Annie Proulx: ‘You’ve got to keep moving!’
For a quarter of a century, Annie Proulx had been swooping westward like a migratory bird, drifting from the sandstone cliffs of Wyoming to the Sandias of New Mexico to the redwoods of the Pacific Northwest. But last year she moved back to New England, where she was born and spent much of her early life. Not to settle into some golden age retirement, mind you. But to begin the next chapter — although she won’t say what that is.
“You get an idea for something and it doesn’t go away and it keeps returning in different guises. And you know that you’ve got to pay attention,” Proulx says. “I’ve got unformed things floating around,” she adds cryptically, her dark eyes daring me to ask more.
Since her debut on the American literary scene at the age of 56, Proulx, the Pulitzer-winner who broke new ground in her realist portrayals of 20th-century American life, has defied expectations. Born into a family of French-Canadian extraction and modest means, Proulx spent the first few decades of her adult life working a variety of jobs, from waitress to postal worker to nature journalist. She married three times and gave birth to four children, writing the occasional short story along the way.
In her fifties, she finally turned her hand to novel-writing. Postcards was published in 1992, The Shipping News a year later. Since then, there have been three more novels, several short-story collections — one of which includes “Brokeback Mountain” — and three books of non-fiction, the latest being Fen, Bog & Swamp, a discursive history of the wetlands.
Like any good New Englander, Proulx is famed for her dry humour, brusque demeanour and puritanical work ethic, a discipline that extends far beyond her prodigious literary output. Now 87, she lives alone, mows her own lawn and tends her own garden, which when we meet is flowering tomatoes and is soon to sprout some beans, as well as overseeing half a dozen renovation projects for her new home. How does she keep it all up?
“Keep moving. Keep thinking, whatever you’re doing,” she advises. “I think a lot of people give up and just slink into a sloth . . . But you’ve got to keep moving!”
It is a sunny New England day. A cool breeze ripples through the surrounding trees. I navigate my rental car across rural New Hampshire and on to a gravel road that leads to a large house with a smaller house behind it. We are meeting at Proulx’s home; she’s planning to pull together lunch for the two of us, using ingredients from her larder.
Seconds later, Proulx emerges from the big house, dressed in a black-and-aubergine sweatsuit, with black socks underneath brown hiking sandals. Yet it is those eyes that impress, peeking out beneath her silver cropped hair and from a pair of wire-framed glasses, sceptical and probing; the kind that might leave a mark when they bore into you.
I follow Proulx inside and through the mud room — painted a very un-New England shade of chartreuse green — past a narrow living room and into the kitchen. She turns off the piano music playing on the kitchen speaker and pours a generous pool of oil into a cast-iron pan, letting it warm before putting four pieces of strip steak on it.
Proulx, as I quickly learn, is a woman of fearsome opinions. She is disdainful of Vermont, the state where she used to live. Also, Harper Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird (“Out-of-the-box tripe”). And the television adaptation of her 2016 novel Barkskins. (“Disgusting. Very poor. Absolutely dreadful.”)
I decide to start on safe ground and ask what sparked her interest in the wetlands, the subject of her latest book. She had become interested in peat while walking with a climate scientist friend on the beach of Port Townsend, Washington. That interest, like many of her other obsessions, slowly ballooned.
“I wasn’t writing for publication. I was writing because I wanted to know,” she explains. Against the backdrop of forest fires on the West Coast and other evidence of climate change, writing a new novel seemed futile. “What was going on with the world — in terms of the natural world — just seemed so enormous and so compelling that my thoughts couldn’t get with the fiction. It seemed frivolous and silly.”
Proulx has distilled the history of the wetlands into a slim volume that is more appreciation of the much unappreciated wetlands — their murkiness, mysticism and stench — than diatribe on the climate crisis. Proulx hypothesises that the loss of natural wetlands is key to understanding so many of the current disasters that plague us (“runaway fires, viral pandemics, headaches, depression”) and that the “gulf of esoteric language” has created a disconnect between ordinary readers and the climate science.
It is this gap that Proulx tries to bridge, in a historical meditation that spans from 16th-century Britain to the so-called “bog bodies” of eerily preserved human remains discovered by peat cutters in the middle of the last century. “Bogs,” Proulx writes, “stir fear. They are powerfully different from every other landscape and when we first enter one we experience an inchoate feeling of standing in a weird transition zone that separates the living from the rotting.” Like her fiction, the prose is achingly taut and darkly comedic, with vividly drawn portraits of our beautiful, dangerous Earth and the feckless humans that inhabit it.
She opens the fridge and proffers a clump of richly purple beans in her fist, sticking them out so I can admire them. “These beans start out as a beautiful colour . . . But when you cook them they go green.” She gets them from a farm “on the far side of town . . . run by a single woman who has devoted her life to vegetarian delights”.
We migrate to a small oblong table, as Proulx lays out the meal she has prepared. Along with the steak, there are the once purple — now green — beans, along with a salad made of mango, coriander, cucumber and red onion. There is talk of salt and pepper, but these never materialise.
“There are half-sour pickles,” she declares, gesturing to a small bowl on the side of the table. “I consider life is not worth living without half-sour pickles.”
Annie Proulx’s home
New Hampshire, US
Mango, coriander, cucumber and red onion salad
Proulx ended up in New Hampshire after being forced to flee her last home in Washington because of an allergy to western red cedar, one of the state’s predominant plant species. “I’ve never lived here. I like to go places I haven’t spent time in.” Moving to Vermont, a state she had previously spent many years in, was out of the question. “I didn’t like what it became . . . It’s not the crusty old people who used to be there,” she explains.
One of the hardest parts of her move was the winnowing down of her beloved library, books that she had found in second-hand bookshops around the globe and which she was forced to part with because she could not afford the third moving truck it would have required. “I thought I could do without them. It was only when I got here and unpacked things and had a lot of empty shelves that I realised the enormity of what I had done. I was filled with book grief,” she says sadly. “I still find myself looking for a book I used to have and no longer have.”
Proulx’s obsession with books started as a child. “I always lived in a different world.” She adds: “[In our house] it was not against the law to read at the table while you were eating . . . All our books had spaghetti sauce dabbled on the pages.”
Her own books are marked by a dark, sly humour and sentences that slap on delivery. While other fiction writers find themselves inhabitants of a single universe, Proulx has shifted deftly from writing about the motley inhabitants of bleak Newfoundland (The Shipping News) to two closeted cowboys in Wyoming (“Brokeback Mountain”) with the familiarity of someone who grew up with these stories as her own. She has both a keen eye for detail and a masterful ear for dialect.
Across each work, the deliciously deadly landscape of the Americas features heavily. The lane “half-choked with snow”. The icebergs with cores of “beryls, blue gems”. The stony landscape of Wyoming “eroded by fantastic furniture, stale gnawed breadcrusts, tumbledbones, stacks of dirty folded blankets, bleached crab claws and dog teeth”.
As we dig into the meal, we bond over our shared French-Canadian roots, and the fact that her father and my grandfather were both named George Napoleon. She says that her father, who worked at the mill factories, first as a bobbin boy and later as a manager, always felt ostracised by his ancestry, especially by Proulx’s mother’s family, who had been in America for generations. It did not make for a very happy marriage, she believes, as evidenced by the art of her mother, an amateur painter.
“Some of the examples I had seen [of her work] when she was 18 or 19 were so free and colourful and large and open,” Proulx says. Over the course of the marriage, “the size of her paintings became smaller and smaller”.
Still, it was a happy, if modest, childhood. The idea of college seemed impractical to Proulx, given her family’s means. But “a wonderful high-school teacher, Elizabeth Ring” secretly applied on her behalf to Colby College in Maine. She attended for a year, dropped out, then returned to studying years later, once her children were older, obtaining her undergraduate degree around the age of 40. She enrolled in a history PhD programme, but never completed the degree.
I avoid the direct topic of Proulx’s three marriages — a live rail, I have learnt, in any Proulx interview — but note the tragic fates that happen to befall some of the brides in Proulx’s 1996 novel Accordion Crimes. The newly-wed “injured by a hurtling almond as she danced at her wedding supper”. The bride, who after one week of marriage, “died of a shrimp, which she inhaled by laughing”.
Proulx’s eyes dance mischievously. “Ah, yes. I had a lot of fun writing that book.”
She likens the process of writing to “embroidery or carpentry or sewing a garment”, piecing together “beginnings and endings and different parts that echo or match each other . . . To get it right takes time.”
Does she think she has changed much as a writer over the years?
There come the eyes, boring straight at me.
“No idea,” she says flatly. “I’ve never thought about it. What a strange idea. That’s an odd question.”
I posit all the ways it might be a perfectly normal question. But Proulx is still sceptical. “I don’t go back and read things.”
“You only go forwards . . .” I parrot back.
“Exactly,” Proulx replies, suddenly merry again. “Onwards!”
We return to the subject of Fen, Bog & Swamp. “It’s not a love story, that’s for sure. It’s hard stuff to read because the subject is not what we want it to be. And it’s hard to write about because it needs a whole new vocabulary. We’re in uncharted — literally uncharted — territory. We don’t know. We’ve never been there. The human group is fresh meat.”
Her main lament about the book is that she did not include a section on Benedict Arnold, the famed American revolutionary general whose name has become synonymous with treason in the US due to his defection to the British. Her high-school teacher — the same one who applied to college on her behalf — had always defended Arnold, arguing that he had not been given his proper due. Arnold’s failed march on Quebec had always loomed in the back of her mind but came to her too late for publication.
“They went through some of the most terrifying swamps and wetlands imaginable. They didn’t know they were going to be travelling in that kind of country.” She adds: “If Benedict Arnold had been successful and had taken Quebec, this would be a very different country.”
We have long finished eating and Proulx asks if I’d like to see the new chestnut trees she’s planted. “Inches tall. But I’m learning a lot.”
We migrate to the front yard, as Proulx shows off the saplings. “They were just kind of hurled into the ground wherever I could find a space and I wished them good luck . . . I have names for all of them . . . writer-friends who have died.” She turns to one particularly ragged one: “You don’t look good, but you’re going to feel better now that we’re getting some rain.”
After a tour of the rest of the property, she shows me back inside to the library — a cavernous former woodworking shop, which one of her sons helped convert into a proper workspace, with shelves and shelves of books where the machines and drills used to be. “I have a lot of empty shelves, which is heartening. All I need to do is get out to the bookstores.”
I had read that Proulx likes to collect historical photographs as inspiration for her characters — mugshots of escaped inmates, for instance. So I offer her one I dug up recently. It is a sombre, staged photo of my French-Canadian great-grandmother and her family. They are not escaped inmates, per se, but have the faces of people who might have just robbed a bank. Proulx is unexpectedly delighted.
“Good God,” she chuckles mirthfully. “That’s great. Look at the hands . . . That looks more like a paw than a hand. That’s a jolly photo. Thank you.”
We clean up in the kitchen. An extra piece of steak deemed too tough will be sent not to the trash but to a neighbour’s dog.
Does anything surprise her about getting older, I ask.
“Nothing is a surprise. It’s more a process of discovering new annoyances every day. But so far, no surprises except maybe being around this long . . . I thought I’d be crashed up in a car or a plane or fallen off a mountain years ago. But I’m still here.”
Her brief publicity work for Fen, Bog & Swamp is almost done — minus some dreaded book signings. “Sometimes you meet people you’d rather not ever see again. Old lovers. People you hated once.”
Must be fun, I say.
“Yeah,” she snorts, “just try it.”
Our lunch and tour concluded, Proulx walks me to the front door. She stretches her hand out across the doorway. “I hope our paths cross again one of these days. So long,” she says fondly — then retreats back inside, to the books and the work that await.
Courtney Weaver is the FT’s US business and politics correspondent
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