Wyoming, the 10th largest state in the US, is where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains against a backdrop of copper sulphate blue skies. It has none of the neon glow generally associated with modern America. Wyoming is old-fashioned cowboy territory and, according to the 2007 census, it is the least populous state in the US. Award-winning author Annie Proulx has lived there since 1994. ‘Wyoming has been a wonderful writing place for me,’ Proulx tells Time Out. ‘It is ineffably beautiful in a subtle, hard way and I find Wyoming people of great interest, in part because they are still emotionally and ideologically aligned with the golden days of the old ranch west. They reject the modern world, choosing to take on dusty, tough jobs that echo the pioneer days.’
The reclusive Proulx doesn’t like giving interviews and has little time for photo shoots. She doesn’t enjoy going on book tours or giving lectures at universities. ‘Most don’t particularly care about your writing or what you’re trying to say,’ she explained in an interview in the late ’90s. ‘You’re there as a human object, one that has won a prize. It gives you a very odd, meat-rack kind of sensation.’ Perhaps the desire to keep the writer in the shadows results from the long career in journalism that preceded her fiction writing days. Proulx was 53 years old when she published her first book, short story collection Heartsongs And Other Stories. She won the Pulitzer and National Book Award in 1993 for her second novel, The Shipping News.
Her latest offering, Fine Just The Way It Is – another short story collection – shows Proulx doing what she does best: stripping the Wild West of its romance and exposing it to be a tragic world consisting of tired and broken characters. The stories, for the most part, are best described with a sentence from featured tale, ‘T**s-Up In A Ditch’: ‘The trip along this road was a roll call of grief.’
The sense of mortality and compulsion to tell a story that grip resident curmudgeon Ray Forkenbrock in ‘Family Man’, another story from Fine Just The Way It Is, are feelings with which Proulx is familiar. ‘What has changed for me is the river of time,’ she says of her writing. ‘I am now in my seventies and cannot expect to have many writing years ahead. So there is an urgency to choose subject matter carefully. With writing, nothing comes easily.’
‘Easy’ is not a word one associates with Proulx’s fiction. In her third novel, Accordion Crimes, Proulx covered small-town America from the 19th century to 1996. ‘I am interested in landscape, folkways and rural problems,’ she says. ‘There is an endless conflict of values, lifestyles, the way people make their livings and social networks. I find the lives of country people far more interesting than the lives of city folk who are less connected to landscape and the natural world.’
Since Accordion Crimes, Proulx has focused on short stories, mostly set in Wyoming. In 1997, she wrote a short story that she didn’t think anyone would publish. But when the New Yorker did, it ensured her place on the honour roll of 20th century American fiction. It was called ‘Brokeback Mountain’, and it won her acclaim, awards and eventually the attention of Hollywood. The story of Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar was adapted for the screen in 2005 and, starring two of Tinsletown’s hottest young stars, the late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, it went on to win a slew of prizes, including three Oscars.
With such a sparkling CV, it is difficult to believe that writing doesn’t come easy to Proulx, even if the writing itself is complex. But perhaps the difficulty lies in her precision. The writer, who graduated with distinction from the University of Vermont in 1969 and studied history for her masters degree in 1973, painstakingly conjures for the reader Wyoming’s rural, barely-literate folk. The great pains she takes to steep herself in the damaged characters brings her journalistic background to the fore. ‘For me, research is critical in the matter of setting and the world of the characters: climate, geography, weather, work categories,’ Proulx explains. ‘And then, too, I love doing research, discovering small, quirky events and tracing fates, knowing about rivers and storms.’
Proulx keeps her readers in mind because she knows she has to fight to maintain their attention. ‘We are in a period where images have certainly overtaken the printed word,’ she muses. ‘In the US, I think pop culture books and genres like murder mysteries, true crime and tell-all celebrity biographies have edged out serious literature.’ Determinedly set in her decision to be a recluse, what Proulx has to display of herself is already on the bookshelves. ‘A reader is more concerned with the storyline than any entrance into a writer’s mind,’ she says. ‘I hope.’
Fine Just The Way It Is is published by HarperCollins. Dhs53, available at Magrudy’s from May