Waltzing the Cat

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In 11 linked fictions featuring a peripatetic photographer named Lucy O'Rourke, Houston serves up once more her charismatic blend of relationships and adventure. This is the story of one woman's struggle for balance in a world that keeps pitching and roiling under her feet. Dislocated geographically and spiritually, Lucy is prone to the wrong decisions at all the critical times; what's more, natural disasters just seem to find her: an accident on a rafting trip in Cataract Canyon, a Grand Cayman attack in the ...
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Waltzing the Cat

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Overview

In 11 linked fictions featuring a peripatetic photographer named Lucy O'Rourke, Houston serves up once more her charismatic blend of relationships and adventure. This is the story of one woman's struggle for balance in a world that keeps pitching and roiling under her feet. Dislocated geographically and spiritually, Lucy is prone to the wrong decisions at all the critical times; what's more, natural disasters just seem to find her: an accident on a rafting trip in Cataract Canyon, a Grand Cayman attack in the Amazon, a hurricane in the Gulf Stream -- not to mention a few natural disasters in the form of men. A surprise encounter with Carlos Castaneda convinces her that she isn't living the right life, and his cryptic message sends her back to her beloved Rocky Mountains. There, on a ranch, she takes comfort in animals, the jagged landscape of Colorado, and the sage advice of women friends; she even gives a man a try. Most important, for the first time she reconnects with parts of herself she didn't remember losing.
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Editorial Reviews

Karen Karbo
Houston's vigorous voice and lively take on what it's like to be a woman both physically bold and hopelessly romantic are to be cherished.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The winningly forthright narrator of Houston's second collection of interlinked stories (after Cowboys Are My Weakness) is peripatetic landscape photographer Lucy O'Rourke, 33, who persists in falling in love with a succession of men who are wrong for her and in risking grievous bodily harm in adventure sports. Lucy is tossed into raging rapids on the Colorado River in Utah, faces down a grand cayman that almost capsizes her canoe in Ecuador, nearly drowns twice in the waters off the Bahamas in hurricane season and repeatedly tests her courage in other exotic locations. Each change of scene is a search for a home and a man with whom to establish it; each time, she is disappointed anew by neurotic lovers who are afraid of commitment. The unconscious motivation of all her adventures is the little girl she once was, caught between an alcoholic mother and a mean, bullying father. The 13 vignettes from her life, repetitive as they seem initially, move Lucy along a path on which she becomes open to mystical visions: the first is a visitation from Carlos Castaneda, which leads her to settle down at the dilapidated ranch her grandmother has bequeathed to her in the Colorado Rockies. Lucy's troubles are not over at the end of this suspenseful and plaintively appealing book, and her future is not entirely clear, yet the reader finally feels that she has learned valuable lessons that may take her to safe harbor. Houston describes Lucy's sporting adventures with cinematic detail, conveying both her technical prowess and the exhilaration of physical daring. On the other hand, readers may become exasperated at the number of selfish, foolish, posturing men who wander into Lucy's path. Her slow progress toward insight and peace of mind is wrapped up in a mystical epilogue that is rather contrived, but she is such an engaging heroine that one is left wanting to read further chapters in her life.
Library Journal
In a series of linked vignettes, the reader visits different times and geographical locations in the life of photographer Lucy O'Rourke. As a single, 32-year-old woman from an abusive, alcoholic family, Lucy has some issues to work through. Fortunately, she has good friends to help her, and she meets more along the way. Lucy seems smart, well educated, and articulate in most areas, but when it comes to love, it's a different story. Her friend Henry appears to be right when he says she sets herself up to fail. When Lucy inherits her grandmother's Colorado ranch, she begins to confront herself and her past, and the reader is left with high hopes for a happy ending. Houston (Cowboys Are My Weakness, Norton, 1993) speaks to Everywoman in this novel. The dialog, the decisions, the choices, the questions--all are crafted with precision and with intricate and accurate detail. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/98.]--Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island, Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Watch Hill
Los Angeles Times
Houston's stories are so full of usable wisdom that she makes it seems like that's the least we should expect from the books we buy.
Yahlin Chang
[A] wonderful new collection. . . .Book No. 3 awaits. -- Newsweek
Karen Karbo
Houston's vigorous voice and lively take on what it's like to be a woman both physically bold and hopelessly romantic are to be cherished. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
An unconventional protagonist and vivid style are the distinguishing features of this nevertheless uneven second collection of 11 interrelated stories from Houston (Cowboys Are My Weakness). The central character and narrator here is thirtysomething Lucy O'Rourke, a landscape photographer with a penchant for physically challenging adventure (white-water canoeing, hanging with

'glider pilots') and a history of romantic indecision and folly ('I always pick the wrong man. I'm kind of famous for it'). For example, her relationship with one promising male (Josh) is defined by finding who is the superior 'river runner.' Ergo: Lucy's encounters with men occur in such contexts as a storm off the coast of Bimini or a narrow escape, on an Ecuador river, from a vicious 'grand cayman.' Much of this is presented with impressive vigor, Houston is a fine descriptive writer and has a keen ear for crisp, give-and-take dialogue, and Lucy's present confusions are efficiently interwoven with complex memories of her uneasy detente with her 'difficult' parents (the title story, about their indulgent love for a pet cat, is a beauty). Still, the volume feels undeveloped, as if Houston were only hastily jotting down random observations about Lucy's tumultuous life and loves. The impression of uncertainty is deepened by a curious strain of faux-mysticism that threads weirdly through these stories: sonorous advice, for instance, offered by a Pakistani cabdriver in Manhattan; a chance meeting, at a California airport, with Carlos Castaneda (which 'tells' Lucy she must accept the Colorado ranch left her by her grandmother's will); and, in a tenuous 'Epilogue,' her inexplicable bonding with an agelessly wise (and utterly unbelievable) seven-year-old girl. There are gorgeous, arresting flashes of insight, color, and drama aplenty, but there isn't a book here. Houston remains a gifted writer who needs a subject.

Jon Krakauer
“Beautifully constructed sentences . . . peppered with observations that reveal us to ourselves in an unexpected, occasionally shocking light.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671026370
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/1999
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Pam Houston divides her time between her ranch in Colorado and the University of California at Davis, where she is director of the Creative Writing Program. She has been a frequent contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine, and her writing appears regularly in More and other publications. She in the author of the best-selling Cowboys Are My Weakness.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Best Girlfriend You Never Had

A perfect day in the city always starts like this: my friend Leo picks me up and we go to a breakfast place called Rick and Ann's where they make red flannel hash out of beets and bacon, and then we cross the Bay Bridge to the gardens of the Palace of the Fine Arts to sit in the wet grass and read poems out loud and talk about love.

The fountains are thick with black swans imported from Siberia, and if it is a fine day and a weekend there will be wedding parties, almost entirely Asian. The grooms wear smart gray pinstripe suits and the women are in beaded gowns so beautiful they make your teeth hurt just to look at them.

The Roman towers of the Palace facade rise above us, more yellow than orange in the strengthening midday light. Leo has told me how the towers were built for the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair out of plaster and papier-mâché, and even though times were hard the city raised the money to keep them, to cast them in concrete so they would never go away.

Leo is an architect, and his relationship to all the most beautiful buildings in this city is astonishing given his age, only five years older than me. I make my living as a photographer; since art school I've been doing magazine work and living from grant to grant.

The house Leo built for himself is like a fairy tale, all towers and angles, and the last wild peacock in Berkeley lives on his street. I live in the Oakland Hills in a tiny house on a street so windy you can't drive more than ten miles per hour. I rented it because the ad said this: "Small house in the trees with a garden and a fireplace. Dogs welcome, of course." I am dogless for the moment but it's not my natural condition. You never know when I might get overwhelmed by a desire to go to the pound.

It's a warm blue Saturday in November, and there are five Asian weddings underway at the Palace of the Fine Arts. The wedding parties' outfits do not match but are complementary, as if they have been ordered especially, one for each arch of the golden facade.

Leo reads me a poem about a salt marsh at dawn while I set up my old Leica. I always get the best stuff when nobody's paying me to shoot. Like the time I caught a bride waltzing with one of the caterers behind the hedgerow, his chef's cap bent to touch the top of her veil.

Then I read Leo a poem about longing in Syracuse. This is how we have always spoken to each other, Leo and I, and it would be the most romantic thing this century except that Leo is in love with Guinevere.

Guinevere is a Buddhist weaver who lives in a clapboard house on Belvedere Island. She makes cloth on a loom she brought back from Tibet. Although her tapestries and wall hangings have made her a small fortune, she refuses to use the air conditioner in her Audi, even when she's driving across the Sacramento Valley. Air conditioning, she says, is just one of the things she does not allow herself.

That Guinevere seems not to know Leo is alive causes him no particular disappointment, and that she forgets — each time she meets him — that she has met him several times before only adds to what he calls her charming basket of imperfections. The only Buddha I could love, he says, is one who is capable of forgetfulness and sin.

Guinevere is in love with a man in New York City who told her in a letter that the only thing better than three thousand miles between him and the object of his desire would be if she had a terminal illness.

r

"I could really get behind a relationship with a woman who had only six months to live," was what he wrote. She showed me the words as if to make sure they existed, though something in her tone made me think she was proud.

The only person I know of who's in love with Leo (besides me, a little) is a gay man named Raphael who falls in love with one straight man after another and then buys each one a whole new collection of CDs. They come, Leo says, as if from the Columbia House Record Club, once a month like clockwork, in a plain cardboard wrapper, no return address and no name. They are by terrific musicians most people have never heard of, like The Nields and Boris Grebeshnikov; there are Andean folk songs and hip-hop and beat.

Across the swan-bearing lake a wedding has just reached its completion. The groom is managing to look utterly solemn and completely delirious with joy at the same time. Leo and I watch the kiss, and I snap the shutter just as the kiss ends and the wedding party bursts into applause.

"Sucker," Leo says.

"Oh, right," I say. "Like you wouldn't trade your life for his right this minute."

"I don't know anything about his life," Leo says.

"You know he remembered to do all the things you forgot."

"I think I prefer it," Leo says, "when you reserve that particular lecture for yourself." He points back across the lake where the bride has just leaped into her maid of honor's arms, and I snap the shutter again. "Or for one of your commitmentphobic boyfriends," Leo adds.

"I guess the truth is, I can't blame them," I say. "I mean if I saw me coming down the street with all my stuff hanging out I'm not so sure I'd pick myself up and go trailing after."

"Of course you would," Leo says. "And it's because you would, and because the chance of that happening is so slim, and because you hold out hope anyway that it might...that's what makes you a great photographer."

"Greatness is nice," I tell him. "I want contact. I want someone's warm breath on my face." I say it as if it's a dare, which we both know it isn't. The flower girl across the lake is throwing handfuls of rose petals straight up in the air.

I came to this city near the ocean over a year ago because I had recently spent a long time under the dark naked water of the Colorado River and I took it as a sign that the river wanted me away. I had taken so many pictures by then of the chaos of heaved-up rock and petrified sand and endless sky that I'd lost my balance and fallen into them. I couldn't keep separate anymore what was the land and what was me.

There was a man there named Josh who didn't want nearly enough from me, and a woman called Thea who wanted way too much, and I was sandwiched between them, one of those weaker rock layers like limestone that disappears under pressure or turns into something shapeless like oil.

I thought there might be an order to the city: straight lines, shiny surfaces and right angles that would give myself back to me, take my work somewhere different, maybe to a safer place. Solitude was a straight line too, and I believed it was what I wanted, so I packed whatever I could get into my pickup, left behind everything I couldn't carry including two pairs of skis, a whole darkroom full of photo equipment, and the mountains I'd sworn again and again I couldn't live without.

I pointed myself west down the endless two lanes of Highway 50 — The Loneliest Road in America say the signs that rise out of the desert on either side of it — all the way across Utah and Nevada to this white shining city on the Bay.

I got drunk on the city at first the way some people do on vodka, the way it lays itself out as if in a nest of madronas and eucalyptus, the way it sparkles brighter even than the sparkling water that surrounds it, the way the Golden Gate reaches out of it, like fingers, toward the wild wide ocean that lies beyond.

I loved the smell of fresh blueberry muffins at the Oakland Grill down on Third and Franklin, the train whistle sounding right outside the front door, and tattooed men of all colors unloading crates of cauliflower, broccoli, and peas.

Those first weeks I'd walk the streets for hours, shooting more film in a day than I could afford in a week, all those lives in such dangerous and unnatural proximity, all those stories my camera could tell.

I'd walk even the nastiest part, the blood pumping through my veins as hard as when I first saw the Rocky Mountains so many years ago. One night in the Mission I rounded a corner and met a guy in a wheelchair head on who aimed himself at me and covered me with urine. Baptized, I said to my horrified friends the next day, anointed with the nectar of the city gods.

I met a man right off the bat named Gordon, and we'd drive down to the Oakland docks in the evening and look out at the twenty-story hydraulic boatlifts which I said looked like a battalion of Doberman pinchers protecting the harbor from anyone who might invade. Gordon's real name was Salvador and he came from poor people, strawberry pickers in the Central Valley, two of his brothers stillborn from malathion poisoning. He was handsome even as a boy, with jet black hair, dark skin, and his mother's gene for blue eyes. He left the valley and moved to the city when he was too young by law to drive the truck he stole from his father's field boss.

He left it double-parked in front of the Castro Theatre, talked a family in the Mission into trading work for floor space, changed his name to Gordon, changed his age from fifteen to twenty, and applied for a grant to study South American literature at San Francisco State.

He had his Ph.D. before he turned twenty, a tenure-track teaching job at Berkeley by twenty-one. When he won his first teaching award his mother was in the audience; when their blue eyes met she nodded her approval, but when he looked for her afterwards, she was nowhere to be found.

"Can you believe it?" he said when he told the story, his voice such a mixture of pride and disappointment that I didn't know which was more unbelievable, that she had come or that she had gone.

"If one more woman I used to date turns into a lesbian," Leo says, "I'm moving to Minneapolis."

The wedding receptions are well under way and laughter bubbles toward us across the lagoon.

"It's possible to take that as a compliment," I say, "if you want to bend your mind that way."

"I don't," he says.

"Maybe it's just a choice a woman makes," I say, "when she feels she has exhausted all her other options."

"Oh, yeah, like you start out being a person," Leo says, "and then you decide to become a car."

"Sometimes I think it's either that or Alaska," I say. "The odds there, better than ten to one."

I remember a bumper sticker I saw once in Haines, Alaska, near the place where the ferries depart for the lower forty-eight: Baby, it said, when you leave here you'll be ugly again.

"In Alaska," I say, "I've actually had men fall at my feet."

"I bet a few men have fallen at your feet down here," he says, and I try to look him in the eye to see how he means it, but he keeps them fixed on the poetry book.

He says, "Aren't I the best girlfriend you never had?"

The last woman Leo called the love of his life only let him see her twice a week for three years. She was a cardiologist who lived in the Marina who said she spent all day with broken hearts and she had no intention of filling her time off with her own. At the start of the fourth year, Leo asked her to raise the number of dates to three times a week, and she immediately broke things off.

Leo went up on the Bridge after that. This was before they put the phones in, the ones that go straight to the counselors. It was a sunny day and the tide was going out, making whitecaps as far as he could see into the Pacific. After a while he came down, not because he felt better but because of the way the numbers fell out. There had been 250 so far that year. Had the number been 4 or 199 or even 274 he says he might have done it, but he wasn't willing to go down officially with a number as meaningless as 251.

A woman sitting on the grass near us starts telling Leo how much he looks like her business partner, but there's an edge to her voice I can't identify, an insistence that means she's in love with the guy, or she's crazy, or she's just murdered him this morning and she has come to the Palace of the Fine Arts to await her impending arrest.

"The great thing about Californians," Leo says when the woman has finally gotten up to leave, "is that they think it's perfectly okay to exhibit all their neuroses in public as long as they apologize for them first."

Leo grew up like I did on the East Coast, eating Birds Eye frozen vegetables and Swanson's deepdish meat pies on TV trays next to our parents and their third martinis, watching What's My Line and To Tell the Truth on television and talking about anything on earth except what was wrong.

"Is there anyone you could fall in love with besides Guinevere?" I ask Leo, after he's read a poem about tarantulas and digger wasps.

"There's a pretty woman at work," he says. "She calls herself The Diva."

"Leo," I say, "write this down. I think it's a good policy to avoid any woman who uses an article in her name."

There are policemen at the Palace grounds today handing out information about how we can protect ourselves from an epidemic of car-jackings that has been taking place in the city for the last five months. The crime begins, the flyer tells us, with the criminal bumping the victim's car from behind. When the victim gets out of the car to exchange information, the criminal hits her — and it's generally a woman — over the head with a heavy object, leaves her on the sidewalk, steals her car, and drives away.

The flyer says we are supposed to keep our windows rolled up when the other driver approaches, keep the doors locked, and say through the glass, "I'm afraid. Im not getting out. Please follow me to the nearest convenience store." It says under no circumstances should we ever let the criminal drive us to crime scene number two.

"You couldn't do it, could you," Leo says, and slaps my arm like a wise guy.

"What do you think they mean," I say, "by crime scene number two?"

"You're evading the question because you know the answer too well," he says. "You're the only person I know who'd get your throat slit sooner than admit you're afraid."

"You know," I say to Leo, to change the subject, "you don't act much like a person who wants kids more than anything."

"Yeah, and you don't act like a person who wants to be married with swans."

"I'd do it," I say. "Right now. Step into that wedding dress, no questions asked."

"Lucy," Leo says, "seriously, do you have any idea how many steps there are between you and that wedding dress?"

"No," I say. "Tell me."

"Fifty-five," he says. "At least fifty-five."

Before Gordon I had always dated the strong silent types, I think so I could invent anything I wanted to go on in their heads. Gordon and I talked about words, and the kind of pictures you could make so that you didn't need them, and I thought what I always thought in the first ten minutes: that after years and years of wild pitches I'd for once in my life thrown a strike.

It took me less than half a baseball season to discover my oversight: Gordon had a jealous streak as vicious as a heat seeking missile and he could make a problem out of a paper bag. We were asked to leave two restaurants in one week alone, and it got to the point fast where if the waitperson wasn't female, I'd ask if we could go somewhere else or have another table.

Car mechanics, piano tuners, dry cleaners, toll takers: in Gordon's mind they were all out to bed me and I was out to make them want to, a tenderloin, he'd called me once, and he said he and all other men in the Bay Area were a love-crazed pack of wolves.

When I told Guinevere how I'd fallen for Gordon she said, "You only get a few chances to feel your life all the way through. Before — you know — you become unwilling."

I told her the things I was afraid to tell Leo, how the look on Gordon's face turned from passion to anger, how he yelled at me in a store so hard one time that the manager slipped me a note that said he would pray for me, how each night I would stand in the street while he revved up his engine and scream please Gordon, please Gordon, don't drive away.

"At one time in my life I had breast implants just to please a man," she said. "Now I won't even take off my bracelets before bed."

Guinevere keeps a bowl of cards on her breakfast table between the sugar and the coffee. They are called Angel Cards and she bought them at the New Age store. Each card has a word printed on it, sisterhood or creativity or romance, and there's a tiny angel with her body in a position that is supposed to illustrate the word.

That morning I picked balance, with a little angel perched in the center of a teeter-totter, and when Guinevere reached in for her own word she sighed in disgust. Without looking at the word again, without showing it to me, she put the card in the trash can and reached to pick another.

I went to the trash can and found it. The word was surrender, and the angel was looking upwards with her arms outstretched.

"I hate that," she said, her mouth slightly twisted. "Last week I had to throw away submit."

Guinevere brought me a cookie and a big box of Kleenex. She said that choices can't be good or bad. There is only the event and the lessons learned from it. She corrected my pronunciation gently and constantly: the Bu in Buddha she said is like the pu in pudding and not like the boo in ghost.

When I was twenty-five years old I brought home to my parents a boy named Jeffrey I thought I wanted to marry. He was everything I believed my father wanted: He had an MBA from Harvard. He had patches on the elbows of his sportcoats. He played golf on a course that only allowed men.

We spent the weekend drinking the wine and eating the pâté Jeffrey's mother had sent him from her fermette in the southwest of France. Jeffrey let my father show him decades' worth of tennis trophies. He played the piano while my mother sang her old torch songs.

I waited until I had a minute alone with my father. "Papa," I said — it was what I always called him — "how do you like Jeffrey?"

"Lucille," he said, "I haven't ever liked any of your boyfriends, and I don't expect I ever will. So why don't you save us both the embarrassment, and not ask again."

After that I went back to dating mechanics and river guides. My mother kept Jeffrey's picture on the mantel till she died.

The first time I was mugged in the city I'd been to the late show all alone at the Castro Theatre. It's one of those magnificent old movie houses with a huge marquee that lights up the sky like a carnival, a ceiling that looks like it belongs in a Spanish cathedral, heavy red velvet curtains laced with threads that sparkle gold, and a real live piano player who disappears into the floor when the previews begin.

I liked to linger there after the movie finished, watch the credits and the artificial stars in the ceiling. That Tuesday I was the last person to step out of the theater into a chilly and deserted night.

I had one foot off the curb when the man approached me, a little too close for comfort even then.

"Do you have any change you can spare?" he said.

The truth was I didn't. I had scraped the bottom of my purse to put together enough quarters, nickels, and dimes to get into the movie, and the guy behind the glass had let me in thirty cents short.

I said I was sorry and headed for the parking lot. I knew he was behind me, but I didn't turn around. I should have gotten my keys out before I left the theater, I thought. Shouldn't have stayed to see every credit roll.

About ten steps from my car I felt a firm 'Jab in the middle of my rib cage.

"I bet you'd feel differently," the man said, "if I had a gun in my hand."

"I might feel differently," I said, whirling around with more force than I intended, "but I still wouldn't have any money."

He flinched, changed the angle of his body, just slightly back and away. And when he did, when his eyes dropped from mine to his hand holding whatever it was in his jacket pocket, I was reminded of a time I almost walked into a female grizz with a nearly grown cub. How we had stood there posturing, how she had glanced down at her cub just that way, giving me the opportunity to let her know she didn't need to kill me. We could both go on our way.

"Look," I said. "I've had a really emotional day, okay?" As I talked I dug into my purse and grabbed my set of keys, a kind of weapon in their own right. "And I think you ought to just let me get in the car and go home."

While he considered this I took the last steps to my car and got in. I didn't look in the rearview mirror until I was on the freeway.

By midafternoon Leo and I have seen one too many happy couples get married and we drive over the Golden Gate and to Tiburon to a restaurant called Guaymas where we drink margaritas made with Patr'on tequila and eat seviche appetizers and look out on Angel Island and the city — whitest of all from this perspective, rising like a mirage out of the bluegreen bay.

We watch the ferry dock and unload the suburbanites, then load them up again for the twice-hourly trip to the city. We are jealous of their starched shirts and brown loafers, how their clothes seem a testament to the balance in their lives.

The fog rolls over and down the lanyard side of Mount Tamalpais, and the city moves in and out of it, glistening like Galilee one moment, then gray and dreamy like a ghost of itself the next, and then gone, like a thought bubble, like somebody's good idea.

"Last night," I say, "I was walking alone down Telegraph Avenue. I was in a mood, you know, Gordon and I had a fight about John Lennon."

"Was he for or against?" Leo says.

"Against," I say, "but it doesn't matter. Anyway, I was scowling, maybe crying a little, moving along pretty fast, and I step over this homeless guy with his crutches and his little can and he says, 'I don't even want any money from you, I'd just like you to smile.'"

"So did you?" Leo says.

"I did," I say. "I not only smiled, but I laughed too, and then I went back and gave him all the money in my wallet, which was only eighteen dollars, but still. I told him to be sure and use that line again."

"I love you," Leo says, and takes both of my hands in his. "I mean, in the good way."

I am told that when I was four years old and with my parents in Palm Beach, Florida, I pulled a seven-hundred-pound cement urn off its pedestal and onto my legs, crushing both femurs. All the other urns on Worth Avenue had shrubs in them trimmed into the shapes of animals, and this one, from my three-foot point of view, appeared to be empty. When they asked me why I had tried to pull myself up and into the urn I said I thought it had fish inside it and I wanted to see them, though whether I had imagined actual fish, or just tiny shrubs carved into the shape of fish, I can't any longer say.

The urn was empty, the story goes, and waiting to be repaired, which is why it toppled over onto me. My father rolled it off with some of that superhuman strength you always hear about and picked me up — I was screaming bloody murder — and held me until the ambulance came.

The next six weeks were the best of my childhood. I was hospitalized the entire time, surrounded by doctors who brought me presents, nurses who read me stories, candy stripers who came to my room and played games.

My parents, when they came to visit, were always happy to see me and usually sober.

I spent the remaining years of my childhood fantasizing about illnesses and accidents that I hoped would send me to the hospital again.

Copyright © 1998 by Pam Houston

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Table of Contents

The Best Girlfriend You Never Had 15
Cataract 46
Waltzing the Cat 77
Three Lessons in Amazonian Biology 94
The Moon Is a Woman's First Husband 123
Moving from One Body of Water to Another 159
Like Goodness Under Your Feet 184
Then You Get Up and Have Breakfast 208
The Kind of People You Trust with Your Life 234
The Whole Weight of Me 248
Epilogue 277
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First Chapter

Chapter One: The Best Girlfriend You Never Had A perfect day in the city always starts like this: my friend Leo picks me up and we go to a breakfast place called Rick and Ann's where they make red flannel hash out of beets and bacon, and then we cross the Bay Bridge to the gardens of the Palace of the Fine Arts to sit in the wet grass and read poems out loud and talk about love.

The fountains are thick with black swans imported from Siberia, and if it is a fine day and a weekend there will be wedding parties, almost entirely Asian. The grooms wear smart gray pinstripe suits and the women are in beaded gowns so beautiful they make your teeth hurt just to look at them.

The Roman towers of the Palace facade rise above us, more yellow than orange in the strengthening midday light. Leo has told me how the towers were built for the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair out of plaster and papier-mâché, and even though times were hard the city raised the money to keep them, to cast them in concrete so they would never go away.

Leo is an architect, and his relationship to all the most beautiful buildings in this city is astonishing given his age, only five years older than me. I make my living as a photographer; since art school I've been doing magazine work and living from grant to grant.

The house Leo built for himself is like a fairy tale, all towers and angles, and the last wild peacock in Berkeley lives on his street. I live in the Oakland Hills in a tiny house on a street so windy you can't drive more than ten miles per hour. I rented it because the ad said this: "Small house in the trees with a garden and a fireplace. Dogs welcome, of course." I am dogless for the moment but it's not my natural condition. You never know when I might get overwhelmed by a desire to go to the pound.

It's a warm blue Saturday in November, and there are five Asian weddings underway at the Palace of the Fine Arts. The wedding parties' outfits do not match but are complementary, as if they have been ordered especially, one for each arch of the golden facade.

Leo reads me a poem about a salt marsh at dawn while I set up my old Leica. I always get the best stuff when nobody's paying me to shoot. Like the time I caught a bride waltzing with one of the caterers behind the hedgerow, his chef's cap bent to touch the top of her veil.

Then I read Leo a poem about longing in Syracuse. This is how we have always spoken to each other, Leo and I, and it would be the most romantic thing this century except that Leo is in love with Guinevere.

Guinevere is a Buddhist weaver who lives in a clapboard house on Belvedere Island. She makes cloth on a loom she brought back from Tibet. Although her tapestries and wall hangings have made her a small fortune, she refuses to use the air conditioner in her Audi, even when she's driving across the Sacramento Valley. Air conditioning, she says, is just one of the things she does not allow herself.

That Guinevere seems not to know Leo is alive causes him no particular disappointment, and that she forgets -- each time she meets him -- that she has met him several times before only adds to what he calls her charming basket of imperfections. The only Buddha I could love, he says, is one who is capable of forgetfulness and sin.

Guinevere is in love with a man in New York City who told her in a letter that the only thing better than three thousand miles between him and the object of his desire would be if she had a terminal illness.

"I could really get behind a relationship with a woman who had only six months to live," was what he wrote. She showed me the words as if to make sure they existed, though something in her tone made me think she was proud.

The only person I know of who's in love with Leo (besides me, a little) is a gay man named Raphael who falls in love with one straight man after another and then buys each one a whole new collection of CDs. They come, Leo says, as if from the Columbia House Record Club, once a month like clockwork, in a plain cardboard wrapper, no return address and no name. They are by terrific musicians most people have never heard of, like The Nields and Boris Grebeshnikov; there are Andean folk songs and hip-hop and beat.

Across the swan-bearing lake a wedding has just reached its completion. The groom is managing to look utterly solemn and completely delirious with joy at the same time. Leo and I watch the kiss, and I snap the shutter just as the kiss ends and the wedding party bursts into applause.

"Sucker," Leo says.

"Oh, right," I say. "Like you wouldn't trade your life for his right this minute."

"I don't know anything about his life," Leo says.

"You know he remembered to do all the things you forgot."

"I think I prefer it," Leo says, "when you reserve that particular lecture for yourself." He points back across the lake where the bride has just leaped into her maid of honor's arms, and I snap the shutter again. "Or for one of your commitmentphobic boyfriends," Leo adds.

"I guess the truth is, I can't blame them," I say. "I mean if I saw me coming down the street with all my stuff hanging out I'm not so sure I'd pick myself up and go trailing after."

"Of course you would," Leo says. "And it's because you would, and because the chance of that happening is so slim, and because you hold out hope anyway that it might...that's what makes you a great photographer."

"Greatness is nice," I tell him. "I want contact. I want someone's warm breath on my face." I say it as if it's a dare, which we both know it isn't. The flower girl across the lake is throwing handfuls of rose petals straight up in the air.


I came to this city near the ocean over a year ago because I had recently spent a long time under the dark naked water of the Colorado River and I took it as a sign that the river wanted me away. I had taken so many pictures by then of the chaos of heaved-up rock and petrified sand and endless sky that I'd lost my balance and fallen into them. I couldn't keep separate anymore what was the land and what was me.

There was a man there named Josh who didn't want nearly enough from me, and a woman called Thea who wanted way too much, and I was sandwiched between them, one of those weaker rock layers like limestone that disappears under pressure or turns into something shapeless like oil.

I thought there might be an order to the city: straight lines, shiny surfaces and right angles that would give myself back to me, take my work somewhere different, maybe to a safer place. Solitude was a straight line too, and I believed it was what I wanted, so I packed whatever I could get into my pickup, left behind everything I couldn't carry including two pairs of skis, a whole darkroom full of photo equipment, and the mountains I'd sworn again and again I couldn't live without.

I pointed myself west down the endless two lanes of Highway 50 -- The Loneliest Road in America say the signs that rise out of the desert on either side of it -- all the way across Utah and Nevada to this white shining city on the Bay.

I got drunk on the city at first the way some people do on vodka, the way it lays itself out as if in a nest of madronas and eucalyptus, the way it sparkles brighter even than the sparkling water that surrounds it, the way the Golden Gate reaches out of it, like fingers, toward the wild wide ocean that lies beyond.

I loved the smell of fresh blueberry muffins at the Oakland Grill down on Third and Franklin, the train whistle sounding right outside the front door, and tattooed men of all colors unloading crates of cauliflower, broccoli, and peas.

Those first weeks I'd walk the streets for hours, shooting more film in a day than I could afford in a week, all those lives in such dangerous and unnatural proximity, all those stories my camera could tell.

I'd walk even the nastiest part, the blood pumping through my veins as hard as when I first saw the Rocky Mountains so many years ago. One night in the Mission I rounded a corner and met a guy in a wheelchair head on who aimed himself at me and covered me with urine. Baptized, I said to my horrified friends the next day, anointed with the nectar of the city gods.

I met a man right off the bat named Gordon, and we'd drive down to the Oakland docks in the evening and look out at the twenty-story hydraulic boatlifts which I said looked like a battalion of Doberman pinchers protecting the harbor from anyone who might invade. Gordon's real name was Salvador and he came from poor people, strawberry pickers in the Central Valley, two of his brothers stillborn from malathion poisoning. He was handsome even as a boy, with jet black hair, dark skin, and his mother's gene for blue eyes. He left the valley and moved to the city when he was too young by law to drive the truck he stole from his father's field boss.

He left it double-parked in front of the Castro Theatre, talked a family in the Mission into trading work for floor space, changed his name to Gordon, changed his age from fifteen to twenty, and applied for a grant to study South American literature at San Francisco State.

He had his Ph.D. before he turned twenty, a tenure-track teaching job at Berkeley by twenty-one. When he won his first teaching award his mother was in the audience; when their blue eyes met she nodded her approval, but when he looked for her afterwards, she was nowhere to be found.

"Can you believe it?" he said when he told the story, his voice such a mixture of pride and disappointment that I didn't know which was more unbelievable, that she had come or that she had gone.


"If one more woman I used to date turns into a lesbian," Leo says, "I'm moving to Minneapolis."

The wedding receptions are well under way and laughter bubbles toward us across the lagoon.

"It's possible to take that as a compliment," I say, "if you want to bend your mind that way."

"I don't," he says.

"Maybe it's just a choice a woman makes," I say, "when she feels she has exhausted all her other options."

"Oh, yeah, like you start out being a person," Leo says, "and then you decide to become a car."

"Sometimes I think it's either that or Alaska," I say. "The odds there, better than ten to one."

I remember a bumper sticker I saw once in Haines, Alaska, near the place where the ferries depart for the lower forty-eight: Baby, it said, when you leave here you'll be ugly again.

"In Alaska," I say, "I've actually had men fall at my feet."

"I bet a few men have fallen at your feet down here," he says, and I try to look him in the eye to see how he means it, but he keeps them fixed on the poetry book.

He says, "Aren't I the best girlfriend you never had?"

The last woman Leo called the love of his life only let him see her twice a week for three years. She was a cardiologist who lived in the Marina who said she spent all day with broken hearts and she had no intention of filling her time off with her own. At the start of the fourth year, Leo asked her to raise the number of dates to three times a week, and she immediately broke things off.

Leo went up on the Bridge after that. This was before they put the phones in, the ones that go straight to the counselors. It was a sunny day and the tide was going out, making whitecaps as far as he could see into the Pacific. After a while he came down, not because he felt better but because of the way the numbers fell out. There had been 250 so far that year. Had the number been 4 or 199 or even 274 he says he might have done it, but he wasn't willing to go down officially with a number as meaningless as 251.

A woman sitting on the grass near us starts telling Leo how much he looks like her business partner, but there's an edge to her voice I can't identify, an insistence that means she's in love with the guy, or she's crazy, or she's just murdered him this morning and she has come to the Palace of the Fine Arts to await her impending arrest.

"The great thing about Californians," Leo says when the woman has finally gotten up to leave, "is that they think it's perfectly okay to exhibit all their neuroses in public as long as they apologize for them first."

Leo grew up like I did on the East Coast, eating Birds Eye frozen vegetables and Swanson's deepdish meat pies on TV trays next to our parents and their third martinis, watching What's My Line and To Tell the Truth on television and talking about anything on earth except what was wrong.

"Is there anyone you could fall in love with besides Guinevere?" I ask Leo, after he's read a poem about tarantulas and digger wasps.

"There's a pretty woman at work," he says. "She calls herself The Diva."

"Leo," I say, "write this down. I think it's a good policy to avoid any woman who uses an article in her name."

There are policemen at the Palace grounds today handing out information about how we can protect ourselves from an epidemic of car-jackings that has been taking place in the city for the last five months. The crime begins, the flyer tells us, with the criminal bumping the victim's car from behind. When the victim gets out of the car to exchange information, the criminal hits her -- and it's generally a woman -- over the head with a heavy object, leaves her on the sidewalk, steals her car, and drives away.

The flyer says we are supposed to keep our windows rolled up when the other driver approaches, keep the doors locked, and say through the glass, "I'm afraid. Im not getting out. Please follow me to the nearest convenience store." It says under no circumstances should we ever let the criminal drive us to crime scene number two.

"You couldn't do it, could you," Leo says, and slaps my arm like a wise guy.

"What do you think they mean," I say, "by crime scene number two?"

"You're evading the question because you know the answer too well," he says. "You're the only person I know who'd get your throat slit sooner than admit you're afraid."

"You know," I say to Leo, to change the subject, "you don't act much like a person who wants kids more than anything."

"Yeah, and you don't act like a person who wants to be married with swans."

"I'd do it," I say. "Right now. Step into that wedding dress, no questions asked."

"Lucy," Leo says, "seriously, do you have any idea how many steps there are between you and that wedding dress?"

"No," I say. "Tell me."

"Fifty-five," he says. "At least fifty-five."


Before Gordon I had always dated the strong silent types, I think so I could invent anything I wanted to go on in their heads. Gordon and I talked about words, and the kind of pictures you could make so that you didn't need them, and I thought what I always thought in the first ten minutes: that after years and years of wild pitches I'd for once in my life thrown a strike.

It took me less than half a baseball season to discover my oversight: Gordon had a jealous streak as vicious as a heat seeking missile and he could make a problem out of a paper bag. We were asked to leave two restaurants in one week alone, and it got to the point fast where if the waitperson wasn't female, I'd ask if we could go somewhere else or have another table.

Car mechanics, piano tuners, dry cleaners, toll takers: in Gordon's mind they were all out to bed me and I was out to make them want to, a tenderloin, he'd called me once, and he said he and all other men in the Bay Area were a love-crazed pack of wolves.

When I told Guinevere how I'd fallen for Gordon she said, "You only get a few chances to feel your life all the way through. Before -- you know -- you become unwilling."

I told her the things I was afraid to tell Leo, how the look on Gordon's face turned from passion to anger, how he yelled at me in a store so hard one time that the manager slipped me a note that said he would pray for me, how each night I would stand in the street while he revved up his engine and scream please Gordon, please Gordon, don't drive away.

"At one time in my life I had breast implants just to please a man," she said. "Now I won't even take off my bracelets before bed."

Guinevere keeps a bowl of cards on her breakfast table between the sugar and the coffee. They are called Angel Cards and she bought them at the New Age store. Each card has a word printed on it, sisterhood or creativity or romance, and there's a tiny angel with her body in a position that is supposed to illustrate the word.

That morning I picked balance, with a little angel perched in the center of a teeter-totter, and when Guinevere reached in for her own word she sighed in disgust. Without looking at the word again, without showing it to me, she put the card in the trash can and reached to pick another.

I went to the trash can and found it. The word was surrender, and the angel was looking upwards with her arms outstretched.

"I hate that," she said, her mouth slightly twisted. "Last week I had to throw away submit."

Guinevere brought me a cookie and a big box of Kleenex. She said that choices can't be good or bad. There is only the event and the lessons learned from it. She corrected my pronunciation gently and constantly: the Bu in Buddha she said is like the pu in pudding and not like the boo in ghost.

When I was twenty-five years old I brought home to my parents a boy named Jeffrey I thought I wanted to marry. He was everything I believed my father wanted: He had an MBA from Harvard. He had patches on the elbows of his sportcoats. He played golf on a course that only allowed men.

We spent the weekend drinking the wine and eating the pâté Jeffrey's mother had sent him from her fermette in the southwest of France. Jeffrey let my father show him decades' worth of tennis trophies. He played the piano while my mother sang her old torch songs.

I waited until I had a minute alone with my father. "Papa," I said -- it was what I always called him -- "how do you like Jeffrey?"

"Lucille," he said, "I haven't ever liked any of your boyfriends, and I don't expect I ever will. So why don't you save us both the embarrassment, and not ask again."

After that I went back to dating mechanics and river guides. My mother kept Jeffrey's picture on the mantel till she died.


The first time I was mugged in the city I'd been to the late show all alone at the Castro Theatre. It's one of those magnificent old movie houses with a huge marquee that lights up the sky like a carnival, a ceiling that looks like it belongs in a Spanish cathedral, heavy red velvet curtains laced with threads that sparkle gold, and a real live piano player who disappears into the floor when the previews begin.

I liked to linger there after the movie finished, watch the credits and the artificial stars in the ceiling. That Tuesday I was the last person to step out of the theater into a chilly and deserted night.

I had one foot off the curb when the man approached me, a little too close for comfort even then.

"Do you have any change you can spare?" he said.

The truth was I didn't. I had scraped the bottom of my purse to put together enough quarters, nickels, and dimes to get into the movie, and the guy behind the glass had let me in thirty cents short.

I said I was sorry and headed for the parking lot. I knew he was behind me, but I didn't turn around. I should have gotten my keys out before I left the theater, I thought. Shouldn't have stayed to see every credit roll.

About ten steps from my car I felt a firm 'Jab in the middle of my rib cage.

"I bet you'd feel differently," the man said, "if I had a gun in my hand."

"I might feel differently," I said, whirling around with more force than I intended, "but I still wouldn't have any money."

He flinched, changed the angle of his body, just slightly back and away. And when he did, when his eyes dropped from mine to his hand holding whatever it was in his jacket pocket, I was reminded of a time I almost walked into a female grizz with a nearly grown cub. How we had stood there posturing, how she had glanced down at her cub just that way, giving me the opportunity to let her know she didn't need to kill me. We could both go on our way.

"Look," I said. "I've had a really emotional day, okay?" As I talked I dug into my purse and grabbed my set of keys, a kind of weapon in their own right. "And I think you ought to just let me get in the car and go home."

While he considered this I took the last steps to my car and got in. I didn't look in the rearview mirror until I was on the freeway.


By midafternoon Leo and I have seen one too many happy couples get married and we drive over the Golden Gate and to Tiburon to a restaurant called Guaymas where we drink margaritas made with Patr'on tequila and eat seviche appetizers and look out on Angel Island and the city -- whitest of all from this perspective, rising like a mirage out of the bluegreen bay.

We watch the ferry dock and unload the suburbanites, then load them up again for the twice-hourly trip to the city. We are jealous of their starched shirts and brown loafers, how their clothes seem a testament to the balance in their lives.

The fog rolls over and down the lanyard side of Mount Tamalpais, and the city moves in and out of it, glistening like Galilee one moment, then gray and dreamy like a ghost of itself the next, and then gone, like a thought bubble, like somebody's good idea.

"Last night," I say, "I was walking alone down Telegraph Avenue. I was in a mood, you know, Gordon and I had a fight about John Lennon."

"Was he for or against?" Leo says.

"Against," I say, "but it doesn't matter. Anyway, I was scowling, maybe crying a little, moving along pretty fast, and I step over this homeless guy with his crutches and his little can and he says, 'I don't even want any money from you, I'd just like you to smile.'"

"So did you?" Leo says.

"I did," I say. "I not only smiled, but I laughed too, and then I went back and gave him all the money in my wallet, which was only eighteen dollars, but still. I told him to be sure and use that line again."

"I love you," Leo says, and takes both of my hands in his. "I mean, in the good way."


I am told that when I was four years old and with my parents in Palm Beach, Florida, I pulled a seven-hundred-pound cement urn off its pedestal and onto my legs, crushing both femurs. All the other urns on Worth Avenue had shrubs in them trimmed into the shapes of animals, and this one, from my three-foot point of view, appeared to be empty. When they asked me why I had tried to pull myself up and into the urn I said I thought it had fish inside it and I wanted to see them, though whether I had imagined actual fish, or just tiny shrubs carved into the shape of fish, I can't any longer say.

The urn was empty, the story goes, and waiting to be repaired, which is why it toppled over onto me. My father rolled it off with some of that superhuman strength you always hear about and picked me up -- I was screaming bloody murder -- and held me until the ambulance came.

The next six weeks were the best of my childhood. I was hospitalized the entire time, surrounded by doctors who brought me presents, nurses who read me stories, candy stripers who came to my room and played games.

My parents, when they came to visit, were always happy to see me and usually sober.

I spent the remaining years of my childhood fantasizing about illnesses and accidents that I hoped would send me to the hospital again.

Copyright © 1998 by Pam Houston

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Interviews & Essays

A: I did go head-to-head with a grand caiman in the Amazon, but that moment was so slow-motion and surreal that it almost wasn't scary. Probably the scariest moment I've had out in the wild was another moment that I've written about in Waltzing the Cat: flipping my raft in Big Drop Two in Cataract Canyon of the Colorado, subjecting myself and my only passenger to a life-jacketed swim through Satan's Gut, a rapid that doesn't always spit its victims out alive. I should probably also mention that for me the more interior adventures of the heart are often the scariest ones of all.

Q: You write with such clarity and insight about the "rocky road relationship." Under the same vein as the previous question, what was the craziest experience you have had in your life in terms of odd relationships?

A: It depends on how you define crazy -- wildly comic or truly insane -- because I'm sorry to say there have been some of each. In the former category, there was a time a man broke up with me one and a half days into a four-day river trip with some serious water. He knew nothing about how to row a boat, and I cried so hard I lost both my contact lenses and couldn't see the rapids 'til I was in the middle of them. "So you want me to try and row?" he kept asking. "Keep your hands off those oars," I would snarl, squinting downstream.

Q: Who would you consider some of your literary influences?

A: I often say I feel like the illegitimate daughter of the unlikely union between D. H. Lawrence and Willa Cather, though most people feel Hemingway must have somehow gotten in there, too. In terms of contemporary writers, this list is long: Lorrie Moore, Russell Banks, Charles Baxter, Ron Carlson, Francine Prose, Alice Munro, Tim O'Brien, and more.

Q: Do you think the current American environmental policies are environment-friendly? What steps do you think need to be taken, if any?

A: I wish I knew enough about the current American environmental policies to answer this question with some intelligence, but as I look around the western United States, I have to believe that they are not environmentally friendly enough. If they were, we wouldn't be killing the wolves in Yellowstone, logging the tiny bit of old-growth forest we have left, and damming every river we can get our hands on.

Q: What would you consider the three most influential books of your life?

A: Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence, Henry V by William Shakespeare, What the Living Do by Marie Howe.

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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. Pam Houston has said that in a collection of related short stories, an "active reader can find as much, or more, satisfaction than he/she finds in a novel." Did you find this to be true? How is reading interconnected stories different from experiencing a novel?

2. In "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had," Guinevere says that "choices can't be good or bad. There is only the event and the lessons learned from it." Does Lucy ever make any really "bad" choices, as friends like Leo and Henry so often imply? What's the "worst" choice she makes in Waltzing the Cat? What's the "best?"

3. After the rafting incident in "Cataract," Lucy says that what she wanted most was for one of the men to say, "tell me what it felt like under there." Discuss the relationship between experience and power as Lucy sees it.

4. Do Lucy's parents really love each other? Do they really love her? Why do they go to such lengths to spoil their cat?

5. Would any of the other story titles have worked well as the title of this collection? How does "Waltzing the Cat" take on new meaning as applied to the entire book and not just that particular story?

6. Does Lucy fall in love, or say she's in love, too easily? Or is her definition of love more complicated than that of those around her? Does Carter ever show himself to be "worthy" of her love? What does Lucy gain from giving her love to him anyway?

7. In "Then You Get Up and Have Breakfast," Lucy describes love as the "flip side of fear." How does this view of love and fear compare with your own? Discuss the paradox of Lucy's seeming to fear love yet love fear.

8. What do the women whom Lucy befriends have in common? Are they more likable than the men she encounters?

9. Do the coincidences in "Moving from One Body of Water to Another" test the limits of your imagination? Is any of it too far fetched? Do you believe that it was really Carlos Castaneda who approached Lucy in the airport? Is it, as Lucy suggests, just as interesting an encounter if the person only thought he was Castaneda?

10. What is the "full experience" in "The Kind of People You Trust With Your Life?" Why won't Erik ever have it? Which characters in the book, besides Lucy, are capable of it?

11. Compare several instances in which Lucy finds herself swimming. How is the water different each time? How is Lucy different?

12. Who is the title girl in "Epilogue?" Why is what she reveals to Lucy so important? Was it a complete surprise to you? Is the "new" Lucy that Lucy has been waiting for really just the "old" Lucy?

13. Lucy's friend Ellie once said that Lucy should "take the right picture and a man will walk into it." If Marcus had shown up in "Epilogue," would the book have been more or less satisfying? Discuss the impact of Lucy "stepping into the picture" herself.

An Interview with Pam Houston

Q. What inspired you to make Lucy a photographer? How are the art forms of photography and writing similar and/or different in your eyes?

A. The first reason I chose to make Lucy a photographer is purely practical. I needed to give her a profession that would require her to travel a great deal. In Waltzing the Cat I was fictionalizing a time in my life that was almost entirely defined by the fact that I flew almost a hundred thousand miles a year, that I visited forty-four countries on five continents, that there was a two-year period where the longest I was in one place was seven days. This has been the writer's life for me, a combination of promotion, teaching, and travel research that has kept me on the road much more than I ever imagined. I like it, though it makes for a rather unique and specific set of life lessons.

I am a pretty good amateur photographer. It is the art form, besides writing, that I know the most about. Once I had chosen to make Lucy a photographer, I realized I could use the metaphor of photography to talk about writing. The two art forms seem similar to me in terms of framing, the way everything depends on what you leave in and what you leave out. I often construct stories as if they are a series of photographs, a series of sharp and particular images, a physical landscape that will stand in for the story's emotional landscape, that will carry and convey the story's emotional weight.

Q. Your next book, A Little More About Me, is a memoir, yet readers of your short stories would probably feel as if they already know a lot about you. Why the shift to nonfiction?

A. I make no secret about the fact that my fiction begins in autobiography, and then shapes itself into something invented as the requirements of structure and form of the short story demand. I have also been known to say that no one can write a memoir, or any piece of nonfiction for that matter, without invention, without — even if inadvertently — making some things up.

For me, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction has never been and could never be whether or not it really happened, and there is, I hear, a movement afoot to bring memoir and the personal essay (what we now, laughably, call creative nonfiction) into the fiction camp. I spend a lot of time trying to put my finger on what the difference is, and I know it's got something to do with the voice and something to do with narrative stance. In nonfiction, my voice is me, Pam Houston, the voice I would use if we were speaking to each other, the voice I am using here. I bring to my nonfictional voice all of my education, all of my experience, all the wisdom of retrospect I can muster, and on the downside, all of the control that these choices imply. In fiction, my narrator is still me, but she's a much more naïve me, more vulnerable, more uncertain. I am always asking her to walk into situations that I have already walked into with the benefit of retrospect, to walk in blind and frightened, to surrender control. This is why fiction is more deeply true than nonfiction, and why it is more chaotic.

Q. The line "There's only one story" is repeated several times in "Epilogue." Is this a belief of yours that you apply to your writing? Did any of these stories go through drastic revisions, in which completely different outcomes were written?

A. I believe that we all write from places of deep unresolved pain inside us, from the darkest corners of our being that are trying endlessly — with a hundred different sets of metaphor — to turn into the light. Things have happened to all of us that have wounded us deeply, and the things in the world that remind us of those wounds are the things that shimmer at us and make us want to put them in stories. It might be a fig-eating horse in southern Italy, it might be the Black Student Union Choir singing Ooh ooh child, it might be the smell of sage in the high desert after it rains, all of these things the physical world offers us to help remind us of our pain and to help us heal from it. The intersection of our decision to honestly investigate these black holes inside us, and our undying hope that we might one day be free of their centripetal force is the place where the best writing happens.

Most of these stories went through drastic revisions, as all my stories do as I work toward the deeper truth. I start out with something that resembles the way I wish it could turn out, and move toward how it must really turn out. I surrender myself to the truth of the metaphors I have chosen (that's the scary part), and eventually, the story finds its own truth.

Q. Did you have a clear vision of the work as a whole before writing individual stories? Did you write the stories contained in Waltzing the Cat in the order in which they appear?

A. I didn't have a clear vision of the work as a whole, but unlike with Cowboys Are My Weakness, I did understand that all of these stories would be told by one narrator, and together they would form a larger arc, with the arc of each story inside it. I wrote these stories in roughly the order that they appear, although Cataract was first, and it was a last minute decision to reverse the order of Cataract and Best Girlfriend in the book. I wrote The Moon Is A Woman's First Husband and Moving from One Body of Water To Another simultaneously, something I have never done before. I revised The Whole Weight of Me about a hundred thousand times, and I'm still not entirely satisfied with it (I never got quite close enough to the truth of the metaphor). Epilogue was a gift that came very late in the process. I wrote it half-asleep and airsick on a United Air Lines barf bag somewhere over Nevada.

Q. The character Charisma, when asked if she writes novels, responds, "Novels, Lord no. I can't even stay married." Having pushed the limits of linked fiction to such heights in Waltzing the Cat and written a longer narrative in the form of a metaphor, are you now planning to write a novel? Does it really require a different kind of commitment?

A. I believe that every book requires a different kind of commitment, no matter if the writer changes genre or not. I can't imagine two more different experiences that writing Cowboys Are My Weakness and writing Waltzing the Cat, and writing a Little More About Me was entirely different yet again. Writing Cowboys was like running the Middle Fork of the Salmon, a class four river with surprises around every corner and a few tight spots, but nothing I believed I couldn't handle. Writing A Little More About Me was like sailing in the Bahamas, free and fresh, with unexpected pleasure everywhere, the starfish big as manhole covers in the turquoise shallows, or the pygmy dolphins that are suddenly nose to nose with your boat. Writing Waltzing the Cat was — every minute of it — like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

I am not planning to write a novel, per se, mostly because I love the form I'm working in. I see a story as a conglomerate of pieces that make a whole, and then I see each story as a piece of a larger whole, a book, an idea that makes sense to me right now in a way writing a novel does not. But plans change, as do the boundaries between genres. I won't know precisely what the next book of fiction is until it is finished.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2006

    So Original

    Being a true Pacific Northwest woman, I could relate to many of the nature-inspired situations. Never boring, Pam Houston 'illuminates' her character Lucy through a series of short stories. Perfect for A.D.D. readers such as myself. Beautiful, real and stunning. A perfect combination for us 'not-so-ungirly-outdoorsy-girls.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2000

    Calling all Women!

    If you've ever wondered, 'Can I...' then this book is for you, for 2 reasons: first, because you CAN and secondly, because you'll want to. I LOVED this book - it reminds you of the all important lessons of self and love and power. It made me laugh out loud, shed a tear or two and, once finished, feel like I could climb a mountain.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2000

    Pam Houston is like a very funny friend

    Very few books have actually made me laugh out loud, this is one of them. Although it reads like a series of short stories strung together by a common character, not a common story or theme, each story is a wonderful and often humorous look at human nature. Certainly worth the time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2009

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