Cowboys used to be my weakness
Pam Houston lives on a 120-acre ranch in an open valley just outside Creede. Sweeping green vistas circle the property, and two giant wolfhounds (William and Olivia) have room to romp. Someone at the sheriff’s office in town offered Houston’s address to me when I got a little lost. “If anyone ever comes to murder me ...” Houston joked, later.
Houston bought the ranch with money from her first book, “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” named a New York Times Notable Book after publication in 1992. That collection of stories stirred the wild hearts and minds of a new generation of women. Houston’s gutsy heroines craved freedom rather than family life and wanted to raft rivers and scale mountains instead of nurturing children and husbands. They also fostered dozens of tumultuous trysts with Western outdoorsmen.
Writers are most often considered ivory tower types, scribbling away in classrooms and university libraries. But Houston breaks the mold, dragging the noise of literature into quiet forests and the thrust of athleticism into musty books. In addition to her published works, Pam teaches writing workshops around the world. She’s currently the Director of Creative Writing at University of California-Davis, and is working on a memoir about her “love affair” with the idyllic Creede ranch.
Houston is a cowboy in her own right, happy to be alone in the wilderness and visit with her longtime partner intermittently. We chatted about how her writerly perspective on men and romance has shifted over the years, where her voracious appetite for the American West stems from, and the pleasures of learning to be by yourself.
With your writing, you’ve tapped into this generation of girls who want but don’t need men, who prefer adventure to settling down. Do you have a big following of young women? I’m not sure that’s true anymore. The vast majority of people who sign up for writer’s workshops are women, because men think they can just go into their garret and write their novel. Women are much more open to instruction, in general. So the vast majority of people in say, Junot Díaz’s class would be women, too. It is true that a certain kind of outdoorsy, independent woman likes my work. The reasons for that are obvious. But I published my first book when I was 30, so all my fans were my age. And because “Cowboys Are My Weakness” remains my best-selling book, new generations of women come along and find that and want to study with me. It’s published in every language. I’ve gotten older, but “Cowboys” stays the same age. I wouldn’t say my students are primarily women who are much younger than me, but my work definitely speaks to young women who have left home, are finding themselves, like the outdoors, and like men but don’t necessarily want to be tucked under one’s arm.
You grew up in New Jersey – where did your obsession with the American West come from?I grew up on the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border. There was a guy in our neighborhood named Colonel Bob Miller who loaded all the local kids in station wagons and took us camping. He made us ride under blankets and told us he was taking us “out West,” and if we peeked we got demoted. We all had ranks. It sounds a little like Aryan nation, but it wasn’t. He was just an army guy, and that’s how he did things. When I started going I was probably 6 or 7. Kids would come back from college to go on Colonel Bob’s weekends, he was like the Pied Piper. He taught us how to read compasses and do something called “the bravery test” in the middle of night, where he would position white markers in the woods and we had to find them with our flashlights. It was all about learning how to love the outdoors, to respect it, be in it intelligently. He was a huge influence on me. Anyway, he would put us under blankets in the station wagon and be like, ‘There goes the Mississippi river!’ Then he’d pull to the side of the road and be like, “Now we have to get permission from the Indian chiefs!” Obviously at some age we came to understand we weren’t really going west, we were going to a state park four miles outside of town. But I honestly think that’s where I got my ideas. Those weekends were the best of my childhood. He also planted this idea that there’s BIGGER nature out West.
Parents would never let their kids do that now. It’s not safe or regulated. Totally. We would have church on Sunday morning, which was like “the Church of Nature,” where he’d talk about how you feel God in the woods. It was very secular, in a good way. Then I went to college in Ohio, and when I got done, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was having a hard time having ambition, though I had very good grades. I wanted to write but getting on the job market didn’t sound right to me, even though I had a lot of student loans. So I got on my bicycle with a girlfriend, we went and rode around the maritime provinces of Canada. Then Mary had to go back to school and I was like, ‘I could do this indefinitely.’ So I kept riding, and I rode out here to Colorado. I ran out of money. A flagger stopped me because they were doing construction and I said, ‘How much are they paying you to hold that flag?’ And I got a job as a flagger. I never left the West after that.
What’s the biggest difference between the West and East Coast lifestyle? Oh my god, there’s so many. One of my favorite things about living out here is how big the weather and nature is. You can’t ignore it when it’s hailing, snowing, 30 below, when there’s a fire in your background. You’re aware you are a creature among creatures and that the elements affect your life. I think if you live in a New Jersey suburb, you can pretend that’s not true. One of the reasons I loved guiding so much is because when you’re guiding, the whole day is about the basics. Making your miles, finding a place to sleep, cooking food, being dry, being safe. I would’ve been a good hunter/gatherer because I love when life is elemental. And out here that’s just so much more possible. I also feel people here are more relaxed about most things. Like whether you’re married or not, if you’re living together, or whether you have a Ph.D. from whatever school. There’s just not this rigid idea of who’s made it and who hasn’t. It’s much more laissez faire.
Were you influenced by any adventurous women in your life growing up?My mother, actually. By the time I met her she was sort of a wife in an abusive marriage, so she didn’t seem adventurous at all. But she was. She ran away from home at 13 to Broadway and became an actress. She did USO with Bob Hope and was Frank Sinatra’s opening act in Vegas. I knew her when she was beaten down and drunk a lot. And then this fantastic woman named Martha Washington raised me, because my mom was a little checked out. She was just a babysitter. She was probably a lesbian and unmarried. She said, ‘I got married once for about 10 minutes. It didn’t take.’ She taught me to swim, ride a bike and read when I was two. She had been in the army as a supply sergeant and supported herself, so in her own way she was not your basic woman of HER generation.
Are you an only child? I am. I liked it. I know people feel sorry for us.
Without siblings you have to learn to like being alone.Yeah, and be OK with it. I have a lot of alone time here [at the ranch] in the dead of winter. And I love it. I had some middle decades where the fact that I loved that so much scared me. I thought it meant I was anti-social. And now it just makes so much sense. I wouldn’t want to be alone all the time; I have a big social life and a job that puts me in front of people a lot. But to just be able to come here and not have to please anyone for six weeks ...
How do the real people in your stories appreciate being fictionalized? I have five books, and they all fall into this middle category of autobiographical fiction, except for one that’s a book of essays that’s theoretically truer than the others. Now I’m writing a memoir about my time here on this ranch that’s truly a memoir. I’m trying not to make anything up for the first time in my life. It has been interesting, and forces me to use some other muscles. I’m good at shaping a scene, taking the real scene and making it better. So I was like, ‘What if you couldn’t do that?’ Not that I’d ever hold a book in my hand and say, ‘Every word of this is true.’ I don’t think that’s true, for me or for anyone. I’ve had more situations where people were pissed when I wasn’t even writing about them. I was writing about someone else, and I get this angry letter saying, ‘I can’t believe how you portrayed me.’ It’s also never the people I thought would be angry, once it was someone I thought I had basically written a love letter to.
Your women characters are smart, but often stupid in love and when it comes to men. Why do you think women relinquish their values or good sense in relationships? It’s probably related to childhood trauma for most women, though they might not think of it as trauma. Speaking about those two decades you’re referring to, when I was in a lot of relationships where I wasn’t 100 percent myself, I would say I was caught up, subconsciously, in making some do-over about childhood. Where I made the man who wouldn’t love me, love me. One of the major things I wanted out of a relationship – call me shallow – was to learn how to run rivers or how to hunt or get to Africa. I wanted men who would teach me things I wanted to learn. And those guys tend to be a little on the non-committal side. But the truth is, I didn’t want commitment either! I might have thought I did, in the throes of whatever I was going through. But I was terrible at commitment and I still am. Now I’m just up-front about it with myself and others: I want to be free and alone. Not all the time. But I need my freedom to say yes or no to anything. Do you want to teach in France or at Dartmouth for six months or go on a boat in the Great Bear Wilderness? I don’t want to consider anybody, except for them [gestures to dogs] because they’re my children. That sort of personal freedom is the thing that’s so important to me, and in my 20s and 30s I was afraid to admit that, or I didn’t exactly know it and hadn’t said it to myself.
Well, women aren’t necessarily supposed to want freedom. And I didn’t want children, which is also a thing we’re not supposed to say. Because it makes me less of a bad person in people’s eyes. I like saying, ‘I knew I wanted to be a writer and dedicate myself to my art,’ which is true. But I didn’t want to have kids anyway. My mother hated being a mother, and my father was worse than that.
How has your approach to male/female dynamics evolved from writing “Cowboys” in your 20s to “Contents May Have Shifted,” your latest book?With “Cowboys” it was the biggest thing in my life, embarrassingly. Whether this man loved me or not. And there were times when I thought I wouldn’t breathe or I wasn’t alive if they didn’t write or call me back. Then in “Waltzing the Cat,” my second book, I got the idea that I had some responsibility to take in all of this. It wasn’t just these bad men who wouldn’t call me back. “Waltzing” investigates that and I think it’s a much more intelligent book. I had some therapy and I was like ‘Hmm, how am I contributing to this dynamic?’ And in “Contents,” I kind of wrote it consciously as ‘“Cowboys” 20 years later.’ It goes back to some of those themes, but hopefully in a different way. The men are given more credit. I tried to make it more about how the world softens the injuries we do to each other, how the world keeps us alive and interested in spite of the ways we get hurt and hurt others. And the ranch memoir has nothing to do with men at all. It’s about me being my own cowboy. By the time 50 comes along, I know that I gave all that time and attention to what men thought of me – but I can hardly believe it. I feel so different about that now. I feel like they didn’t even want all that power I kept heaping on them. I love my partner, we have a lot of fun together. But to be like, ‘I have to do this or else he might leave me,’ I can’t believe I spent those years engaged in that thinking. Part of it is learning, part of it is realizing there’s not an infinite number of years left. I’ve told that to lots of young women beating themselves over the head over some guy; if you live long enough, you will stop feeling this way. You’ll just be happy with yourself. There were times when I thought if I wasn’t having some hell-on-wheels relationship, I wouldn’t have anything to write. That’s definitely not true anymore.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.