Taking a break from her book tour, author Pam Houston will be popping into Ogden this week to coach writing students at Weber State University and also to visit with the public regarding her new book, "Contents May Have Shifted."
Houston, who lives on a ranch in Colorado, is the author of two collections of linked short stories, "Cowboys Are My Weakness" and "Waltzing the Cat." She also wrote the novel "Sight Hound" and a collection of essays called "A Little More About Me." All were published by W.W. Norton.
Houston is an author who gathers her inspiration from her surroundings.
"She's a writer of narratives that feature very strong female protagonists. Besides being a writer, she is an outdoors specialist. She has run river rafts and hunted," said Victoria Ramirez, WSU English professor and director of creative writing for the university's English department. "We're delighted to have her come here."
Houston will be a Hurst artist-in-residence. The residency program, funded by WSU alumni Dean W. and Carol W. Hurst, brings a renowned artist to the College of Arts and Humanities to work with the students in small groups for an extended period of time.
Houston also will be doing a public reading from her new book, "Contents May Have Shifted," at 7 p.m. Monday at the Pleasant Valley Library in Washington Terrace, and a signing from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Queen Bee Bookstore in Ogden.
Both events are free to the public.
Houston lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande River.
The author says her inspiration comes from mountains, rivers and oceans, but also the urban landscape.
"I get my inspiration directly from the hard, physical facts of the world -- things that are out there, that I am seeing," she said. "A lot of writers get their inspiration from history, stories they hear or from ideas they have. But that's not how it is for me. I am really about bearing witness to the physical world that I get to be in touch with."
In dishing out writing advice, Houston quotes Henry James, "A writer ought to strive to be a person on whom nothing is lost."
Her first line of advice is to pay close attention to the world around you. "Writable things are happening all the time -- everywhere we look, everywhere we go," she said.
"I don't really think of myself as having a really good imagination," she said. "I think of myself as being a keen observer, and if I have a talent, it's translating those observations into language."
Houston's stories have been selected for volumes of "Best American Short Stories" and "Best American Short Stories of the Century." She is the winner of such honors as the 1993 Western States Book Award (for "Cowboys Are My Weakness") and the Willa award for contemporary fiction (for "Waltzing the Cat").
Houston earned her master's degree at the University of Utah. She is the director of creative writing at the University of California, Davis, and teaches at writing conferences around the country and the world.
"Cowboys Are My Weakness" was published in 1992.
"At the time the book came out, it was pretty unusual for a woman to be a hunting guide and a river guide," she said. "It was women in traditionally male landscapes. Now, of course, there are more women wilderness guides."
" 'Cowboys' addresses being a really smart woman but having terrible taste in men," Houston said. "I think there are a lot of women in that boat. I think there are a lot of smart women who are really successful at many things but, for whatever reason, get into problematic waters with their relationships."
Houston says she gets letters from women who confess that accountants are their weakness, or firefighters are their weakness. "It struck a chord with a lot of women," she said.
Houston says her favorite book is "Waltzing the Cat," even though it was difficult to get it published and it didn't sell as well as her other works. "It was my problem child," she said. "But the new book is my new favorite."
"Contents May Have Shifted" is a novel, structured in very short chapters, about a woman named Pam, about traveling and relationships.
Ramirez said she likes the way Houston writes from a woman's point of view, and in first person.
"Often, the woman telling the story has outdoor experience and that is unusual. The women are free and independent. They take themselves and their romances wherever it leads them," she said. "The writing is breathtakingly beautiful and brings the reader into these issues we all face in our lives, dealing romantically with the other gender."
Teacher and coach
A WSU committee selected Houston from the group of applicants.
"The faculty was very enthused about having this particular author come," said Diane Stern, director of the Cultural Affairs program at WSU.
"I am excited to meet her. It's always interesting to meet the visiting artists," Stern said. "They are very creative and usually very involved and passionate in what they are doing -- and they have lots of ideas."
Houston will be working with a core group of students every day from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday of this week. She will also be attending several classes, from general education to the master's level, where she will talk about the writing process and her strategies. She will also be meeting with the staff of the university's literary journal, Aelurus, as well as doing a reading for the English faculty.
Ashley Allen, 26, of Roy, a junior majoring in art, is taking an introductory class to short fiction at WSU and is reading "Cowboys" in preparation for Houston's visit.
"We're learning about what makes good short-story writing. We've been discussing the strengths and weaknesses we find within the book," Allen said. "I'm excited to meet the author. You get inspiration from them, and it's interesting to see what works for them with their writing. It's good to get pointers from people who have been successful."
For more information on Houston's visit, call 801-626-6570.