Becoming Her Own Cowboy: Talking with Pam Houston

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If Cowboys Are My Weakness was Pam Houston’s call to millions of women—blasting us with self-recognition of how we give away our own power—then her new book is the response to that call. With Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, Houston is here again to tell us how to take back our power. Published twenty-five years after Cowboys, Houston finally has become her own cowboy. Houston’s first memoir tells the story of how she saves her own life by buying a 120-acre ranch in the Colorado mountains.

Barely able to afford the mortgage, Houston learns she must actively “ranch” in order to maintain tax status. So she adopts two aging thoroughbreds, a couple of mini-donkeys named Simon and Isaac, a flock of black-and-white speckled hens, and a herd of Icelandic breeding sheep. Alone except for two devoted Irish Wolfhounds, Houston must figure out how to keep everyone on the ranch alive under the never-ending threats of fire, predators, and extreme weather. It is in the most dangerous adventure of her life that Houston discovers how to hold her sorrow in the same hand as joy.

Houston’s sixth book celebrates the power of nature’s beauty to heal us while mourning the human devastation to our planet. I spoke with Pam about the importance of true stories, why women give men power they don’t even want, and her work mentoring young writers.

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The Rumpus: Is Deep Creek is your first official memoir?

Pam Houston: Yes. I wanted to see if I could tell the truth if I really tried. Any time I write a book, I try to do something different with the next book. In the past in my writing, I never felt bound to what really happened because I don’t really believe that language can represent reality. I realize that’s a dangerous thing to say with Mr. Trump in the White House, but nevertheless I don’t believe that our memories are perfect. The fact of taking a thing that happened in real life and putting it into the architecture of a story is going to—even if just by omission—change it.

Meaning is always shifting; you can’t make language sit still, which is why we’re in a lifelong unrequited love affair with it. And because we can’t make language sit still, we cannot use it to represent with one hundred percent accuracy what really happened, no matter how hard we try. But I don’t think that’s why people read memoir. Or fiction. I think people read to be swept up in a story. To see themselves. To dream about an alternative life they might have had. Or to learn empathy.

In this book I tried very hard to represent the truth as accurately as is possible given the failure of memory. It was an interesting experience. I tried to stay put, write deeply into one place, and not embellish. I came to understand that for me writing fiction is a vertical process, in which all the possibilities go straight up. With memoir it’s horizontal, like water spreading out over a flat surface. You travel more deeply into what’s already there. That was a good lesson. I feel like I know how to write a memoir now.

Rumpus: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild kept coming to mind as I read your book. Both are guides to living with our own sorrow and finding joy anyway—almost as an act of resistance. Your ranch could be her Pacific Coast Trail. Is Deep Creek your Wild?

Houston: Sure. Cheryl and I joked when I was trying to think of a title that I should call it Tame. I was one of the very first people to read Wild when it was in manuscript form. I didn’t know Cheryl yet, but they thought I should blurb it. I told them at the time, “This book is going to be big.” Because Wild did everything I wanted a book to do. It’s a guide in terms of what you can do and say in a memoir.

My last book, Contents May Have Shifted, was all about quick change. It’s scene, scene, scene. It’s all metaphor, and that’s what I teach: fewer thoughts, more things. It was uncomfortable to write Deep Creek and not because I don’t want people to know my story. It’s because every time I write what has come to be called reflection—I can hardly even say it without making a face—I feel like I’m boring everyone. Who cares what I think? And all those voices are in my head. I swallowed the show-don’t-tell pill back in the day. But this book is telling, telling, telling. For me to write a book where I had to give myself permission to reflect was hard.

So yes, I did think about the work of my three besties, Wild, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, and Not By Accident by Samantha Dunn. I thought about how I wasn’t bored reading their books, reading what they told me. But still I sat in that cabin over there, loathing myself. This book had so much more flab to cut, because usually I don’t even allow myself to write the flab, but I thought, well, you’ve got to get to your feelings so you’d better talk for a while and see if anything interesting crops up.

Rumpus: Do we have a different responsibility to the truth today in our art than we did a few years ago?

Houston: My belief is that we are writing to heal. And like therapy, that healing process requires storytelling techniques and imaginings and exaggeration and metaphorical truth rather than literal truth. I think telling our own stories in order to heal demands something that isn’t quite so rigid as, say, journalism. At least it does for me. And yet, I read a lot of stories in teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts by people who are disenfranchised or who come from generations of people who have had genocide committed on them. I understand the value of saying, “This happened to me, and it’s absolutely true.” Because of my privilege, I don’t always recognize how important it is, but I have become more aware of it. So, it’s easy for me to say, “I don’t have to tell the truth,” because I’m not going to get killed over it. I think a lot of us are waking up because of the political situation in this country but also because so many new voices are coming in to the literary canon, and we have more access to those kinds of stories.

All that said, I still believe that the president lying is not the same as a memoirist lying. One of the difficulties of this time is false dichotomies. When I said I did my level best to tell the truth, inasmuch as I had the ability to, given my memory and given the limitations of language, that’s what I mean. Whereas, maybe ten years ago I would’ve said it doesn’t matter whether we call it fiction or nonfiction—and I did say so, I was sort of famous for saying so—I have had my eyes opened both to the reason why it’s so important for writers to say, “This really happened to me, and this is verifiably the way it happened,” and also the danger of a culture where nobody can tell what’s true and what isn’t. I’m learning all the time.

Rumpus: How did you come to write Deep Creek?

Houston: In 2012, my editor at Norton asked me to think of a book-length adventure I wanted to go on, like sail the coast of Turkey or dogsled to the North Pole. I thought, great! That sounds like my kind of thing. That’s what I do and what I love. It’s why I write. And then I was driving home from Davis after ten weeks of teaching, and that’s always a moment when I feel how much I miss and love the ranch. I was alone with the dogs on a seventeen-hour drive, and it occurred to me that this is the adventure, this ranch.

Buying the ranch was an insane thing to do under the circumstances. I had to come to terms with ownership and stewardship and responsibility in a way that I’d pretty successfully avoided in my life. When I say responsibility, I mean children and marriage. The fact of having a thing that needed my constant attention was the adventure, as opposed to running off to Turkey. So I got here, and wrote a proposal that this was the adventure of my life, and they liked that idea. For so many years, the ranch was something I had to pay for, it was the engine that pushed me. This ranch made me who I am. I’m no longer a kid with a mortgage payment that’s too big. I’m in my fifties, and this was the life I made.

Rumpus: In Cowboys Are My Weakness, the opening story, “How to Talk to a Hunter,” reads like a technically perfect workshop story, much like Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.” Was that “the story” for you in grad school?

Houston: Absolutely, that’s correct. My teachers couldn’t stand my work, including that story, and it was written completely in their image. It was published in a literary journal and chosen for Best American Short Stories that year, all while I was still in graduate school. Yes, it was “the story,” and it gave me my whole career. It wasn’t so much that it was workshopped and workshopped—in fact it popped out pretty quick—it’s that I was doing everything they told me to do. All of that theory and being quick and snide and hip became the story. It became the trash compactor cube of graduate school.

I still like that story. When I was writing Deep Creek, I just kept saying to myself: you can’t rely on any of your old tricks. And then I would get so mad and think, what did you even mean by that?

Rumpus: In Deep Creek, you refer to a writing professor at the University of Utah who said, “No trees, no snow, no mountains, no skiing, no eyes, no tears, no female bodily excretions.” Your next line is, “If you have read Cowboys Are My Weakness, you might conclude I wrote it as an act of defiance and I probably did.” You’re setting up some important ideas about patriarchy and the way it discredits, dismisses, and minimizes the voices of women. How do those show up in Deep Creek?

Houston: If there’s one thing that I believe in, its self-implication. Look, I’ve had the same experiences as all women writers. I’ve sat at dinner next to a Pulitzer Prize winner, and I might have said, “Hey, did you read Rebecca Makkai’s new book?” for example, and gotten the response, “I don’t read books by women.” So I’ve had every dismissive thing said about me or to me by men and male writers.

All that said, there’s a line in Deep Creek where I say I became my own cowboy. I say something like, “I don’t know why we give men all this power. I think it’s a power they don’t even particularly want.” I think that’s certainly true about the best men, and it may be true about more men than that. I gave my power away. Now, I had a lot of help. I thought my dad would kill me, so it’s not outrageous that I gave my power away. And I still do it. Too often, and not always because somebody wants to take it. And that’s the hard truth, and one that I’m trying to get at in this book. To this day, I struggle.

For instance, one day Clarkie, my sheep ram, broke the barn. I’m married now, and Mike and I were fixing the barn after Clarkie rammed it. Mike’s got the hammer and nails, and I’m standing there holding the board, and we’re having a nice time and he’s hammering, and I’m thinking to myself, “Is this okay? Should I take the hammer?” I’m fifty-seven years old and I don’t know whether to take the hammer or just be happy he’s taller and doing the hammering.

The self-implication part is really important, especially at a time when the leadership of this country hates women. I think the Kavanaugh hearings were one of the most profound things that I will ever see in my life. And I’ve watched 110,000 acres burn outside this kitchen window, I once saw eight hundred narwhal, I was alive for 9/11, and I was alive when Kennedy was shot. But the way that Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford spoke, and all of them believed her. Even Lindsey Graham. Because of course, she was telling the truth. And then Kavanaugh walked in, with all his rage and entitlement, and you could see them snap back. And it was like, oh, right, this isn’t about fairness. This isn’t about the truth. This is about keeping women barefoot in the kitchen and making fetuses more important than the body that’s carrying them. We forgot, because for a minute, we were actually moved by a story.

So while I am very wary about even using the word patriarchy, because I think it’s a general term that lumps too much together, and while I always want to lead with self-implication, if I have been able to describe my own process of empowerment that happened to me by trying and often failing and trying again to care for this ranch, then that’s a very important thing about the book to me.

Rumpus: From reading the book, it sounds like mentoring young writers, especially women, has become a big part of your life. Can you talk about that?

Houston: Writers need something to push against, and relationships were my thing for a while. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised that the relationship part is almost not there in Deep Creek. In my early books, that was the whole drama, so that says a lot about me taking my power back. When I say in the book that I could be my own cowboy, I think of my work with young women. I now have fifteen or twenty young women in their late twenties and early thirties that I mentor. They’re like my daughters. Being with them has made me feel my responsibility to say I don’t have all the answers, but I have taken some of my power back. It’s always a negotiation. I’m certainly not perfect at it. But this land helped me get there.

The last ten years, mentoring young writers, mostly young women, has become my favorite thing I do. Who knows how it might have gone with the diapers and the preschool, but this is my sweet spot. Give me a twenty-four-year-old, and I can make them believe in themselves like nobody’s business. The ranch and my home has become a place where young writers come and stay for a year after finishing grad school. They watch my animals and finish their books. Then they go off and win the Flannery O’Connor Award. Another just won a science fiction award. We have an amazing track record. It’s the best kind of mothering I could do.

Rumpus: What’s your view on how humans should treat the earth, and how did you come to your perspective?

Houston: Like many people, I think that the single greatest challenge we face is what seems to be a full-out commitment to destroy the earth as quickly as possible. There are times when I think the earth will survive and the sooner we evacuate, the better, so that we don’t take it all the way down to the microbes. But I’m an optimist and a hopeful person, and I see every day in my email all the different ways the groups I support are fighting.

One of the things I realized over the course of writing this book is that it might not have been too awful to have parents who wished they hadn’t had me, because it freed me to experience the natural world as my mother. Which is as beautiful and complicated a parent as I imagine. I will do whatever I can to make a positive difference. I will try to encourage the people I mentor to make a difference. I think this administration is making hope in that regard really hard, but I always have hope.

Rumpus: What do you think about the younger generations?

Houston: What I saw in this last election cycle was a lot of young people making a difference. I’m thinking about the Parkland kids, which was an amazing thing. If those Parkland kids actually bring the NRA down, it will be so beautiful. Young people have a different relationship than I did with this country. They don’t believe the country is going to help them or serve them or save them or even save itself for them to grow up in. And who could blame them?

I grew up at a time when I believed basically things would be okay for me. Because I was white and my parents were middle class, and I thought my government worked for me. I no longer believe that, but I think these kids never believed that. Right from the start they had to make their own world inside this country. I see a lot of young farmers. I see a lot of people starting green companies. I see young environmental bloggers. We have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young congresswoman from New York. I think the next generations show a lot of promise, if we leave them anything to work with. I spend all my time with twenty-six-year-olds who want to change the world in my two graduate programs, so I feel great about the future.


Amy Reardon is a writer in Denver and a recent graduate of the Stanford Continuing Studies Online Certificate in Novel Writing. She is at work on a novel about a single mother who tries to break into the Perfect Moms club at her kids’ school. Follow her @ReardonAmy and https://medium.com/@ReardonAmy. More from this author →