From Ranching To Writing with Pam Houston

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Here Houston takes us through the life journey that led her to buy a piece of ranch land in the southwest corner of Colorado. She knew nothing about ranching but with the help of many people and animals her wandering life became tethered to the land. She describes the pivotal moment in her life when she had a book advance of $21,000.00 in the bank and her mother had just died. She describes that moment: “That was a whirlwind year, the death of my mother, the success of my first book. I didn’t know if I was coming or going and people say things that change your life. My agent said ‘Don’t spend it all on hiking boots.’ Terry Tempest Williams said ‘You are not tethered anymore to the earth.’ I think my actions were in response to those statements which clearly had truth for me or I wouldn’t have acted on them.” Houston goes on to describe living on the land that includes extreme weather including blizzards, wildfires, and floods. It is a place where people depend on one another. She includes the experience of a devastating wildfire and concludes the conversation with her experience of writing. When asked about how she can organize an entire book she says, “Even when I can’t keep it organized, I can’t keep it in order, I think that’s actually very good writing time. When you’re in despair and think ‘Oh, I’ve just lost it. I can’t make sense of any of this, it’s too big, it’s gotten out of control, I’ll never get it back.’ Those, I think, are sometimes the best times of writing that yield the best results even though they’re terrifying and full of despair.” This deep dialogue is filled with stories of the land, the animals on it, and a way of life where neighbors help one another. (hosted by Justine Willis Toms)


Pam Houston is a prize-winning author and professor of English at the University of California Davis. She cofounded the literary non-profit Writing by Writers and also teaches in the Institute of American Indian Arts, Low Residency MFA Program and at writers conferences around the country and the world.

Pam Houston’s books include:

To learn more about the work of Pam Houston go to

Topics Explored in This Dialogue

  • Why Houston went looking for a place to call home
  • How Houston wound up buying land in the southwest corner of Colorado
  • What was the miracle given to Houston by human angels
  • Why animals were more trustworthy to Houston than humans
  • How dogs helped Houston to love people
  • How her dog Fenton taught her to embrace death as another aspect of life
  • Who was Houston’s childhood caretaker who taught her to look for goodness
  • What it was like to grow up with an alcoholic, anorexic mother and violent father
  • How Houston accepted her upbringing and is at peace with her life
  • How the wildfires in Colorado taught Houston to be a fierce witness to both devastation and renewal of the earth
  • How a tree can hold our sorrow
  • Why doing the same chores everyday in the exact same order is important to caring for the land and the animals
  • What is Houston’s advice regarding writing as an intuitive process
  • Houston compares the process of writing a book from beginning to end to a 12-sided Rubik’s cube

Host: Justine Willis Toms     Interview Date: 2/6/2019     Program Number: 3669

Music Playlist

From Album:  Prairie Runner
Artist: Jeff Ball
2002 Red Feather Music #RFP 7007-2   
Opening Essay: Track 03 Red & Blue
Music Break 1: Track 04 Eye of the Storm
Music Break 2: Track 09 The Journey
Music Break 3: Track 10 Burn