Sue Wilson talks to American
author E. Annie Proulx, whose first
a two novels have brought her . sudden success at the age of 58.
It‘s been one hell of a year for E. Annie Proulx. As recently as this spring. says the 58-year-old Vermont-
; based writer. she was just ‘holed up in my little house
' scribbling away". Then. in May. she became the first
woman to win the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award 3 for her debut novel l’nsteitrds. published the previous
year. oi which the New Ym‘k Times declared that ‘she has come close to writing the “Great American Novel” at her first attempt‘. Her second. The Shipping News. appeared shortly after that. won the
E. Annie Proulx: ‘I’m still reeling.’ the literary magazines to which she sold her meagre output of short stories. The survivor of three unhappy tnarriages. she brought up three sons single-handed. writing magazine articles to pay the bills. ‘too poor' to write fiction other than in ‘snatched moments‘. Then. in I989. Scribners suggested publishing a collection of her work. included a novel in the deal. and she hasn't looked back since. ‘I hadn‘t a clue that I could write a novel until my editor told rue. you've
struggling family farm and ﬂees. across the country and across 40 years. his wanderings serving to trace the rural dispossession and dissolution taking place in post-war America. It’s a bleak book. but extraordinarily dynamic in the pungent. demotic concentration of its language. its vivid. immediate rendering of character and place. The same is true of The Shipping News. the story of a lonely. timid. overweight loser named Quoyle. battered into bewildered submission by his miserable childhood. his life in small-town upstate New York and his disastrous marriage. Eventually he. too. escapes. decamping with his two daughters and his idiosyncratic aunt to Newfoundland. from whence his ancestors came. And in this furthest of far-ﬂung communities. dominated by the elements and the seasons of the sea. Quoer gradually, unexpectedly. movingly. leams that life can be good.
Once again. it's Proulx‘s wonderfully-honed language. conveying her detailed. in-depth sense of place. which gives the novel its rich ﬂavour and texture.
Having become a full-time novelist after so long spent struggling with poverty and the short-story form. Proulx has. she says. books ‘stacked up‘ in her head. which should delight both her publishers and her growing legion of fans. ‘l‘m half-way through
(‘hii'ugu 'l‘ri/nine lleaitland Prize for ﬁction. was awarded the Irish Times International Fiction Prize earlier this month and. as we went to press. was among the nominees for America's National Book Award. announced on November 17. ‘l‘m still
reeling.‘ she says.
Prior to this sudden torrent of acclaim. Proulx's name (pronounced ‘Prue‘) was known only through
a very nosy person.‘
got to. it‘s in your contract.‘ she says. ‘lt was an immense relief. because in the short story i didn't have room to turn around. but in the novel I could just unfold. expand. l was able to exercise my curiosity. of which I guess I have a double dose — l‘m
l’nsteunls recounts the bitter odyssey of a man who murders his girlfriend. bur‘ies the body on his
the next novel now. and l have another one completely in my head behind it. the research
material all set up on the shelf. and then i have another one behind that — the advantage of having made a late start is that I do have the stories there: now all I need is the time to write them down.‘
The Shipping News is published by Fourth Estate at
The name Robert Olen Butler may not : leap to mind as a leading light of contemporary American literature, but
having been awarded this year’s
; Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, he should be
L___..-__.__. . -- 74 The List l9 November—2 December I993
on the receiving end of a good deal more exposure from here on in. The winning book is A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, a collection of short stories narrated by characters drawn from the South Vietnamese community who resettled in louisiana after the Vietnam war.
Butler’s ability to employ Vietnamese voices so convincingly derives from his stint as a translator with the US Army during the war. ‘The army sent me to language school, sol was fluent on arrival,’ he explains. ‘I had opportunities for contact with an extraordinary range of people, both in the countryside and in the city — I made lots of friends, from street people to high-ranking officials.’ Vietnam itself, he says, was ‘a
liobert Olen Butler: ‘Vietnam shaped me as a fiction writer - as a sensualist.
wonderful people in their sense of ‘ myth, folklore and dreams. But I’m
less interested in the Vietnamese and their specific culture than in the
, human condition generally, the 5 common humanity we all share.’
But something is missing. Or, rather, something is present in the stories that might prefer to hide itself: Butler’s own perspective as an ex-llS
3 Army intelligence officer, still with
‘ apparent sympathies towards
. America’s role in the war. According to ' the publicity, A Good Scent powerfully
evokes ‘the unspoken legacy of the Vietnam war — the ordeal of the
. Vietnamese people’. But it’s Butler’s book, and it tells the story only of one,
transplanted, group of Vietnamese.
; There is a deafening silence on the issue of those who remained in
not an intellectual.’
ravishineg sensual experience, even during the war — senses are
heightened then anyway. It shaped me
as a fiction writer - as a sensualist, not an intellectual.’ It was when he moved to Louisiana to teach creative writing that Butler first encountered the Vietnamese community there. ‘They interested me because theirs is
Vietnam, and those who fought the Americans. ‘The book doesn’t assess the
, political rights or wrongs of the war,’
Butler argues. ‘Those implications are
, something others will have to draw out ‘ - I write with no conscious political
intent.’ He says his view of the war is
' most apparent in the title story, where
a degree of reconciliation takes place
. between two figures who represent
a story that hasn’t been told. They’re a i llorth and South Vietnam. Meanwhile
America’s role - described in another story as a ‘iust cause’ - is delicately sidestepped. Also, while Vietnamese- American readers are, apparently, thrilled with the book, it does raise the question of why they aren’t telling their own stories. “They’ve been distracted, I think, by more immediate concerns,’ Butler says. ‘And maybe they haven’t mastered the language completely yet. Also, their literary tradition is more that of the epic poem. But there are some novels coming from Vietnamese writers now.’ Butler’s writing is highly compelling, mixing Vietnamese sensibilities with llew Orleans Voodoo, spirituality with the crassest commercialism, ancient tradition with prime-time TV, so that you never quite know where he’s heading with a theme or sequence of events. But all this beautiful prose addresses topics which, like it or not, are politically loaded. And his perspective, references to common humanity notwithstanding, never really stretches beyond God Bless America, giving rise to the sense that Butler is not telling - cannot tell? - the whole story. (Cathy Boylan) A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain is published by Minerva at £5.99.
ON FOLLOWING PAGES: KATHY LETTE O HUMOUR BOUND-UP 0 PET SHOP BOYS