James Houston Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

James Houston
Photo © Jana Marcus

James Houston

An interview with James Houston

James Houston discusses Bird of Another Heaven

(below this interview is an earlier interview in which Houston discusses Snow Mountain Passage)

For the second time, you've written a novel that reaches in to the past . What relevance does historical fiction have for contemporary readers?

Reading historical fiction doesn't necessarily mean you have to leave the modern world. The story itself may be set a hundred or two hundred years ago, yet still have a contemporary resonance. I think it's a matter of perspective, the authorial perspective that is brought to the telling. In Bird of Another Heaven the narrator, Sheridan Brody, is a Bay Area talk show host and one-time student of anthropology. He is in his 30s before he discovers a previously unknown branch of his family tree, discovers an ethnic background his parents never talked about, discovers he's the great-grandson of a woman who was half California Indian and half Hawaiian. Seeking out the truth of her life puts Sheridan's own life to the test. At the same time this quest brings the late 19th century into the late 20th century.

It's another example of something I find in a lot of narratives, whether short or long: in order to get the story told, you have to tell two stories. The second story comes rising up next to the first, or sometimes comes rising up inside the first. One is played against the other, one voice against another, one ethnicity against another, one century against another. And it's the two together that make the story whole. Time and time again Sheridan sees how the past illuminates the present, in his personal life as well as in the flow of national and international events.


Nani Keala (aka Nancy Callahan) was an extra ordinary woman for her time. Where did her story come from?

It goes back to the days when I was researching Snow Mountain Passage, about the Donner Party and that early period of western settlement, from the late 1840s onward. I kept coming across references to the Hawaiian sailors who'd helped John Sutter build his legendary fort in the Sacramento Valley. Years before The Gold Rush, Sutter's Fort had become world-famous as a first destination and resting place for the pioneering, trans-continental wagon trains. And John Sutter, for better or for worse, would be come known as 'The Father of California.' I'd already written a good bit about Hawai'i. I became fascinated with the idea that when those early wagon parties were making their way west through the Sierra Nevada's, the Hawaiians were already here. They'd already played a significant role in laying the groundwork for what became the state's capitol city, Sacramento. And California was already becoming a cultural crossroads, settled by Mexicans moving up from the south, with Chinese and Hawaiians coming across from the Pacific side, and the natives tribes who'd been here for several thousand years. Then, through some oral interviews from forty years ago and various other sources I happened on the story of a mixed-blood woman, the daughter of one of Sutter's Hawaiians. Born in a tribal village in the Sierra foothills, she may have had a relationship with the last king of Hawai'i, David Kalakaua, may have traveled with him, may have been with him when he died in The Palace Hotel in San Francisco in 1891. After Snow Mountain Passage I thought I'd had enough history for a while. But this story wouldn't leave me alone.


Was this a true story? An apocryphal story?

A: It turned out to be a little of both. But for me, as a writer, it had compelling possibilities, linked, as it was, to the final years of the Hawaiian monarchy. Here was a multi-lingual, multi-cultural woman of the late 19th century whose adventurous life seemed to encompass two seemingly disparate realms. I think that' s what drew me ever deep into the material - a singular woman, an enigmatic king, the chance to explore, in one narrative, a formative era in two parts of the world that have for so long intrigued me, my home region, California, and my second home, Hawai'i.


Hawai'i is so much more than America's vacation paradise. Yet most visitors don't seem to give much thought to its social and political history. Should we?

A lot of people still see Hawai'i as it has been advertised around the globe - as The Paradise of The Pacific. And without doubt - for surfers, yachtsmen, sport fishermen, cyclists and divers and hikers and golfers - it's one of the world's great re creation zones. I have surfed those waves myself and hiked many of the beaches and crater-country trails and skirted Diamond Head in a catamaran. In that balmy and seductive air it's easy to turn a blind eye to a very complex and influential political history that shines a special light on America's history. It was the fate of native Hawaiians to inhabit a remote island chain that the larger world simply couldn't stay away from, perfectly located to be come a mid-ocean hub for travel, trade and shipping, as well as a centerpiece for our military presence in the Pacific. For Hawaiians it has meant a profound struggle for cultural definition and survival, going on now for two centuries and more. The flashpoint was the overthrow of their monarchy in 1893, the year John Stevens, U.S. Minister to Hawai'i, said in a letter to the Secretary of State, "The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it." That's the backdrop for the love story which is at the center of this novel - the politics of a very volatile era. The overthrow, by the way, has been called America's first exercise in regime change.


What was your most surprising discovery while researching Bird of Another Heaven?

How much important information has been destroyed or has disappeared. For instance, records from the Palace Hotel from the days before and after King Kalakaua died there in January 1891 - everything was lost in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. And the voice recording he made at the hotel on an early Edison machine, just four days before he died - we still have the wax cylinder, in a climate controlled room in a museum in Honolulu, but the sound of his words has been eaten away by time. And then there were hundreds of documents belonging to the king, letters and manuscripts and personal papers which disappeared after the overthrow and the ransacking of the royal palace. For a historian, bent on nailing down every fact, these can be hard losses. But for the novelist with a story to tell, it can be a hidden blessing. I mean, missing evidence can sometimes provide a welcome bit of wiggle room.


What is next ? What are you working on now?

I recently finished pulling together a collection of my shorter prose pieces, some fiction, mostly nonfiction, and that will be coming out in the spring of 2008. Now I'm laying the groundwork for another novel, though it's too soon to say much about it. I'm still in that stage of discovery Wright Morris refers to when he says writing is finding out what you don't yet know about what you know.


A Conversation with James Houston about Snow Mountain Passage

Your previous novels are all contemporary or set in the recent past. What made you choose to write about a historical subject?
Sometimes you don't choose the material; the material chooses you. The story of this novel is really the story of our house here in Santa Cruz, a steep-roofed Victorian a block back from the ocean. When we first moved in, in the early l960s, it had been empty for three years. It looked abandoned, a relic from a bygone era. And it was cheap. We were renters then, and that's what appealed to us. Only gradually did I learn that it was once inhabited by descendants of the fellow who co-organized the Donner Party, and that his younger daughter, Patty, who was eight when they rolled out of Springfield, Illinois, and had survived the cruel winter of l846-47, died in our bedroom back in l923. Over the years I became more and more intrigued with the idea this house somehow had a place in her family's legendary journey west.

Many people left accounts and reports from 1846 and the great migration west. How did you use the historical record when writing Snow Mountain Passage?
It is almost overwhelming, the material available from this period. From the Donner Party survivors there are diaries, newspaper interviews, book-length memoirs, hundreds of letters. Sutter's Fort Museum alone holds a file of 650 documents donated by the Reed family. My intent, as I ploughed through it all, was not to re-tell the entire saga, but to keep the focus on one family. I looked for keys to how they saw themselves, saw others, how they reacted at certain moments, or failed to react. I wanted the main storyline to be historically accurate, in terms of dates, places, incidents. But I didn't want it to read like history. Fiction has to take us inside lives at another level. In Snow Mountain Passage there are two tracks. One follows James Frazier Reed, the father and husband, as he is separated from his own wagon party and from his family, and must cross into California before the snows, as his efforts to raise rescue parties collide with the politics and prophetic cross-cultural encounters at the end of the Mexican War. The other comes via the voice of Patty Reed in her 80s, from her porch here in Santa Cruz, reflecting back upon her family's legacy and her father's life.

Throughout the book, you use what appear to be authentic trail notes written by Patty Reed, one of the surviving members of the Reed/Donner party. How did you achieve a sense of realism and authenticity when writing these imagined trail notes?

Osmosis has something to do with it, the things you absorb living in the house where Patty Reed spent the final years of her long life. Many features of the interior have not changed. Certain fixtures and pieces of furniture are still here. Also, I made several trips into the Sierras and out into the Nevada desert, re-visiting sites and along the way imagining how those places might have seemed to an eight-year-old from the midwest. When I finally sat down to try and find a way to tell the family's story, I began to hear her voice, as the elderly woman she'd been in the years she lived here. I wouldn't say it was an actual sound inside my head; rather, it was the distinct awareness of a certain way of speaking. And that was the day I began to write.

Today, we fly across the country in five hours on luxury airlines but in 1846 traveling cross-country was an extremely difficult task. How did the emigrants travel and manage to transport their families across the country? What were traveling conditions like for the wagon trains?
The year l846 was the first year large numbers of families had tried to make this crossing. They had read guidebooks and heard the call of California from two thousand miles away. But many had no clear idea what they were getting themselves into, or how empty the world was once you crossed the Missouri. They had to imagine everything they'd need for a journey of four or five months, for sometimes four or five or six people - food, clothing, ammunition, pots and pans, spare parts - and they had to figure out a way to carry it all. Some planned well. Some not so well. It's hard now to imagine that kind of travel and the daily tasks they simply took for granted. If a wagon axle broke, you had to stop and carve a new one. To cross a river, you sometimes had to build a raft. To climb and cross what is now Donner Pass, in the central Sierra Nevada, you had to lead your oxen one at a time up a narrow trail, unload your wagon, then take it apart and haul the pieces up with block and tackle, then put the whole thing back together again.

Looking back one can see instances where the wagon party made poor decisions and mistakes in planning and preparation. What do you believe was the turning point for the wagon party?
People have been debating this for l50 years. Part of the ongoing fascination with the Donner Party story is that there are no easy or clear-cut explanations for why things turned out as they did. At Little Sandy Creek, near South Pass in what is now Wyoming, a crucial decision was made to part from the main emigrant route north by way of Fort Hall and to follow an untested but hopefully time-saving route south of Great Salt Lake, the now-infamous Hastings Cut-off. In hindsight it is tempting to call this "a mistake." But at the time he recommended the shortcut, Lansford Hastings was regarded as the leading authority on westward travel and had authored the most influential guidebook for reaching California and Oregon.

What was your most surprising discovery when researching the novel?
How the details of cannibalism have, from l847 until today, overshadowed the more profound and emotionally moving dimensions of this story.

The emigrants were stranded during one of the worst blizzards in the history of Sierra Nevada. What did they do to survive?
Though it was primitive, they had shelter. They had firewood. They had water (melted snow). When they eventually ran out of food, some but not all resorted to eating the flesh of those who'd died. This story has mythic power in large part as a testimony to what people are capable of when pushed to the extremes of human experience. Some become savages. Some become heroes.

Snow Mountain Passage is a story not only about tragedy and misfortune but one of survival and endurance. Do you feel the latter gets lost or forgotten amid the tales of cannibalism?
Even as the survivors were making their way out of the mountains, in the spring of l847, exaggerated and sensationalized accounts had begun to appear in newspapers, to be reprinted around the world. In a way, the goriest details have helped to give this story its long life and make it the most notorious episode in the settling of the American west. To write about the Donner Party, one has to address this aspect of the tale; but I haven't dwelled on it in Snow Mountain Passage, in part because it has already had a big emphasis in other narratives, both fiction and nonfiction. Also, I believe the deeper story is in the family drama and ordeal - not only what happens at Donner Lake, as Margaret Reed and her four children struggle to survive; but what happens to James Reed during his months in Mexican California, trying to rejoin them.

When something goes wrong, instinctively people want to place blame. In the case of the Reed/Donner party, was James Reed to blame? Can anyone be blamed for the wagon train’s misfortunes?
James Reed was a headstrong and willful man who made some decisions he later regretted. But so did they all. It was, for instance, a group decision to try the Hastings' Cut-off, not Reed's alone. They all voted on it. The farther you delve into the record and into the multiple accounts of what happened and why, the harder it is to single out any one person or family or decision. In the end it is a mysterious mix of unpredictable weather and bad luck and strange chemistry: a mismatched bunch of people who found themselves stuck with one another in unforgiving terrain. But there is no question that Reed contributed to the Party's misfortune. This in fact is what drew me to him, as a character. While his own pride makes him a culprit, he is also capable of a redeeming compassion and true courage.

What is next on the horizon for you?
Another story. Another book. I'd rather not mention specific projects. I have a nonfiction book in mind, a couple of ideas for novels. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction or film, these are all forms for telling stories. That's what I plan to keep on doing.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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