Thurs., September 16, 1999
© Carol Cizauskas
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Annie Proulx, Set To Read This Month In Reno,
Discusses Her Long Road To Success
Annie Proulx is an author who "writes a sentence like a whip: it whistles and snaps and lands right on target." So reported New York Newsday of Proulx's second novel, The Shipping News, which won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize, the 1993 National Book Award, the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award, and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. In 1993, Proulx received the PEN/Faulkner Award for her first novel, Postcards. She also has received NEA and Guggenheim Fellowships and residences at Ucross Foundation in Wyoming. Her latest work, Close Range, published this year, includes a short story selected by Garrison Keillor for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1988 and by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Another story in this collection won a 1998 O. Henry Short Story Award and a National Magazine Award through its publication in The New Yorker.
It was not always this way for Proulx, who found national success in writing later in life. Now 64, she began working as a postal employee and a waitress. She then spent 19 years writing articles while raising 3 sons alone. During this time, she founded a small-town newspaper in Vermont, The Vershire Behind-the-Times, and crafted an occasional short story. After her collection of short stories Heart Songs and Other Stories was published in 1988, Proulx followed the advice of her editor and tried her hand at a novel, Postcards. Soon thereafter, Proulx declared in a New York Times interview, "I'm desperate to write. I'm crazy to write. I want to write." She has been writing ever since. Her other book includes Accordion Crimes (1996), a novel.
Proulx currently lives and writes in Wyoming, spending much of her time travelling North America, researching her fiction along the byways of the continent. She loves to find the interesting in the everyday, from rare finds at yard sales (a second edition unabridged Webster's New International Dictionary) to pamphlets at diners (disagreement with the religious fanaticism of St. Paul found at a New Mexico roadside stop) to driving and listening to the music of the roads and the radios of the West.
On Friday, September 24, from 3:30 to 5:00, Proulx will speak at the McKinley Park School, headlining Reno's third annual Great Basin Book Festival. She also will participate in the festival on Saturday from 9:30am to 4:00pm at Wingfield Park.
The Reno News & Review interviewed Proulx, asking her views on the role of women in writing to the importance of the West in modern literature to her experience with the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
RN&R: How did you become a working writer?
PROULX: Became a working writer by doing magazine and newspaper journalism with fiction on the side. Gradually replaced general writing and journalism with the fiction.
RN&R: You vaulted into fame with the success of The Shipping News. How did that change your writing life?
PROULX: "Fame" and the success of Shipping News did not much change my writing life. I do the research and the writing as I always have, am interested in the same subjects, keep readers in mind. What changed perhaps was my publisher's tolerance for missed deadlines and slow work. Editors and critics paid more attention to what I wrote.
RN&R: How did it feel to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Postcards, your first novel, in 1993, and to win the 1993 National Book Award and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for your novel The Shipping News? What role, if any, have those accolades played in your subsequent writing?
PROULX: Winning literary awards is, of course, gratifying, through it is not pleasant to dude up in glitzy dress and pantyhose and pincher shoes for the ceremony. Actually, by the time awards are given, the writer has put the book out of mind and is deep into something else. The fine thing about awards is the knowledge that others recognize that you've been trying to do something of value.
RN&R: Are women given short shrift with awards such as the PEN/Faulkner and the Pulitzer?
PROULX: I don't know how many serious women writers there are out there nor how many serious men writers. The awards lists certainly indicated that the work of male writers is more often celebrated than that of women. We all say that whatever sex the writer may be has little or nothing to do with the kind or quality of the work, that the merit of the specific literary work is the only criterion for recognition. But in literature, as in many fields, in the past men were more often considered "real" writers and I think the work of men continues to receive more attention than that of women. The reasons for this are undoubtedly more complex than raw sexual prejudice. And, there are and always were women writers in the front ranks.
RN&R: When you began writing articles and short stories, was it harder for women to get published than now? Does a gender bias against women exist in today's publishing world?
PROULX: No, it wasn't harder for a woman to get published when I started writing. But there existed a kind of division of labor regarding subject - women did not often write about fishing and hunting, tracking and the outdoors, particularly for hide-bound traditional hook and bullet magazines. Those outdoor subjects interested me. That is different now; women write about anything, write about what they please - skiing, spelunking, fly-fishing, big-game-hunting, rock-climbing, soccer, first ascents, kayaking, etc., etc. So do men.
RN&R: You have lived in many different places and spent much of your time travelling North America. Is a sense of place important for a writer, or is imagination all one needs to craft effective literary fiction?
PROULX: Where the writer lives is relatively unimportant. Imagination is crucial. So are the skills of acute observation, a taste for hard work and self-criticism, the ability to learn from reading the work of writers better than you are, an inquiring mind and a growing sense of compassion for the human condition. And the importance of place in the literary work can hardly be overestimated.
RN&R: You're originally from Connecticut. How many years did you live there? Before moving to Wyoming, your current residence, you lived in Vermont and Newfoundland. Why did you move to Wyoming? How have these places affected your writing?
PROULX: I lived in Connecticut for the first 5 or 6 years of my life. Never been back. I've lived in dozens and dozens of places. Never lived in Newfoundland though I have an old funky house there and get up to visit when I can. I moved to Wyoming when my mother died five years ago, though I had been visiting the state on a regular basis for years. Nearly all the fiction I've written has been written in Wyoming. Wyoming is my writing place. I had an ancestor, one Joseph LaBarge, who left Assomption, Quebec, early in the 19th century and worked for General Ashley as a fur trapper in the Rockies for many years. A tributary of the Missouri River is named after him and so is LaBarge Creek in western Wyoming and the nearby town of LaBarge. His two sons later became river boat pilots on the Missouri River. So I have ancient connections here.
RN&R: What writers have influenced you?
PROULX: I am an omnivorous reader and have learned from and continue to learn from hundreds of fine writers. The list is too long to put down here, and in any case every writer makes his or her own list.
RN&R: Is there a literary Renaissance occurring in the West similar to what occurred in the South in the '30s and later?
PROULX: I don't know if there is a literary renaissance occurring in the West, but I do know that some of the strongest writing in North America happens west of the Missouri River and west of Winnipeg. There are the old giants, Wallace Stegner, A. B. Guthrie, David Lavender, Paul Horgan, Willa Cather, Marie Sandoz, Peggy Simson Curry, Walter Van Tilburg Clark; the contemporary writers Larry McMurtry, Ivan Doig, Paul St Pierre, Louise Erdrich, Robert Kroetsch, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jim Harrison, James Galvin, Clarence Major, Frederick Turner, Ian Frazier, John Nichols, Tony Hillerman, Terry Tempest Williams, Denise Chavez, Gretel Erlich, Evan S. Connell, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Dagoberto Gilb, Cormac McCarthy, John Graves, Richard Ford, Barry Lopez, David Quammen, Teresa Jordan, Jack Curtis, Guy Vanderhaeghe, William Kittredge and many more.
RN&R: Is it easier for a writer to achieve success living in New York than in the West?
PROULX: Writers can write anywhere. It is a portable occupation. Certainly many of the major publishing houses, magazines, important agents, editors and critics are still in New York, but writers are where you find them - all over North America. Publishing is becoming more geographically diversified, and the emergence of the new electronic technologies, the "'zine" scene, the quickening interest in poetry, from slams to cowboy poetry gatherings, writing festivals and other events indicate a yeasty and vigorous literary scene that is certainly not confined to New York.
RN&R: Hemingway learned his craft as a newspaper reporter, the protagonist in your novel The Shipping News is in the same field, and you worked for many years in journalism. Do newspapers teach a writer how to hone her work, how to slash extraneous material?
PROULX: Newspaper and magazine journalism can be a good training ground for a writer - learning how to listen to others, digging in files, finding out, honing observational skills, getting a sense of the complexity of human beings, of the contemporary culture are probably the most useful habits and views one takes from journalism to fiction. The much-vaunted "learning to write concisely" stuff can be learned without working for the Daily Blatt, especially since so much contemporary journalism is long-winded color and writerish feature stuff.
RN&R: When your novel Postcards won the PEN/Faulkner award, in a New York Times interview, you said about writing your first novel after many, earlier short stories, "I was so used to cramping thoughts and situations and cutting, and suddenly I had room to expand." Now that you've been writing novels for a while, how much room does the novel format give the author to expand?
PROULX: Take a look at the current trend for immense novels, trilogies and multi-volumed works and you will note that the novel form allows massive expansion.
RN&R: Wallace Stegner said fiction writers start in the news room by learning how to write concisely. Currently many authors learn the craft through highly developed academic, Master of Fine Arts programs, which do not teach the same tight writing style as newspaper training grounds do. How do you feel about this shift in training literary authors? Have MFA programs bled writing of really gutty material, like the work of Cormac McCarthy, an author who did not receive an MFA?
PROULX: My personal feeling is that the best training ground for a writer is the library.
RN&R: In a May article you wrote for The New York Times about writing, you stated, "I rarely use the Internet for research, as I find the process cumbersome and detestable." You elaborated that you find much of your research in your North American travels and even local yard sale trips. Do you feel disconnected sometimes with the apparent revolution in the electronic information medium?
PROULX: I do not feel disconnected from the electronic information medium; it is sometimes useful to me and almost impossible to avoid. But books are more pleasant to use, more interesting in form, can be read in bed and stuffed into a purse, carried anywhere with ease. One can make notes in the margins, spread out dozens of them on a big table for immediate cross-reference. The visual and tactile pleasures derived from the book are incomparable.
RN&R: In May 1994 you wrote about the future of books for The New York Times. You stated, "If you would know a man or woman, look at their books, not their software." Which books do you own that are the most worn through your personal use?
PROULX: The most worn books in my library are those I bought at second-hand bookshops. They've been read and handled by others. The book I use the most is probably Webster's New International Dictionary, second edition, unabridged. And I not infrequently look into Lynn Thorndike's eight-volume History of Science and Experimental Magic.
RN&R: When did you attend the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada? Please describe that experience and its effect on your work, especially your collection of stories called Close Range: Wyoming Stories.
PROULX: 1998, I think. It was a good time, although most of the sessions I wanted to hear were too crowded to get into. I was persuaded to go out for the gathering by my friend singer-musician Skip Gorman. I met the Wyoming-raised writer Teresa Jordan, whose Riding the White Horse Home I much admire, the Denver-based watercolorist Willy Matthews, filmmaker (The Highly Exalted) Kim Shelton and Texas songwriter and singer Tom Russell. I bumped into Willy Matthews in Denver a few weeks after the Elko celebration and he allowed as how he would like to do a cover for a book of mine - if I ever wrote anything about the West. I told him I was just finishing up a collection of shorts stories set in Wyoming. Discussion and lunches led to a collaborative effort and Willy painted not only a cover but six interior illustrations for the book, the first illustrated adult fiction Scribner had published in sixty years. In the parking lot outside a motel Tom Russell had given me his CD Song of the West, which I listened to as I fought my way through the hideous tangle of road construction they call Salt Lake City. I was very much taken with the title of his song, "The Sky Above, the Mud Below," and thought the last three words would make a fine title for one of the stories in Close Range - better than the story's graceless working title "Hung Up". I asked Tom for permission to use "The Mud Below" as the title and he graciously said yes, for which I am and always will be grateful.