lN BED, AT THE DINING ROOM TABLE,
tun out ICE in HIE lttlLE
She didn’t start writing fiction until she was in her 503, but her second novel, The Shipping News, won a Pulitzer Prize. Now ANNIE PROULX trumps that with That Old Ace in the Hole. Words: Miles Fielder
nnie I’roulx. silent ‘If. silent ‘X’. rhymes with ‘shoe‘. formerly Ii
Annie. Ii for lidna. didn't get arotmd to writing fiction ttntil she was
in her Slls. But with her first novel. l‘)‘)l ‘s l’osit'un/s. she became the first woman ever to win the coveted I’en/I‘aulkner l’ri/c. Two books of short stories. Henri Songs (1111/ Other Stories and ( 'lust' Range. llfvonnng Stories. and two tnore novels. Arron/inn (Times and The Shipping News. won awards too numerous to mention. ller best known book. the l’ulit/er l’ri/e-winning Shipping News. was successfully adapted for film.
Not bad going fora woman who spent the bulk of her working life as a freelance journalist. filing articles on. as she has said. ‘everything from weather and canoeing to mountain lions and mice‘. And when l’rottls wasn‘t writing about lions. she was raising a family.
I’roulx‘s stories are rooted in the great American landscape. Newfoundland. Wyoming and in her latest novel. 'I'hur ()/(l .'l('(’ in the Hole. the 'I‘exas and Oklahoma panhandles. The way I’roulx writes about these places. they‘re barren. harsh and beautiful. Their eccentric
inhabitants lead tottgh lives. I’roulx herself now lives on the wide range of
Wyoming. which. she says. clears her mind for writing work. l’roulx. a no messin~ hardworking woman. has said she doesn‘t like
taking time ottt of her work for talking abottt it. so lllt’ Us! cottnts itself
lucky for the following interview:
Where does a story start with you: people or place? Where did That Old Ace in the Hole spring from?
For me. story always starts with place. I ptit a good deal of time into studying the climate. geography. landscape forms. flora and fauna. weather. economic history and related subjects such as archeology. travel accounts. ethnic backgrotmd of inhabitants. 'I'hur ()/(/ .'l(’(’ in the [In/1’ came from driving across the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma many times over the years and wondering what the people who lived there were like. what worried them. how they saw themselves.
You talk about writing ‘landscape novels’. The landscapes you choose are sometimes beautiful but mostly harsh, not least the Texas panhandle of That Old Ace in the Hole. Why?
IN A MOTEL ROOM, ON PLANES'
Landscape novels are concerned with the physical attributes of a region. not jttst in a superficial ‘local colour' way. but as the motivating force behind the story itself. That is. once one grasps the climate. geography. history. weather. Ilora and fauna etc. etc of a region. the story more or less falls out of the information. (‘enain things happen in certain places. I have always lived in rttral surroundings and I am attracted to rural places. I write about rttral places. and many of these are harsh and tough places.
How important is visiting a landscape in the preparation of your stories? What kind of research, for example, did you undertake for That Old Ace in the Hole?
Visiting the place is important to me. I do on the ground research for some time before I start to write. For That Old/Irv in the Hole I rented a small hottse on a panhandle ranch for six months and tnade many trips to the region as well over a two year period.
Many of the characters in your stories are sad/pathetic/unlucky - I’m thinking of Bob Dollar in That Old Ace in the Hole, Quoyle in The Shipping News, the cowboys who fell in love on Brokeback Mountain - but they ﬁnd some measure of happiness in odd ways. Is this fair comment? And what is it that’s attractive to you about these characters?
‘Sad/pathetic/unlucky" is an odd way to describe these characters. I try and draw them as human beings with the fears and concerns and flaws of character that we all have. and with whom readers can connect. These characters seem to me to have the strength and capacity to carry a story. So I write about them.
Although many of your stories are set in the present, the past seems very much in evidence, both in the stories themselves and the way you tell them. True?
Yes. to be sure. the past supports the present in my stories. I have found this to be a basic condition of human life.
You’ve said that you don’t attempt to eulogise the past and places in your writing. What, then, is your intent? Reportage? Portraiture? Does your college background in history, your past as a journalist or influence from your mother the painter come into play here? I’m asking because you’ve said you’re not an autobiographical writer, but does your past, your life in any way feed into or inspire your writing?
I do not consciously use my own life as subject matter for the fiction I write. bttt of course there are hundreds of minor observations that I. as a living human in this century. make. and thousands of actions that I commit that will. as a matter of course. appear in one form or another in the texts. I think story is important in a novel. bttt also think it important for the reader to extrapolate from his or her own experience in rounding otll bits. I
What are your writing habits? Do you work fast or slow? To what degree do you revise your manuscripts? And how does living in Wyoming work for you?
I don’t have any particular writing habits. I write middle of the night. morning. afternoon. in the truck. in bed. at the dining room table. in a motel room. on planes. I write rather slowly and revise a great deal. Living in Wyoming works very well for me. It is quiet. there is plenty of landscape (good sight-lines help the mind to function well). grand trails to walk (walking is an important part of writing). nobody bothers me.
You’ve said writers should work from their imagination, not what they know. Why?
I didn‘t say that. I said beginning writers shottld learn something about others lives. not just their own. should learn languages. try different jobs. see how other people do things. should study what they intend to write about rather than depending on interior and personal life as their subject matter. Imagination is tremendously important. but it needs to be anchored to something.
That Old Ace in the Hole is published by 4th Estate on Mon 6 Jan; Annie Proulx: Way Out West, 8801, Wed 8 Jan, 10.35pm.
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