James D. Houston dies at 75; novelist explored California in his works

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James D. Houston, author of ‘Snow Mountain Passage,’ ‘Continental Drift’ and, with his wife, ‘Farewell to Manzanar,’ has died from complications from cancer. He was 75.

Known for writing fiction and nonfiction, Houston was considered a leading author in the literature of the West. ‘Few writers have more consistently addressed the enduring issues arising out of the California experience than James D. Houston,’ said Kevin Starr, historian and author of the seven-volume California Dream series. ‘He set standards by which the rest of us judged our own efforts.’


‘Jim epitomizes what we think of as a California writer,’ Alan Soldofsky, head of the creative writing program at San Jose State, where Houston, an alumnus, was recently writer-in-residence. ‘He had a consummate awareness of place and of the effect of both the natural and human communities on the writer’s psyche living on the edge of the continent.’

Born in San Francisco, Houston attended the city’s high-achieving, ethnically diverse Lowell High School. He went to San Jose State in 1952, where he met Jeanne Wakatsuki; they married in 1957. They moved to England where he served as an information officer with the Air Force. After three years and travels through Europe, they returned to Northern California, where Houston earned a master’s in American literature at Stanford, studying with Wallace Stegner.

His first book was ‘Between Battles’ (1968), a humorous novel about Americans on an Air Force base during the Cold War. His second novel, ‘Gig’ (1969), set in a piano bar on the California coast, established his literary reputation.

He and his wife had been married 15 years before he learned that she had been interned with her family during World War II. ‘He was my shrink. He helped me get it out,’ Wakatsuki Houston said Friday, about the genesis of ‘Farewell to Manzanar.’ ‘He’d write a draft, I’d write a draft. It was a true collaboration.’

With Jack Hicks, Maxine Hong Kingston and Al Young, Houston edited the omnibus ‘The Literature of California,’ helping to give shape to the idea of a writing tradition unique to the Golden State. He also wrote books about surfing and Hawaiin ukulele legend Eddie Kamae. He was a longtime and well-regarded writing teacher.

His family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Susan Gilbert