Annie Proulx spoke to New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, at the Bell Lightbox on Sunday, June 12, as part of the Luminato Festival. Talk turned to environmentalism, her characters, including the famous gay ranchers of Brokeback Mountain, and her beloved typewriter.
The first hint from Annie Proulx of her Luddite leanings came early on, when discussing how she learned to write. The answer for her was unequivocally reading. On paper. Proulx also writes in longhand on paper, and transfers it to the computer later. She later said that writing on the computer encourages clichés.
Proulx wrote three books with the subtitle “Wyoming Stories”: Close Range, Fine Just the Way it Is, and of course Brokeback Mountain. Treisman mentioned that it’s hard to remember that Proulx was brought up in the East, given how much she’d written about the West, including her memoir Bird Cloud, which is largely set in a house Proulx had built. The house is now up for sale, and Proulx said it was at least partly because of her concern about climate change, something many Wyomingites don’t share with her. “Everybody senses that vast changes are occurring,” Proulx says. “So the continued extraction of natural resources in Wyoming and the obdurate refusal to look at various realities, just ended something for me; a kind of a long love affair, and my mind went somewhere else.”
For Proulx, “where things are going awry” is in nature. She’s now 15 months in to writing a novel about the history of deforestation worldwide. Like much of her fiction, this novel is based very much in Proulx’s research, which includes history and experience, like her trip last year to New Zealand’s forests.
When Treisman asked if most of her fiction came from real-life topics, Proulx said, “One of the questions that you’re asking is very tricky because its where do stories come from? And of course they can come from anywhere, they can come from a road sign, or somebody’s crazed eyebrows, or a bill, or… a photographer,” she finished the sentence laughing as a photographer crouched in front of the stage, lens aimed at her. “Stories come from anywhere and you don’t know, it can be a very tiny thing that engenders a complicated story that takes to months and months and months or years to write.”
Proulx had two very experiences when her novels were turned into movies. “[“The Shipping News” movie] had nothing to do with me, I did not go to the set, I didn’t beleaguer the actors or anything. It was another medium, it was something else; give me the money, goodbye,” she said. “But “Brokeback Mountain” was entirely different. I did not want a movie made of it, I was in mortal terror that it would turn into something ghastly, and there was a very, very big chance that it could’ve. I thank Ang Lee from the bottom of my heart that that did not happen, and they had good actors and they didn’t mess with the story, and they kept the dialogue, although they wanted to turn it into television speak, saying nobody will understand this, but people did.”
Even so, Treisman pointed out that Proulx has often said that she wished she’d never written the story at all, thanks to the volume of mail she got for years with “happy ending” rewrites of the novel, ” some of them very, very long, 60 to 70 pages of other lives, and children getting together and so forth, so for that reason I was not happy about it.” She also said that she was never paid the remaining half of her fee by the film company.
“Movie studios are awfully good about figuring this stuff out; they figured out the amount they can stiff you is the amount that the lawyers would charge to take it to court, so you’re better off not messing with them,” Proulx said. “And that worked.” To cap it off, there was also a costly plagiarism lawsuit launched against her by a woman who claimed to have already written the story. Proulx (and the New Yorker, which Treisman said was also named in the suit) was exhonerated, but she still says, emphatically, “I wish I’d never written that!”
Proulx is a lover of the out-of-date; at one point, she asked the audience, “Where is our Dostoevsky?” as she maligned contemporary novels. She boasts about her collection of dictionaries, prince among the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (also available online). By the end of the night, the audience was chatting with her about where to find a typewriter ribbon.
It’s denigrating to say that Proulx is “from a different time” without qualification; her apparent disconnect with computer technology, and dismissal of the “star system” of publishing that she believes “deprives us of some wonderful writing” in favour of ensuring bestsellers from sure-thing authors, allow her to spend years deep in research and to read widely. This talk proved that her broad knowledge and impressive vocabulary were put to good use, both in her books and in conversation.
She even brought out a word of the day for Treisman and the audience, with a laugh barely held back; “atrabilious: someone who is contentious and given to lying and exaggeration. A writer no doubt.”
Kasia Mychajlowycz is a journalist; find her online portfolio and blog at Archive Kasia.