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The All-Century Club 

Pam Houston on writing and the shift to the stage

It's been a good century for Pam Houston.

Her first book of fiction, Cowboys Are My Weakness, won the 1993 Western States Book Award and her second, Waltzing the Cat, was recently optioned for a Hallmark Hall of Fame film. She has twice been selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories annual anthology (1990 and 1999) and her story "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" was selected for publication in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, alongside stories by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates and Saul Bellow. The anthology's editor John Updike described it as a fitting conclusion to a century of stories, calling the protagonist "an immigrant, crossing not the Atlantic but the well-worn and weary continent, 'toward something like a real life.' "

Houston spends half the year teaching in the Graduate Writing Program at the University of California, Davis, and she frequently teaches summer workshops in Provincetown, Taos, Aspen, and her hometown of Creede in southwestern Colorado. She has contributed stories to the Independent on folk music and football, and she sat down with the Indy last weekend to discuss her works in progress, including her recent explorations in playwriting.

Why do you think of "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" as one of your favorite stories? It's my favorite story because in it I'm working as hard as I can work as a writer, working harder than I ever worked before. I think of writing as juggling ... as putting together as many different juggling balls as you possibly can, as many different unrelated physical objects, conversations and places and people. ... Making them work together in a story, bringing them together and having them sit at kind of odd angles to each other and having them spin around with something that's held together not exactly by glue but by some sort of centrifugal source or something ... the story is moving forward and you're juggling these balls. And in that story I'm juggling more balls. ... I'm juggling toasters and chainsaws and apples and torches that are on fire. It's also one of my favorite stories because it's about something that's very essential to me and very hard to pin down. A sort of feeling of aloneness. It's about a hard thing for me emotionally, which also makes it valuable.

What are you working on currently? I have three projects going at once. Two of them are stage plays, one set on a cruise ship in the Panama Canal and one set in a house full of women in the south of France. The third thing is my next book, which is going to be fiction. The working title is Sight Hound. I don't know the shape of it yet. It could be a novel, if I can get all these things to work together. It could be three novellas. It could be four novellas. Or it could just be six longish stories. I don't know how it's going to group itself yet.

Do you anticipate that the sections of fiction will be linked? Oh, sure. I don't think that I could ever write a book where things weren't linked. Because the link is me. The fact that all these metaphors -- all these versions of the physical world -- made themselves known to me and stood out to me. So, yeah, they're all linked. At one point I thought it was three novellas; one was set in Laos, one was set in a veterinary hospital in Davis, California and one was set in the Panama Canal. It seems like those couldn't link, but I'm absolutely sure that they did. I'm not sure what they are now, because I borrowed the cruise story for the play.

How did you decide to turn that story into a play? I had it more thought out than usual, which is one of the reasons I decided to turn it into a play. I've been using it as an example for my students of how I make a story. How I take all these sort of glimmering moments out of an experience and turn them into metaphors that then become the structure of the story ...

There's something about a cruise ship which just suggests theater and just suggests a stage. What these two plays that I'm writing have in common is that they both have a lot of people trapped together by natural forces. I love when people get trapped. Especially psychologically. I love to be the witness of awkward conversations between people who are stuck in the same room together and can't get out.

When I went on my cruise through the Panama Canal, the experience was very surreal. Cruise ships are bizarre creations. There are so many levels of theater on a cruise ship. There's the real theater, the fake Broadway shows and the silly lounge acts and the reggae bands who aren't allowed to play reggae because it's too offensive. But then there's all the human beings on the ship acting whatever role they want to in this vacation from their lives. The food is a kind of theater. The activities are a kind of theater. And the collision of all the different people on the boat.

I really wanted an excuse to write a play. I have so much confidence in this Panama Canal cruise material that I thought it would be nice to jump into playwriting with material that I have a lot of confidence in, since I'm switching forms.

How do you treat stories differently when you're writing for the stage? Dialogue comes very easily to me. To sit at the computer and write a play, in terms of hours spent there and words generated, is so much easier for me than writing fiction. But just as I'm feeling really good about it, I remember all the things I'm not going to be able to do. All the visuals that are so clear in my mind -- and so much a part of the story's reason -- that I'm not going to be able to write in.

For instance, at the midnight buffet they always carve the watermelon into the heads of the ethnicities whose food they're featuring. Well, that's funny. If on stage we have these carved watermelon heads, it'll be funny. But it's not funny the same way a well-timed line about those watermelon heads is. Generally, in fiction I rely so much on those objects in the physical world, the carved watermelon heads or the conga line around the pool or the reggae band singing "Yellow Bird" or the crazy German lady with all her plastic flowers stuck to her dresses. Those are the story.

The play is so much more what is said than what is seen. And in fiction it's so much more what is seen than what is said, which is sort of a weird inversion, because with the play, you're watching it, and on the page you're not.

When you write something for the theater, it's no longer between you and the reader; there's a middleman. How do you handle turning your characters over to actors and directors? The most exciting thing that playwriting has going for it is that collaborative effort. I love the idea of collaboration. I'm a control freak, but only to a point. When I wrote "How to Talk to a Hunter" and would read it in public, it was very cynical and very dry, very sharp. Then Mia Dillon read it on Broadway [as part of Selected Shorts at the Symphony Space Theater]. She read it with this wonder and innocence and a feeling that I hadn't had about that particular life incident. Or if I did have it, I squelched it right away in favor of the safety of cynicism. It was so wonderful for me to see that. By the same token, when Jane Jones played my narrator in "Selway," [in the Book-It Theater adaptation of Cowboys Are My Weakness] she was so scared when the boat flipped. She had so much fear. I got to sit there and look at how I would have acted, had I acted appropriately, had I not been so shut down I didn't even know I was scared. To me, that's the miracle of theater. That you can have these feelings, that you can not know you're even having these feelings, and then you get this actor who pulls these emotions out of your work that you were too checked out to notice you were having. That's so much more exciting than writing books. I love writing books. But if I could be a successful playwright, if I could get my plays put on stage and earn a living that way, I might never write a book again. Because it's so thrilling. The whole idea is so thrilling.

-- owen@csindy.com

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