An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines:What was the inspiration for the title, Sight Hound?
Pam Houston:Sight hounds are a category of hounds that hunt primarily by sight, rather then by scent (the other hounds are scent hounds). They include Irish Wolfhounds, Borzois, Greyhounds, Deerhounds, Whippets, and a few others. I liked the words in combination, and liked the shades of meaning they evoked. In my book, Dante, the Irish Wolfhound is the seer. He has insight, foresight, second sight, hindsight….all the kinds of sight you can name.
How did you decide on the concept of the book, Dante and Rae's story told through a variety of voices?
Originally, I thought the book was going to be a collection of short stories, each told by a different narrator that told the story of the life and death of this dog, so the multiple voices idea was with me all along. I ran into the problem of wanting some of the voices to speak at more than one point in time, and began to conceive of a 24 story collection where each voice got to speak twice. I was well on my way to envisioning a 36 story collection when it dawned on me that I was writing a novel, and protecting myself from that rather frightening truth.
Dante's message to Rae is that love is stronger than fear. Does Rae finally hear that message?
I think Rae has made some real progress in that direction by the book’s end. But as Dante would be the first to tell you, enlightenment is not a flashlight, it is a firefly. Rae hears it, and very much wants to live by it. Some days she will succeed at that and other days she will not.
Why do you think some people are able to form loving bonds with animals and others are not? Does that say something about the person to you?
There are two ways to answer this question. One is to say that a lot of the people who can and do form strong bonds with animals often have a distrust of humans. They have been hurt badly by humans in their lives, and the connection with an animal seems more secure. The other is to say that it takes me along time to trust anyone that doesn’t like animals…..sometimes the non-animal lovers turn out to be good people, more often, they do not.
Other than that love trumps fear, what is another important thing that Dante teaches Rae during their years together?
He teaches her about the relationship between love and loss. That you can’t ever have one without the possibility of the other, and that it is worth it never the less. Without loss, Rae says, life doesn’t amount to more than a hill of beans, and without love, life is nothing more than a series of losses.
Why has Rae had such bad luck with men, until Howard?
When Rae was born, both her father and mother believed, each for different reasons, that their lives were over. Rae spent her childhood trying to be worthy of their love, but the possibility of that was lost long before she had a chance to change it. She sought out men that were familiar, that is, men who would make her feel unworthy.
Speaking of Howard, he has a very unique personality, quite outgoing and adventurous. What was your thinking on the character that would be there for Rae after Dante’s death and what balance does Howard bring to the relationship with Rae?
Toni Morrison says that our task as novelists is to celebrate the multiplicity of life. To write characters that are rich and complicated, neither heroes nor villains, just people, who are kind of glorious within all of their contradictions and quirks. Howard is like that, far from perfect, nobody that anybody would ever accuse of being the ideal man, but maybe good for Rae nevertheless.
How does Rae manage to attract such an eclectic group of friends? Does it have something to do with her personal generosity and acceptance of people?
Well, I don’t make any secret of the fact that Rae is more or less based on me, and the fact is that all my life I have attracted weird and wonderful people to be my friends. I would love to believe that it is because of my personal generosity and acceptance of people, and I think I have both of those things. I also think people recognize their own fears and foibles in each other. I am pretty strange myself.
Please explain what Rae calls "moments of grace."
I guess for me they are the moments when life follows narrative logic, when you jump on the wheel of the universe, and all your hunches come true, when you know everything that is going to happen right before it does, when you walk into your favorite used bookstore and there is the book you’ve been looking for years, a signed edition, face out.
How did the relationship with her mother influence Rae’s decision whether to have a child or not?
Hugely. Rae believed for a long time that her mother would always turn out to be right in the end. Rae’s mother’s mother died in childbirth, and Rae’s mother carried on the tradition…because she didn’t die physically when Rae was born, she killed off a part of herself, the part that could be happy. Rae knows how disappointed…disgusted, really, her mother would be if Rae were to “give up her life” to motherhood. Rae fears both for herself, and for the child if her mother turned out to be right yet again.
Brooklyn, the vet student, says that "if you can find a way to get free in your life your next job is to free somebody else." Is this a realistic goal and is Rae able to use these words of advice?
I think it is a realistic goal. I’m not sure if Rae is all the way there at the end of the book, but I believe she will go on to be. In my own life teaching is that for me. In as much as I have used writing as my way to “get free” I now value making and holding a space for others to find that freedom as much as any other thing I do.
Your characters sound authentic, even the animals, or should I say, especially the animals. Is the talent for dialogue learned or an ability one is born with?
Like writing in general, I think a lot, but not all of it can be learned. As an only child I did a whole lot of listening when I was a kid. I have always been very fluid with dialogue and structure, it was language and lyricism that I had to work very hard to learn.
How much, if any, of your novel is autobiographical?
A great deal of it. But it is also true that a great deal of it is not. I always begin in my own experience, in this case it was my experience at the Vet-Med Center at UC Davis, where my dog was being treated for cancer. That is the core that everything else sticks to. Some of these characters are amalgamations of three or four people I have known at different times in my life, some are almost pure invention.
Rae views Howard differently than the other men with whom she has shared her life. What are the particular qualities that allow Rae to trust Howard in a way she hasn’t with her other choices? Is this a sign of personal growth for Rae?
Howard is the first man in Rae’s life who doesn’t resent her, who doesn’t resent her ambition, or all the things that make her “just barely a woman in this life.” Howard likes himself a lot, quirks and all, he is remarkably comfortable in his won skin, and that is something Rae both admires and wants to learn for herself. She trusts Howard because he is trustworthy, and in Rae’s life, very few people have been.
Each of Rae's dogs is there to teach her something vital. Rose's task is to teach Rae how to play. What does this say about the next step in Rae’s life?
What would be great for Rae is if she could lighten up a little. Be lighter, let go of some of the weight of her past and the weight of the world she carries around. Rae has to stop believing that if she is hyper vigilant, she can keep bad things from happening to the people she loves. The opposite of that state seems to me to be called play.
How did you decide on the number of character voices you used in Sight Hound?
Twelve seemed right to me all along and I stuck to that number: if I wanted to add somebody, I had to cut somebody else, and vice versa. I guess I liked the religious overtones of it…imagining the twelve of them, sitting around a big table, sharing the story.
Any particular favorites?
I am particularly fond of the voices of Jonathan and Rose. I don’t have fun while I am writing very often, and writing Stanley was almost pure fun.
Was it difficult to get your work published? Can you share something about that experience with us?
I’ve been writing almost since I could read, but I wrote seriously for about five years before I was published, not too long by some measurements. I went to a writers conference in Park City, Utah, called Writers At Work when I was a grad student in the University of Utah program, and I was “discovered” there by an editor named Shannon Ravennel. It was still several years until my first book came out, but that conference was the first time anyone had told me I might have a shot, and that easily sustained me through the next several years.
Have you begun your next project and if so, can you share something about it with us?
I know very little about it. The first word that came to be was Ocean. Most likely the Pacific, with Atlantic flashbacks. Then a relationship…a pre-teen girl and an older woman who she is not related to. Lots of other things will no doubt attach themselves to this very skeletal frame. I think it is a novel. I was so thrilled when Sight Hound didn’t just keep growing and growing after all, but came back to me as though I knew it would all along, I’m anxious to have that feeling again.
Do you have any words of wisdom for would-be writers?
Read everything you can, but don’t forget to go outside. Pay attention. Be, as the great Wallace Stegner said, a person on whom nothing is lost.
Pam Houston divides her time between Colorado (Creede and
Denver) and the University of California at Davis, as director of the
Creative Writing Program. Her books include Cowboys Are My Weakness,
Waltzing the Cat (winner of the Willa Literary Award), and A Little More
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Pam Houston, author of Sight Hound (see accompanying review), about his book via email for curledup.com. No part
of this interview may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2004.