December 2005

John Detrixhe

features

An Interview with Annie Proulx

One doesn't need a research assistant to learn that Proulx doesn't care to do interviews. Proulx is a scholar and an artist, and she has won more awards than is civilized to list here (including the Pulitzer, National Book Award, PEN/Faulkner). But one thing she's not is an entertainer. She's not a star, even though she could be if she wanted, and, possibly, if publishers got what they wanted.

It's this reluctance that makes her words so gratifying. There's a certain guilty thrill in listening to Proulx speak, when one knows that she would rather be in Wyoming, where she lives, or Newfoundland, where she owns a home. And she would probably be happiest if she were in either of those places writing, instead of giving a lecture in Chicago or responding to the media. Still, one senses that Proulx rarely does what she doesn't care to do, and when she answers a question it is only because she is willing, and not because she necessarily cares how you will react to her answer.

Proulx speaks quietly and precisely, without an accent, and there's a warmth to her voice that contrasts with the remote, unforgiving locales in which she feels most comfortable. Proulx's fiction reflects what she finds most interesting, and her characters are flawed, lonely and burdened, and her landscapes are ignored, remote places that are so vivid and personal as to be characters in their stories.

Proulx was a presenter at this year's Chicago Humanities Festival. She discussed her work with me after her presentation at Harold Washington Library.


I know you do a lot of research for your stories, and I was wondering at what point the research is finished and it's time to move forward with the story?

First of all, I never feel that it's finished, but you have to stop somewhere. There's no end to the amount of things that one should know about a place, especially when you begin to have contradictory opinions on geological formations and so forth. And I find that kind of thing very, very interesting, but not terribly useful in terms of story writing.

A little bit goes a long way.

Haruki Murakami recently told students at Tufts University that physical exercise is a sort of foundation for him for writing. Is there any sort of structure or routine outside of writing that you see as fundamental to your writing?

Actually, walking and hiking is extremely useful for some reason. One is able to untangle characters and plot lines and so forth more easily when walking. Driving does the same thing for me. I find driving, in Wyoming, not anywhere else, very conducive to clear thinking. Or useful thinking, I should say. [Laughs.] Not necessarily clear.

As is probably often mentioned, geography and environment almost seem like characters in your stories. How do you balance the physical realm of your stories against the character development? Or do you even try, and the stories come out the way they come out?

Right. One should reflect the other, for me.

I've read that when you're working on a project, you're writing sometimes sixteen hours a day. Do you still find time to read during those times?

When I'm ending a project I'm writing sixteen hours a day. Most of the time -- I have no time for writing. I hardly write at all. If I get fifteen minutes a day it's a small miracle. I just have time for a sentence here and there, and I keep hoping that sometime in the future I'll have time to write again. But generally I don't, I just don't have the time.

I read omnivorously, I always have, my entire life. I would rather be dead than not read. So, there's always time for that. I read while I eat, and our whole family did. We all had very bad manners at the table. All of our books are stained with spaghetti sauce, and that sort of thing.

I read that when you were young you picked out books by the color of their covers.

[Laughs.] Yeah, when I was in grade school and was allowed to go to the public library. I think that whole business began when I picked out [unintelligable Charles Whitney, Bounty], which had a beige cover, and I loved the book. It seemed to me that probably beige-covered books would all be good. So for a long time I only took out books with beige covers. And one, whose author's name I've quite forgotten, the title was Campus Shadows, about a medical student who contracted some frightful illness himself and was in the hospital bed and was going blind because nobody realized that they should put drops of water into his eyes. His eyes were getting dry and he couldn't see anything.

Something that's stayed with me for sixty years.

I spoke to a male writer whose protagonists are mostly women, and he said he does it for the challenge of writing from the female perspective. In your stories that I've read, the protagonists are male characters. Do you do this for a challenge, or do the stories write themselves that way?

No, it's for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I'm writing about rural communities. In rural communities there is a division of labor. Women are in the house doing household things, generally. Men are outside doing the interesting things, generally. Once in a while you'll find women out there running ranches or flying planes or whatever.

So there is that natural weight toward the male side, if you're going to write about rural places. The other reason is because I was the oldest of five girls, and there were no boys in our family, and I always wished there had been. And the third reason is because I like men. Men are very interesting to me.

So put those three together and there you are. Challenge has nothing to do with it. And I suspect that whoever told you that he writes about women because it's a challenge is lying. He likes women.

Your latest novel takes place in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and I was particularly interested because I grew up in West Texas and --

Where?

In Midland. Well, near Midland. A small town called Fort Stockton.

Okay, yeah.

I had a creative writing instructor in college, in Milwaukee, and I wrote a story set in West Texas, and I didn't have much landscape in it because I didn't think anyone would be interested. And the instructor told me the exact opposite, that there's beauty in it. That touched me, because it seemed like nobody had ever said anything nice about where I grew up.

Right.

Especially people from Texas.

I found that about the whole panhandle. People in Texas would say, "What are you writing about?" And I'd tell them I'm working on something set in the panhandle. "Oh the panhandle! Uggh!" Texans in particular really loath the panhandle.

That's been my experience.

I think it's a great place. I miss it badly.

Roger Gatham said in the January 2003 Chicago Sun-Times review of That Old Ace in the Hole, "Proulx loves to create highly eccentric characters to go with her highly marginal countrysides." First off, there's no such thing as "highly marginal," and I wondered if you would feel like they were marginal countrysides? Perhaps in an economic sense, but I thought that might not be your perspective.

Yeah, this fellow must be a city person.

I read that you wanted That Old Ace in the Hole to be about a windmill repairman? Or a person who works with windmills?

Yeah, I did. I wanted to write about a windmill repairman, that was going to be my central character. But I had to know a lot about windmills, and I'm here to tell you that you don't know a lot about windmills unless you grew up in the trade. [Laughs.] I had heard that there was a school of windmill repair at Los Cruces, in New Mexico, at the university. So I called them up one day and said I was interested in taking the windmill repair course. There was a long silence on the other end of the wire, and the person I was speaking to said "What windmill repair course?"

I had come across this note in a book on windmill repair, that there was such a course, so I read it out, "It says here you have one." And she said, "We haven't had one for years and years." And sure enough, I hadn't checked the publication date of that book, which was 1970s. There was no more windmill repair course.

So then I made appointments with various windmill repair persons in the panhandle area, and I got stood up a couple of times. Guys said they would meet with me and talk about it, and I could go out with them on repair jobs. But then they'd never show. Finally I did go out with one fellow, and on an incredibly windy day -- not a great day for climbing up on windmills. I was down at the bottom of the windmill, and he was up at the top. I'm not sure what he was doing at this point, but he dropped one of this tools which he had to have, and the only way he could get it was if I brought it up to him. It was quite a tall windmill, and as I say, it was very windy. So I climbed up and brought it up to him. Had quite a good view of the surrounding fields. [Laughs.] That was as close as I got to windmill repair.

Windmills have pretty much been replaced anyway by diesel pumps, for pumping irrigation water out, but the windmill was very important in the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties. It's not important now, though lots of places you still see them. So I had to change things, and make my windmill repairman an old guy who just worked on the leftovers from yesteryear. He couldn't play a central role in the book.

That's why the story shifted, because they don't give the windmill-repair courses in Los Cruces anymore!

Did you ever feel like your work might be defined by Shipping News, and now it seems there's a lot of attention being given to Brokeback Mountain? I guess it's awfully early to say, but do you think your work might be defined by Brokeback Mountain?

It's starting to look that way, yeah. It's odd, but that's how it is. Actually, that story was to be one of three or four stories about offbeat and difficult love situations, but I never wrote any of the others. I just wrote that one.

I had to get away from it. It just got too intense, and too much on my mind. That's when I wrote the book [That Old Ace in the Hole], but I may have to write the other stories just to clear my mind, as it were. And also because I conceived of that particular story as one of a set of stories. As it is right now, it stands out rather like a sore thumb in comparison to the rest of the work, so I think I have to do those other stories.

Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana prepared the screenplay for Brokeback. Did you work with them at all on that, or was it completely in their hands?

It was in their hands. I think Diana called me one day and we talked for a couple hours on the telephone. I pretty much stayed out of it. Mostly because I was busy with something else, and because I'm not a movie person. I'm not a screenplay writer. There's certain rhythms and certain shape to the screen that's just different from short stories or novels.

I know enough not to go butting in. Also, I really hate the tendency that many writers have when their stuff is made into a film, that they are in there, they want to do everything. They want to direct, they want to choose the actors, they want to do the screenplay -- they just want to control it. And, I understood very well that that's not a good thing, because it's different.

You answered some of my questions earlier, when you spoke about adapting a novel for a movie, in which you have to cut away, and a short story, which must be flushed out. I have a friend who went to the Toronto Film Festival and saw Brokeback Mountain, and she loved the way certain parts were filled in to make a feature-length story.

Well, I liked it, too. I thought that what they did was really quite wonderful. It really enriched the story. Instead of a little canoe, it became an ocean liner.

I also thought it was interesting when you were talking about Ang Lee's treatment of your story, how he brought the necessary thoughtfulness to the story.

He sure did.

Are you surprised that that particular story has been singled out for so much attention?

Yeah. I am. Especially eight years after it was written. It's because film is very important in our culture, the moving image is dominant. And for many writers, too, it's only validated if it's made into a movie. That's just the way it is, at this time.

So, yes, I am surprised.

You said earlier that you were pleased with Heath Ledger's performance. Did you feel that way about the whole cast?

The whole cast was magnificent. There wasn't anything not to be thrilled with, in anyone's performance. They were all extraordinary. And by singling out Heath Ledger, I didn't mean to slight Jake Gyllenhaal in the least, because he's an extraordinarily versatile, quicksilver, accomplished actor. Really, quite marvelous. And I think he went from Brokeback to Jarhead, and that is the kind of jump that is, like, "Oh, really?" And he did both with ease. Very expert ease.

All of the actors were just superb.

I get the sense that you are a high-profile writer who writes in spite of being a high-profile writer. Do you feel that the level of attention you have received works against what you want to be doing?

It's a pain in the ass, frankly. Media attention and interviews and all that kind of stuff. Not you --

I understand.

The way that publishing has gone in the last couple of decades, that's what it is now. That's part of the job. When I first started writing I hated that, I hated that attention. I was rude and unpleasant and uncooperative. And just didn't like doing it. But, there's no getting away from it. It is now part of the writing job. Publishers and media people have made writers into, kind of, star things.

Which is too bad. If I had my druthers, and usually I do have my druthers, on this at least, just to live a private life and get on with the writing. Not have to trot around and gibber. [Laughs.] It's part of the scene.

I was chatting about this with Charles Baxter a couple of hours ago. He laments, too, the sudden, or the intrusive, star thing. It's not what writing is about. Most writers are very reclusive, and it doesn't sit easily. It's difficult.