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Books That Matter to Pam Houston


When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he implored the then-younger, perhaps more jaded writers to exhibit this quality. The next year, John Steinbeck followed suit and called for it as well. Maxine Hong Kingston has called it the most important quality a writer can possess.

And David Foster Wallace rhapsodized about it, which was then valorized in this viral video and perhaps suffered from living with it in such high measures.

It’s not focus. Not discipline. Not imagination. Not talent. Although every one of those counts in large measures.

I am talking about compassion, and Pam Houston knows, lives, and writes with it. It seems as much her companion as her dog Dante.

Readers find it in her characters from one of her much-loved intertwined short stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness or her most recent novel Contents May Have Shifted (Pam travels a lot) or from one of her three other titles. Students find it in at U.C. Davis where she directs the Creative Writing Program and at writer’s conferences around the country, including the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference where Pam and I taught for numerous years.

(Science of creativity link: By the way, there’s a reciprocity between compassion and reading fiction. It turns out Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right: Reading fiction develops some people’s social intelligence, empathy, and capacity to read other people’s emotions.)

I’m pleased to share with you today the Books That Matter to Pam Houston.

What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down. (“required” response)

One, really? I could do five with some level of comfort, but one is nearly impossible. But if I have to do one I guess it has to be Toni Morrison’s Jazz. It both took off the top of my head and became the axe for the frozen sea within me. It completely exploded whatever notion I had about the limits of what was possible in a novel and made me understand that radical intelligence and radical empathy were not—as my grad school professors had insisted—mutually exclusive. There is no smarter writer than Toni Morrison, nor a more intuitive one, nor one that is more loving. To have all three of those at once ought to take off the top of anybody’s head. (Other 4 for different reasons? JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, Carl Phillip’s Riding Westward, Richard Ford’s Rock Springs…oh yeah, and White Noise, of course.)

What one detail do you still recall from that book?

So many more than one. But I can’t not say the last three pages, in which you realize that the mysterious narrator who has been talking to you on and off for many many pages is the actual book you are holding in your hands, the moment you realize the book is a love song to the creative act itself.

 The book I imagined/imagine living inside of is______.

Well, oddly enough, when you ask it that way, I have to admit it was probably Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence. I didn’t realize it until years after I had written Cowboys Are My Weakness, but in certain ways Cowboys was the result of a long conversation I was having in my head with that book which I read as an undergraduate and have reread and taught several times.

The one book I have most often re-read is,

Again, so hard to say just one. But let’s say Eudora Welty’s story No Place For You My Love, because it is so beautiful, and because it reminds me of my dear friend Shelton, who I miss the very most of any of my several friends who I also miss who have died too young.

The kinds of books I am most appreciating or seeking these days are,

When I hear myself praising a book these days, the things I seem to be really appreciating is a fearlessness when it comes to compassion and sincerity, as well as a willingness to examine questions of faith (and by that I neither mean, not exclude, questions of religion.) In other words, I have reached an age where I am no longer at all impressed with the snide, the cold, the condescending, unless it is paired or mitigated by the opposite, the hopeful in the face of all odds, the reaching after the ineffable, the love. My favorite book this year so far is George Saunder’s The Tenth of December, because for all its razor sharp social commentary, for all the ways he shows us to ourselves with a devastatingly relentless and honest eye, he brings this wave of compassion and love behind that critique. No characters seem more in need of love than the characters in The Tenth of December, and he loves them unconditionally, in the midst of all their shortcoming, all their flaws.

The kinds of books that most irritate me are,

The emotionally dishonest ones. Either because they resolve in a way that is completely unbelievable, or because the whole project was a fraud to begin with. I want to feel inside every book that in some way or other, the writer’s life depended on writing it.

I will read anything written by,

Here you didn’t say I had to stick with one. SO:

Carl Phillips

Alice Munro

George Saunders

Toni Morrison

Don Delillo

Lorrie Moore

Richard Ford

Survey: Roughly what % of books do you read digitally versus in paper? (What’s your preferred reader?)

That is the first easy question. 100% paper. 0% digital.

If you had five days off to read books next week, which books would you at last read?

Ha! This is the question where we feel shame!

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

The Robber Bridegroom, Eudora Welty

Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko

Prosperous Friends, Christine Schutt

Facing the Wave, Gretel Erlich

Which book would you want every (child/boy/girl/woman/man/daughter/son/business person/thought leader_____ – you choose the category) to read? Why?

I just read a brand new book called Sparta, by Roxanna Robinson. It is a novel about a kid who comes back from Iraq and it really gets inside his PTSD in a way that was, I thought, right on the money. It was both compelling and deeply compassionate. When I was finished I thought if this were required reading right now, we would be so much better equipped to live beside these thousands of soldiers who are coming home all the time.

To learn more about Pam and her current work visit, http://books.wwnorton.com/books/pam-houston/



Share your comments, responses to the same questions, and questions for Pam here.

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