Privacy, “Facts,” and the Blurry Lines between Fiction and Nonfiction: Gina Frangello interviews Pam Houston

Editor's Note: In anticipation of their March 1 presentation (see more here), I asked Gina Frangello to share her perspective on our current topic, "Privacy." She chose to interview fellow presenter Pam Houston, and below is that conversation. 

Join Pam and Gina in a conversation and presentation at The Project Room on Saturday, March 1 at 6pm. More info here!

Gina Frangello: So your latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, features a protagonist named Pam. Will you talk about what led to the decision to give your protagonist in a work of fiction your own name? 

Pam Houston: When I was a young writer, Tim O'Brien wrote a beautiful book called The Things They Carried in which the main character was named Tim O'Brien.  It was filed under fiction in the bookstore, but nowhere on it did it say fiction.  It was made of short stories based more or less on the years Tim O’Brien the writer spent fighting in Vietnam.  It also hung together in a longer arc that suggested the form of novel.  In at least these two ways (and possibly others) it defied categorization. That book made deep artistic sense to me in my formative years.  At the Breadloaf writer’s conference, I heard him read from an early draft of the book, and it was so powerful for the audience—the material sure, but also the Tim and “not Tim” aspect of it, the fact that it combined the strengths of fiction and memoir made it uber personal somehow—that when he finished reading it everyone just walked out silently into the woods

That is the first thing.  The second thing is that at this rather unusual moment in literary history there is a law against calling something a memoir if its contents have shifted slightly from the events as they actually happened, but there is no law against calling something a novel if very little or nothing has shifted at all. My books always come from events, people and places I have experienced or at least witnessed, but I also want to be free to mold and shape those events into the most meaningful story, the emotionally truest (as opposed to the most factually accurate) story, which sometimes means merging and shifting and tweaking reality to fit whatever demands the story begins to make on the material. I want to be free to do that altering without the reality police breathing down my neck.  That’s why I called Contents a novel and not a memoir.

Because it is essentially my story, I used the name Pam in the drafting process, thinking I would change it later, as I have in other books. I had more or less settled on the name Melanie for the book’s central character—like Pamela, it could mean honey, which mattered to one line in the book, and like Pamela, it could be shortened to a gruffer, more rugged, and even androgynous Mel.  But Contents May Have Shifted is not a novel in the traditional sense, and I couldn’t help but be bothered by a creeping understanding that by not calling the narrator Pam, I was dishonoring the material somehow, not because of the content of the book, but because of its form.  One of the things that make this book meaningful is that there is a witnessing presence here, who is recording and ordering and making sense of these 144 at first glance unrelated things, and it also seemed important, for the first time in my writing life, to acknowledge that presence as, in some sense or another, me.  On the one hand, I don’t believe that language can mean absolutely, I don’t believe I could write a character who was truly me even if that was my primary goal. Language is too limited—it won't sit still, and memory is too shadowy to trust; throw in an average sized dose of pride and shame, and it seems impossible not to fictionalize oneself to a certain extent, even when we are trying with all our might not to.   You might say I wanted my cake and to eat it too, but that is not the way it feels to me…it feels more like I want neither the cake exactly, nor exactly to eat it.

Anyway, when I called my editor to talk this all through, she said, “Don’t call her Melanie. We want them to understand that it is Pam and not Pam,” and I was so grateful I nearly wept. 

Frangello: You’re well known for saying that both fiction and nonfiction writing tend to be “82% true,” and for relying on emotional truths more than facts in your work.  How do you explain the difference between a fact vs. a truth to new writers?

Houston:   Well, I wouldn’t talk about it that way as a matter of fact, although I have heard Tim O’Brien talk about it that way beautifully.  I’ve never been a big fan of either/ors, of mutually exclusive categories, especially when there are only two of them.  I live more comfortably in grey area between truth and fact, where I also happen to believe most observations in the world live.  Truth, like any abstraction, is as hard to pin down as a ghost, and when you say “fact” my first response is to say: according to who?  

I see my work as collage, and I suppose that is often how I talk about work in general to my students.  Lots of little pieces of things real and imagined, (but mostly real) that have value on their own, that put next to other interesting pieces are sometimes transformed, an electricity is created between them.  In a certain way I want each sentence to stand alone, each paragraph as well, each chapter. But then I want all the sentences to add up to something more than the sum of its parts, all of chapters, even all of the books.  I want the pieces to have integrity, in other words, no matter what the size of the frame.  

There is a lot of talk these days—I guess there has always been a lot of talk, about realism.  Competent realism, is a quick dismissal I hear hurled at a lot of books.  But I can’t get behind calling the "this happened then this happened then this happened" way of describing the world either "realism" or "reality."  My reality is much more fractured than that, far less logical and chronological and far more associative.  I'm driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and I hear Tom Petty's “American Girl” and that takes me back to eating a cheesesteak hoagie on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey in 1979, and that makes me think of my father who threw me in the ocean when I was two to see—I guess—if I would sink or float, and that sends me straight to hurricane Gordon, which I rode out off the coast of Bimini Island with my dear, now deceased friend Shelton in his 52 Irwin named Phaedrus, which makes me think of the riots in Athens this summer and how nobody wanted to make change and so gave us food for free....etc.  That is how meaning gets made inside my head.  So I’m not sure how defining truth and fact in opposition to each other would be useful to me or my students. I’m not sure how it would help me or them get the writing done. 

Frangello: As writers, it’s always a certain type of risk to disclose a great deal of personal information about ourselves in our work, but in the online era, that “risk” seems greater than ever.  Our work can reach extremely wide audiences without anyone entering a bookstore or buying a book, and this can lead to far larger populations knowing things about our lives.  As a deeply personal writer, do you frequently encounter people who make assumptions about you based on what they’ve read, or who feel overly intimate with you even though you don’t personally know them?  How is privacy impacted by online media?

Houston:  Yes.  I encounter them all the time.  And on the rare occasions when those people are either angry or crazy I see it as my number one occupational hazard.  I am not, and never have been, a private person.  I am the sort of person who will sit down on an airplane next to someone, and tell them anything they want to know.  I feel very open to the world, and to the people in it.  I have been burned a few times, and been truly frightened a few times, but by and large the people I meet who have read my books and who have been touched by them in a deep and positive way are a pleasure to meet and sometimes get to know. I have made friends this way—great friends, but if we are to in fact make it all the way to friendship there is a moment we have to pass through in which that person realizes I am not precisely the person they imagined when they read the words on the page—as we were discussing earlier.  Not because I have bent the truth so much as because the person a reader creates in her mind after reading the words an author wrote will never be the same as the living breathing person.  The friendship hiccups at that point, but the good ones make it through to the more real version of friendship on the other side.  As for social media?  I believe it has impacted this whole process by virtue of how fast people can know things.  Which is a significant impact.  I don’t put anything up on social media that I wouldn’t say to a fan or a seatmate on an airplane or a potential friend.  Serious stalkers can find you without social media.  Mostly, for me, social media is a nice place to stay connected and say thanks to the people who have supported me all these years. 

Frangello: You once traveled to Bhutan and attended a dinner at which every member of your tour group was paired with a Bhutanese person of a similar occupation, only to find that there were no “writers” in Bhutan?  Can you tell that story, and do you happen to know whether, with the impact of globalization, being a writer is still an unknown pursuit among the Bhutanese?

Houston:  I’m not sure it much of a story exactly, except that as a result of there being no writers in Bhutan I got to have dinner with a tall, super sexy Bhutanese entrepreneur named Ugyen Rinzen who owned his own fly tying business and who was kind of the unofficial minister of tourism of Bhutan.  The best part of the evening was when he told me some of his people did not approve of his business because they were Buddhists and they did not believe in the taking of life.  I said I didn’t think he ought to worry about that because his flies were going to the highest end fly shops in Montana and London and New York.  “It’s all catch and release with these serious fly fishing guys,” I told him.   “Tell your people they are all putting the fish back.”  And Ugyen said, “Pam, my people would find that even harder to understand.”

As for how things are now?  Bhutan was closed to tourists until the early 90’s and I was lucky to go in with the first wave in 1996, when the dinner you mentioned took place.  I was last in Bhutan in 2006, and while things had changed radically by then, I can’t speak for now exactly. The arrival of the internet has changed Bhutan utterly.   I would find it very hard to believe if there were not Bhutanese writing now.

Frangello: How does your process in writing work that is later marketed as “nonfiction” differ from work that is marketed as “fiction?”  Is there any difference?  Do you know going in whether something will be an essay vs. a short story, and how would you quantify the difference if two pieces may both contain mainly autobiographical material?

Houston: There is very little difference in the process.  But material does divide up in my mind into two separate groups.  If I feel like I have a basic understanding of the material I am tackling, if the metaphors and the life lessons line up pretty well and have made themselves clear to me, I am more likely to expect it to turn out to be nonfiction.  But if it is a big black hole sucking me under, where I just know it hurts but I don’t have any real idea why, it is more likely to turn out to be fiction.  These are never hard and fast categories, and in most cases, I will just start writing and see where we go. (We, being me and all the other people who reside in my head.)

Frangello: What are you working on now?

Houston: Three things, more or less simultaneously.  A memoir about the buying and living on and loving the ranch, a collection of third person short stories featuring a clinical psychologist named Maggie who works in maximum security prisons, and a book of craft essays.

Join Pam and Gina in a conversation and presentation at The Project Room on Saturday, March 1 at 6pm. More info here!

Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published in 2012. She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton.  Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short StoriesThe O. Henry AwardsThe 2013 Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is Professor of English at UC Davis, directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world.

Gina Frangello is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men, just out from Algonquin Books, Slut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent.  She is Sunday editor for The Rumpus and fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown.  The longtime editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices Queretaro (, an international writing program. Gina teaches at UC Riverside’s low residency MFA program in Creative Writing and can be found online at