Author, former Parkite Pam Houston takes trip into ‘Deep Creek’ memories
What: One Book, One Community discussion with Pam Houston hosted by the Park City Library, The Summit County Library, Dolly’s Bookstore and Utah Humanities
When: 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 10
Former Parkite Pam Houston says her memoir, “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country,” which is this year’s One Book, One Community selection, wasn’t supposed to be about living on a 120-acre ranch in Colorado, her abusive childhood or her bad choices in men.
“My publisher asked if I could think about a book-length adventure — like mushing dogs at the North Pole or sailing along the coast of Turkey — that I could do and write about,” Houston said. “I love adventure, and I was all into that. So I made a long list that I wanted to do.”
The book’s direction changed as Houston, a professor of English at UC Davis, was driving home with her dogs to Colorado after spending a semester in California.
“We were getting closer to the ranch and getting excited about getting home, and that’s when I thought, ‘I’m 20 years into my book-length adventure,’” she said. “The adventure was believing I could take care of this place. That is located at 9,000 feet in a county where I can’t make a living.”
When she got home, Houston called her editor and said, “I’d love to mush dogs at the North Pole, but I really think the book should be about this other thing.”
The publisher agreed, and they began to joke the book would be called “A Year in Provence in Colorado.”
“It was going to be all Colorado all the time,” Houston said. “It was going to be about baling hay, birthing lambs, sub-zero temperatures and the return of the bluebirds.”
Houston wrote the book, but no one liked it.
“It just sat there flat on the page,” she said. “I didn’t like it. They didn’t like it, and we didn’t know what to do.”
That changed when Houston’s agent asked, “Isn’t this the book where you talk about what happened to you as a child?”
“My first reaction was, ‘Have I done anything except that?’ and she said, ‘No. You’ve hidden it in fiction, in metaphor and in the bad men you dated, but you’ve never said it the way you say ‘This is how you bale the hay,’” Houston said.
The author realized her agent was right, but fear wasn’t the reason Houston hadn’t written bluntly about those experiences.
“Both of my parents are deceased, and I have spent thousands of dollars for therapy,” she said with a laugh. “I give lots of talks as an advocate to battered women’s groups, so I wasn’t ashamed to talk about this stuff. I just had never written it down.”
Houston did a series of rewrites that address her abusive childhood.
“Telling that story gave meaning to the ranch,” she said. “If readers don’t know about the abuse, they don’t know how important it was for me to have this safe place that I didn’t have when I was a child.”
During the rewrites, Houston also started paying more attention to climate change.
“I knew I couldn’t write about my piece of paradise on the mountain and ignore this catastrophe we’re knee deep in already,” she said.
Houston decided to use her ranch as the connecting point to address her childhood and global warming, and that’s when she felt the manuscript became the book she wanted to write.
“I realized my approach to climate change and violent childhood, seemingly disparate things, is the same,” she said. “I was present to the grief, but celebrating the moment. So it’s OK to see the beauty of what we still have, even though the whole West is on fire today. That’s how you live through an abusive childhood, and that’s how we’re going to live or die through the death of the planet. And the ranch brings things back to earth with everyday life.”
Houston says “Deep Creek” is her real-time follow-up to “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” which she published in 1992.
“I’ve written a lot of books in between, but this book is the ‘whatever happened to that cowboy woman?’ book,” she said. “It’s about that young woman who lived in Park City more than 25 years ago.”
Houston resided at 39 King Road from 1986 to 1992, while she attended graduate school in the writing program at the University of Utah.
“Park City was like heaven, because I didn’t fit in at the U. and I didn’t fit in well in Salt Lake City,” she said. “It was the old version of Park City, and I skied 100 days a year right out of my house to the Town Lift, and back.”
Houston ran rivers during the spring and backpacked in the Uintas during the summer.
“I lived my best life there, and no one expected much from me, except going to class once a week,” she said.
Houston survived on her $4,500 a year salary working 15 hours a week at Dolly’s Bookstore, and getting her fill with the all-you-can-eat spaghetti night at the Claim Jumper.
“It was me and a bunch of other ski bums,” she said. “Plus, I was learning how to write that led to ‘Cowboys Are My Weakness,’ which basically launched my career.”
Although the town has changed since she called herself a local, Houston says Park City still feels like home.
“I love coming back, and I come back every time I get invited, she said.
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In the closing scenes of the about-to-be released documentary “Public Trust,” environmental journalist Hal Herring says this of the battle over public lands: “You only have a right to what you are willing to fight for.”