Pam Houston is not just a writer; she’s a world traveler.
The award-winning author shared some travel experiences during the Spring Reader’s Series public reading event on Tuesday.
Houston’s latest novel, “Contents May Have Shifted,” is a compilation of 144 vignettes, or, as Houston calls them, “glimmers,” experienced by a woman, not coincidentally named Pam, as she journeys around the globe.
“‘Contents May Have Shifted’ was conceived during a writing assignment I did for a conference in Wisconsin,” Houston said. “I travel a lot so I tend to observe a lot of things, and what I do is I look for little ‘glimmers’ in everyday life. By ‘glimmers’ I mean moments in life that leave an emotional residue, things that stick out in my memory. I think that it’s my job as a writer to preserve these glimmers.”
“Contents” reads less like a linear novel and more like a travelogue.
“The book works more like how my brain works,” Houston said. “When I write, I invent all sorts of crazy rules for structure, then I break them.”
Throughout the course of the book, protagonist Pam’s experiences closely mirror those of the author’s: they both love dogs, live on a ranch, travel often and fall in and out of love with the wrong guys. Houston doesn’t deny the connection between the character Pam and the author Pam.
“The Pam in the book is a lot like me, but a little more extreme and quicker on the comeback,” Houston said. “But I will say that we share a lot of the same experiences.”
Pam read a handful of short vignettes from “Contents” at the Reader’s Series event. In one chapter, she relays the existential experience of watching vultures descend upon three corpses during a sky burial ceremony at Tibet’s Drigung Til Monastery. Another scene places Pam in the care of a worldly massage therapist who offers to expel the essence of her father from a wound on her leg that she received in early childhood.
The following morning, Houston held a small workshop with students in the “Writers and Other Artists” mini-course.
“You’ll have to excuse me for looking so tired,” Houston said at the start of the meeting. “But I stayed up til 3 a.m. watching the finish of the Iditarod. I’d like to go to Nome next year and see it personally.”
Houston discussed her influences, her childhood and how she first got her work published. Houston’s biggest piece of advice for young writers came from an experience she had with the famous author Toni Morrison. Shortly after interviewing Morrison for Oprah Magazine, Houston received a phone call from Morrison.
“(Morrison) was upset over one little word in an overwhelmingly positive review,” Houston said. “We’re talking about the same author that’s widely regarded as one of the best writers of this century. She’s won pretty much every award out there. And she doubted herself over one little word. Everyone feels that self-loathing and self-doubt sometimes, even the best of writers. It’s hard to deal with and it never truly goes away, but you have to trust yourself and overcome it. Keep on going.”
Houston is the author of two short story collections, “Cowboys Are My Weakness” and “Waltzing the Cat,” the novel “Sight Hound” and an essay collection titled “A Little More About Me.”
The series is sponsored by the Binghamton Center for Writers and features readings from best-selling writers that are free and open to the public. The series incorporates a workshop-oriented mini-course titled “Writers and Other Artists,” which gives Binghamton students the opportunity to meet with writers in a more personal setting. The next Spring Reader’s Series event will take place on Tuesday, March 19 at 8 p.m. in Science I Room 149, featuring a reading from New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer.