Stunned, still reeling… just learned of Jim Houston’s death via email from a mutual friend… turned to San Jose Mercury News to read the headline, Famed author James Houston dead at 75
We’re the same age and Jim was one of the first writers I met when I moved to Santa Cruz in 1985. We’ve been friends ever since… witty, sharp, heartful and an astonishingly fine writer. As an example of his warmth and wonderfully natural style, I think of his book The Men in My Life. And Gloria and I were privileged to be asked to read and comment on Jim’s “Snow Mountain Passage” when it was still in manuscript form.
Hard to write this… newspaper account lifted from Mercury News:
“SANTA CRUZ — James D. Houston, one of California's richest literary voices who made Santa Cruz his home for 47 years, died Thursday of complications from cancer. He was 75.
Houston, past winner of the American Book Award and the Humanitas Prize, wrote vividly and warmly about California in his long career, from insightful essays on the state's magnetic sense of place to the fictional chronicle of the famous Donner Party journey in his celebrated novel "Snow Mountain Passage."
He lived with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston in a historic redwood home in the Twin Lakes area of Santa Cruz, a home he had written about glowingly, most recently in his anthology "Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea..."
This being Friendship Friday and, hell, even if it were not, I’d want to reprint Jim’s essay on Raymond Carver who, years ago, lived in Santa Cruz and taught at UCSC…
THE DAYS WITH RAY appeared with Jim’s permission in my Writers’ Friendship series, courtesy and with thanks to Web Del Sol / Perihelion.
Material that follows copyright ©1999, by James D. Houston.
James Houston on Raymond Carver
I first met him at a collating party in San Francisco back in 1969. This was when George Hitchcock was editing and publishing Kayak magazine out of his house on Laguna Street. I had just come back from two months in Mexico and had to think twice about climbing into a car again to drive the eighty miles from Santa Cruz into the city. But it was considered something of an honor to be invited to one of these gatherings, a little nod of recognition from George, the small-press impresario. And I had been told that Ray Carver would be there. George was about to bring out Winter Insomnia, Ray’s second book of poems. I had been seeing his stories and wanting to meet him for a couple of years.
Among other things, I was struck by his clothing, a plain white long-sleeve shirt and dark slacks. I liked him for that. 1969 was the height of the counter-culture, which had its world headquarters right there in San Francisco. The streets were teeming with headbands and broad-brim hats, turquoise pendants, amulets, moccasins, Roman sandals, shirts covered with hand-sewn embroidery and leather fringe hanging from every vest and jacket. But the Bay Area scene did not interest Ray much at all. He was not affecting the look of a hippie or a cowboy or a Buddhist or trail guide or a lumberjack. Oblivious to the costumery of the times, he was a man of the west who dressed in a sort of Midwestern way, conservative, though not entirely respectable, since the white shirt was wrinkled and the slacks were rumpled as if he might have spent the night in these clothes.
After an hour or so of snacks and drinks, George put everyone to work on his literary assembly line, someone to collate the pages, someone to add the cover, someone to trim the edges, to staple, to fold, to stack, and so on. I was assigned to the stapling gun. Ray ended up next to me, working the trimmer with its guillotine blade.
Neither of us was mechanically inclined. We had already talked about various forms of car trouble that had bewildered and defeated us. We wondered if our participation that afternoon would have any effect upon sales. That is, we wondered if readers would buy a poetry magazine spotted with the drops of blood that would inevitably fall upon its pages once we touched the machines we’d been asked to operate. We wondered if Hitchcock might get sued, the way angry consumers will sue a food processor when a loose fingernail turns up inside the can of stewed tomatoes.
Then the joking subsided. We bent to our tasks. What I remember most about that day is standing next to him for the next hour or so, not talking much, standing shoulder to shoulder, stapling, trimming, stapling, trimming, as we worked along with George and the others to put this issue of the magazine together.
Ray was an easy and comfortable man to be with, to stand next to, or to sit with for long periods of time. He had a ready wit, and an infectious laugh, and no pretensions about him, no attitude. In every way he was unassuming. From the first meeting I felt a strong kinship, and I realize now that it was due, at least in part, to our similar origins. Years later we would finally talk about how both our fathers had come west during the early 1930s looking for any kind of work, his from Arkansas into the state of Washington, mine from east Texas to the California coast.
There was something else about Ray that I found enormously appealing. I think of it as a priestly quality. I never imagined I would be making such a statement about him, but as I look back I believe it’s true. He could be very brotherly. He often seemed filled with wonder. And you knew he would never judge you for your sins, whatever they might be. That was my experience, at any rate. In later years he had the capacity for genuine forgiveness.
[this is part 1... see next blog entry for part 2]
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