United States

An Interview with Pam Houston

The "Cowboys Are My Weakness" author revisits her characters 30 years later

In 1992, American author Pam Houston published a collection of short stories, titled Cowboys Are My Weakness, exploring love and gender in the American West. Nearly thirty years later, Houston revisited those same themes—and her central character, Maggie—in our US National Parks guide. We caught up with Houston this week to see how her thoughts about gender and the wilderness have evolved in that time.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Stranger’s Guide: It almost feels like the protagonist in “Rock Fall,” the story we published in our National Parks guide, is the same protagonist of your book Cowboys Are My Weakness grown up. She’s seen the world, been through it,he doesn’t just know the rivers, but she knows life. When you think about the central character, even though there are many in Cowboys, how has age changed her? How does the world see her? How does she see the world? What has she learned and how is she able to apply it both in her mind and her life, but also on the river?

PH: When I wrote Cowboys, memoir wasn’t really a thing, it was fiction and poetry. If your lines went all the way to the end of the page, you were a fiction writer and if they stopped short of the end of the page, you were a poet. Really all of my work, with a couple of exceptions that sort of happened accidentally, are some form of what we would now call auto-fiction. I like that there’s a word now, I like that there’s a word we’re all using. It feels legitimizing in a certain way and not like those of us who do what I do who are endlessly cheating one direction or another. We’re cheating if we write nonfiction and have to make up some dialogue and we’re cheating if we write fiction that relies on our life. As I wrote the stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness, I thought of the characters as individual women, but they were all heavily based on me and the adventures I was having at the time, even as early as when my editor and I were pulling the stories together and thinking about story order. Even before the book was published, we had gone from talking about “them” to talking about “she.” We saw them as this one young woman who came out west and confused the land with the men and thought she needed a man to access the land and was learning slowly that she did not. That book was kind of the first part of her arc and part of my arc. 

I recently published a memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, in 2019. That book has sort of widely been talked about, as “whatever happened to that cowboy woman,” and it is a memoir. It is not fiction and it is me doing memoir as fastidiously as I ever have. I set myself the task of not exaggerating or not embellishing. I thought, “What will happen to me artistically if I don’t allow the fiction to carry the action?” 

I tried to do it, and of course as I have told my students often, if I really picked up the book, there would probably be like a mini lie on every page because that’s how memory works and that’s how art works and that’s how language works. But I really did try to put that constraint on myself for Deep Creek and yet everyone read it as like, “This is the cowboy woman 30 years later.” Which it is, it absolutely is. It’s me older and wiser. It’s that girl older and wiser, 30 years older and wiser, which is a lot of time to wise up. I would hope that I would be wiser in 30 years. The Maggie stories, which is another book that I’m working on, which the story I wrote for you is one of, Maggie is a character I created to be a little more obnoxious than me, although she doesn’t quite come off that way in the story I wrote for you guys. I mean, maybe she does.

SG: More wry.

PH: She’s got opinions. She’s got opinions that I share, but don’t necessarily express out loud all the time, though more and more I do. That story was written before the recent descent into fascism, you know?

SG: When it wasn’t quite as bad.

PH: Maggie and I may have a lot more to say, but the other change in the Maggie stories in general, and your story, is that it’s closed third person, which is a change for me. When I first started writing the Maggie stories, the stories are something that I did alongside the memoir just when the memoir drove me crazy. I could write a story and just think down the road, in the future, about having a collection of Maggie stories but I’m not under contract for it. It’s just where I put stuff that doesn’t go into the bigger project I was working on for eight years, which was the memoir. When I wrote the first Maggie story, we were in a totally different political landscape. Obama was President, climate change was approaching, but not quite in our faces the way it is now, we hadn’t had Trump. There were a lot of things that felt in the distance that don’t feel in the distance now, but I wanted Maggie to be kind of an activist, and I wanted her to to be in people’s face about her politics so I decided to write her in closed third. Most or all of the stories, I think, in Cowboys are either first or second person, but I just wanted to create a tiny bit of distance between her and me. I thought of her as my Olive Kitteridge character. I thought of her as my cranky old lady where I could be crankier, even more than I am. In the last six years, my crankiness has caught up to me to say the least because there’s so many things to be cranky about. In a certain way, she feels more autobiographical now than she did at the beginning, and of course, she has had a different life, she’s worked in prisons. When I created her, I was working in the California men’s colony, with a group of lifers, on storytelling, and that was a mind opening experience about things that I knew about theoretically. The school to prison pipeline and other things. I read Michelle Alexander’s book [The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness], I was intellectually aware of those systems, but seeing them embodied in the bodies of eight men who were telling stories with me for a series of weeks was so profound. That’s actually the experience that Maggie grew out of: being in the prison and seeing the way our systems ruin Black male bodies, frankly, and minds and hearts. I wanted Maggie to have that as a backstory, but because I have only worked in prisons in limited capacities, I wanted that to be the off-stage story of her life, the story that informed her, but I couldn’t. There are two stories set in the prison, but anyway, I wanted her to be sort of on the verge of retirement, having learned all these lessons and now she’s back out in the natural world where, of course I am comfortable and I spend my time and maybe putting some of that stuff into effect. That’s where Maggie came from and honestly, in the story I wrote for you guys, what was really fun about that story is that I was writing it and I knew I had been on a river trip where the bare bones of what happened happened. I had been on a river trip where a body was taken out of a rapid right on the day that we launched, and so that part was true and also, the rockwall fell in the canyon on our trip, that was also true. Those are the two things that happened in real life, but I was sort of writing about our guide and then I was sort of writing about the only female guide on the trip and those both seemed important to me. I never know where a story is going, I’m just playing around, just writing scenes and then I got to the point where I realized Maggie had to have a sister. Maggie hasn’t had a sister and any of the other stories and the truth is, I have never made up anything. Here’s the truth, here I am at 59 years old. I have never made up anything in any work of mine as big as a sister and it was just such a funny thing. The way the decision to go to third person led. I was like, “Oh, shoot. If I’m going to end the story right, Maggie needs a sister,” and then “Well, why couldn’t Maggie have a sister?” You write your whole life and then you have one of these moments where you feel like such a novice. I was like, “Well, this is fiction, so Maggie can have a sister if she wants.” If I want Maggie to have a sister, Maggie can have a sister. It really was one of those moments where the thought after that was like, “Man, there’s all kinds of things I could make up.” It was like I was ten years old and writing my first story. “If Maggie can have a sister, what else is possible?”

Then in the next magazine story I wrote, which I wrote during the pandemic, she has a talking dog. I know I’ve written talking dogs before, but she has a magical talking dog, and I wrote it in a straight fairy tale structure. I’m sort of tired of fairy tales in the literary marketplace, it was just the total thing that I never expected to do, there I was writing a talking dog. Discovering the fictiveness of fiction late in life, but that sister was the biggest thing I ever made up.

That’s partly because I trust what really happened so much. I trust the physical world so much that I tend not to deviate too much from it, but she needed a sister in that story to make the stuff with the female guide work. 

SG: You’re not the only outdoors woman river guide, but there’s still a lot of macho maleness associated with that world. You really lay that out beautifully in Cowboys and really show what it is to be a woman against the landscape of the wild,the expectations that people have for women and for men. Could talk about sex and gender? Maggie’s inhabiting her full authority as an outdoors woman, with a “Yeah, yeah, I’ve been there, done that,” attitude and then it’s upended by real danger that’s somewhat novel for her. Can you talk about what it is to be a woman in the wild, to be a woman in nature. From Cowboys to Maggie, what is it to gain that expertise, and that trust in yourself in the physical world? 

PH: The first thing is what I already said. When I got out West, I thought I needed a man to translate that landscape for me and one of my life’s journeys has been to understand that I do not. That’s really what my memoir is about, but there are so many things to say about that. I’ve been thinking so much about gender fluidity and I’ve been thinking really selfishly. I’ve been thinking lots of good hearted, altruistic things about gender fluidity, but in addition to those, I’ve been thinking, “What if I had been born into a world where I didn’t have to say what I was.” If there had been a third category in the middle, it would have totally been so much easier for me to be me. I’m sort of thrilled for the young people, not that they don’t continue to have a big battle ahead, but I’m so thrilled for the young people. To be a young woman, to be a girl who loves boy games, to be a girl who wants to be in the woods, to be a girl who doesn’t give a shit about dresses or dolls, and to have that all just be normal. All the future down the road stuff, who you love and what bathroom you go into aside, just the normalizing of all this stuff to do and you get to choose what you want to do no matter what sex you were assigned at birth was. To me, that’s really exciting. Another thing to say is that the way it was for women river guides when I first became a river guide and the way it is now is very different, though, of course, vestiges of the same garbage remain and that’s kind of what that trip showed me. There are so many more female river guides now, so many more, almost every trip has one. When I was a female river guide, I think there were like three of us in all of Moab, which is a big center for rafting in Utah. 

We just had to be quiet and be tough and not call attention to ourselves as female, we just blended in and as long as we didn’t cause trouble and as long as we rode correctly. I rode back in those days, I think in Cowboys. The differences between, for instance, how a woman approaches a wave and how a man approaches a wave. Again this is buying into gender stereotypes, but generally speaking, men have more upper body strength than women. A man approaching a difficult rapid can afford to be a little more cavalier at the top because chances are he can get out of trouble using literal brute force better than a woman can, because her strength is mostly in her legs, generally speaking. A woman needs to read the rapid better. It’s like walking through a dark parking garage at night. A woman needs to read the entire situation before she ever gets out of her car. She has to look for escape routes and she has to have her phone in her hand, right? It’s really a very similar situation where a big man could just punch the dude out.

Miss Sadie Austin, a typical Nebraska cowgirl, Simeon, Cherry County, Nebraska. Public Domain.

A woman needs to be better at reading water. She needs to approach the rapid, not like Gonzo, but a little more tentatively so at the last second, she can adjust. She needs to look ahead to see like, “Okay, if X happens, then I’ve only got two choices for Y.” It’s all about reading and prepping and approaching and keeping your options open as long as you possibly can. Often, for a man, the way through a rapid is entirely different. It’s like, “Push forward, go as fast as you can and sail over the rock,” because you can build up all that speed. It can literally be a different run for someone with a huge amount of upper body strength compared to someone who doesn’t. Figuring all that out when there were like zero female rafting guides, that was a lot. Now there are way more female rafting guides than there were, but there’s still usually only one on every trip as there was on my trip through the Green, which led to the writing of that story. The final thing to say about that is what I was so struck by on that trip where the tourist died, the guest died in a rapid that is not a very huge rapid. The immense amount of pressure that we’re putting on these babies, they’re 19 or 21, which is what I was. I was that baby and I had wrecks, but nobody ever died and no one was ever even seriously injured. That’s just lucky. I was just lucky. That’s what just hit me so hard on that trip and that’s what’s at the heart of the story I wrote for you guys. These people are on vacation, they think this is Disneyland. That’s the thing about taking people into the wilderness. They see all the boats lined up, they see six ships are leaving today, everything’s going to be fine. Are you kidding? This is just like getting in line. Put your seatbelt on. Here we go. The people who run rivers don’t exactly have a sense of the danger, and it’s true that many, many people run them safely, but it is the wilderness. It is nature. It is not Disneyland. Anything can happen and in this case, it did. I just thought, “That poor boatman,” and I don’t know who it was in real life. I don’t know who it was, but that poor boatman now lives with that forever for this summer job where they’re getting paid nothing. They live in a bunk house. They eat Top ramen so that they can be outside. I thought, “Do they have grief counselors? What happens now?” They just get on the river next week. It made me think about all these things that I never thought about. When I was the one with the oars in my hand, I was just like, “Get through the rapid, don’t kill anybody. Make dinner, go to bed, wake up, and do it the next day.” I don’t know if that’s different. Obviously, it would be wrong to say that women are more sensitive and men compartmentalize, and maybe it’s harder for women, that’s all the wrong way to talk in 2021, so I don’t know. I can imagine both young men and young women that would not recover. I spent my whole life working with men and women in their twenties, in two different graduate programs and I know I can think of 10 people I could name right now, both men and women, who would not recover from accidentally killing somebody on vacation. I think that’s really intense and I think it’s really both strange and obvious why I never thought of that when I was a guide. Of course, I worried about killing people, but this is the difference between the young Maggie and the older Maggie. I was like, “Man, that could just mess you up forever,” because of how quickly it happens, how accidentally it happens. It’s not negligence, not necessarily. That’s what the river wanted. The river fell overnight, exposed a rock you didn’t know about. All of a sudden it sent you in the wrong direction and there you are. That’s what can happen in nature and not at Disneyland. 

SG: We’re deep within or hopefully at the tail end of the pandemic. Since you wrote this piece, a lot of people have been outside a whole lot more than they’ve ever been before because we couldn’t gather indoors. Have you been able to find new aspects of being in nature that you didn’t before? What have you seen or felt or noticed in others? Or has your relationship to the outdoors changed or grown or adapted at all during this time?

PH: Well, I’ve peed a lot more outdoors. Luckily, I live in the middle of nowhere. Before I was vaccinated, I don’t know that I ever peed indoors when I was not at my own house because there’s always a place to pull over. I got very good at being between my two car doors, even if there was traffic. I was always kind of an outdoor pee-er, honestly, but way more so now.

We ate a lot outside. I think for the whole first year, and even through the summer honestly, when Delta surged. If we had people over, we ate outside and it was wonderful. Sometimes that meant with sleeping bags and sometimes it meant creating some kind of sunshade. Sometimes it meant eating at 4 o’clock in the afternoon before the temperature drops 30 degrees, which it does at my house as soon as the sun goes down. I think eating outside was wonderful. I think it was a wonderful thing about the pandemic. Eating together outside felt like we were making a commitment to each other and to taking care of each other, but also to being together. I live in a really pretty place so looking at the mountains or watching the sunset or watching the sun come up or whatever over a meal was really a value added part of the pandemic. There are many, many more people in the woods around where I live, and a lot of them have guns, which hasn’t been great because going on walks with the dogs, they bought their pandemic guns, but they really don’t know about guns. They don’t really understand that you just can’t come up and shoot them because you left Denver. Just because you’re out of Denver doesn’t mean that you’re in the wilderness and not that it’s great to shoot in the wilderness either because of the lead and the poison from it. There was a ton of guns and a ton of bullets flying, and none of that was great. I had bullets literally winging past my head and I started screaming. I was like, “Hey, hey.” My dogs were there and my husband was there and of course, the bullets stopped, but I kept screaming. It was like everything. It was like all the Trump and all the COVID, and I was just like screaming at whoever this was in the woods that I couldn’t see. Finally, my husband came over and put his hand on my arm like, “I think he heard you. You can stop screaming now.”

A lot more people are in the outdoors. I would like to say something optimistic like the people who now go outdoors, who didn’t go outdoors before, might understand the value of wilderness or National Parks or National Forests or our public lands because that’s a big battle of mine that’s ongoing, trying to save our public lands. I don’t have a strong faith in the sensibilities of my countrymen at the moment, so I don’t know if that will happen, but it would be good if it happened. I’ve been grateful to live in a place where I have the outdoors as a place to go. I thought I am the opposite of those Italians on their balconies, singing opera. I have unlimited access to outdoor spaces, even though I can’t get a cup of coffee. They could have really good coffee delivered and I couldn’t, but I could walk a long way without seeing another person. It’s interesting how our experiences differ.

SG: Can we talk about Maggie (and her earlier incarnations in Cowboys) and the changing landscape of sex, gender and relationships between men and women? You’re a woman who has learned how to command a lot of spaces that have been traditionally male, but what do you think the new thinking means for relationships between boys and girls, men and women? What has Maggie learned and what is she no longer going to tolerate? What hunter is never going to be able to curl up in her cabin ever again now that the world has shifted behind her and she can make different choices? 

PH: Maggie is not partnered and I am. That’s one difference between us. Maggie is living my unpartnered fantasy life. 

I just got married three years ago and it came as a complete and utter surprise. I had been saying for at least five years, “Okay, absolutely no interest in any of that. I have all these young writers to mentor. I have all this stuff to write. I prefer the company of dogs. I’m done, I’m just done.” Not that it was so awful. My last few relationships weren’t that bad, but I was like, “None of this is interesting to me. There is nothing that a man could say that would be interesting to me.” That’s extreme, but that’s what I went around saying. Then I met the man who is now my husband and he was a lifer in the National Forest Service. He worked for them for 42 years, he was getting ready to retire. He knew the names of every tree and every plant and I found him completely irresistible because of his encyclopedic knowledge of trees. Not that even trees are my thing, I just love people who know shit about nouns. He’s tall and cute and lots of other things. He’s not a cowboy, he’s certainly an outdoorsman, but he’s been a Daoist since he was 12. He had a violent father and he decided to find a different way to express his emotions so he began to study Daoism in rural New Hampshire at 12 years old. He’s awesome, and I married him. It still shocks me that I married him because I was so not going to get married, but I did. I married him and it’s good. We don’t spend all our time together because I’m teaching here and there. But it’s great. That’s very different than Maggie. Maggie is living the life I thought I was going to live where I wasn’t interested in anything to do with romantic anything, I was too old for that. I had a lot to get done in whatever years I have left. Maggie has a lot to get done. She’s trying to save democracy. She’s trying to save the environment. She’s got her animals to tend. She’s got her experiences to have. She’s got her witnessing of what’s out there in the world to happen. There were friends of mine who were like, “Oh, is Maggie going to get married now?” and I was like, “No, no, she’s my other life. She’s my fantasy single life,” but who knows? You never know what’s going to happen on the page. I did write a story, a Maggie story, though I didn’t think of it as being included in the eventual collection, from the point of view of Mike, from the point of view of my husband, talking about Maggie just to see what would happen. It was an assignment for another magazine and I tried that out. I didn’t really like the story, which will make it easy not to include and then I can just wipe Maggie’s partner off the map. It’s a hard time to like men. It’s a really hard time to like men, but if I don’t pay attention to particular men in the same way I pay attention to particular women. I’m doing the same thing that Mitch McConnell is or whatever. I don’t want to be like them. It’s hard to like men right now, especially a certain breed of cisgender white men. Obviously we all know that it’s amazing to see them in the world now. I do feel like we’ve had our eyes opened even more. There was Me Too, for sure. There was “grab [‘em by] the pussy,” for sure. I think the big difference between Cowboys, Pam and Maggie is this miraculous thing that happens when you turn 50. I don’t know if it’s survival or accumulated therapy or hormones, biology, but you just don’t care what they think anymore. It happens a little bit at 40, but at 50 it locks down, and it’s like, “Like me or not.” Whatever that thing is that was super active in Cowboys: if a man isn’t loving me, I don’t exist. That’s a horrible thing for me to even say out loud, but it’s true. It was true. I think that diminishes over the years. I think part of it’s learning, but I also think part of it’s hormones. At 50, man, it turned off like a switch. I love my husband, I adore him, but his opinion of me doesn’t matter that much. Not that much and that just would never have been true before in any romantic relationship I was in. If he were to say, “Hey Pam, you’re being an asshole about this,” I would totally take that seriously, but if he doesn’t like what I wear or how I look or how I move through the world in general? Don’t care. 


Our US National Parks guide takes readers into one of America’s most revered treasures. At once tourist destinations and natural preserves, the parks represent so much of the country’s best intentions and challenging realities. The issue offers new perspectives on ...

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