Western writer finds literary fame in the outdoors

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2005

ALBANY, N.Y. — She was a New Jersey girl who went west in the '80s and associated with hunters, whitewater guides, cowboys and the like. People mentioned her in the same breath as Hemingway after her first collection of stories came out, and she rode that pony some distance.

Three books later, Pam Houston has seen 60 countries, often on the dime of one magazine or another. She has a 120-acre ranch in Creede, Colo., and runs the creative writing program at the University of California at Davis. Her alma mater in Ohio gave her an honorary doctorate last year.

In January her first novel came out, and it's a horse of a different color. In fact, ''Sight Hound'' is about an Irish wolfhound that has cancer.

''Everything I write about is something I've experienced either at the center of it or at the periphery,'' Houston said recently at the New York State Writers Institute. She had such a dog and spent a lot of time at the veterinary clinic. ''And then I shape it.''

She graduated summa cum laude from Denison University in 1983 with a degree in English and rode her bicycle west, ending up in Colorado. In those tumbleweed salad days, she flagged traffic for a highway crew, drove tourist buses, tended bar and skied.

In Utah later, she was a licensed river guide. She escorted hunters into the Alaska wilderness. She used to spend more than 100 nights a year outside, but says she never shot any living thing.

In 1992, she walked out before finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Utah. The early stories of outdoorswomen in hard relationships were her thesis. Not all the professors liked them. But ''Cowboys Are My Weakness'' turned Houston from a twenty-something graduate student into a literary celebrity.

In the titular story, the woman goes to a dance with one weathered and polite Montana cowboy and walks out on the inattentive wildlife specialist she's been living with. She's leaving, and considers that maybe the phrase about cowboys is just something she'd learned how to say, a story that makes good telling, but not finally her story.

In ''Dall,'' the narrator helps her man guide for a rich, inept sportsman in Alaska. When she's supposed to walk along the bottom of a ridge to keep the rams from fleeing the two hunters, she takes a few steps, sees the animals stall nervously on the mountainside, then sits down to change her wet socks. ''When I stood back up, I watched the five rams, one at a time, slip down into the valley floor in front of me.''

If Hemingway's in there at all, it's not by design, Houston says. It may just be that he's a seminal influence. Instead, she mentions Willa Cather and D.H. Lawrence.

After the sudden early writing success, other changes followed. ''I got a little sick of being the outdoorsy girl ... of spending my time with people who only wanted to talk about Teva sandals,'' she said.

In 2001, Houston married a member of a different breed, Seattle repertory actor Martin Buchanan, who's minding the ranch and the dogs during her months-long national book tour. ''He's the first man I've ever been involved with who didn't ask me to be less than I am,'' she said.

At 43, she teaches at writers' workshops around the country and still backpacks, rides horses and skis.

''I love the outdoors,'' she says, although, ''I'm less inclined to risk my life in it.''

Norton editor Carol Smith declined to discuss the number of books Houston has sold, only that the novel is in its fourth printing. She said ''Cowboys'' has remained popular and was just reissued in paperback and she didn't know how many languages it has been translated into. Houston thought the short story collection might be nine languages and about 300,000 books.

From Albany, she was heading briefly home and then to Utah — all by way of Pennsylvania, where her father just died. She recalled a sometimes violent childhood and said that probably sent her into risky outdoor pursuits — putting herself repeatedly in harm's way to master it.

In 2001, Houston and her new husband rafted in the Grand Canyon with a small group — her first such outing after years of therapy. Some days she wept in her tent before taking the oars and running dangerous rapids.

''The problem with learning how to feel your feelings is they include sheer terror,'' she said. ''All the fear that I didn't feel in my 20s, it all showed up.''

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