The Knitting Factory goes literary on Wednesday, Nov. 11, shedding guitars and drum kits, and replacing them with a podium, a microphone, a spotlight, a writer. Acclaimed novelist, essayist and short story author Pam Houston takes the stage to read an excerpt from her newest work, an autobiographical novel written in 144 mini-chapters chronicling the myriad places she has traveled including Juneau, Alaska; Istanbul, Turkey; and Ozona, Texas.
Despite extensive travels, Houston describes herself as primarily a Western writer, telling stories of characters who thrive on the open spaces and wild spirit of high rivers, lonely mountain roads, frozen and secluded winters, hunting in the Alaskan Range.
"You are right to call me a Western writer," Houston says. "But I am always quick to add the caveat that I am a Western writer from New Jersey. I am a Western writer who loves the West exactly like somebody that was born in the wrong place, and then, by a lucky series of accidents, found the right place. When I read in a place like Boise or Missoula or Denver, there is this instant understanding in the room."
Houston is the author of two short story collections, Cowboys are my Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel Sight Hound and the essay collection A Little More About Me. Her stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Awards and The Best American Short Stories of the Century. She has been on The Oprah Winfrey Show and has appeared from time to time on CBS Sunday Morning reading essays on wilderness and the West.
"Those of us who live in the real West have a kind of automatic code. For one thing, we share a language that includes phrases like 'mud season,' and 'in velvet,' and 'topo map,'" said Houston, who lives near Davis, Calif. "We speak to each other in a kind of shorthand that is completely absent if I go to read in Chapel Hill or Cincinnati. An audience in Boise cuts me all kinds of slack before I have even opened my mouth because of our shared experience, and what they get is a more relaxed, authentic, risk-taking version of me."
Houston's is the third annual reading hosted by Boise State's Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing that benefits the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program.
Brady Udall, novelist, story writer and Boise State writing professor, organized the series with the idea that literary events need not be stuffy.
"A few years ago," Udall says, "I did a reading hosted by New Mexico State that was a benefit for a local food bank. Instead of being a solemn, high-minded affair, as readings can tend to be, it was a community event. It was held at a venue in downtown Las Cruces and people from all walks of life came to be a part of it.
"When I came to Boise State, the first thing I wanted to do was establish a similar reading series, one that included the community, benefited a great cause and managed to be--dare I say it--fun. There is the implicit idea that only the initiated can appreciate such things, that only students of art and literature and higher learning will have an interest in them, to which I say: bullshit."
So far, the series has featured authors Richard Bausch and Denis Johnson, big-time writers who Udall feels fit the event to a tee.
"The first two writers we invited were perfect, artists of the highest caliber, acclaimed, award-winning writers who came to Boise to be part of a literary and cultural conversation and, yes, to show us all a good time. Pam Houston will no doubt keep up the streak we have established."
Houston has worked hard her whole career to convey the experience of the land and people she has found out here in the West. She uses rugged and detailed landscape, characters full of wanderlust and a transcendental love of the air and dirt and angle of light out here.
Udall speaks of how much he has always been entertained and inspired by Houston's depiction of the West.
"She's a Western writer who writes about this part of the country as no one else does," he says. "Plus she's a vital, engaging presence who loves to interact with people, to be part of the conversation."
Houston, who has been to Boise twice in the last few years, says she's looking forward to her time here, even if she laments the fact that she won't have much time to get outside the confines of the city.
"I have had a lot of non-literary fun in Idaho, rafting the Selway, the Main, Middle Fork and Lower Salmon multiple times. I've gone helicopter skiing over by Driggs, and backpacking in the Sawtooths. I don't have to tell you guys up there it is a fantastic state. This visit will be all about talking with students and readers and writers about making art, which is one of the things I love to do, but I would love to get back to Idaho soon for a bit of the wilderness, too."
Houston will read from a work in progress that contains what she calls--when she is teaching writing--"a glimmer," some momentary thing that happened in a particular spot and caught her attention that seemed worth writing about. The chapters of this book are divided into 12 groups of 12, all with the same first-person narrator in many a far-flung setting, with small divider chapters taking place on an airplane between each group of 12.
"It all sounds a lot like a Rubik's Cube, I know," she says. "But, my hope, of course, was that the arc of a story would emerge and, happily, it has. I'm hoping to have it finished by this winter, and you can bet I will be looking for the Boise, Idaho, incident/mini chapter while I am there."