By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News
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She does this along two lines: her relationships and her trips.
They're intertwined throughout Contents, a non-linear novel in 144 chapters ranging from long to short to shorter.
The creator of this unconventional journey is coming to the North Olympic Peninsula for two discussions: Wednesday at the Port Angeles Library, 2210 S. Peabody St., and Thursday at the Port Townsend High School auditorium, 1500 Van Ness.
Admission is free to both 7 p.m. events. Houston's books will be available for purchase and for signing by the author.
For more details on the discussions, phone the Port Townsend Library at 360-385-3181 or Port Book and News in Port Angeles at 360-452-6367.
Contents tracks a woman very like the writer — a heroine named Pam — who takes off on planes, dog sleds and rafts to Bhutan, New Zealand and Spain, among other places.
She also embarks on other harrowing trips: away from physically abusive parents, into that first big love affair, into step-parenthood and dealing with her partner's ex.
Through it all, there are close friendships with women, men and Pam's beloved dogs.
Houston splits her time between the University of California at Davis, where she directs the creative writing program, and her ranch in Colorado.
She discussed Contents, the Community Read and her travel plans in an interview last week.
Peninsula Daily News: What do you think are the benefits of a Community Read project like the one in Port Townsend?
Houston:I am so honored to have been chosen for the Community Read in a city that has such a great literary tradition. I think it is a great thing, the Community Read.
Whenever I teach a class, no matter how short, I always assign at least one book — more often two — so that we have at least one piece of literature in common; it is a great place to start a conversation about just about anything you can name.
PDN: In Contents May Have Shifted, there are several frightening stories about in-flight mishaps. What keeps you getting on airplanes and flying to remote places?
Houston:As I tell people who say they would never fly with me, I figure the odds have to be in my favor now.
As I try to explain in the book, I love to fly. I love to go. I love to see places I haven't seen. It is just who I am. And a handful of landings in crash position has not done much to deter me.
PDN: In the chapter about blackwater rafting in New Zealand, jumping into a pitch-dark void does not seem to faze you much; neither do various wild rivers in the book. Are you ever fearful? How do you move through that fear?
Houston: The how, I think, is a question that I can only answer in psychological terms.
Often, if a person grows up in a violent household, they look for big physical challenges in their life to re-create a danger similar to what they felt in childhood, that they can then feel like they have the ability to master.
I think all my years on the river were really about those kind of do-overs. Those things, I believe, are as frightening to me as they are to anyone — I used to be [intensely] scared in a Class 5 rapid at high water.
But I was compelled to go ahead and do them anyway because I was trying to work something out with myself.
PDN: Why call this a novel instead of a memoir?
Houston: For me, making books has always been about taking my actual experience and shaping it into story.
Often that shaping is very slight — because I tend to trust the image or scene or moment as it really existed rather than some invented version of it. But sometimes, for a variety of reasons — mostly because it is what the story demands — what happened in real life gets condensed, or elongated or altered in order to make a better story.
And I want to be free to do that altering without the reality police breathing down my neck.
PDN: What are your travel plans into 2014, for work, pleasure or both?
Houston:For the hardcover tour of my book I went to all the places my publisher wanted me to go — in other words, big cities.
For the paperback tour, I went to places that really wanted me to come, places where my fans actually live. Fort Collins, Boulder, Bozeman, Sun Valley, Boise, Moab, Sitka, Juneau . . . Provincetown, Mass., Port Angeles, Port Townsend.
It has been a blast — some of my favorite places in America.
Next up, New Orleans, Yosemite, Flagstaff and floating down the San Juan River. This summer, I'll be teaching in Aspen, Big Sur, Mexico and Taos.
Then I am going to go home to the ranch and stay there a good long time.
As for the next adventure, I have fallen in love with Istanbul and would love to go back to Turkey and see more of the country.
Also, Alaska, where I have gotten to go twice this year, is a place I am perennially in love with. I'd like to be in Nome for the finish of the Iditarod next year.
Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5062, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.