"Sight Hound" is a collection of interior monologues that, ultimately, adds up to an overall storyline. And some of those monologues are delivered by … pets.
It "is a novel," she says. "I think it's right to call it a novel. But what it really is, is a series of related monologues."
Houston gives us access to the thoughts of six speakers, three humans, two dogs and a cat, each of whom speaks twice.
What some will find surprising is, Houston says, that she had less trouble writing the animals than she did her fellow humans.
"It was easier to write the dogs than some of the humans whose life experience was farther afield than my own," she says.
And of the cat, she adds, "Stanley was, quite honestly, the most fun I've ever had writing."
Besides "Cowboys Are My Weakness," Houston - a part-time faculty member and director of the creative writing program at the University of California, Davis - is the author of the 1998 story collection "Waltzing the Cat" and a 1998 essay collection titled "A Little More About Me."
In 2000 John Updike included her story "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" in "Best American Stories of the Century."
I was able to catch Houston on a weekday, and she agreed to do a phone interview in advance of her March 31 reading at Auntie's Bookstore. She was in the middle of a road trip that had her reading in Missoula on March 30, and she was scheduled to read in Vancouver, British Columbia, the morning after her Auntie's appearance.
Life on the road is like that for most writers. But Houston, who thinks nothing of braving the traffic all around the San Francisco Bay Area, keeps a touring schedule that would exhaust the Energizer Bunny.
"I'm a road warrior," she says with a laugh.
(Warning: a line in the following interview gives away an important plot point of "Sight Hound.")
Webster: I look at what your tour is like and it's like, are you crazy or what?
Houston: Yeah, it's been a long haul.
W: So, you're going to read at Auntie's and then drive to Vancouver for an eight o'clock presentation the next morning?
H: I think it's 9:15.
W: Jeez, that's a good 10-hour drive.
H: I think it's seven. Dawn (Stuart, her publicist) said I could do it in seven.
W: Which way are you going?
H: I don't know.
W: Well, the fastest way is to go on I-90 to I-405, then north to I-5. Seven is when everything goes absolutely correct. But I would give you a little more than that.
(Both of us laugh)
W: I'm not trying to scare you.
H: (Laughs) No, I'm not scared.
W: So, I'm curious. I want to talk to you about your book in a second. But Dawn was explaining to me that this was a crazy book tour. How are you doing all this and meeting all your academic obligations back at UC, Davis.
H: I have this quarter off. I don't teach full time at Davis. I teach 75 percent time. I teach half time, and then I'm the director of creative writing, which is 25 percent time. But right now we're doing admissions for the master's students for next year, so right now I am juggling a lot of different things.
W: No kidding.
H: I was out in Davis for a week a couple of weeks ago, but I was still giving readings at night. I was like driving to Santa Rosa and then driving back to Davis. I'm a road warrior.
W: Are you writing now, also?
H: No. Of course not.
W: I wouldn't think so. Something's gotta give there. So, how do you work writing into your normal life? Do you take a quarter off and write, or …
H: I don't teach all three quarters, so I also have summer plus one other quarter off. I mean, because of being director I sort of have to pay attention, but I don't have to be in Davis except for now and then during that quarter. And I write on weekends. I'm kind of a binge writer, you know. I don't need a schedule. And even if I had one, I wouldn't necessarily be productive within it, is really what I mean. I tend to get involved in a project and then it doesn't matter what else I'm doing. I write in the middle of the night. I write all weekend. I write instead of taking a shower. And then it doesn't really matter whether I have free time or whether I'm teaching at the same time. And then I'll go for weeks or months without writing at all. When you're out selling a book, that's a tough time to be writing in any case, even if you had time, which you don't. You have to be a kind of a people-pleaser, which is not the place to be when you're tying to write.
W: I've talked to so many writers, and they have so many different ways that they do this. I've talked to those who have a writing schedule, even on the road. But I've never talked anyone who's ever really accomplished anything. They all say, "I'm writing, but God knows if I can use any of this stuff."
H: It's just a different mind set. In the first place, you're using so much energy talking about your work, which is sort of the opposite of writing. And also, I try to tell the truth, but it's a different kind of truth when you have an audience and you're trying no to piss anybody off. I certainly don't fake it, but at the same time the level of …(pause) … how willing you are to look at the ugly thing and all that is just very different when you're writing than when you're standing up in front of a room full of people.
W: No kidding. So let's look at the book. How did you … let's start with the basic question: How the hell did you come up with the idea of, one, writing the book from so many viewpoints but, two, having some of those viewpoints coming from pets? I know that you're a dog owner, but writing from all these different viewpoints?
H: I originally thought that "Sight Hound" was a collection of stories. I thought it was 12 stories, each told by a different narrator. So that's where that came from. I kind of got married to the number 12, which god knows what that's about - some vestiges of childhood religion or something. I'm told that 12 is a power number by the New Age people. But I kind of got stuck on that number 12, and I really didn't think that I was writing a novel. I didn't think that I aspired to write a novel. I was gonna let these 12 different voices, including Dante the dog, the one dog in this original version, tell the story. Then I wanted some of the characters to be able to speak at more than one point in time. And so went ahead an imagined a 24-story collection (laughs) where everybody spoke twice, and was kind of well on my way to imagining a 36-story collection when I realized that, "Oh, this is what they mean when they say novel." And at that point I was really committed to the multiple voices, and strangely committed to this number 12. By that time, Rose, the second dog had started to speak, and then Stanley was a very late addition, Stanley the cat.
W: How did the cat become part of the picture?
H: I had been reading up in Greeley, Colo. Stanley was then just a character in the book. He belonged to Darlene, who was a speaker. And then this kid in Greeley raised his hand and said, "It's not really fair if you don't give the cat a chance to speak for himself." So I wrote Stanley, which meant that one of the human narrators had to go.
W: To keep it within the 12 …
H: Yeah, like I didn't even realize at the time that I was doing it.
W: I remember years ago … God, how many years has it been now? 1993. My math is so bad. Hey, '93! It's been 12 years since "Cowboys Are My Weakness."
H: That's right (laughs).
W: Oh, man, I think we stumbled onto something here. This is all so synchronistic. (laughs). But I mean, you're such a strong voice as a story writer, a short fiction writer. So you didn't start this off as a novel, but then where, at what point, was it along the line that you had that feeling, as you said, "Oh, this is what they mean by a novel"?
H: It was about 120 pages in, which is usually my panic point. Something always happens to me 120 pages into a book. Like, "Waltzing the Cat," you know, I wrote that as a whole. They were individual stories, but I wrote them as a lot of pieces within a larger thing, which is sort of how I wrote everything. But I was really conscious of doing that with "Waltzing the Cat," and all the more in "Sight Hound." But all of my books are smaller pieces that come together to make bigger pieces that come together to make an even bigger piece, you know. "Sight Hound" is a novel. I think it's right to call it a novel. But what it really is, is a series of related monologues."
W: It's interesting because some of the greatest short-story writers who have ever lived had trouble with longer fiction. I don't think that Chekhov ever wrote anything that was longer than 90 pages, and that was stretching it. He was best at about 15-20 pages, right around there.
H: That's true.
W: But then he could write those looooong plays.
H: Alice Munro is a good example.
W: Yeah. I suppose what we're talking about here is some sort of artificially created distinction …
W: … yeah, limitation. Who's to say whether the story is worth five pages or 500 pages?
H: Right. The longest story in "Cowboys Are My Weakness," and then the longest story in "Waltzing the Cat" is 42. So I was moving in the direction, sort of, juggling more balls in the air. But when I realized that "Sight Hound" was a novel, the stigma, or whatever, it was enough to really scare me. I was afraid. In a short story, even a long short story, I never want to ask myself the question, "Where is this going? What does it mean? How does it end?" That never comes into the room with me. But what I do kind of like is the ability to see all this stuff, all these hunks of stuff. I've got the three-legged dog, I've got the Colorado wildfires, I've got the guy who writes letters to rock stars. You know, I like to see all the pieces at one time. And in a short story, even a long short story, I can do that. My brain is large enough so that I can hold on to all those hunks. But with a novel, I knew that I wouldn't be able to. I knew that there would be stuff that I would just forget about entirely while I was writing this other thing.
W: So that's what you mean by that 120-page mark where all of a sudden something happens?
H: It was just, there's always this moment where I think, "OK, is there …" not is there enough here for a book, but is this just gonna collect and collect and collect and collect, or is it even going to make its turn. Is it every going to turn in toward its ending. And with "Sight Hound" it sort of did, right at the right time. I've always believed that it's sort of the subconscious that takes care of all that stuff, anyway. You can pretend that you're in control. You can say, "OK, these are all my metaphorical juggling balls that I'm playing with here, and I can see them all." But you always suspect that the thing that happens in writing is something that happens in the subconscious. And, in fact, the subconscious can handle a lot more stuff than the conscious, active brain can. And so when "Sight Hound" did turn toward its end, it kind of wrapped itself up very quickly.
W: Did you have an ending in mind when you were at the very beginning? Are you one of those writers who starts off and says, "I'm going to see where this goes"?
H: I don't ever have an ending in mind. With "Sight Hound," I knew that the dog had to die. It wasn't a book if the dog didn't die."
W: Oh, that's it. Ruin it for me.
H: So, I knew that much. But that's all I knew. Just like with a river trip. If you're writing a short story about, which is about as linear as it gets in my world, you know you put at mile marker blah and you take out at mile market blah. But what any of that means or how any of the metaphors resolve or what happens to the characters I never know.
W: I wanted to tell you that as we were speaking, one of my colleagues (Jim Kershner) passed me a note that says, "If you get a chance, tell her that one of your colleagues titled a book 'Mountain Goats Are My Weakness' in homage to her book."
H: (Laughs) That's great.
W: I can't let you go without asking you how difficult it was to distinguish between the voice of a dog and a cat? I mean, there are dog people and cat people. My wife is a cat person. She can't even understand dogs.
H: That's a line that you should read. You should read the cat if you read nothing else because the cat says, "There are Francophiles, there are anglophiles, there are cooks and there are bakers. There are dog people and there are cat people, and when anyone claims to be both, well, I have to be a bit suspicious." I mean, writing can be frustrating or it can be invigorating or it can be anything. Writing the cat was about the most fun I've ever had. I'm a dog person. I don't like cats. But I have known a few cats that I've liked a lot that have been, you know, sort of all attitude. And Stanley was, quite honestly, the most fun I've ever had writing. And it wasn't hard to write the dogs, because I spend, you know, half of my days thinking about what my dogs are thinking. I realized that somewhere along the line. It was easier to write the dogs than some of the humans whose life experience was farther afield than my own."
W: I always love Gary Larson. You remember him "The Far Side"?
H: Yeah, sure.
W: I always the love the two cartoons that he had. One of them was the dog, and the dog is listening to its master. And what the dog hears is "blah-blah-blah-Ginger-blah-blah-blah." What the cat hears is "blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah." The cat hears nothing except what the cat wants.
W: Well, Pam, thank you very much.
H: Thank you.
W: And when you're on the road, please, drive carefully. Especially at night between here and Vancouver.
H: Yeah, that'll be a bad one.
(Interview took place March 22, 2005)