Pam Houston has always stirred a healthy dose of reality into her fiction, and so when you read her latest novel and note that there are several near plane crashes in it, you have to ask: How many of those actually — gulp — happened?
World traveler that she is, Houston replies: all of them.
“I’ve been in all those circumstances and more that were too repetitive to include,” she says of the most unsettling chapters in Contents May Have Shifted (Norton, $25.95). “I’ve been in the crash position on commercial airlines six times. ... What’s fascinating is what everybody else is doing. People are being kind to each other. Nobody screams. Nobody cries. Nobody throws themselves weeping to the floor. People get their collective will together.”
Houston, who appears Sunday at Miami Book Fair International, doesn’t let the frights ground her. She admits after a particularly nerve-racking incident, she’d “break out in a sweat” sometimes but never canceled a single trip to places like Bhutan and Tunisia and Istanbul, just like her fictional alter ego (also named Pam) in Contents.
“My first rule of being a writer is the old Henry James maxim that a writer should strive to be a person on whom nothing is lost. When I’m somewhere unfamiliar I’m constantly noticing things. I try to be that person at home, but it’s easier when you’re in Laos to be the recording device I try to be. ... My parents loved to travel. They were weird, but one gift they gave me was this. They believed in seeing the world and enlarging yourself by seeing other people’s experiences.”
In Contents, told in brief, nonlinear chapters — “This book resembles my brain,” Houston says wryly of the structure — Pam’s life mirrors the author’s. Both Pams teach (Houston is director of the creative writing program at University of California at Davis). They write. They fall in love with the wrong guy, then (maybe) the right guy. They love dogs; both have a wolfhound named Fenton, not to be confused with Fenton the Human, a dear friend. They find solace and strength from a wide circle of soulmates and meet engaging new friends in their journeys around the globe. Sometimes they even travel to less exotic places like Boulder, Lubbock or Ichetucknee Springs. They’re healed by the astounding sights of nature and the rhythms of unfamiliar lands.
“She’s some slightly purer version of me,” Houston says of her protagonist, who begins to question her roving nature in the novel. “She’s a little more distilled in terms of her engagement with the world. I would like to be as engaged with the world as she is. She’s just a little more extreme, a little more naive than I am at the beginning of the book and a little more resolved at the end. ... If people can be represented in language, if their essence can be, she’s pretty like me. More so than in the other books.”
Author of the essay collection A Little More About Me and the novel-in-stories Waltzing the Cat, Houston has been blurring the lines between truth and fiction since her first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness. Her novel Sight Hound is dedicated to (and about) her beloved wolfhound Dante. Despite the fact that new places fuel her, she looks inward for inspiration, too.
“ Cowboys Are My Weakness is short stories, fiction, and yet you feel the sense that even if not everything is literally true from Pam’s life; she’s really tapped into what it means to be human,” says Cheryl Strayed, author of the nonfiction bestseller Wild. “That’s the work of any writer: Trying to illuminate the human condition, and Pam has done that from the beginning. And she has a plainspokenness that I find so compelling.”
Houston explains that her style is a natural outgrowth of the controversies of such writers as James Frey, who was scolded by Oprah Winfrey for making up part of his memoir A Million Little Pieces.
“What I’m doing is entering this conversation on what language can really mean,” she says. “This is my contribution, whether nonfiction can really exist. When do we have to pretend everything is true, when can we allow it to slide.”
The Pam in Contents mulls over the question of “Is it OK to stay home?” The real Houston does, too, but she’s still excited for new experiences. She’s going kayaking in the Everglades after her book fair duties are over. And although she has been to so many places, her to-do list is far from complete.
“I’ve only been to Istanbul one time. I’m dying to see Turkey. I’ve always wanted to go to Namibia because of the landscape, the dunes and all the different geologic regions, and of course I love the animals. I’ve been to Africa, a really long time ago, but only southern Africa, and I’d like to go back.”