Wednesday, November 10, 2010

First Friday Author Feature: Pam Houston

photo credit: Russell Kaye 
At USF's Lone Mountain Reading series last month, Pam Houston read from her upcoming book Contents May Have Shifted (a title which may change)--a collection of 144 short stories in thematic sets of twelve. Deft with humor and insight, Houston was refreshingly frank about how her writing blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction--something that "still confuses" her after 25 years of honing the craft. "I was James Frey's 101 teacher, so it's my fault," she joked. "Everything begins with autobiography," whether from Houston's own personal life or something she witnessed. But she doesn't hesitate to fictionalize a piece through omissions or composites: "whatever the story demands for me to alter it for the truth."

When the Colorado-based author went on tour for her book Cowboys Are My Weakness, someone in the audience asked, "How much is autobiographical?" From then on she answered, "82%." What compels her to blur the boundaries of categories "we are now all slaves to"  is "not wanting anyone to think this really happened, but I also don't want them to believe I made it all up." One distinction she did make, however, was that fiction tends to render a sense of immediacy through scenes, while nonfiction often has a tone of retrospective knowledge.

The director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis and program director of the annual Tomales Bay Workshops, Houston encouraged us to write "glimmers" and allow them to "sit next to each other" without forcing connections between them. With typical self-deprecating humor, the author admitted she's anti story arc: "If I suspect I have one, I do my best to work against it." Though she acknowledged a story's end must be "exponentially heavier" than its beginning, she believes "our unconscious is the driver if we're lucky." You can catch her Feb. 25-27 at the Iowa State Literary Festival or April 9-14 in Mallorca, Spain at La Serrania, Writing Between Life and Fiction.

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