Pam Houston Answers the Orion Questionnaire

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.

Writer, teacher, and consummate outdoorswoman Pam Houston indulges us with dreams of Icelandic ponies, live oaks, navigating by the stars, and magical meatloaf. Come for the narwhal migration, stay for the Diana Ross. 


You found a penny. Do you pick it up?
It seems to me that “finding” suggests retrieving somehow, but no. I am always looking up and around and rarely down (hence the frequent sprained ankles). 


What is your most treasured comfort meal? 

I have a chosen Mom, Mama Dia. We found each other when I was 54 and she was 70. She makes the best meatloaf in the universe using organic beef and the recipe from the round top of the Quaker Oats box (though she uses Bob’s Red Mill gluten free oatmeal.) We usually have it with baked potato and salad. 


What is a species you feel is frequently misunderstood? 

Well, I own a miniature donkey (Isaac) who feels that he is deeply misunderstood. I fail to understand, he would tell you, that he ought to be allowed to come in with the dogs and curl up on the couch. On the whole I think our understanding of all other species is grotesquely limited. 


Ocean, garden, desert, or forest? 

Mountain. Above tree line. 


My favorite tree in the world is the _____.

California live oak


Nature would be better without _____.

That’s a trick question. It’s tempting to say people, but since people (and pretty much everything else) are part of or come from nature, I would have to say leaf blowers. Followed closely by snowmobiles, four wheelers, side-by-sides….


What is something you’re looking forward to? 

The continued dismantling of binary thinking by the next generations. Negative capability becoming cool again.  


Do you like scary movies?

Not at all. 


Do you have any unusual hobbies, hidden talents, or superpowers you’d like to share?

I’m very, very good at pinball. I know the words to every song that came out in the seventies, including all the verses of “American Pie” in order. 


If you could, regardless of the local climate, reach out of your kitchen window a pluck a fruit from a tree, bush, or plant, what would it be? 

Avocado, no contest. 


If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

My husband Mike, we do it all the time and it is really nice. 


Can you make any convincing birdcalls?

No. Well, possibly a redtail hawk, but that hardly counts because it is so easy. 


Would you rather be lost in space or lost at sea?

Lost at sea, in which case, I would not exactly be lost. (I know how to navigate by the stars.)


What are some of your favorite words?

Withers, wag, snack.


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?

James Baldwin, David Byrne, Toni Morrison, Mrs. Pigglewiggle, Lucille Ball, The Founders of Best Friends Animal Society, David Bowie, my students, at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and also at UC Davis, who have lived through all the shit they have lived through already, personally, nationally, and are making their art anyway.  


Who is a character from literature or film with whom you intensely identify? 

Natalie Maines, in Shut Up and Sing.


What is something new you’ve done recently?
Well, not so new—five years now—but it still feels new. I decided to (truly) trust a man I am married to. 


What’s the wildest thing you’ve witness or experienced in nature?
I was on a boat, with an ice-enforced hull on the east side of Baffin Island, and we were coming out of a fjord system known as Sam Ford Fjord, and just as we returned to open ocean, we found ourselves in the middle of the annual narwhal migration of about 800 animals. We travelled with them for the rest of that day and well into the evening, the roll of their bodies, the quick glimpses of their tusks…


It’s late afternoon on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it? 

Choya sparkling yuzu soda, or barring the ability to import, Boylan’s black cherry with crushed ice. 


Are you optimistic about the future?

Weirdly, yes. 


What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?

Dog anxiety breath. 


Which of your book subjects or characters haunts you the most?

Is it weird if none of them haunt me? But lots of art by other people haunt me in the best ways: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. Toni Morrison’s Paradise, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, to name three of many. A movie that haunts me in not such a great way is Jacob’s Ladder, which is not exactly a scary movie (see answer above) but scared the crap out of me and won’t go away. 


Where did you grow up?

I lived, as a kid, in Trenton, New Jersey, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but I “grew up” at the Jersey Shore

Are you the same person you were as a child?

This must be a good question because I had both the impulse to write “of course,” which was immediately followed by the impulse to write “not even a little bit.”


What song or album reminds you of high school?

Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky


What did an average Friday night look like for you as a teenager? 

Those were rough years to be living in my father’s house, to be honest, and my memory is spotty. The good times were with my nerdy friends. It is possible that the soundtrack to Godspell was often involved.


You are in a situation where you simply must sing karaoke. What’s your song?

Touch Me in the Morning


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Southern Iceland, near a town called Hveragerdi.


You’re in a deserted island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?

Water filter, folding knife/multi tool, solar panel (also folding as for camping), Carl Phillips’ Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020.


What would you like to be most remembered for? 

Being a good teacher. 


What flower would you want pinned to your breast after you die?

No flower. I would like my ashes to be used as mulch for flowers. 


If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?

I would come back as an Icelandic horse, a mare, specifically. Maybe a dominant mare, with my own herd. I would like to spend half the year taking riders on treks, crossing rivers, crossing mountains and plateaus, and the other half turned out to pasture with my band. In this life, I want to spend as many hours with these mares as I possibly can.

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Pam Houston is the author of the memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, as well as two novels, Contents May Have Shifted and Sight Hound, two collections of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton.  Her stories have been selected for volumes of The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Short Stories of the Century among other anthologies. She teaches in the Low Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is a professor of English at UC Davis, and cofounder and creative director of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives at 9,000 feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.