Off the Page

Pam Houston and Tod Goldberg
Thursday, November 10, 2005; 1:00 PM

Pam Houston, author of "Cowboys Are My Weakness" and judge for the new book contest by literary magazine Other Voices, was online Thursday, Nov. 10, at 1 p.m. ET with the winning author, Tod Goldberg, to discuss literary contests and both their works.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the author of the saucy collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, would choose Goldberg's stories.

Goldberg's winning collection, Simplify , includes a morality tale about a couple who begin to see incarnations of Jesus and the devil as the man down the street, and a story about a man whose ex-girlfriend's painting of Elvis begins to bleed. They are both surreal and, as the characters pine for a normal life, realistic, in a way that that is similar to Houston's work.

Houston's latest book, Sight Hound, published this year, tells the story of a woman playwright who learns life lessons from her three-legged dog, Dante. Goldberg has previously published two novels, including Living Dead Girl, which was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery in 2002.

Join us to discuss their work, literary contests, short stories, and other topics literary.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

The transcript follows.


Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, and welcome to Off the Page! Writers Pam Houston and Tod Goldberg are ready to answer questions about their unusual stories and novels, so, we'll begin.


Bethesda, Md.: Tod, about a month ago I read a review copy of Simplify (a fantastic collection). I wanted to compliment you on the great job you did with second person POV in "Try Not to Lose Her," it was the first second person POV story I was ever able to finish reading. Question: How do you get started on new short stories?

Tod Goldberg: Try Not To Lose her was the first -- and only -- 2nd person story I've written and, to be perfectly candid, was the one story I really didn't want in the collection because it felt tricky to me; I mean, yeah, it's in 2nd person! Who wants to read that? But my editors all liked it, and, well, I bend to their will. How I get started is pretty simple, really: a word, or an image, or an emotion will come to me, along with a person who feels it, and then a world sort of develops in my mind: who would feel this? Why would they feel it? What kind of person is dealt this particular consequence. Next thing I know, I've got a big mug-o-coffee, sad music on the stereo, I'm dressed in all black and typing.


Carole Burns: Pam,

You must have looked at a fair number of stories in your role as judge for the Other Voices contest. What made you choose Tod's stories?

Pam Houston: The finalists that I was given, I think it was eight or ten books, all of them were accomplished and they all had something to recommend them. What it came down to was what it always comes down to, was that I was the most affected by them. There were some finalists that were extremely elegant, extremely well wrought stories, stories that I had so much admiration for. But with Tod's it was all that, plus I was just incredibly moved by him. I found his narrators really complex and believable, and edgy in a way that I like my characters to be.

Carole Burns: Tod, any response?

Tod Goldberg: I must tell you that I was terribly surprised Pam selected my collection. I'm a big fan of hers and thought, oh, she'll break my heart...


Carole Burns: Pam and Tod,

I did find some similarities between Pam's work and Tod's--in style, and in their somewhat surreal stories. Do the two of you see this? How often do you think writers are drawn to similar kinds of work?

Pam Houston: Some of the similarities I do see between my work and Tod's are, definitely the stories are about men and women trying to figure each other out, and there's a kind of a desperate tone. I don't mean that as an insult! to his narrators that I recognize. How are you going to get up in the morning? Well, maybe if we figure out a way to get people to love us. That's what I mean when I say edgy, that I relate to in his work. He goes a little further into what I would call fabulist, but it's a place I'm interested in going maybe at some point. And I think the writers I love best fall into two categories: either writers who have a similar vision or project to mine, and writers that I'm so amazed by what they do I can't even imagine. It's the in-between ones that fall through the cracks.

Carole Burns: Tod, your thoughts?

Tod Goldberg: I do as well. I think we both end up writing about people trying to find some middle ground in life, be it through love, or sex, or death, or simply existing day to day. We also both look at our stories with a bit of humor, which in some ways isn't what most would consider high comedy, but which perhaps makes you giggle despite the obvious pain in the stories. I've been told that I don't write about happy people very often, which is true, and I guess that's because all of my characters, and many of Pam's as well, are trying to get there and often failing miserably.


Washington, D.C.: Pam, I found your novels after reading a piece you did for a women's magazine ... this might be a funny question, but what other writers do you read/would you suggest who mine similar territory/themes as you do as you're one of my favorites. (Tod I will check out) ... I will of course remain a fan, but there's time to fill between books. Thanks.

Pam Houston: A couple people that jump to mind are Lorrie Moore, Amy Bloom, Amy Hemple, Richard Ford, though he might not agree! My favorite writers at the moment are Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, and J.M. Coetzee. I'm not sure I'd say they mine similar territory, not specifically. But what I tried to learn from them is how to represent the experience of being alive in all its complication and multiplicity.


Mountain View, California: Hey, Pam: What venues do you respect for beginning writers to get their work noticed?

Pam Houston: I think all publication is good publication. I'm a bit of a traditionalist in that the list of magazines in the back of Best American Short Stories is a list I recommend to my students. I'm a bit of a luddite when it comes to Internet publication and zines, but I attribute that to my own failure, not theirs.


Washington, D.C.: Tod, I am a huge fan of your blog--the energy, voice and updated content. How do you have the energy to write and blog daily? Please let us in on your secret. And when are you coming to D.C. to read??--Wendi, the happy booker blogger

Tod Goldberg: The blog is sort of an extension of what I used to for the Las Vegas Mercury -- a weekly alt that went out of business earlier this year. For four years I wrote a weekly column about whatever happened to be bothering me or amusing me or simply getting my attention. It was sort of therapy without the bills and the sofa. My blog serves a similar purpose mentally, and it also gives me a way to warm or cool down from actual writing. Stylistically, I just don't write in that blog voice in any other medium except, and so it allows me to get out of that mental place where I'm, you know, killing people and burying them beneath docks and the like.

Carole Burns: FYI: Wendi Kaufman is a DC-area writer with her own blog, The Happy Booker, which can be found at this url:


Carole Burns: Pam and Tod,

After reading Tod's stories, such as the one featuring a bleeding picture of Elvis, and Pam's novel with the dog as narrator, I began to think about Garcia Marquez and magic realism. Is your work an American brand of this, when the pop culture of Elvis and Jerry Springer become to seem real?

Pam Houston: In my universe, my dog talks to me. I would never consider myself a magical realist author. I spend half my day thinking about what my dog is thinking, and what he'd say if he could talk. In fiction, we often imagine dialogues that for character we either invented out of thin air or modeled after people we know. What I'm doing with my dog is really no different than that. The dog in Sight Hound had a wider range of emotions than any man I dated in my 20s.

Carole Burns: Tod?

Tod Goldberg: It's an odd thing. I'm not a huge fan of surreal fiction and when I think about the writing I do, I see myself as being very tangible and tactile, yet I go back and read my work and there's Elvis bleeding on the wall. It's not a response to pop culture as much as it is a response to how people cope, or fail to cope. I remember clearly as a child drifting off to another place when things got scary at home, or when people were yelling at each other, and I suspect that the way I end up writing these stories is a response to that. I think of writers like Aimee Bender, who I think is the finest practitioner of magic realism America has, and I don't see bizarre or odd happenings, I see people struggling to stay adrift.


Carole Burns: And, since I forgot to mention this earlier, here is the url to Tod's blog:


Baltimore, Md.: This question is for both Pam and Tod:Do you feel that writing a novel strengthens your ability to critique and interpret other authors' work or do you feel you were pretty strong at this before you finished your novels or collected short stories? Is is something about successfully going through the whole process (and living through it) that gives you insight (and laser vision to detect fatal flaws) or is this a talent that you were perhaps just born with?

I am currently an online student of Tod's with the UCLA Extension Writers Program and find that Tod has an especially astute ability to get to the heart of what an author is getting at (in published works) while also at being able to highlight where we as students (in his class) are going astray. Just wondering if this is something that he (and you, Pam also) have learned?

Pam Houston: Close reading is a skill that develops over time, surely. But I think kids that grow up in difficult or dangerous households are particularly close readers. They know how to pick up on the most subtle cues--it's a survival skill. I credit my skill as a trained observer, which makes me both a better writer and a better reader of my students' work to my difficult childhood. I will say that finishing a novel gave me a greater understanding of my students who were writing novels, but the ability to read closely for the story under the story, that training goes way back.

Carole Burns: Do you think the best writers are the best readers?

Pam Houston: Not always. I know that from classes. I mean, I think the same skill that makes me able to notice the precise detail in the world that I'm going to bring back to the page in my own story is the skill that lets me see underneath the students' language to the story they're trying to write.

Carole Burns: And Tod?

Tod Goldberg: Hello, my paduan learner...(I welcome all of my former and current students with remarks from bad Star Wars films...)

I don't think writing a novel in particular strengthens critical ability, but I do think writing a great deal and becoming somewhat dispassionate about your own work helps. Very few people can look at their own work and say, Oh, this is crap, this is great, this is more crap, but at at some point along the way I, at least, was able to pick up where I was just phoning it in. Being able to correct it, not so much. But novel writing as given me an insight that short stories never had: novels are enormous living creatures, there is so much white space to to fill in, so much time involved, that you are forced to become a different reader and writer in the process.

I don't think the best writers are the best readers, but I think they are different readers. I guess I'm often caught looking for the Wizard behind the curtain when reading my favorite books, and in some ways that stops it from being just a good temporal experience.


Baltimore, Md.: Hi, Pam. I logged on to, saw that you were going to be online, and would like to take advantage of the opportunity to tell you how much I enjoyed your reading at the Taos Conference in July. You excelled. I spoke to you afterwards, wondering if maybe we were related since I'm a distant relative of Sam Houston's, but there were so many people waiting in line behind me to speak to you that I relinquished my place. Great reading--and I wish I'd told you so at the time!

Pam Houston: Thank you so much! The writer Bob Houston told me that all of us Houstons were related, that we go back to a penal colony in France called Hughstown. He even sent me a picture of the Houston castle in Scotland. So I've always claimed Sam Houston just for fun.


Las Vegas, NV: Has Wendy called you an idiot of late? And if she has, then why haven't you written it in your blog?

Carole Burns: Pam or Tod,Does this make any sense to you? Please explain to the rest of us!

Tod Goldberg: Wendy calls me an idiot frequently! You see, at base I'm just a big dumb hominid and without a wife to help me dress in the morning, I'd likely be walking around outside with an empty carton of Rocky Road on my head, still living in a fraternity house and, likely, doing something in the telemarketing field to earn money for 12 packs of Keystone. I suspect she will call me an idiot after reading this response, in fact...


Boise, Idaho: Hey guys, I see a lot of fiction and poetry contests advertised that require entrance fees. Are any of these legitimate, or are they all vanity press type ventures?

Pam Houston: A small fee is a legitimate request, because there are expenses involved in running a contest. If it's a large fee, I might be suspicious.


Dupont Circle, D.C.: Yea what is it about cowboys? - they're my weakness too. --Paul

Carole Burns: Oh, dear. Pam, care to answer? Are cowboys really your weakness?

Pam Houston: In truth, for several years I said, with some authority, Cowboys are no longer my weakness. Recently, they seem to have become my weakness again. The most recent cowboy takes the form of a poet. That's the thing about cowboys. They show up in the darndest places. Their most loveable quality, I'm afraid, is their essential unavailability. We love them the way we love language. We want it to sit down and say what we want it to say. But it won't.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Tod, your stories are primarily first person, but in this collection there are pieces told in second and third person. Do you plan to continue branching out from the first person narrator?

Tod Goldberg: Stories typically present themselves to me in 1st person. When I wrote my first novel, Fake Liar Cheat, and my second, Living Dead Girl, I wanted to write both from the POV of an unreliable narrator and that meant 1st person was the most likely voice, and probably the most successful choice as well. And as is often the case with my short stories, I tend see things through the eyes of a person first and for that reason I guess 1st has always compelled me (plus I have an enormous ego). But when I wrote the story Rise John Wayne and Rebuke Them for the collection in 3rd, I felt a real sense of freedom that 1st hasn't supplied me with in years. It was like getting behind the wheel of BMW after a lifetime spent rollin' deep in a Tercel. So, I suspect that will return to 3rd more often now. I was scared of it before and now it feels safe.


Bethesda, Md. : Pam,

I've read Sight Hound, and the chapters from Dante's point of view are absolutely the best. You must be a dog lover. Are you?

Carole Burns: Dante is an Irish wolfhound, by the way. And I have to say that the Dante chapters are incredibly moving.

Pam Houston: I am a dog lover. I had an Irish wolfhound named Dante who appeared in my life at the exact right moment, and taught me many of the thing I needed to know about the relationship between love and loss, and how to keep getting up in the morning. He was diagnosed with bone cancer on his fourth birthday, and going through his treatment, remission and eventual recurrence and death was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

Carole Burns: When did you know he'd become a character.

Pam Houston: What I wanted in Sight Hound was a community of voices telling the story. I had seen the play, The Laramie Project, about Matthew Sheppard's death, and the actors stepped forward and delivered monologues about that night. In Sight Hound, many characters tell the story--a veterinarian, a hockey player, an actor, a vet student. It seemed only right that Dante would speak on his own behalf.


Washington, D.C. : Pam and Tod,Which writers have inspired you? I'm interested in both classic writers, and new writers. Thanks!

Tod Goldberg: I must say that my very first inspiration was my brother Lee, who has been publishing novels since I was 9 or 10. He went out and did it first and sort of paved the way for me in many regards. Outside of the family, I've been most inspired by folks like Richard Ford, who was the 1st writer I read in college that made me realize that Stephen King was not the foremost chronicler of the human condition, and Robertson Davies, whose novel 5th Business made me take notice of how language and emotion create character, and Richard Russo who is able to make the minutia of life the stuff of Shakespearean drama. But I'm also inspired by more contemporary writers like Mary Yukari Waters, who I believe is writing the best short fiction, period, of anyone in America, and Scott Phillips, who I think is writing tremendous crime fiction, and Mary Roach, who makes me wish I could write non-fiction with her flair and wit and importance.

Pam Houston: I think different writers inspire us a different times in our lives. At one time I said I was the illegitimate child of the unlikely and certainly unhappy marriage between DH Lawrence and Willa Cather. When I was in graduate school, I devoured Richard Ford, Russell Banks, Lorrie Moore, Ron Carlson. These days, I take a lot of inspiration from contemporary poets. Two books I've been reading and re-reading all year are Franz Wright's Walking to Martha's Vineyard, and Mark Doty's School of the Arts. Most recently, Mary Gaitskill's Veronica rocked my universe in a way that will show up in my writing somehow.


Chevy Chase, Md. : Tod,

I noticed that you've published a novel before your short stories. Is that unusual? Did you write the stories first, or the novel?

Tod Goldberg: Many of the stories in my collection were written long before any of my novels and when I first went looking for an agent in 1998 or so, it was to try to sell a short story collection. I'd begun work on what would become Fake Liar Cheat by then and, to be perfectly clear, New York simply was not clamoring for my short story collection. And so I kept writing my novels and my story writing really dropped off to about one or two a year (when it had been 5-10) and so while I've been able to have a nice a career with my two novels thus far (and I've just completed a new one) the collection was always my dream. When I saw that Other Voice was holding a contest I went to my agent and said, look, I know that you don't have publishers beating down the door for my story collection, what do you think of me entering this contest? And when she said yes, I went ahead and did it. It turned out to be the best possible outcome and the attention OV has given the book is probably far more than I would have received with a larger press.


Carole Burns: And we're out of time! Thanks so much for all the questions from the viewers (those who we've missed--try next time!) and thanks for the thoughtful answers from Pam and Tod. Sign up for email announcements about future guests on off the page, by emailing me, Carole, at:


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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