Pam Houston -
April 6, 2006
About the Author
Pam Houston is the author of two award-winning collections of short stories, "Cowboys Are My Weakness," which has been translated into nine languages, and "Waltzing the Cat." Her stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prize and the Best American Short Stories of the Century. A collection of essays, "A Little More About Me," was published in 2000, and in 2001, she completed a stage play called "Tracking the Pleiades," which was produced by the Creede Repertory Theater. Houston edited a collection of fiction, nonfiction and poetry for Ecco Press called "Women on Hunting." She also wrote the text for a book of photographs called "Men Before 10 a.m." Her first novel, "Sight Hound," was published in 2005. Houston is the Director of Creative Writing at University of California, Davis, and she teaches at many summer writers'conferences and festivals in the U.S. and abroad. Her television appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning" and the "Oprah Winfrey Show." She lives on a ranch in Colorado.
About this Book
This is a story about a Colorado playwright, Rae, and her beloved Irish wolfhound, Dante. Although Rae hasn't been lucky in love, she loves her dog unconditionally. When Dante battles cancer, Rae becomes consumed with saving, or at least prolonging, his life, including experimental surgery. For three years, he is in remission and we hear the perspectives, dreams and fears of Rae's eclectic circle of friends. As his death finally approaches, Dante teaches his humans that love is stronger than fear.
Pam Houston's website
Ron Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer, Pam Houston. Pam Houston burst on the scene a few years ago with her provocative book of stories, “Cowboys Are My Weakness," and she is here today to discuss her provocative novel, "Sight Hound." Welcome.
Pam Houston: Thanks, Ron.
Ron Carlson: Let's start with a description of the book. This book has a lot of things that would differentiate it from conventional novels, but what happens in "Sight Hound?"
Pam Houston: Well, on the simplest level, it's a book about a dog, a dog named Dante, who is diagnosed with bone cancer when he's 4 years old and goes through a lot of aggressive treatment, goes into remission. And the book is told from the point of view of 12 different characters who have all been touched by Dante in some way, so formally, the book is a little strange because it has 12 first-person narrators -- nine of them human, two of them canine, and one of them feline.
Ron Carlson: Right. And so Dante's life is kind of the arc here, especially as he starts entering treatment and affecting these people, and it's-- I read a lot of novels, and this novel is unique in that regard. I kept thinking like where – I understand the very powerful affection we might have for our friends and for our animals, but how did this not just stay a story?
Ron Carlson: A short story, you mean?
Pam Houston: Yeah.
Ron Carlson: How did it -- because it's so ambitious, and you complete the muscular work of this big story, and I thought that's, that's stunning.
Pam Houston: Well, it worked its way from what I thought was a collection of stories into a novel.
Ron Carlson: I see.
Pam Houston: This is my first novel. I wasn't sure I could write a novel. The way that I write stories is by gathering a lot of glimmering pieces of the world, things I see out there that suggest themselves as writing-worthy, and I bring them to the page, and in the short-story form, I could always juggle that many pieces, and so I think the reason I hadn't written a novel was because I didn't have a lot of confidence in my ability to juggle more pieces than I could see at one time, basically.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: And so when I originally conceived of "Sight Hound," I knew I wanted to write a book about this dog and his progress and the way he changed lives around him.
But, I really thought it would be a collection of 12 short stories where each narrator -- there were 12 different narrators, and each narrator told a piece of the larger story.
And then I realized that I wanted characters -- I was having a hard time isolating when the characters would speak at what point in time. For instance, I wanted Dr. Evans, the veterinarian, to be one of the first people who introduced Dante, to speak about Dante.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: But I also knew that I wanted Dr. Evans much later when Dante is very ill. I wanted him to narrate that part, as well.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: But so, so strong was my commitment, so strong was my fear of writing a novel, that I imagined a 24-story collection where everyone spoke twice and was sort of well on my way to imagining a 36-story collection where everyone spoke three times, and literally, one day, at the computer said, dummy, you know, this is a novel.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: But by that time, by the time I figured that out, I was pretty married to this idea of all of these speakers.
Ron Carlson: Right. And how many of the speakers are animals? Are there three?
Pam Houston: Three.
Ron Carlson: Three animals. So you have three animal voices, and then you have all these people, men and women and going into a novel -- if you'd have come to me before you wrote this novel and said, I am thinking of writing the points of view of the animals, we might Have had a talk what did you see as the potential challenges of these different voices?
Pam Houston: Well, in truth, as a writer sitting at her desk, the animal voices weren't harder for me than the people voices. Some of the people were harder than others.
I have a veterinary student, named Brooklyn, who is a young Mormon, very dedicated to service, a life very different than mine, and imagining his way of thinking and writing it and establishing his cadence and the rhythms of his speech was, actually, much harder for me than imagining, say, Dante's speech because I speak for Dante easily, and I spend a lot of time in my own life thinking about what my dogs are thinking and thinking about what they might say.
Ron Carlson: But Dante's voice isn't just Dante through you. There is an authentic voice, in a way, and I'm sure, and check me on, this but haven't you been told that his is the kind of finest voice in the book? Do people compare it that way?
Pam Houston: Well, he's definitely the wisest character. I think he's the one with the most knowledge. He's the sight hound. He's the seer.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: But different people -- a lot of people like Stanley, the cat, the best.
Ron Carlson: Well, the cat is world weary in a way that we appreciate.
Pam Houston: Yes.
Ron Carlson: But I was surprised because we see -- of course, the big worry about writing animals is you get what you expect, and so this is remarkable. Do you want to read a little bit of Dante for us?
Pam Houston: Sure. This is Dante, the dog. This is Dante, the three-legged Irish wolf-hound. "The first point of confusion I’d like to clear up is that there are three legs left.
Three good legs that are perfectly capable of lifting the entire gray body over a single strand barbed wire fence from a standstill, especially if the human you love is standing next to it, crying about your osteosarcoma, about your lost fourth leg, about your impending decline and premature death, about how she will never live without you.
You jump over the barbed wire to show her that your death is still a long way off, that for a wolfhound, three legs is a kind of cuon, that your one true goal is to stay alive long enough to help her find another human who will love her properly after you are gone, and that finding that human is at once as improbable and as effortless as a three-legged wolf hound sailing over a 4-foot barbed wire fence. She has been such a slow, yet eager learner, and that has given the assignment a sweetness like none that has ever come before, tinged with the fear that time would run out. Tucker, Adam, and Peter, I could waste a lot of your time trying to put them in some kind of order from bad to worse.
She and I would be spooned up in bed together after one of their untimely departures.
She would be trying to take comfort, as most people do, in the cinnamon smell of my ears. I'd roll over to face her and press the ends of my big, black nose flaps right up against hers and try to stare everything I know right into her eyes. Sometimes she would get it and fall asleep dreaming of sea turtles and prayer flags, other times she wouldn't, and she would sleep dreamless just to know someone was keeping watch. It's funny how love is both harder and easier without language. I watch the moon those nights roll from one of her windows to the other. I never went to sleep myself until the light behind the mountains marked the dawn."
Ron Carlson: Thank you. You spoke a minute about what I'll call "occupying the voice," in each of the characters, the man and the woman, Jonathon, is it Sophie?
Pam Houston: Sophie, the little girl.
Ron Carlson: Because Dante has a pen pal. I want to talk about that later, but do you want to talk about a writer's state of mind in terms of occupying the voice? Voices talked about – writers talk about style, point of view, and this other thing, the ineffable voice.
Pam Houston: Yes.
Ron Carlson: And here each of these different characters seems to have a very distinct voice. How do you achieve that or how do you try to achieve it as a writer?
Pam Houston: Well, ever since I started writing, you know, two things I always talk about are kind of cadence and rhythm, and I think these characters, you know, in some cases, I was trying to represent experiences that I had had in real life, and in some cases, I was mixing four or five people together, in some cases I was making characters, up out of thin air, but, but once you start speaking in the first person, it's -- it is, it's me as Jonathon, me as, you know, kinky cat, me as --
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: So it's a weird meshing of, of, of the writer and, and the character the writer is trying to describe, in the first person, which is one reason I'm interested in it, but I think to keep them distinct, and when I was working -- at the beginning I tried to write separately. I would be like today I'm Darlene and no one else, or today I'm Dante and no one else, but once I started revising, I was jumping all over the place. I see now that when I read aloud, each of the voices really has a very distinct cadence. It's not that I was -- I was sort of attempting to say ok, this person speaks in this meter. I never thought it through that much. But, for instance, Darlene, she always punches the end of her sentences. Her sentences always go up. They end with a kind of symbol clash.
Ron Carlson: Right, Right.
Pam Houston: And Dr. Evans, he always apologizes at the end of his sentences. His sentences always kind of fade away. They kind of drift off as a kind of a bit of an apology. So, I think I was working with what I thought were a kind of cadence of speaking, cadence of putting words together, a way of putting words together that, um, that represented, in some way, the personality, but also that had to keep being different.
Ron Carlson: Right. Well, Darlene is the defender, so she does punch things, and
Dr. Evans is learning as much from Dante as Dante -- I mean, in a way, Dante helps the doctor get better. He does, actually.
Pam Houston: I think he does.
Ron Carlson: Now -- so we have a book about a very powerful bond, which you have decided to make overt, make manifest between a woman and her dog, and in a kind of critical season in their life together, but it's more than -- you said the book is about a dog, but you used that bond to reveal all kinds of things about This group of friends and closer relations. Tell me about the writing of the book in that regard. Is that -- did you have notes on that or did you use the bond between the dog and the woman to find and reveal those things.
Pam Houston: Well, I think one of the most important things a writer does is keep secrets from themselves when they are writing, and, and I, you know -- when I'm writing, to keep from terrifying myself, I just, you know, these are the questions I don't ask. What does it mean? Where's it going, how does it end? Never. Never let those questions in the room. So, if I could say every morning, all right, I'm just writing a book about a little girl and her dog, that got me through the writing of it. I turned the book in, and an "L.A. Times" journalist came up to hang out with me a few days, prepublication and write a piece, and we sat down the first day he was there and said so, what's this book about? And I said faith, and scared myself, you know. I thought oh, good thing I didn't know that six months ago or four years ago.
Ron Carlson: Or say that during the writing.
Pam Houston: Absolutely. I mean, I would have terrified myself, and I do think – I think it's about faith – I mean, faith is the word I can come closest to because I think all of these characters, Jonathon says in the book, you know, none of us have a reliable system of beliefs, and I think that's what they are looking for. Not faith in any traditional sense, but there is the young Mormon vet student who believes in service. There is Jonathon who believes in sending letters to rock stars. There's Ray who thinks, if she paints her toenails green, the fires won't come. There's a born again hockey player who got hit in the head with a lot of pucks and thought that god was speaking to him.
Ron Carlson: He's quite a character.
Pam Houston: So each of these characters, I would say, is working out their relationship, and then there's Dante, himself, who has read a lot of eastern philosophy, and he quotes Buddha and Shiva, and the Buddhist presence in the book. So one way to read the book is that all of these characters are sort of wrestling, you know, in what some people call a faithless age with this idea of -- of what do we believe and how do we get up in the morning and how do we keep from walking around screaming all the time and how do we make a connection to each other, you know, inside that belief system, inside that hopefulness.
Ron Carlson: Right. That's well said. I want to remind everybody that we're talking with Pam Houston about her novel, "Sight Hound." the rotating group of friends, the people who come in and out of Ray's life, there's a lot of people, but it doesn't take long for -- didn't take long for this reader to become familiar with them and know which way they were going. Was that part of the rewriting, balancing and measuring their roles?
Pam Houston: Yeah, I think so. I got stuck on the number 12, and some characters came and went through the rewrites. The cat was, actually, a very late addition. I was -- there's a character, Darlene, who is Ray's house sitter and friend and sort of mother figure, and she had a cat with a big personality named Stanley, but that's a good example of, you know, a surprise that comes through the writing because I would have never thought I could write first person cat. I am not a cat person, and I was reading an early draft in Greeley, Colorado, at the school there and had read Darlene's part, and a young man raised his hand and said, you know, it's really not fair if you don't give the cat a chance to speak for himself.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: So I wrote -- I went home and wrote Stanley, and, you know, Stanley is not -- doesn't make the whole book, but Stanley got lots of review attention. Stanley is a character that people latch onto.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: And, you know, in the process, I sort of discovered my inner cat a little bit.
Ron Carlson: Well, you did a good job with him. I liked him. You know, one of the surprising sentences in this book was when I opened it -- I don't know what time Dante was speaking, his third or fourth time, but he says, I have a pen pal, and I thought, a dog has a pen pal, and tell me the genesis of that And anything you can about that phenomena. I've been in hospitals visiting people when dogs have come in, and it's always sweet –
Pam Houston: Well, this is a real life program. In fact, as you say those words, I think to myself, wow, why didn't I even, you know, hesitate before I wrote that line. But yeah, there was -- there is a program -- I think it's a national program now, but I believe that it started in Denver, and it's called "Yaps," youth and pet survivors of cancer.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: And so the kids have a book where all the dogs' pictures are, and they pick out their dog, and usually they have similar amputations. Usually they have been through similar chemotherapy they really relate to each other in that they have had the same process through their disease.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: And, um, and in the program in Denver, the dogs and the kids write do each other all the time. They have a big -- they have picnics. They have, you know, just time where they get together in person, and it's a beautiful thing. And, of course, people get scared of it. That's one of the things in the book that I wanted to write about is that Sophie, my character, says people always ask, well, what happens if the dog dies first, you know, how will that be for me? And I think, what do you think I don't know about death at this point? She spent two, the better part of two years on a cancer ward.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: So it was a very powerful thing for me to be – I mean, this whole -- obviously, this all came from my own experience and my own experience with my dog and the vet school alone was very powerful to be there with these people who, you know, are spending thousands of dollars and thousands of hours, you know, giving their lives to these animals, but, but then again, another step in that process of being around kids with cancer and being around kids and dogs with cancer, and the people who give their lives to making their lives a little better.
Ron Carlson: It's one of the most affecting sections of the book, but the whole book is affecting, and as you spoke, I am reminded about the value of veterinarians, and certainly, I think you thank veterinarians everywhere in the beginning of this book, and one of the things about this novel is that it has good people in it. Good people are tricky in fiction –
Pam Houston: And so is honoring people. I mean, that was a big lesson in this book because, you know, I am scared to say it on TV, but I wanted to honor the vets. I wanted to honor all those people that I sat in the waiting room with, waiting for the news about, you know, 17-year-old Sophie, or not Sophie, in this case, but yeah, you know, just waiting -- just -- there was -- and honor the dog, I mean, and honor the dog, and you start to honor in fiction, and you are in dangerous water.
Ron Carlson: You have asked my question, and that is to say -- because we talk about how to make a bad person, you know. We do it all the time. You give them a good trait and go forward, but here Dr. Evans, for example, is a scrupulous, attentive person, and there's a psychiatrist in here, too, and it seems to me that you add enough -- there's enough inventory for each of them, that they are so incredible. They are incredible first and honorable second. Is that --
Pam Houston: Well, that's nice. I hope that's true. One of my goals with this book was to make everyone sympathetic, you know. I really wanted everyone to be sympathetic because, you know, I just feel like we're living in a time where everybody wants everything to be good or evil, and I am resisting that, I am reacting to that. And I am not sure that I succeeded. I am sure that Eddie Kaminsky -- he has energy and money.
Ron Carlson: Yeah.
Pam Houston: But, you know, that was really my goal, and so -- and I did. I mean, you know, as I was writing, I thought oh, is this too gooey or sentimental? Is this too much girl and dog love story? Are these people too nice? You know, that was my strategy, just throw enough stuff at them. Just give them a past, give them a history, give them lots of shadowy corners so that even though they are as dedicated as Dr. Evans is, there's still enough there that we can relate to them.
Ron Carlson: I want to ask you a question related to all of your work, and it is that, that you, um, and I share something, and that is the love of the West, and you live in the West. I want to -- this is too big of a question, but take a shot at it, how is living in the West and being in the West affected you as a writer, informed your work?
Pam Houston: Well, the truth is I can't imagine -- I can't imagine writing if I hadn't been in the West, you know. I didn't really start writing with any degree of seriousness until I came to the West at age 21, and I think it affects very much the books I write. It's interesting because "Sight Hound" has done extremely well in the West and almost nothing at all back east. It's like it fell into a void -- and I think the question you are asking works both ways. I think the biggest thing is that here in the west we're all about reinventing ourselves. We're reinventing ourselves, and all of these characters in this book are trying to reinvent themselves, you know, and I think books, I think books are all about reinvention for a writer. You reinvent yourself with each new book in a certain way. You reinvent yourself as an artist, at the very least, but one of the reasons this book has appealed to people out here, I think, is that very thing. I think that has to do with space. That has to do with the height of the mountains. That has to do with the big sky. It has to do with the fact that you can drive for three hours and not pass another car in certain places in the West. I mean, I think we are, um, we're just more ready for possibility. We're so much less likely to say, out here, well, this is the way it's always been done, so we can't do it this new way. And when I go and read back east, which I did several times, it's not that people aren't interested. It's just that they are like --prove it, you know. Prove it.
Ron Carlson: That's what they are – I feel like they are always saying to me, prove it.
And out here, there's this automatic understanding. Well, of course, you know, you have a dog who read all the Buddhist texts, and of course, you have a cat that's into kinky sex, and of course your best friend writes letters to rock stars. It's this, this feeling out here, which I think is absolutely related to the landscape and the big geology and, you know, the big amount of space that we're making it up as we go along, and that certainly is true about these people in "Sight Hound." They are making it up as they go along.
Pam Houston: Your text, the text in this novel, your prose is very dense. There's a lot of information on any page. There are a lot of references --the cultural references which are, sometimes, ancient and sometimes very timed.
Ron Carlson: Yes.
Pam Houston: I think Alanis Morrisette --
Ron Carlson: I knew you were going to say that.
Pam Houston: But, you know, music is always tough because those people have short half-lives.
Ron Carlson: Yes. Bless them. But the deal is, how was that achieved? You talked about juggling, you know, for your short stories, we've talked about that before where you have a lot of data, but here, or sustained over the long run in the novel.
Pam Houston: Well, it was all about faith. You know, I tell my students, don't worry about it. It will all come back. The important stuff will come back to you, and in this book, you know, I wrote for 2 ½ years not knowing if I was going to have anything. I was collecting and collecting and collecting and collecting and not asking my three questions and just hoping that it would turn back to me.
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: I know what that is in a short story. I know how to make that turn. I know how to feel that turn, and I just prayed, you know, to the writing gods that it would happen in the novel, that it would come back, and it did because I think that all happens in the subconscious anyway.
Ron Carlson: I do, too.
Pam Houston: What is the -- where's the doubt in a writer's life? Is it constant companion? And how do you make doubt, doubt in the current work into a kind of, um, colleague or ally? Do you or is it just -- I spent the morning talking to some young writers about this who were questioning the quality of their work, the quality of their product -- their project.
Ron Carlson: Well, I think everyone always does. I mean, I had the great good fortune of interviewing Toni Morrison a few years ago, and, you know, she's won every prize, and it's no different from her. She read a review to me over the phone that was just full of praise, and then in the last line it said, with love, her new book, Miss Morrison returns to the level of greatness she achieved when she won a Nobel Prize, and I said that's a great review. It will sell a million books, and she says, "What does she mean, 'returns'?"
Pam Houston: I mean, it is our friend; it's our friend because it keeps us honest. It keeps us working hard. I mean, because I can't imagine how it would be to just think I was great, I don't worry about it, but, but how awful would that be? What would be the point of doing it?
Ron Carlson: Right.
Pam Houston: It's the unrequited nature of language and writing that makes it forever desirable, I think.
Ron Carlson: Well, it is, Pam, so clearly an investigation, and you are one of our primary investigators, so appreciate you being here to talk about this book today. Thank you for being so forthcoming.
Pam Houston: My pleasure.
Ron Carlson: We've been talking to Pam Houston about her novel, "Sight Hound."
I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. I hope you will join us next time.