A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
I’ve always admired Houston’s ability to transform intensely autobiographical information into strong fiction. Some writers refuse to touch such material; others wallow in their biographies like dogs in the dust, trying but failing to rid themselves of their demon fleas. Pam has been the most influential contemporary writer, in that respect, on my thinking about writing. She taught me how to transform my autobiographical material, or perhaps she taught me to give myself permission to do so because by being that honest writers can hurt someone they love or even people they don’t. And you have to balance your honesty against how much you value the relationship, and honesty doesn’t always lose out.
Anyway . . . I feel that I was in on the inception of Contents, as well as several of its chapters because during class or at a meal, Pam would share an anecdote that eventually wound up in this novel. In 2008, at a Point Reyes bookstore, I heard her read one of the book’s short chapters-in-progress. At the time, she planned, I think, to write 144 of those chapters giving voice to the many hundreds of trips she had taken around the world, the hundreds of places she had visited in the States, the myriad human beings who had influenced her life. Why 144? “I have always, for some reason, thought in twelves” (308), Pam declares in the very last section of her book, the “Reading Group Guide.” She ends up with 132 chapters and 12 airplane stories, but still, I think she delivers on her original plan. The novel feels very global, in its fast-paced, jet-flight episodes knitted together like bones on the mend. How else could she portray a trip around the world, one which may never end as long as she lives?
Both Pam-the-person and Pam-the-author nearly lose their lives as four-year-olds when their fathers seriously abuse them, and their mothers cover up the story, amuse themselves through retelling it over cocktails, falsehoods about her pulling large pieces of furniture over on top of herself. Nearly losing their lives gives both Pams permission to push their lives to the limits because otherwise they might not be worth living. Planes that almost fall out of the sky. Boyfriends who don’t work out. Bedeviled by chronic pain since the childhood accident. . . neither Pam is comfortable unless her contents have shifted a bit since her last outing. She must be on the move, searching for that next glimmering glimpse of life, whether it is of a Tibetan monk or the life of a child whom she helping to raise. She must move.
Such a novel reflects the life that Pam lives, right? In any given year, Pam-the-author is equally at home on her ranch in Colorado, which she purchased after the phenomenal success of her first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, equally at home on campus, equally at home teaching scores of workshops or giving readings, equally at home traveling to remote parts of the world to test her physical or emotional strength, equally at home revealing the parental abuse she was subject to as a child, lovers who have betrayed her. In this book, in particular, she manages to transform the latter three issues into a gross of clipped chapters, in which Pam-the-character (in the manner of Christopher Isherwood naming his protagonist Herr Issywoo after himself) makes herself at home on flights to Exhuma in the Bahamas, to places as obscure as Ozona, Texas. Tibet. New Zealand. Paris. Chapters named with a flight number: UA #368. Your life, as long as you are reading this book, is as discombobulated as Pam-the-character’s. You live it with her, the flashback in which Pam-the-character is hospitalized for injuries caused by her abusive father. Pam Houston—the author—gives her all to every minute that she lives, I would suspect, even when she is lying very still, devouring the pages of a new book or romping with her Irish wolfhounds through the meadowlands of her ranch. As long as she is breathing, she is inhaling the content of her next book, itself spinning inside her brain while all she seems to do is become a vessel for it, channeling the narrative burning inside her at that moment. That is what Contents May Have Shifted is about. After having been moved and enlightened by her first four books, I can now say the same for this one.
And Pam Houston’s new tome, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, comes out January 29, 2019. You’d better believe I’ve already ordered it, that I can’t wait to begin feasting on her pages once more. You see, I’m still learning from Pam.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-23 Tennessee