Writers & Company

From The Shipping News to Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx on the importance of place in her fiction

The bestselling American author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her Canadian connections and how geography and mood inform her writing.
Annie Proulx, the American author of books like The Shipping News and Barkskins, spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (Camille Trudeau-Rivest)
Listen to the full episode52:41

Over the course of her 50-year career, American writer Annie Proulx has won many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and now the Blue Metropolis Literary Grand Prix. Presented in Montreal in May 2019, the award honours Proulx for her lifetime achievements and wide-ranging body of work.

Proulx's breakout novel, The Shipping News, was an international success. Set in an outport fishing village in Newfoundland, it sold over 1 million copies when it was published in 1993. The book was made into a movie starring Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore and Judi Dench.

In the mid-1990s, Proulx published Close Range, a collection of stories set in Wyoming. It included Brokeback Mountain, a powerful, provocative piece that was made into an Oscar-winning movie directed by Ang Lee, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Proulx's most recent book, Barkskins, is an ambitious, epic novel, spanning three centuries and four continents. Following the paths of two woodcutters in the New World, the novel underlines Proulx's passionate concerns about deforestation, the environment and climate change.

Proulx was born in Connecticut in 1935. Her father was of French-Canadian ancestry, and in the early 1970s Proulx studied in Montreal — an experience that had a lasting impact on her life.

Proulx spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the 2019 Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal.

Shaped by Montreal

"I adored living in Montreal. I loved it. It was lively, it was rude, it was fresh. It was wonderful and the food is to die for. Every moment was filled with something of interest, from the weather to the fish in the market. It was a very happy time in my life.

"I would not have become a writer, and I would not have written the books that I did write, had I not gone to graduate school at Sir George Williams University. What I learned at that university set me on the course of my life. I would not have understood how to do the kind of research that was just right for me. I learned how to dig and understand things from the bottom up. It's been the delight of my life to have those skills.

"It opened my eyes to a part of history that wasn't at that time broadly considered. The kind of history that has nothing to do with politicians, famous persons or great events is the stuff that interests me. It was one of those turning points in life. It was a moment of enlightenment to start thinking that way. And I've never stopped."

Who is Proulx?

"I researched my father's family background due to curiosity: Who am I? Where did I come from? As somebody with a French name — living in a place that constantly pronounced it 'PROO-lux' or worse — I was curious. By digging around, and with the help of genealogists, I did find that there was a 'Jean Prou' who came to the New World in 1657 and was a servant to a more wealthy man.

"I took Jean Prou and transposed him into a character, René Sel, in Barkskins. He's an invented character but he's built on my imagining of my own ancestor who was a servant who disappeared for 20 years, nobody knew where he went, and he arrived back home. He probably was a voyageur for a while."

The beauty & harshness of Newfoundland

"I visited Newfoundland several years before I wrote The Shipping News. I went up there with a fishing companion, ostensibly to fish, but also to see these people and I liked them a lot. Getting off the ferry, I felt something very electric about the place. It's something like a breeze that sweeps in from nowhere. It was an exciting place to me.

"I went back many times and eventually ended up buying a house at the end of the Great North Peninsula, not far from L'Anse aux Meadows where the Viking remains are. I had that house for a number of years and would go up there every summer when I could. I got to know some extraordinary people.

"There's a harshness there and it's intense. It's not an easy place. It's not dulcet in any way, shape or form, but people manage to live, be happy there and appreciate its beauty. The depth of feeling for that place is very powerful. That attraction to place that I have, to how people relate to the place they come from, is the star I follow when I start to do research for a book."

The truth about cowboys

"I'm all about learning the place that the book's going to be set in. It was the same thing when I lived in Wyoming. I was intensely interested in the different areas of that state, its mountains, plains, animal life, migrations, all that sort of thing. It's all part of writing. It's all about history. You have to see everything you can.

"The West in general is homophobic and Wyoming spectacularly so. Over the years, I've had a lot of gay friends and I had some gay friends in Wyoming too. I knew perfectly well that the general American belief about cowboys — that they spent their lives looking for lost calves, strumming on the guitar and dancing and being out in the high lonesome and yodeling — was a crock.

"With Brokeback Mountain, I particularly wanted to write a story about gay cowboys because America believed there was no such thing. Cowboys were pure and represented American manhood in all its gorgeous simplicity — it was the 'right' way to be. I knew some mean cowboys, I knew some greasy ones, I knew some crooked ones and I knew some really great guys. But I didn't know any who were openly gay. Not one. I knew there were some who were gay but it wasn't openly."

Space and identity

"I think that where you live dictates who you are, what you do, who you marry, your work, what you eat, how you die, what happens to you afterwards. It's all place.

"I've become an aficionado on books about place — everything from sailing ships and trips, Chinese trade routes to village life in far flung spots, to Maori life in New Zealand. It's what I do and I do it with the greatest joy and pleasure."

Annie Proulx's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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