Kissing the cowboys goodbye

Writer Pam Houston talks about dangerous love and the unnavigable gap between men and women


Randall Osborne
January 8, 1999 4:08PM (UTC)

Pam Houston is changing, even as she stays the same. The wry, lusty young
woman at the center of Houston's first short-story collection, "Cowboys Are
My Weakness" (1993), charmed readers with her taste for outdoor adventure
in the West and her penchant for heartbreak over all the wrong men.

Houston is older now, well into her 30s, like the autobiographical main
character in her new book, "Waltzing the Cat" (Norton). Her divorce,
miscarriage and a year of therapy have added a distinctive, rueful flavor
to this new set of interwoven stories. Still in evidence are her droll wit
and good cheer -- shadowed by premonitions of doom -- as photographer Lucy
O'Rourke plunges into each romance and fresh adventure by water, air and
land. But now the stories are more reflective. In them is the voice of a
dawning wisdom, the kind you find and lose repeatedly, and then begin to
find more often. Houston spoke with Salon recently while on a publicity tour for "Waltzing the Cat."

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The epilogue to "Waltzing the Cat" is a wistful, almost eerie piece, in
which Lucy O'Rourke meets her mistreated, abandoned younger self on a
hilltop and lets herself think about the man who didn't work out. This is a far different mood from "Cowboys Are My Weakness." Is it
true that the shift in tone led to a skirmish with your publisher?

It wasn't so much that I was diametrically opposed to writing a "jaunty"
book, in theory. But this book was the only book that was going to be
written. A lot of times, publishers don't understand we're not belligerent
children. We write what we can write at a given time, and we don't have a
lot of leeway.

One of the new elements in "Waltzing" is the narrator's stronger feeling
for other women. In "Cataract," Lucy has an exchange with a female friend
about whether she has ever been in love with a woman, and in another story
she says she is "thinking more and more about trying it with a woman." Yet
there's a frank, powerful admiration for men that runs through all the
stories in both books.

Well, all I can do is be honest about my own feelings. I believe that I'm a
heterosexual. I've always dated men and I never have had sex with a woman.
But I read an awful lot of Lawrence when I was studying literature as an
undergraduate. Lawrence seemed to make a lot of sense to me, especially
"Women in Love" -- the way he was always dealing with the unnavigable gap
between men and women, and asking if that was a place of frustration, or a
place of potential and possibility. If it is unnavigable, would we be
better off in same-sex unions? The women I know are able to connect in a
way that seems very difficult for men and women to connect. I don't know.
It's a question that is always active in my mind, even though I'm not
physically attracted to women the same way I am to men.

This is not a deeper ambivalence toward men, then.

I believe I'm less ambivalent about men than I used to be. I'm not sure how
well "Waltzing the Cat" reflects that, because I'm not writing it as I sit
here today. My next book, I think, is going to have a really good man in
it. I've been through a lot of therapy lately, and as a result of that, I'm
able to see everyone, but especially the male half of the population, in a
better light. I'm seeing the good man. I have a very nice man in my life
right now. He's very kind and smart -- that other kind of man, that
suddenly you notice when you start to get your shit together a little bit.
He teaches American literature, and he is not a cowboy. We're together, not
married. However you say that.

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Are there writers that you'd say have influenced you?

When I was writing "Cowboys," I was reading Russell Banks, Ron Carlson,
Lorrie Moore. I was totally ripping off Lorrie Moore when I wrote "How to
Talk to a Hunter." I was just trying to see if I could write a story like
she did. Lately, I read a lot of Alice Munro. I'm a big fan of Tim O'Brien.
I just read a first book I really like, "Rules of the Wild," by Francesca
Marciano.
She's an Italian-American who lives in Kenya, and the African
landscape was wonderfully used. My early influences were the modernists,
especially Lawrence. Everybody says Hemingway, so I guess so, although I
never loved him the way I love Lawrence. The lineage is there with Raymond
Carver, too, but then I'm sort of a plainspoken person. I couldn't write
like Andrea Barrett, even if I wanted to.

The title story of "Waltzing the Cat," about your troubled relationship
with your father, seems different from the rest of the stories, except for
the epilogue.

I wrote the epilogue maybe a year after the stories, on an airplane, on a
barf bag -- which is perfect -- when I was half-asleep and nauseated. There
was a lot of controversy in the [publishing] house about whether we should
add it or not. I fought for it and I got to keep it, although it was
originally called "Equinox" and they made me change the title. "Waltzing"
is very clipped, in the way that a lot of the stories in "Cowboys" were,
and I wrote it right after "Cowboys." I feel like I'm writing with a lot
more generosity of language and emotion now.

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In the epilogue, you seemed almost to be stepping into the picture and
disappearing.

To enter your life is to become invisible, and visible. It's that whole
dialectic I'm working with, and the idea of framing. I made Lucy a
landscape photographer because she had to have a job where she traveled,
but I also had several things to say about framing. Photography is the one
visual art I have any talent for, and it translated very well into what I
was trying to talk about with stories and the way you make or save or erase
your life with the stories you tell.

Do you see writing as a way of working out your own problems? Or are the
two so intertwined that you don't distinguish?

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Well, all those stories start in autobiography. I don't make any secret of
that. Like Lucy, I had a rough childhood, and like the woman in "Cowboys,"
I duplicated that danger and that difficulty in love. I did what we all do:
try to duplicate it, work it out and control it. I've learned a lot about
why I did it. I wonder, too, how much the stories -- the desire in me to
have stories -- sort of keeps me in that loop. I don't think that's true,
but a lot of times I will put myself in a ridiculously complex and
threatening situation because I can't resist the metaphor. For example, I
went on a 15-day cruise with my father through the Panama Canal, because I
couldn't resist the metaphor. I did it for a lot of reasons, not the least
of which was that I was hoping we'd resolve our relationship -- that one
last time, we'd get it right. I'd just had the miscarriage. It's going to
be the next story I write, and it's going to be wonderful.


Randall Osborne

Randall Osborne writes a weekly book column for the Atlanta Press.

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