Pam Houston on Coming Clean, Climate Change, and ‘Writing Deeply Into the Grasses’

Pam Houston’s new memoir is an ode to her beloved ranch, but also deals directly with the harrowing moments of childhood abuse that her fictional characters have been living through for years.

Kim Steutermann Rogers | Longreads | January 2019 | 14 minutes (3,849 words)

As is typical with Pam Houston‘s books, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country is hard to define. Memoir? Collection of essays? Autofiction? But one thing clearly stands out: Deep Creek is an ode to Houston’s ranch, all of its 120 acres perched at 9,000 feet above sea level, seated in a horseshoe of mountain peaks near the headwaters of the Rio Grande, and five long hours from the nearest airport in Denver, Colorado.

You wouldn’t think having to post-hole through the snow to reach her barn, double-digit below-zero temperatures for weeks on end, droughts, and forest fires would result in the kind of poetic love that Houston has for a plot of land on which few people would last for even a single winter. But maybe it’s those very challenges that rooted Houston to the place and taught her how to keep loving in the face of adversity — an echo of a lesson she first encountered in childhood but didn’t quite understand then. Of course, not all days on the ranch are filled with sick sheep, broken fence lines, and frozen water pipes; just as not every moment of her childhood was taken over by drunks who physically and emotionally abused her.

When Houston published her best-selling debut collection of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, in 1992, she was asked over and over again, “How much of this really happened to you?” Now, for the first time, in Deep Creek, Houston comes clean. She shares intimate moments of her personal life, those same moments that many of her characters encounter in her short stories — the kind of experiences that shaped Houston into the woman she is today. She writes about her fraught relationship with her mother, the other women who stepped in and mothered her in her mom’s stead, and, of course, as we would expect from Houston, she writes about her relationship with the natural world and her concerns for our environment in the face of climate change.

But this is Houston, after all, who is “…happiest with one plane ticket in my hand and another in my underwear drawer.” So, Deep Creek isn’t solely a meditative look at ranch life and long descriptive passages of the sound of horses chomping on hay. “I love the ranch differently than someone who goes to bed and wakes up 365 times a year here, someone who was born and raised here, someone whose most regular routine does not involve TSA security and running for connecting flights,” she writes early on in Deep Creek. “You have to be a certain age, I think, to understand longing as scarcely distinguishable from pleasure, and my love affair with the ranch is defined by a thousand leavings and a thousand returns.”

In Deep Creek, Houston takes her readers from the ranch to the sands of Hanalei, Hawaii; the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia; the Sea of Cortés that slices between the Baja California peninsula and Mexico; and Nunavut, Canada. The ranch animals — Irish wolfhounds, horses, Icelandic sheep, mini-donkeys, and elk — intermingle in her narrative with whales, narwhals, and glimpses of the all-white spirit bear.

When Houston and I spoke in late December, she gave me two phone numbers to reach her. I imagined the back-up number was because her landline wasn’t reliable in a snow storm. It was 5:00 in the evening when I called; her husband of four months, Mike, and two Irish Wolfhounds sat in the same room with her, all snug around a fire. The first thing I wanted to know was what happened on the ranch that day.

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Pam Houston: There’s not enough snow here, but we went out where there’s a little snow on a snow shoe trail and hiked it as if we had snow shoes on. It was beautiful. The sun has just gone down. It’s 26 degrees. It should be colder than that, but that’s not too out of whack. It’ll probably go down to six degrees or something tonight. It could be super cold right now.

The scary part is we don’t have any snow on the ground. That’s the super unusual part. In the old days, December was a very snowy month, so we could have five feet on the ground. I mean I’ve had Decembers where the roof was sliding so many times that it made an igloo around the house. And January is typically a dry month so the fact that we don’t have any snow now is really scary. But the months have been flipping around, so we could get a storm in January. There is no normal anymore.

Kim Steutermann Rogers: I know you bought the ranch back in 1993 for five percent down and a signed copy of Cowboys Are My Weakness. The owner, Dona Blair, carried the note, because no bank would finance that deal. Has Dona read Deep Creek?

Dona knows she’s in it, but I just missed her this summer. She’s a hard person to get ahold of because she works all over the world. You think you totally have her pegged as this sweet Texas lady who belongs to the Junior League, and then she’s like, “I just got back from six months in Yemen.” She’s hard to reach when she’s not in Creede. Hopefully, she’ll be here this summer, and I’ll give her a copy then.

What I liked about this part of the story is there were two women — Dona and you — going out on a limb, taking a risk together, and there was something very lovely about that.

I hadn’t thought of that. But it’s true when you look back at your life, and you think who changed the course of it. The fact that she sold me this ranch for what she did and carried the note herself — without those two things, this book wouldn’t exist. I might have had an equally good life but I wouldn’t have had this one.

I’m so bored with my own story…. because I’ve spent so many years in therapy with it. I wasn’t ashamed, and it wasn’t like I didn’t want to reveal it. I was more like, ‘Aren’t we tired of that?’…. And the truth is I haven’t written it. I’ve written around the edges of it.

Another woman whose presence feels like fate meeting your destiny is Martha Washington, your childhood babysitter, who came into your life when you were two days old.

It’s unimaginable how I would be okay in life without Martha Washington. The funny thing about her as regards the book is I kept wanting to leave her out because I was so determined that I was going to stay on the ranch, which I didn’t. Even once I put the childhood stuff in, I was like no Martha belongs somewhere else in some other thing I write. Because she never came here. She never saw the ranch. She was dead way before I bought it. But she just kept insisting upon herself. I think the reasons are obvious. She made me okay enough to believe that there was a home where I could have a sense of security and safety.

Speaking of childhood, when you set out to write this book, did you have any idea you’d be revealing some of your most traumatic childhood events — how your alcoholic father physically and sexually abused you and how your alcoholic mother failed to protect you from him?

No. When I was starting to write, my editor was really adamant, saying, “Stay on the ranch, stay put for a change.” My initial conception of the book was literally 12 chapters that are the sound of horse teeth on hay. I wake up. I shovel snow. I feed the horses. I kept saying to myself, “Write deeply into the grasses.”

When I turned in the first draft of it more than two years ago, my agent read it and said, “Gosh Pam, isn’t this when you talk about what really happened to you when you were a kid?” And my first thought was, “Dear god, have I done anything besides that?” Because to me my books are what we’re now calling “autofiction,” which is great, because it’s legitimizing what I’ve been criticized for for decades. Now, it’s hip to write autofiction. I keep hearing it. I’ve heard it like 10 times in the last month. It’s a French term. So I guess we have now borrowed it from the French.

So I was writing autofiction, and these childhood stories are in there — little moments in my other books. But to me I’m so bored with my own story — that part of my story — because I’ve spent so many years in therapy with it. I wasn’t ashamed, and it wasn’t like I didn’t want to reveal it. I was more like, “Aren’t we tired of that?” My agent said no, “You’ve never really written it, and you certainly haven’t written it as memoir.” And the truth is I haven’t written it. I’ve written around the edges of it. The best example is in the last story in Waltzing the Cat where I — I mean Lucy — meets her little girl self out on the hill. But even that is very fuzzy. It’s always dream like. The part about it in Contents May Have Shifted is so brief. I think it’s good to be brief, but I had never really written it, and I didn’t really know I’d hadn’t really written it.

I’ve always sort of marveled at people who had a close connection with parents, and who grieved so hard and so long when their mothers died. I was always like, “Wow what would that be like?” I did grieve when my mother died, because we were close. But you have a different kind of love for somebody you can’t trust, and I knew I absolutely couldn’t trust her. I couldn’t trust her to keep my physical body safe.

So anyway, the answer is no, I did not set out to write that. It came about because my agent said it makes the book make sense. Because that’s the initiating incident for everything else. My search for love, home, stability, freedom, agency, and independence are all related to the things that happened, in particular, when my father broke my femur, and the fact I spent all those childhood years thinking he would kill me. When I was that age, I thought everybody walked around thinking their parents were going to kill them.

Once you went down that childhood path, were there realizations that came about in the process of writing that you didn’t see coming?

A few. Two. I’m just going to grab the book and look at it.

Love the cover, by the way.

Isn’t the cover awesome? I think it’s such a pretty book. I love the donkeys on the spine. The finished physical book is so so pretty. Norton just has the machine that makes the prettiest jackets.

That’s your Irish Wolfhound William on the cover, right?

Right.

Okay, here it is on page 29. There’s something in here that surprised me, a moment of realization, which I had never said out loud, and I don’t know why my therapist and I didn’t spend a lot of time on it. And that was that my mother was also a the victim in all of this, but I was the one who got physically hurt. I was so black and blue all the time. When he [my father] didn’t break things, he grabbed and twisted and punched me, so I was physically visibly injured for much of my childhood. But my mother had facelifts over and over the whole time when I was a kid. She would have this black-and-blue face all the time. It’s so metaphoric, it’s weird. She had like four or five facelifts, which is horrific in the first place, but she couldn’t even close her eyes by the end of her life. She was getting beat up all this time. I think so much of what she did was punishment. And the very fact that she knew my dad was doing what he was doing, on some level that must have been awful for her. So that was something I came to in the writing.

There were way more firefighters here than there are residents. They were out there around the clock saving us. I can hardly talk about it without choking up. I’m sure that’s related to years and years of knowing help wasn’t coming for me.

The other thing, there’s a place where I talk about my father where it says that the broken femur was only the showiest injury, the one that took longest to heal, that from a very young age, I’d perfected two very specific ways of leaving my body, one that worked when he was punching me in the head and another for when he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me with him into the shower.

After I wrote that, I got this note from my editor. “You know this is the MeToo generation,” she said. “Do you feel any obligation to put specifics in here of what happened, because we’re all sisters now, revealing this stuff.” I was like okay. No one’s ever asked me to be more graphic but okay. So, I wrote this super graphic paragraph, and I turn it in, and she was like, “Nooooo.” [laughter]

Your first editor, Carol Houck Smith, passed away in 2008. But she was another woman, another mother figure who had a big impact on your life. Right?

When I was on tour and Cowboys was exploding, she was in New York and I was mostly in Seattle and Portland and places like. But she would stay up, and I had to call her last thing when I got back to my hotel room. It would sometimes be 1 or 2 in the morning her time. She wanted to know how many people were there, how the book sales went. She would tell me good stuff she had heard like you got on this list or that list or so and so wants to do an interview. We would have this nightly catch-up session celebrating the totally unlikely success of this book. Every night I called her. I don’t talk about her in this book, but she was definitely a mother figure — for better and worse. We used to fight and scream at each other on the phone about edits. But I also knew she would lay down in front of a train for me and I certainly didn’t know that about my own mother. And I would have done anything for Carol. Except maybe take out a paragraph I particularly liked.

Mother Love is so strong throughout the book both from the people in your life, as well as you. That’s what I thought when I read in the chapter, “Diary of a Fire,” when you write, “If the forest is going to all of this trouble to save itself, then the least I can do is spend the rest of my life watching it come back to life.” To me that felt like devotion — the devotion of a mother’s love.

Oh, that’s nice. If I were asked to describe the book in one sentence, I would say something about the realization that literally the earth has been my mother. I had a mother who couldn’t really be a mother all the way, and I replaced that with the natural world. That’s an oversimplification, but to me that’s the arc of the book, and that’s why it ends with the sentence that it ends on. Hopefully, that last sentence is a kind of a peace-making.

When I give a reading from this book, I will say in my opening remarks. “I was going to write about the ranch, deeply into the grasses, and I was going to stay on the ranch, and then I realized I was writing a book about my mother. And my mothers.”

During the chapter on the big fire when a cavalcade of fire fighters arrives outside the ranch, you write, “There’s nothing that undoes me like the possibility of rescue.” I found that a pretty provocative statement, and I’d love to hear you expand on it.

Probably the single most awful thing about my childhood, way worse than the things my father actually did and way worse than my mother’s drinking and unavailability was the echo chamber. I didn’t have siblings. I had Martha and every time I was with her was beautiful. At one point, she tried to get me out and failed. It was a different time and nobody was going to listen to the babysitter.

I spent all my childhood having a fantasy about someone seeing what was happening to me and coming to rescue me. All my favorite tv shows and all my favorite cartoons were about that. But no one saved me. So I got the notion that if anybody is going to fix things, it has to be me. And that’s one of the reasons I suck at relationships, because I’m so torn between “Oh, please come make it better,” and “No, I’m not going to trust you to make it better, I’m going to make it better myself.” That’s my big neurosis or whatever. That’s when I sound the most crazy. I suppose I have to prove again and again and again that I can survive anything. That’s what that sentence is about.

The idea that we were at the mercy of this monstrous fire that was feeling a lot like my dad bearing down on me and all of a sudden 1,800 hunky guys showed up [laughter], it was just almost more than I could stand. There were way more firefighters here than there are residents. They were out there around the clock saving us. I can hardly talk about it without choking up. I’m sure that’s related to years and years of knowing help wasn’t coming for me.

There’s nothing I like more than being watched over when I sleep. There’s a sentence I have never said in an interview before. That would totally shatter all those women’s dreams who need to think I’m this unmitigated badass.

When my dad broke my leg, I was four and they put me up at the neighbor’s house, because that was when Martha was trying to get me out. I was in my cast in the upstairs bedroom, and I have the clearest memory of this. So much of my childhood was fuzzy, but I am so clear on being up in the bedroom. I was immobile in that bedroom for months, and the husband of the wife who took me in was a judge. If anybody was going to do something, it should have been him, but nobody said anything. They basically hid me from the authorities on behalf of my father not getting in trouble.

So, the idea that someone actually shows up and then puts themselves on the line in the way that firefighters do is almost more than I can stand.

And the idea that they’re out there even when you’re sleeping.

There’s nothing I like more than being watched over when I sleep. There’s a sentence I have never said in an interview before. That would totally shatter all those women’s dreams who need to think I’m this unmitigated badass.

There was this woman on a Grand Canyon trip [I guided once]. I didn’t run the Grand Canyon regularly. I’ve only run it once. There were a few rapids I was really afraid of. Also, I didn’t have a self-bailing boat. But a couple times I’d get up in the morning and I’d be really scared. Not that I was telling everyone how scared I was. But my god it drove her crazy. She had this idea of me. She said to me, “The fact that you’re out there doing this stuff made it okay for me to get married and have kids.” She was projecting based on my books. “And if you’re scared,” she continued. “I don’t even know what it means in my life.”

When I heard myself say that nothing makes me happier than someone watching over me when I sleep, I just imagined her fainting or something.

You grew up in New Jersey and have traveled the world. But you’ve been living on the ranch in the American West for 26 years. How long did it take before you felt like you belonged there — at the ranch and in Creede.

Oh, I don’t belong in Creede. I belong at the ranch but I don’t belong in Creede. But just this morning at the post office, my friend Connie and Sam and the guy who did my bathroom remodel and his new wife, and the ex-mayor were there, and we were just standing and talking in the post office for like 25 minutes. I thought maybe I belong in Creede more than I think I do. I don’t have that experience very often in Creede. I’m not quite trusted. They’re suspicious of me, because I’m not here all the time. And when I’m here, I tend to stay on the ranch.

Why did you decide to write a book about the ranch now?

For so many years, I was trying to pay for it and keep things from breaking before I could afford to fix them. When I finally got it paid off that led to my sort of taking stock. That taking stock is what led to the book. There were plenty of times I was thinking, “What am I doing here,” as I was fixing a pipe with a steak knife. But driving home, coming around the corner, I’ve always felt welcomed by this piece of land. It spoke to me. That’s my gift, ground speaks to me. It says, “Get out of here,” or it says, “Welcome.” I have always felt reasonably like I belonged here on the ranch.

Tell me about this conservation easement you mention.

Now that the ranch is paid off, and the book’s written, I’m putting it into a land trust. But this organization called Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust contacted me a long time ago. It’s expensive and time consuming. What it means is no matter who owns the ranch, even if I sell it, no one will be able to drill or subdivide on the land. The conservation easement devalues the land in a monetary way. I won’t be able to sell it for as much as I would have otherwise, but there are tax benefits to doing it. For me, one huge benefit is that this will be agricultural land forever. All I really want to do is preserve the land anyway. If I ever sell it, which I hopefully won’t, I just want it to be protected.

What’s next for you?

For me, I’m not a reclusive writer. I like to interact with fans and bookstore owners. I’m going out on the road with this book, doing something like 50 readings starting January 25th. For me a tour is a reward for writing the book. I go out and meet my people. As for writing, I’m working on some short stories. That’s kind of what I want to write next. I might write a stage play. I’m taking Mike to Iceland in August for his retirement present. I don’t have any giant plans except to enjoy being married.

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Kim Steutermann Rogers lives on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. She is a freelance writer covering the science and nature of endemic and endangered species, climate change, the occasional story about Mark Twain.

Editor: Dana Snitzky