Renowned author Pam Houston traveled to Kodiak Monday to read an excerpt from her new book in front of a packed audience at the Kodiak Public Library, and leading a writing workshop Tuesday.
“I’ve been many, many times to Alaska, but I’ve never been to Kodiak. So I’m so excited to be here,” Houston said at the beginning of her reading.
Houston is the author of six books, including “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” and is a professor of English at the University of California Davis. She also is the director of the nonprofit organization Writing By Writers, which hosts multi-day writing workshops in locations across the country and in Chamonix, France.
Jan Chatto, chairwoman of the Kodiak Public Library Association, first met Houston at a reading and book signing event in Sisters, Oregon. After the reading, Chatto approached Houston and asked her if she would consider coming to Kodiak.
“When I said Kodiak, she didn’t even hesitate,” Chatto said.
“One of our goals is to sponsor authors to come visit if we can afford them,” Chatto said of the library association. Houston was already scheduled to give a series of readings in Anchorage, making her trip to Kodiak easy to arrange.
Chatto, a retired teacher, said she intends to reach out to other authors who might be interested in coming to Kodiak for similar events. Before Houston began her reading, Chatto encouraged audience members to join KPLA.
“The more volunteers we have, the more projects we can do,” Chatto said. “To me, it’s part of our library’s goal is to be a community center, so to speak.”
Houston read from her sixth book, a memoir called “Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country.” In it, she describes life on her ranch in Creede, Colorado.
“It started different than my other books. My other books grew right out of my imagination,” Houston said. For this one, “my publisher came to me and said, ‘we want you to go on a book-length adventure.’”
Houston made a list of possible adventures, which included a long-distance mushing trip and sailing the coast of Turkey. But eventually, she decided to stay close to home.
“I’m already having my book-length adventure,” she said. “My book-length adventure began 25 years ago when I first laid eyes on this homestead, at 9,000 feet in Colorado, right near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.”
Houston bought her Colorado ranch after her first book, “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” was published. She had been paid $21,000.
“I was a grad student at the time, making $4,500 a year, so $21,000 seemed like an enormous amount of money, and it also seemed like more money than I would ever have again,” she said. “When my agent gave me the check for that book, she said ‘don’t spend it all on hiking boots.’”
At the time, Houston was completing a doctorate at the University of Utah, but her professors were not impressed with her writing.
“On my first day of workshop in graduate school, the professor said, ‘No snow, no skis, no trees, no mountains, no skiing, no eyes and no female bodily excretions.’ Those were the rules. And my first book is an aria to all of those things, so I was at odds with the people in Utah from the very beginning,” Houston said.
She decided to walk out of graduate school, four months shy of receiving her Ph.D., with an uncashed check for $21,000. Then, she found Creede.
“The ranch is the thing that grew me up, that made me responsible to something, to a piece of land and its inhabitants both wild and domesticated,” she said. “It taught me how to show up in the middle of the night when an animal needs a shot and the drive is not plowed, and I got the vet on the phone telling me how to give an intravenous shot. It turned me into a whole person.”
Houston’s original intention was to write only about life on the ranch, but eventually she also wrote about the traumas of her childhood, which included a violent father and an alcoholic mother.
“I feel like my trauma is pretty middle-of-the-world in America, in this culture we live in,” she said. “But writing about it, putting it on the page in a very plainspoken way, gave the healing power of the ranch something to heal. It made all my feelings about the ranch as a safe place in the world much more meaningful.”
In the process of writing the book, Houston said she has become more aware of the pressing concerns over climate change, noting that she did not expect the hot and dry weather that welcomed her this week in Kodiak.
“What I thought was ‘I’m going to write about my little piece of paradise up here at 9,000 feet in the last valley that’s going to go underwater in America.’ And I can’t do that in good conscience without also talking about the grief I feel for the planet, the fear I feel for the creatures of the planet, including us, and how ashamed I feel for how we’ve treated it, and also my commitment to being out it in and loving it and not turning my back on it,” she said.
“That’s like how I think about my childhood. On the one hand, terrible. Terrible to think your father is going to kill you every day, and by the same token I have a life that I made out of that wreckage that I love so much,” she said. “I couldn’t have written a happier story for myself. I wouldn’t have been here without the challenges I had.”
While her most recent book is autobiographical, much of Houston’s work is fictional. However, Houston said all her work comes out of her own experience.
“The first part of my writing process is paying really strict attention to the world,” she said. “I think of the walk I took today in Fort Abercrombie as writing. Because I am constantly noticing and waiting for things that happen out in the physical world, whether it’s the puffins or somebody putting my mother’s ashes in the ground.”
At the writing workshop she led on Tuesday, Houston gave the 15 participants a taste of her writing process, asking them to share “glimmers” from their day — observations they made about the physical world.
Participants recalled the sound of salmon when they slap the water, the happiness of a dog when it spots a familiar face, a bloom of colorful jellyfish, sea lions returning to harbor with the fishing boats at dawn, and the appearance of puffins like winged bowling pins.
“The making of art, I think, should be playful,” Houston said.