Pam Houston, author of the best-seller Cowboys Are My Weakness, has just published a new novel called, Contents May Have Shifted. It’s a compilation of 144 short adventure stories of all different lengths — one only a sentence long. Houston says each story can stand alone, but together, they connect to tell a larger story. Every adventure is based on her experiences, several of which are in Alaska.
Houston recently visited Kettleson Library in Sitka and read from her new book. She also stopped by KCAW’s Library Show and talked about how she became a writer and how writing has shaped her life.
When Pam Houston is looking for good material to write about, she says she takes 19th century author Henry James’ advice: A writer should strive to be a person on whom nothing is lost.
“Which just basically means: Pay attention,” said Houston. “So I pay attention all the time. I pay attention when I’m in nature. I pay attention when i’m overhearing conversations in a restaurant. I pay attention at the grocery store. I pay attention if I’m lucky enough to find myself in Tibet or Bhutan or Turkey. I’m an attention payer. I’m collecting details. I’m collecting small, or sometimes large, but mostly momentary things that I feel some sort of resonance with.”
An only child to older parents, Houston spent most of her younger years with her babysitter Martha, who taught her to read.
“They would pull me out of nursery school on Wednesdays to read to the second and third graders,” she said.
Houston wrote stories throughout her childhood, majored in English in college and went to grad school for writing. She wrote books, Cowboys Are My Weakness, Waltzing the Cat, A Little More About Me, and Sight Hound. And now her fifth book, a series of adventures that span the across the globe, Contents May Have Shifted.
The series of adventure stories highlight poignant moments of hers during her travels. She says she got her love of adventure from her parents.
“Travel and writing has always gone together for me,” said Houston. My parents were travelers. We never saved money as a family. Every time we got 100 dollars ahead, we went on a trip. Those trips turned out to be adventures because we’d go out farther than we had money to go.”
Here is an excerpt from one of her stories that’s set in Alaska:
“When I left on this month-long adventure, Ethan gave me a Mike Schmidt baseball card and dangling poet earrings. Black on black. Now, the woman who lives in his cell phone says, ‘Ethan is not available,’ with just a hint of impatience in her voice. I am up front next to the pilot, a woman from Juneau next to him. Our three packs taking up every inch of space in the tail. The pilot turns the plane in a tight circle. We accelerate and lift off, and before he has even pulled in the flaps, the first glacier is in front of us. Huge and dirty and violent with stretch marks. Plunging out of the cloud cover and into the shimmering sun. Instantly I feel that old surge come back. That seizing of my own life on my own terms. It is such a physical thing. Like the time I had my forearm shattered and the nurse came in every four hours on the dot to give me a shot of morphine. That’s how physical. And I look down at the glacier and the ice-ridged peaks that go on forever behind it and say, ‘remember this, remember this, remember this, the next time you think it’s over because some man or some hope or some life takes away instead of gives. Remember this and get on an airplane, a small one if possible, because it always works.”