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Her heart in the West

Eileen JoycePam Houston sits with her Irish wolfhound Rose at her new Nevada City-area home Jan. 24.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

On her way from Nevada City to Denver last Thursday, Pam Houston realized she’d left her cell phone at her University of California at Davis office.

She would be phoneless until she returned to Davis five days later.



But Houston took it in stride, even though her lapse meant she would have to borrow her husband’s cell phone to make business calls during her weekend trip. The trip was half-business, with a writing workshop in Denver, and half-getaway to her ranch in Creede, Colo.




Houston is the best-selling author of “Cowboys are My Weakness” and “Waltzing the Cat.” She writes about the contemporary West, the wilderness and cultures around the world.

The author-teacher is used to forgetting to pack some necessity or other as she travels constantly between her Creede ranch, Denver apartment, Davis office and a temporary home-away-from-that-beloved-Creede-ranch while classes are in session.

“Of course, things are always somewhere else, in one of the other places,” she sighed Saturday. She was sitting in her Toyota 4Runner with Rose and Dante, her two Irish wolfhounds, and talking on her husband’s cell phone outside a Denver grocery store where the reception was strong.

She never forgets the dogs, who travel with her as much as possible, even if it means she takes the car instead of faster transportation.

Houston’s home-away-from-the-ranch changes – the beach one year, Berkeley the next – as she and her husband live in different locations while she teaches at UC Davis five months of the year. She is in her fourth year teaching fiction writing and literature at the university.

Moving to Nevada City for the first time three weeks ago, Houston said this area might well become their permanent California address.

Her real home is Colorado, though.

“That is where my heart is, the landscape that makes sense to me,” Houston said. “The color of the air changes. The quality of the light changes. It makes my whole body relax.

“On the other hand, I love my job so much at Davis,” she said. “Davis has an English department where people treat each other so well. It’s so rare to find such good people.”

Since Houston is so happy at UC Davis, it makes sense to her to find suitable housing arrangements she can love as much as her Colorado ranch while classes are in session.

“Nevada City’s the closest thing in California to Colorado. I’ve lived all my adult life, come to think of it, in sweet Victorian towns,” she said. “When we went up last spring for a weekend, I said, ‘This feels like home.’ I think Nevada City is a nice fit.”

She was born and raised in New Jersey, the wrong place, Houston said with a laugh, adding that she doesn’t “feel any attachment to that state, just minor pangs because Bruce Springsteen is from there.”

As for the constant traveling, or what she calls migration, it’s been Houston’s way of life since she was 21 and received an English degree from Denison University in Ohio.

“I was second in my class, whatever, I was smart,” she said. “I just didn’t want a job yet. I didn’t want to go to grad school yet; I was reading Wallace Stegner’s books and wanted to get out West.”

Immediately after graduation, Houston rode a bicycle from Ohio to Canada to Oregon, where it rained every day. She didn’t like the rain, so she pedaled back to Colorado, where she got a job flagging cars on the highway near the Rocky Mountain National Park.

“That was it for me – the Rockies. This is where I was supposed to be,” said Houston, who has remained in the West, notably in Colorado, Utah and California, for the last 20 years.

The constant change of scenery enhances her work.

“My writing is pretty landscape driven; that’s where it starts for me,” she explains. “Changing places as much as I do gives me a lot of options.”

Besides her frequent travel between California and Colorado, Houston teaches throughout the United States (Provincetown, Mass., New Mexico and Aspen, Colo., to name a few annual gigs) and abroad at writing workshops.

Houston also takes an annual monthlong trip to other continents. This summer, she will go to Mongolia. Last year, it was Indonesia; and Tibet the year before.

Her trips are for research as much as for her own sense of adventure.

“To really know a place enough to write about it, you need to spend three or four weeks,” Houston said. Her travel experiences find their way either into her fiction or for newspapers including the New York Times and magazines such as Elle, Travel, Leisure and Oprah Magazine.

Both Houston’s collections of intertwined short stories, “Cowboys are My Weakness” and “Waltzing the Cat,” are critically acclaimed.

“Cowboys are My Weakness” won the 1993 Western States Book Award and has been translated into nine languages. “Waltzing the Cat” won the Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction in 1998.

Her short stories have been featured in magazines and books including the “Best American Short Stories of the Century,” “The O. Henry Awards” and “The Pushcart Prize.” A collection of autobiographical essays, “A Little More About Me,” was published in 1999.

Although Houston’s genre has been the short story, she’s branching out.

She finished her first play, “Tracking the Pleiades,” last month. It’s about nine American women who rent a house in the south of France, and how the nervous breakdown of one of the renters affects the group.

“I had a ball writing the play,” Houston said. “I devoted November and December to get it done. It was so much fun to write in a different genre. It was freeing. If I failed, that would have been OK. I can’t wait to write another play.”

Houston hopes to find the right playhouse for “Tracking the Pleiades” in the near future.

She also has her first novel in progress.

Her half-completed “Sighthound” started out as a book of short stories inspired by her Irish wolfhound dogs. But halfway through, Houston decided it would be cool to have the characters speak throughout the story.

“It organically became a novel, instead of if I sat down to write a novel,” she said.

Houston will read from “Sighthound” and then answer questions Friday at a free presentation sponsored by Literature Alive and Friends of the Library in Nevada City. She will also lead a fiction-writing workshop open to all levels on Saturday.

Although Houston gives workshops across the country every month, she’s particularly looking forward to Friday’s reading and Saturday’s workshop.

“This way, maybe people will stop me on the street after this weekend and say ‘hi’ to me in my new home,” she said wistfully.

The one other time Houston read for a Literature Alive event, in March 2000, the writer was impressed with the large number of listeners who asked questions after her presentation.

“It was a warm exchange, a nice evening. I could tell the people who came were people I would want to be friends of,” she said.

Know and Go

WHAT: Pam Houston’s reading

WHEN: Friday at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Madelyn Helling Library, 980 Helling Way, Nevada City

ADMISSION: Free

INFORMATION: 272-5812 or 265-1996


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