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James D. Houston

James D. Houston

FaceBook is a funny thing — I have deeply mixed feelings about it although I do like being in a sort of everyday casual contact with lots of old friends. On Saturday, when I was in between garden chores, I checked in to see what was happening and my old friend Sean O’Grady had posted Jim Houston’s obituary in the New York Times.

I had no idea he’d been ill, and was just shocked that he’s gone. Jim was a tall, gentle man who you could count on to give you a true reading of your work. The very first year we did the Art of the Wild workshop at Squaw Valley, I got lucky enough to do a manuscript consultation with Jim. I had a chapter, maybe two of Place Last Seen, and I’ll never forget him looking at me across one of those white wire tables by the fountain and saying, “Well, it’s a real book. Now all you have to do is organize your life so you can write it.” There were many many moments writing that book when I thought I couldn’t do it, and then I’d hear Jim’s deep voice telling me I wasn’t delusional, it was a real book, and that I just had to keep going.

After I finished the book, and published it, and discovered that nothing particularly magical happens after you publish a novel — there’s no magical movie deal that frees you from your day job and student loans, there are no parades or acclaim — if you’re lucky there are a few good reviews and you earn out your advance and you get invited to a few things. It was at one of those things, the Reno Book Fair, where I lucked out and got to do a reading from Place Last Seen with Jim. We were paired up. I was so pleased, and grateful to have a chance to tell the story in public about how kind he’d been to me, and how much it had meant. Afterwards, we were talking on the front steps of the building and I mentioned that the hardcover was going out of print. “Buy as many copies as you can afford,” Jim told me. “Because it’s your first book, and you’ll write others, and there will never be any more of these and you’ll want to sell them at readings in the future.” I got sort of choked up. It had been about three years since I’d sold PLS and I was really struggling to find another story. “Really?” I said. “You think there will be more?” He clapped me on the shoulder, “of course there will,” he said. “Like I said, buy as many of your hardcovers as you can afford.”

Thanks to Jim there are still about a hundred and fifty copies in my basement. He was a dear kind man, and a good writer, and a good teacher, and from what I hear he was a beloved father and husband. For me, I’ll just always be grateful for his kind words when I was so frightened of this project I’d taken on.