go of damaging relationships, supports and receives support from her strong but far-flung group of friends, and works towards physical and spiritual healing. Pam writes, “I have spent my life trying to understand the way this rock and this ache go together…why my best days and my worst days are always the same days, why (often) leaving seems like the only solution to the predicament of loving (each other) the world.” She carries her readers through a cycle of departures and arrivals, until they too are possessed by her landscapes.
Pam and I sat down quite a while ago to talk about Contents May Have Shifted, and recently followed up with a few more questions via e-mail after the book came out in paperback this past spring.
The Rumpus: There’s Pam in the book and Pam in real life. Where do they diverge/meet?
Pam Houston: I have so many different ways to answer that question but, in general, I feel most comfortable between known quantities, so this book not only sits on a line between fiction and nonfiction, it’s also kind of between short stories and a novel. It sort of almost veers into prose poetry. I’m interested in the space between genres, between forms: I just like it there—I think it’s interesting there. In David Shields’s book, Reality Hunger, he says, “Every great work of literature either invents a genre or destroys one.” That makes a lot of sense to me. So there’s that. There’s also the fact that one of my favorite books is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, in which he calls himself Tim O’Brien and it’s shelved in fiction. It doesn’t say the word “novel” on it, but its library number is fiction.
I’m also really interested in this conversation we’re having—when I say we, I mean The New York Times and John D’Agata, but I also mean David Shields and Lauren Slater and lots of other people who understand the limits of language and its ability to mean and represent reality—and its limited ability to do that—and they want to talk about it, because it’s what we’re making stories out of, right? We use this material called “language” and we understand that it can’t really mean, and so you can be like John D’Agata and you can say therefore it doesn’t matter if there were forty-four casinos on the Vegas strip or forty two—I’m not that interested in doing that, in saying, “Oh, I’m allowed to lie about what really happened.” That’s not really very interesting to me, but I understand his motivation to do that. And it’s also interesting that The New York Times, for instance, got so hysterical over that suggestion and so, anything that gets people this upset is interesting, because no one who has ever written could say in good conscience that language can get you to what really happened all the way, so that’s sort of where I stand philosophically.
This book, in particular, is obviously highly autobiographical. I’m about going out in the world and noticing stuff, and going home and writing it down, and putting it next to other stuff I’ve noticed and seeing what happens. I’m a collagist, in a sense, and I want to make those things into something beautiful by combining them. It’s not personally important to me to say this is how it really happened. For me, the shaping of the story is more important than accuracy.
On the other side of the coin, the reason I persisted in my desire to call myself Pam in this book, sort of against my better judgment, was that I wanted the reader to feel that all these things happened to someone who lived, you know what I mean? Like, not a real person or not even me, but I thought by naming myself Pam, I thought it sort of didn’t quite make sense if they couldn’t think it was me at least on some level. And Alane, my editor at Norton, was really supportive, and at one point—I had had a long talk with a lawyer and it was kind of unpleasant and the lawyer—she and I have done so many books together now, the Norton lawyer, and she’s hilarious—”Pam, don’t fuck with me,” is basically what she said to me. And so it was a long, ugly conversation about all the people who might be mad at me, and I called Alane and said, “Should I just give this up? Should I just call myself Melinda and make it easier on everyone?” And she said, “We want them to think it’s Pam and not Pam,” and that’s exactly right.
Rumpus: In terms of non-accuracy, then, did you feel like in order to tell a better story, you had to invent some of it? The part that comes to mind is where you’re out looking for the orcas. Is that the kind of situation where if you actually didn’t see an orca when you were there, you would add one to the narrative? You know, you want to see the orcas, so…
Houston: That’s a really good question, because one thing I’m always thinking about myself is what am I willing to make up? And the answer is not much. So in the case of the orca, which is a really good example, there’s lots of little things that are made up in that draft, and I really didn’t even know that until you asked me the direct question. I would have said, “Oh yeah, the orca one is essentially true,” but in fact it’s not true. We didn’t see any orcas that day, and I didn’t even know that until you just asked me that question, but I have seen orcas on other boats, and the whole reason that section ever came about is that actual action of that fin coming up out of the surface of the water. This is actually a really interesting example—so that scene would have never been written if I hadn’t seen an orca, but I didn’t see an orca in that scene.
Rumpus: Or maybe you would have—maybe not in this book—
Houston: Or maybe I would have written about the girl with the t-shirt ["This is what a feminist looks like"] who also, by the way, was not actually on that boat. And see, this is where you start to see how much is really made up. It seems to me that basically nothing is made up, but all kinds of things are made up if you really start asking me.
Rumpus: But it happened at some point.
Houston: Which is probably true of most nonfiction, but I did see someone wearing that t-shirt, and there was an angry daughter who could have been wearing that t-shirt on that boat, where we did not see orcas.
And see, that makes me think it’s really good that we called this a novel, because if we had called it a memoir, which it essentially is in spirit, and someone on the radio or in an interview said to me, “Did you really see orcas that day?” I would’ve said, “No,” and then I would’ve been in trouble.
Rumpus: But then so much of fiction is often true, because people’s imaginations have such limitations, but nobody cares about that—”Oh, you actually didn’t make that up, you’re not that creative.”
Houston: I was James Frey’s first writing teacher. That does not mean I take credit for the whole situation, but I’m sure I sent him down the wrong path.
Rumpus: But he got famous for that…sold a lot more books than a lot of people.
What about sequencing? Once you had all the pieces, how did you decide on order? You talk about being an associative thinker, influenced by Larry Levis’s “gut wrenching associative leaps.” Once you found the various threads—childhood, relationships, healing, self-acceptance, faith—how did you know which leaps between subject and place, etc. would work?
Houston: I think probably at one point or another nearly every piece was in nearly every place possible. I would make and break rules as a way to set limits around what seemed like infinite possibilities. I couldn’t have more than three international destinations in any group of twelve. I couldn’t have more than one California and one Colorado (since they are my most repeated places) in any group of twelve. For a while I had loose themes in every group of twelve: friendship, racism, Internet dating… What was so great about the infinite combinations is that it proved everything I learned in grad school about metonymy. Every time I moved one scene, there was a domino effect and the book became a slightly different book. I probably could have kept playing around in that sandbox forever, but luckily I had a balloon mortgage payment and really had to turn it in. In the end I just did what I always do in any book that is written in any form: try to put pieces next to one another that generate the most electricity, that leave the most interesting gaps in terms of inviting the reader inside.
Rumpus: At one point in the book a healer says, “‘You can get to stillness through ecstasy, but you can’t get to ecstasy through stillness.’” How does this relate to your travels? Would you say that movement keeps you centered and if so, how?
Houston: Yes. Movement helps keep me centered. I am a disaster, for instance, at sitting meditation, but I’m pretty decent at walking meditation. Give me a labyrinth to walk and I can usually free my mind. Also, being in the presence of the “other” seems to show me who I am in a way that is really important to me. I feel radically more comfortable in Laos, say, than I do in Pennsylvania. I guess you might say my experience of the world is actually pretty ecstatic, and the more unfamiliar to me, the more ecstatic. Stillness is a harder concept for me than ecstasy, but I can imagine it best when I am fully present and paying strict attention to a place I am moving through.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask about the bike ride you took across Canada after college. Was that your first big journey?
Houston: Not my first. It was definitely my biggest up until that point. And among my craziest. But, no. As soon as I had a car, and even before that, really. When I was a little kid, I used to walk miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles of railroad tracks. It would be really hard to say what my first journey was, but in college, which was prior to that bike trip, I used to always drive down into West Virginia and find these weird towns and people with three heads. No, I’m always out looking for weird, beautiful things. I always have been, so no. I’m trying to think if there was anything really crazy before that, but that took all summer, so that was a big one.
Houston: Mostly alone. I did the first three weeks around the maritime provinces of Canada with a friend, Mary.
Rumpus: Prince Edward Island?
Houston: Yes. Prince Edward Island—
Rumpus: Was that because of Anne of Green Gables? Are you a fan?
Houston: No, not so much. We did the coast of Maine, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. And then when I was done, I was in the best shape of my whole life and I was like, “Okay, well then, can’t stop riding,” and that’s when I decided to go all the way across Canada.
Houston: Summertime, and by myself.
Rumpus: How long did that take?
Houston: It took all summer. I sprained my ankle really badly in Alberta and had to stay there for about two weeks while it healed.
Rumpus: Did you know any other people along the way?
Houston: No, this is what we did. This is interesting, I think, because it’s not a thing that could happen anymore. Every night around dinner time, I started doing this with Mary on the first leg and then I just kept doing it, ’cause I didn’t have any money. I had no money. You know, really, no money. I mean, enough money to buy, like, a can of soup a day or something. Or a jar of peanut butter to last a week. I mean, really no money. I’d had some money at the beginning, but we spent it.
So every day at about four o’clock, I would go up to a farmhouse—or whatever kind of house was around—and knock on the door and say, “Hi, I’m biking across Canada, and I’m wondering if I could pitch my tent on your land.” And sometimes people slammed the door in my face, but the vast majority of the time they said, “Of course,” and then they said, “Come for dinner,” and then they packed me food the next day and fed me breakfast and sometimes they got out the bottle of wine they’d been saving for a special occasion. And that’s how I was able to continue. I had sort of bare-bones money, and I worked in Alberta, and in Canada health care is free, so I got my leg treated just by going into the hospital, but mostly people were incredibly lovely and fed me and wanted to talk about where I’d been. It was really old fashioned, like trade stories for room and board, sort of.
Rumpus: So did anyone call you a hippie when they slammed the door in your face?
Houston: Yeah, a few people did. And there were a few touchy situations, with strange men or whatever, but nothing bad happened.
Rumpus: How do you work travel into your life now, being a professor?
Houston: I’ve always traveled. I’m a professor in a limited way. I teach one class two quarters out of four, so I get traveling done. Traveling is my priority, because it drives the writing, so I teach around the travel, and sometimes the travel is the teaching. Like, for instance, I’m teaching for a month in Greece this summer, and I’m teaching for a week in Mallorca, Spain, which is something I often do. I’m teaching at a fly-in-only lodge in Alaska for three days. So sometimes the teaching is the traveling, sometimes the writing is the traveling. Sometimes I’m writing for magazines on assignment, but the university has to be patient with me. I mean, during the ten-week periods that I have a class, I’m there every Thursday night or whatever it is, but sometimes that’s all I’m there, because I’m somewhere else the rest of the time.
Rumpus: So traveling and writing are the end goals…
Houston: They drive each other.
Rumpus: The book begins with a Carl Phillips epigraph: “I turn everywhere, // I see shapes by which / a holiness declares itself more / and more, as if to be noticed // were all it wants of me.” In terms of seeing or “going out in the world and noticing stuff,” as you say, I assume you take copious notes along the way. Do you ever actually write finished products, like a full chapter, along the way?
Houston: I write along the way. I actually wrote the first twelve in Wisconsin when I was at the Wisconsin Book Festival. I was asked to be part of this evening called “Unveiled,” so in my panic I wrote these twelve little mini-scenes, because I had to read something brand new, in Wisconsin. And so, that’s how the book began. And I read them that night, the twelve of them, and Richard Bausch was there and he said, “Write a hundred of those and that’s your next book.” And so that’s really how the book got born, but one thing about this form that’s great is that you can write one somewhere—
Rumpus: Like poetry. So when he said, “Write a hundred of those,” had you already done all of the travel?
Houston: No. The book isn’t chronological the way it is in my own life. I mean, obviously, like Tibet is all spaced out. Some of those trips were old, that I pulled from, but an awful lot of them are places I’ve been really recently, like while I was writing. Once I knew what I was doing, I started collecting and really paying attention when I was traveling.
Rumpus: How do you decide where to go?
Houston: Some of that is just serendipity, like I got invited to give a talk here or I got invited to teach a class here or somebody wanted me to write a story about Newfoundland or whatever, and some of it was just places that I wanted to go for any number of reasons. Like Laos, for instance, or Bhutan—those were places that I really wanted to go and I found a magazine to send me, or else I just went.
Rumpus: What about the Bahamas? It sounds like you’ve been there quite a lot.
Houston: I love the Bahamas, and I used to go there all the time with my friend who passed away, Henry. And I love it there, especially that island [Grand Exuma], so I’ve been there a lot over the twenty years, and now I go back. I didn’t go back for a long time after he died, because I was afraid I’d be too sad, and then most recently I went back and wrote that scene that’s there. And I’ve been there one more time since then.
Rumpus: What about the rest of the Caribbean?
Houston: I love the Bahamas in particular. There’s a scene from Jamaica where I went to teach for a week. That was not my choice, but I really liked it, and my parents, who are also boaters, we used to go to the Caribbean as a family, so I really love it. My parents were travelers. Every time my parents got ten dollars ahead they went somewhere. That’s what they did. So I got the bug from them.
Rumpus: What about restlessness versus writing? You do write on the road, but as someone who travels a lot, when you come home, how are you able to sit in a room?
Houston: The truth is, I write really well on the road. I was in Mongolia, pretty extreme situations. We were sick with dysentery, we were sick with bronchitis. I had been bitten by a dog for the first time in my life and my whole hand was black, and there was no way to even think of getting a rabies shot without driving for five days, and then you wouldn’t have wanted that needle in your skin anyway. And I had my period. Everything was wrong at one time. Like, I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable. And I stayed up—it was too cold to sleep. We were in tents on the ground in the Gobi Desert and it was unseasonably cold in September. And I stayed up all night and wrote an essay about being bitten by a dog for the first time in my life. With my sore hand. I thought, Well if this kills me—which it could have, because my hand, it looked like I had a lemon on the back of my hand and it was black—and I thought, Well, this could be it. I could die right here in the Gobi Desert, so I want to commemorate it somehow, because I love dogs. I adore dogs, and I write about dogs and I think that dogs are like the perfect being. So it would have been so perfectly ironic if I had been killed by this dog, because I was petting a dog who was not used to being pet, because I think I’m some kind of dog whisperer, and I think I can make any dog love me. So I really wanted to write about this, and so I stayed up all night in these extreme conditions writing this essay.
So I write well on the road. I have the energy, I have the motivation to write. I’m happy when I’m on the road.
Rumpus: Do you often write by longhand?
Houston: Not if I can help it, but I didn’t have my laptop in Mongolia. I certainly can still write with a pen, I know how. And I don’t mind. But anyway, there’s this great Ron Carlson story, “A Note on the Type,” and it’s about this guy who keeps escaping from prison. He’s really good at escaping, but he gets caught all the time, because he can’t stop writing his name on underpasses where he’s running from the law. And there’s this whole beautiful paragraph about how to run is to write. And, you know, it’s obviously about the writer’s life. And I always think of that. I always think, when I’m in motion, writing seems like the most natural thing. Now, when a book is in its final stages, I’ve just got to be home, looking at it seventeen hours a day, and that’s fine. But all that initial creation of the early drafts, I’d just as soon write it on the road in any extreme place. That’s sort of ideal.
Featured image of Pam Houston © by Adam Karsten.