I hope you take a moment to savor this interview between Cynthia Newberry Martin and her mentor, Pam Houston.
How they met: “Early in 2006, I decided that what my writing needed was to work with Pam Houston. So I went on her website, discovered she would be teaching at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown that August, signed up, and there you go. Working with Pam was exactly what my writing needed.”
Cynthia Newberry Martin holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has served as the Review Editor for Contrary Magazine and the Writing Life Editor for Hunger Mountain. Her website features the How We Spend Our Days series, over a decade of essays by writers on their lives. She grew up in Atlanta and now lives in Columbus, Georgia, with her husband, and in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in a little house by the water. Tidal Flats is her first novel.
Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, as well as two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound, two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More about Me, all published by W. W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Short Stories of the Century, among other anthologies. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA Award for contemporary fiction, the Evil Companions Literary Award, and several teaching awards. She teaches in the Low Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is Professor of English at UC Davis, and co-founder and creative director of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives at nine thousand feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
In the midst of lockdown due to the COVID-19 crisis, Cynthia and Pam discuss their latest books, Houston’s “glimmer method,” and conjuring a better future.
– Monet Patrice Thomas, Interviews Editor
Cynthia Newberry Martin: We’re stuck at home, caught up in a pandemic and global crisis. We have all this time to write and yet, I can’t lose myself in it. The world is being too insistent. Are you writing?
Pam Houston: Have you heard the eighteen months news? Thought of you first.
Martin: If I think more than two weeks out, the sadness gets the better of me. And, personally, I’m trying to understand that I won’t be back in Provincetown any time soon. What is most disappointing to you?
Houston: Well, what is most disappointing to me is that people cared more about their 401(k)s than they did people’s health and well-being, and the ridiculously slow rollout of action from these hobbled and decimated governmental agencies will mean thousands of unnecessary deaths, and quite likely a full-blown economic depression.
But if you mean personally, of all the things I had to cancel, including bookstore readings and a Boulder Conference and a trip with my husband to Kaui’i, the thing I’m saddest about is the National Writers Series reading in Traverse City, Michigan. I love it up there and was looking forward to seeing all the writers I know who live there.
I am excited about being home though, and having, for the first time in decades, enough time to sleep and read and write. I say that with the knowledge that there will be massive suffering and our lives will likely never be the same, but I’ve been running so fast and so furious for so many years, I have a healthy curiosity about what will happen to me if I have enough time to get my work done and then time to spare. I’m also curious about how this global slowdown will affect people’s consciousnesses. What if we stepped off the treadmill and liked it there? What if we liked unpolluted skies? I read that the clean air in China over the last three months likely saved seventy-seven thousand lives. What if this forces us to rearrange our priorities? It’s possible some good things will happen, don’t you think? What are you looking forward to in this quiet time?
Martin: Not hurrying. I feel as if I’ve been hurrying forever. But. I’m sheltering in place in Georgia with my husband, and you’re sheltering in Colorado with yours. I have to say, I feel a bit trapped, which is not a feeling I do well with. Then again, I’m an optimist. I’m also looking forward to being still, to lying on the sofa in the middle of the day to read. Deep Creek, your memoir which was published last year, is about being still and being still at the ranch. Is there a way in which writing that book prepared you for what is happening now and for these next weeks or—I’m closing my eyes as I type this—months?
Houston: I was thinking about that on the dog walk today. I don’t feel trapped… yet. I mostly feel lucky that I can take walks up into the National Forest forever, even if they stop letting us use our cars. I feel, for the first time in two decades, that I don’t have to be hypervigilant about the ranch, about running out of dog food or the lambs being born while I am off on a book tour, and what happens if their mother doesn’t feed them. One great source of guilt and anxiety in my life is that I will be away from the ranch when something bad happens, and at least for some time, I don’t have to worry about that.
On the other hand, my life up until now has been a wide net: workshops and rooms full of students and long dinners with a dozen other writers at restaurants and airplanes and the Tetris game of a tight schedule, and I don’t honestly know what will happen to me if this goes on and on and on. I’m sure all of my friends are wondering if I will lose my mind. But so far (I know we are barely in it) I don’t feel panicked. I know I am lucky to have a safe and beautiful place here. Ironically, I have never been planted at the ranch like I will be now, after the book is finished. This is a new country for me. But I have become increasingly aware that all of my flying around to this and that job is contributing not only to the death of the earth, but also to the weird machine that rules us, that convinces us we need to sell more books, or even write more books, or just do do do to earn our spot here every freaking second. But that isn’t true. It’s just how some of us, me included, have chosen to live. The ranch has tried to teach me another way all these years, and I have been listening like a horse, with one ear cocked, but ready to run. What is coming is going to be a bigger lesson, I think, and I am going to try to learn.
Your book, Tidal Flats, is about a marriage where the two people love each other very much but want different things from life. The story follows them as they negotiate those differences, sometimes more successfully than others. It occurred to me yesterday that because of COVID-19, Mike and I are all of sudden living his ideal life. First, I am always here, which has never happened. Second, he gets to spend all day, if he wants to, chopping wood into ever-more-gradated, fire-starter sizes. He is a Taoist and we are now rationing toilet paper. He is currently drinking wine (one glass a night) that’s been living in the basement for twenty-five years. The big event of the day is the dog walk. This lifestyle is heaven for him. He hasn’t said that of course, because he is also sad for the sick and dying and our country and the world. But I’m trying to live in his heaven as happily as I can, since up until now we have lived in mine.
What everyone loves about Tidal Flats is how accurately and complexly it portrays that back and forth of a marriage, the give and take of it, not only between Cass and Ethan, but within each of them. Cass has to do a lot of learning and growing outside the marriage (like with the Fates) so that she can be better within it. What do you think two people who are sheltering in place can do to minimize the tension between them, to give each other mental space, or to be together in a way that enhances, rather than strains, their relationship? What are you doing? What would Cass do?
Martin: Cass would love not having to share Ethan with Afghanistan, but she would also be worried for the older women she refers to as the Fates. The virus has taken so much freedom away. At our house, it’s been helpful for each of us to say what’s most important about how the day unfolds and to try to make that happen. Cal enjoys meals so we’re doing a lot of meal planning. I get in a bad mood if I don’t have mornings to myself so we hardly speak before 12:30 p.m. What you’ve taught me over the fourteen years we’ve known each other has never been limited to the page. To look at the big picture is one of those things. But it’s often difficult to see the big picture when you’re in the thick of it, as we are now. May, one of the Fates, is always telling Cass to look up. Here in Georgia, the dogwood trees began to flower yesterday.
Back in January of 1992, Cal came home from a trip holding a scrap of paper with your name and Cowboys Are My Weakness written on it. “You have to get this book,” he said. “I heard her on NPR.” Back in those days, I was a reader with no thought of becoming a writer. Many years later, in 2006, it was to take a class with you at the Fine Arts Work Center that I went to Provincetown for the first time. In that class, you described the way you write as the “glimmer method.” You write down things in the world that capture your attention and appear to have potential as metaphor. You store them on your computer, and when you’re ready to write, you choose a few and combine them, and that’s when the magic happens.
How did you arrive at this method? Did you write the stories in Cowboys with the glimmer method? And—how have I never asked you this—did you always want to be a writer?
Houston: Look up, indeed. Today that means into the snow. The “glimmer method” was just how I wrote. And yes, it was how I wrote Cowboys, and everything before. The world has always given me a series of offerings. When I was a kid, I thought of it as how the world comforted me and helped me to survive the chaos of my violent, alcoholic childhood home; later I just used the gifts differently, to make my stories out of. I still do. That thing I teach, the glimmer method as we have (a little embarrassingly) come to call it, was never a method, per se; it was me trying to articulate how I made my stories. In a way the above is an answer to the second question, too. I could say yes, I always wanted to be a writer. But more accurately, the world showed me all these little pieces of itself, and at first it was comfort, and then as I got older it turned into materials. My awesome godmother, Martha Washington, taught me how to read when I was two, so very shortly after that, I was writing down the glimmers.
As a teacher, glimmers are my bread and butter, because that’s where I always begin, but the next big thing I love to work on with students is structure. Maybe the most interesting things to me about watching Tidal Flats change and grow into itself over the years were the big structural decisions you made. Some would even call them upheavals. A lot of writers are afraid to do the kind of major structural editing you did on that book, and I think readers would be interested in hearing not only a summary of those major changes and why they were required, but also where you got the courage to tear everything down so you could build it up again.
Martin: Upheavals is right. In 2015, because Cass was originally a writer, I tried to go all in by adding a voice-y storytelling overlay that rearranged the original timeline. In 2016, at my agent’s suggestion, I moved a key event to the beginning, but that made the story I wanted to tell irrelevant so later that year I put it back in its original place again. In 2017, after trying the forty pages of the couple’s courtship at the beginning, in the middle, and interspersed throughout, it finally occurred to me that I didn’t need these pages at all. Then, in 2018, at an editor’s suggestion, I let go of two interrelated aspects of the novel that I loved but that I just couldn’t make work—Cass being a writer and five Afghanistan passages in Ethan’s point of view. I also added another storyline. Figuring out how to tell this story was the only way forward. As long as I didn’t quit, it could all turn out okay. And being part of the community of Writing By Writers—the nonprofit you created with Karen Nelson that offers writing workshops—made me feel seen and heard as a writer so that I could keep going all those years.
When I think of your work and structure, the twelve sets of twelve sections of Contents May Have Shifted come immediately to mind. But I think even the sentence is a structure for you—a tiny little container that you fill. It’s not only how you say what you’re saying but also what you’re saying within the container that makes each one alive and interesting from a language perspective, and that makes me want to not miss one single word. Here’s an example from Contents May Have Shifted: ”Henry is the only man I’ve ever known in my life that I knew how to love well, and as luck would have it, we were never lovers.” How did you learn to write such crazy good sentences? I know you studied with poets, but there must be something else.
Houston: I do think studying with poets has a lot to do with it, and also studying with a severe minimalist (both in graduate school). While lots of things about minimalism no longer appeal to me, it was the ism of the day, and it taught me how to make every word count. I guess third in importance to me after glimmers (raw materials) and structure (shape and form) is cadence. When I think of things I love about my friends, for instance, I think of how I love the cadence of their voices. I think growing into one’s own voice takes many decades, especially if you have been silenced as a child, and when I am really writing, when I am really hearing my own voice in my head and transferring it to the page it feels like a kind of full throated singing. I don’t mean that to sound self-congratulatory. I just mean that it sounds like I have gotten somehow to the heart of me, and this is true whether I am writing in my own voice (as in nonfiction) or in the voice in one of my characters. The rhythm and the cadence of the sentence are equally as important as its meaning, which is also important. When the two come together in a way that those two aspects enhance each other, add up to more than the sum of their parts, that is a good writing day.
When you refer to adding another story line above, I assume that was Cass’s work with the Fates, which deepened and broadened the book significantly, and became especially important to Cass’s ultimate growth. I also know a habit of yours is to sneak references to your favorite works of literature into all of your novels, and the Fates allowed you to do that too with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. What can you tell us about elders, especially female elders, and the relationships that develop between women of different generations? Did you have strong female mentors like the Fates in your life, and/or did those mentorships happen inside the works of Carson McCullers and Willa Cather and others?
Martin: I didn’t have the variety the Fates offer but only the traditional Southern voices of my mother and grandmother until late in the game when I discovered the wildness of Ellen Gilchrist’s characters and the solitude of May Sarton’s world. I know you never thought I would include you here, especially since I’m a good five years older, but you’ve always seemed wise to me. And that wisdom shines through Deep Creek. There’s actually a moment in your memoir where you reference ”your old lady advice.” Ha. You’re speaking to two smart, young women, but it also seems as if you’re speaking to the smart, young protagonist of the stories in Cowboys, and what you say is there’s another version of that smart, young woman coming who is the older, stronger woman, able to hear the sound of her own voice. Deep Creek speaks to Cowboys in other ways too. Instead of chasing cowboys, in this memoir you write, ”I finally realized I could be the cowboy.” And Deep Creek is about the ranch you now own—complete with the soft-spoken husband—which was only an image at the beginning of the title story of Cowboys.
Earlier, you mentioned that you’re writing while sheltering at the ranch. Knowing the power you have to conjure life from story, what image might be at the beginning of a story if you were to start one today?
Houston: If I could conjure the future from the story that begins today, I would see a world where we have come out on the other side of this virus and into an America that values science, and experts in every field. In that world we would build statues to EMTs and couriers and nurses instead of war heroes and rich men. There would be no more American exceptionalism, as it will have been proven false in every way except in that we came together to help each other during this crisis, as people are coming together everywhere in the world, because that impulse is the truly exceptional thing about people, our impulse to care. We will emerge from this crisis full of new stories to tell—horrific, heartbreaking, inspirational. And maybe that is how we will find our way out of isolation and back to each other, as we have since the beginning of time.
Photograph of Cynthia Newberry Martin and Pam Houston by Mike Blakeman.