James D. Houston is the author of eight novels, including Bird of Another
Heaven and Snow Mountain Passage. His non-fiction works include
Farewell to Manzanar, co-authored with his
wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston - a true account of her family's experience during
and after the World War Two internment, it is in a 67th printing from Bantam
Books and a standard work in schools and colleges across the country.
He was born in San Francisco, where his parents settled after migrating west from Texas during the Depression of the l930s. At San Jose State College he studied drama and met Jeanne, whose parents had reached California from the opposite direction, crossing the ocean from Japan. In his writings, as in his personal life, these histories have intermingled. From his coastal vantage point, he has been able to look both ways, eastward across the continent, and farther west, toward the shores and islands of the Asia/Pacific region.
Jim and Jeanne were married in Honolulu in 1957, and from there moved to England while he served for three years as Information Officer with a Tactical Fighter-Bomber Wing. In 1959 his first published story appeared in the London literary journal, Gemini. Another early effort won that year's U.S. Air Force Short Story Contest.
After traveling extensively in Europe - to Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Scotland, Scandinavia, and the Soviet Union - he returned home to pursue an M.A. in American Literature at Stanford. He studied with Wallace Stegner, critic Irving Howe, editor Malcolm Cowley, and the Irish short story master, Frank O'Connor. Four years later he returned to Stanford as a Stegner Writing Fellow. While there he sold his first novel and completed his second, Gig, which won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for Fiction.
Since 1962 he and Jeanne have lived in Santa Cruz, within view of Monterey Bay, where they raised their three children, Corinne, Joshua and Gabrielle. For several years he made his living as a musician, teaching classical and folk guitar, and playing acoustic bass in a piano bar and in a bluegrass band. In l969, after teaching for a year at Stanford, he began teaching writing part-time at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus, an arrangement that continued for over twenty years, interspersed with visits to such campuses as the University of Hawai'i, the University of Oregon, the University of Michigan, and George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In spring 2006 he returned to his alma mater, now San Jose State University, to hold the prestigious Lurie Chair, as Distinguished Visiting Professor in Creative Writing.
A frequent visitor to Hawai'i, he has traveled widely in the Pacific Basin. In 1993 he was invited to Okinawa to lecture at the University of the Ryukyus. In 1998 he served as a Smithsonian Lecturer for the Cunard Lines' South Pacific Cruise to the Marquesas, Fakarava, Tahiti, Tonga and Fiji. His often anthologized stories and essays have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, GQ and Ploughshares.
He died in April 2009 at his home in Santa Cruz, California. The cause was complications of lymphoma, said his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. He was 75.
About This Biography
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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 ...
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