Houston promises 82 percent truth in fiction, non-fiction

April 9, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Pam Houston doesn't believe there's much difference between fiction and non-fiction.

She is the author of two collections of short stories ("Cowboys Are My Weakness" and "Waltzing the Cat") and a 1999 memoir ("A Little More About Me"). She is known for writing about love, of course, but also about river-rafting, gliding, skiing, rock-climbing, horse-back riding and sailing.

"Everything I write is 82 percent true," she said.

This was a somewhat humorous confession to make on Wednesday night, as Houston was the final speaker in a writers' series sponsored by the Women's Resources and Research Center at UC Davis called "Women Who Speak the Truth." In Houston's case, let's make that 82 percent of the truth.

Houston got the joke, too. "Women Who Speak the Truth, well, that's sort of a tall order even for me and I'm more truthful than most," she said.

Houston, a writer-in-residence at UCD this quarter, said the very aspect of her writing that made her reputation and has continued to bring her writing assignments from national publications is the least truthful thing she does. Houston says she is not really much of a sportswoman.

"It's a great big facade," she said. "I live it, I do it, but not very well."

Houston says she can run rivers and has a skill when it comes to reading water. She can also ski anything, although her style may be lacking. But the rest of it, rock-climbing and horse-back riding, etc., etc., no. She does all those things, but not well by her own admission.

Houston says her writing is divided almost equally between fiction and non-fiction and the difference is purely stylistic.

"When I write non-fiction I try to know as much as I can; when I write fiction I try to find out as much as I can," she said.

She described an incident that took place several years ago when a national magazine asked her to interview six women about why they chose to go on adventure vacations. Houston said she interviewed three real women who were boring. She then made up quotes for three fascinating fictional women. When a fact-checker from the magazine called to get phone numbers for the six women, Houston admitted that she made up three of them.

"Well, then, we don't have to call them," the fact-checker chirped.

"This proved my point that it didn't matter," said Houston.

One of Houston's short stories, "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had," was included in a collection called "Best Short Stories of the Century."

"That was great, a great thing, but I tell my students that no matter what happens to you in the world, there's nothing that feels as good as telling a story. You can be scared, scared of the truth, and then you pull it off somehow. Nothing in terms of fame, recognition or awards can match," she added.

She also said the writing community at Davis is an important and inspiring place. "I've taught in a lot of writing programs and here the talent is high and the department is a good place to be," she said. "There are wildly talented graduate students here. It's a very exciting place to teach."

Houston said her own experience in a graduate level writing program, which she did not identify, was neither warm nor supportive.

"I was the goat of my graduate school program," she said. But in the face of this opposition and disregard she began to take herself seriously as writer for the first time. So maybe she is a sportswoman after all. She just needed someone to tell her "no" before her competitive spirit took over.

Houston lives in the Bay Area when she is teaching at UCD and has a home in southwestern Colorado outside Durango.

"As married as I've been to the Rocky Mountain landscape, it's been fun flirting with a new one," she said.

The New Jersey-born woman said she is growing to love California.

"California is a woman given to shape-shifting," she said. She then said she would read an essay celebrating a California landscape, "What the Osprey Knows."

My ears perked up. Houston was going to read an essay celebrating Davis' brilliant spring? Maybe she was going to read an evocative description of Putah Creek and thrill us with her discovery that it's more than just a muddy stream meandering through agricultural fields flatter than desktops?

No. Her essay on love and California focused on Point Reyes and the coast.

Maybe we'll win her over yet.

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