November 12, 1997
Amid a hubub of headlines and applause, E. Annie Proulx appeared on the literary scene in 1994 with her second novel, The Shipping News. Though she seemed to have come out of nowhere, she had soon secured her place in the world of letters with a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and another acclaimed novel, Accordion Crimes (1996). Proulx in fact did come from out of nowhere: for most of her adult life she was following her own advice -- "spend some time living before you start writing" -- working as a freelancer to pay the bills, raising children, living deep in the woods, and involving herself in the back-to-the-land movement. Proulx didn't take on fiction writing until she was in her fifties, when Scribner published her collection of short stories, Heart Songs (1988), and her first novel, Postcards (1992); now, a mere handful of years later, inundated with invitations to speak, attend book signings, write book reviews, and judge short-story contests, she has to fend this all off to get close to what really matters: her fiction. She is making up, perhaps, for lost time.
Proulx recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.
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Before I started writing non-fiction, which I did simply to put meat and potatoes on the table, I was working on my doctorate in history. During those years in graduate school I was immersed in academic research, and the research habit is one that does not go away. It became second nature to me to explore how and where things were done. But I'm not only research oriented: I'm naturally curious about how things work and how people are. So what's reflected in my fiction did not so much jump from manuals on grape growing and fence mending as from very serious academic hours in libraries and archives and an inborn curiosity about life.
In the 1970s, when I left graduate school and gave up the Ph.D., I went off to live in the woods with a friend. I was living in very remote, rural, difficult situations, and the question of how to make a living miles and miles from the nearest town came up. Writing seemed like a likely enough thing. I had sold a couple of stories in the past that I'd written just for fun, so I began writing articles. What interested me at this time was the back-to-the-land movement -- communes, gardening, architecture, the difficulty of maintaining a long, dirt-road driveway. Not only could I solve some of those problems in real life and observe what people were doing to make things work in rural situations, I could write about them and make some money. So I did. And I made a damned good living for a number of years doing this. But gradually this kind of thing became more and more boring, and my interests changed. I began to move towards fiction for intellectual stimulation.
You have mentioned in past interviews that your daily responsibilities -- the business of child-rearing and money-making and maintaining relationships -- are what kept you from writing fiction for so long. When Perley's wife dies in your short story "Bedrock," you say that he is "loosened from his life," a notion that seems to carry both liberating and disconcertingly unmooring connotations. Aside from simply finding the time to sit down and write, do you need this kind of "loosening" in order to think creatively?
It wasn't really that simple. For most of my adult life I simply didn't think of myself as a writer. But I was always a reader -- an omnivorous, greedy one. It's probably natural for readers to move into writing, and that's essentially what happened to me. When I finally did have some time to explore what I liked to do, I knew it certainly wasn't going to be an academic life of any sort. Creating people out of nothing and putting them on paper seemed like an amusing and interesting thing to do. And I could continue with research. So it was more a redrawing of myself in another persona than a frustrated woman's finally finding time to write. It wasn't like that at all.If I'd wanted to write earlier you can bet I would have.
Although your fiction has appeared sporadically in magazines for at least fifteen years, you were thrown into the limelight when The Shipping News (1994) won a Pulitzer Prize -- and in the limelight you have remained. As a diligent writer who seems to be more concerned with her work than the trappings of a literary life, could you talk about the effects of this ceaseless flurry of attention?
It's not good for one's view of human nature, that's for sure. You begin to see, when invitations are coming from festivals and colleges to come read (for an hour for a hefty sum of money), that the institutions are head-hunting for trophy writers. Most don't particularly care about your writing or what you're trying to say. You're there as a human object, one that has won a prize. It gives you a very odd, meat-rack kind of sensation.
In terms of interruption of work it's absolutely devastating -- unless one can say no. At first I couldn't say no and I did a lot of things that I shouldn't have. When you get through with travel and hassle and rushing about and shaking people's hands, that "one hour" usually translates into three days. And if you're working on a piece of writing, once three days are torn out it can be quite difficult getting back to where you were before the interruption came. It is possible to make a living not through writing but through celebrity appearances. Some writers do it. But writing is utterly absorbing for me, and I resent anything that pulls me away from it.
You have said that The Shipping News -- a book about a man "large, white, stumbling along, going nowhere" who ultimately finds love and purpose -- was an exercise in "writing a book with a happy ending." A stunning majority of your characters tend to trip from one bad spot to another, ultimately meeting with untimely, accidental, and pitiful ends. In light of what you said, does the happy ending of The Shipping News ring hollow to you, or seem somehow less authentic than your others?
Of course not. In the first place the happy ending is ironic. It is not a happy ending; it only seems so. The happy ending in this particular case, written before the rest of the book, is the absence of pain. That's one hell of a happiness, isn't it? The entire book is set up to make a lack of misery seem like blinding happiness. At the same time, that is what most of us settle for in life -- a situation that may not be ecstatically glorious and joyful but is nonetheless not painful. That definition of happiness is what drives the book. I had a good time writing it because so many people told me my first novel, Postcards, was dark. I said, "You like a happy ending, do you? Well, I'll just give you a happy ending." Life is that way for most of us. I tend to look at the long span of a life, not just episodes, which is one of the reasons I do not attempt the interior novel. I like long pieces of people's lives. When you measure one person's life, say, against the teeming millions and billions that are on earth today, it shrinks in magnitude, quite stunningly. I always place my characters against the idea of mass, whether landscape or a crushing social situation or powerful circumstances.
Imagination plays an ambivalent role in the lives of your characters. For many of the poverty-struck, imagination is what allows them to get by, get through, even get out. Yet rarely do these characters meet with any kind of success. Is imagination only good, then, for transition rather than transformation?
I did a little essay for the Hungry Mind Review a couple of years ago on imagination, and I still feel the same way I did then: imagination is the human mind's central life strategy. It is how we anticipate danger, pleasure, threat. The imagination is how our expectations are raised and formulated; it excites and ennobles our purpose in life. The imagination blocks out hunger, bodily harm, bad luck, injury, loneliness, insult, the condition of the marooned person or the orphan, grief and disappointment, restlessness, desperation, imprisonment, and approaching death. And from the imagination spring the ideas, the actions, and the beliefs that we hold.
For many people -- for me, certainly -- the life of the mind, the realm of the imagination, is a more brilliant and compelling one than the world we live in. So this question -- "Is imagination only good, then, for transition rather than transformation" -- doesn't even begin to get in on the same train with what I feel imagination does. It is everything. Imagination is the central pivot of human life. It's complex.
Other characters of yours, such as the city folk in some of the stories in Heart Songs, use their notions of country life as blinders to the realities of their rural neighbors, thereby settling in to a comfortable ignorance. Where imagination seems kinetic among your poor characters, it seems static among the economically privileged. What do you see as the relationship between imagination and economic status?
People who are poor or who are in "socially disadvantaged" situations are forced by circumstance to use their imagination more vigorously than people in more comfortable positions. I can't remember who said it, but I agree that "our poets are the children of the poor." If you have nothing and no place in the world, the imagination is an engine of incredible power, both to lift you out of where you are and to impel you into another reality.
Accordion Crimes is charged with violence. Was there a reason, other than the plain reality of it, that you chose to make violence such a presence?
I was writing about the United States, and I was writing about immigrants; violence is a fact of life in our country and in immigrant lives. None of the violent episodes in that book were invented -- they were all real things that happened to real people in the past found in pioneer accounts, travel diaries, dull labor statistics, all over the place. Obviously I didn't slavishly copy violent experiences down but I did use the kernels of real experience to create fictional episodes.
That violence also gave the story a kind of pell-mell, rushing-onward motion. It gave the book a tumbling sensation, in terms of time passing. The situation of the immigrant in a new culture is savage and dangerous, full of violence to this day.
You write very convincingly (and almost exclusively) from the point of view of men. Why?
No, not almost exclusively, though I rarely put female characters in the up-front place in a story or novel. That is a reflection of the real world, like it or not. And it's because I grew up with only sisters. I always wanted a brother and I liked the things that men did; when I was growing up, women didn't go skiing, or hiking, or have adventurous canoe trips, or any of that sort of thing. I felt the lack of a brother whom I imagined could introduce me to the vigorous outdoor activities that my sisters were not particularly interested in. If you live in a woman's world and that's all there is, the other side of the equation looks pretty interesting. For me the invented male character perhaps puts the brother I didn't have into a kind of reality.
I find male characters interesting. Because much of my writing is set in an earlier period, they do the things that women could not appropriately do. So it's not that I'm particularly hipped on men, or anything of that sort, it's just that they're more interesting for me to explore. And if you write you might as well have fun doing it. I can write about women, but prefer to work them into more shadowy parts of the story, to carry a different weight.
Your prose is so richly descriptive that it is often downright poetic. What writers or types of writing do you look to for influence?
I don't look to other writers for influence at all. I read for pleasure 98 percent of the time, unless I'm reviewing something. But I certainly take note of other writers' technical virtuosity, style, and daring literary risks. The list of writers whose work I admire is very long and in constant flux -- too long to set out here.
You are the guest editor of The Best American Short Stories 1997. Has that experience made you feel able to make any authoritative claims about the current state of contemporary fiction? Do you tend to read much contemporary fiction?
I read 130 stories for Best American Short Stories, winnowed by Katrina Kenison from more than a thousand. But I was also one of the three judges a few years back for the P.E.N. - Hemingway and read more than a hundred contemporary novels and short stories that year. And I'm currently one of three readers for a major literary award; roughly 300 books are involved. For several years, too, I was on the selection committee for the Ucross Foundation residency, and saw about 300 writing samples a year. So I would say I tend to read a good deal of contemporary fiction, probably more than most writers.
I do feel that I have a fair idea of what we are writing about. We're still in the grip of the interior novel -- the first-person remembrance of a childhood in a difficult or coming-of-age situation -- and the family novel. It will probably be many years before we're done with them.
What are you working on now?
A collection of short stories set in Wyoming. I find working on them intensely pleasurable -- a break in the set of mind for a novel, which is a long, hard piece of work. At least you can see the end of a short story in a fairly short period; a month or six weeks for each one. There's a pleasing rhythm in the writing of short stories, and the challenge is greater; I find them harder than novels to write, not only because of the conciseness and the fact that every single word, every piece of punctuation, has to drive the story forward, but also because writing stories with both depth and surface is a considerable challenge.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.