E. Annie Proulx sits in comfort, miserable. She hates the luxury of the hotel and the sumptuousness of her chair. "This is the worst chair I've ever sat in," she says, getting up abruptly and pushing it forward, further distancing herself from the world. "I like chairs that are wooden, hard and preferably splintery."
A question is misinterpreted. She believes it's about her old anathema, confessional fiction, when her writing, infused with a febrile imagination, couldn't be farther from it. A storm front brews. A banging on a table, a slash of an answer pickled in disgust."I am not a polite person," Proulx says.
Perhaps, but charm laps at her toes.
Had a good year? Proulx has had a better one. She has won five awards, big ones, the sort you can't shake: the Pen/Faulkner for "Postcards," and the Pulitzer, National Book Award and Irish Times and Chicago Tribune Heartland prizes for "The Shipping News."
A marvelous, original tale, "The Shipping News" is the story of poor Quoyle, "a great damp loaf of a body. . . . Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic." A dump of mediocrity, "a third-rate newspaperman," Quoyle finds a sort of peace in his ancestral home of Newfoundland, surrounded by odd fellows Tert Card, Nutbeem and Jack Buggit.
These are her only novels, the first published two years ago when she was 56. "The Shipping News" is in its seventh paperback printing with 300,000 copies in circulation.
During the past year, Proulx (rhymes with "grew") has tended to her deserved success and the business of publishing - which she sees as diametrically opposed to writing - collecting plums, inking books, enduring interviews.
"Once a book is finished, it becomes the reader's book to use and interpret. I truly believe it's none of my business what happens between the reader and what's been written," says Proulx, attacking another cup of coffee. "I don't care about sharing the experience. It's finished for me. It's over."
The year is almost over, and Proulx is fraying. It is keeping her from writing, inviting misery. Any day now, she plans to return to Vershire, Vt., a speck of a town, home to 400, and her life might, possibly, get back to what it was, which was rising at 4 a.m., writing, reading and not wasting time with strangers.
"I desperately need a rest," she says.
It's easy to sympathize with Proulx's yearning, even the sporadic wrath. She is a complex person, the author of wondrously complex books. Yet over and over, she has been summed up in platitudes that inch toward myth: a pioneer type who can patch and forage and hunt and fish; a loner who had three brief marriages, mothered three now-grown sons and currently lives contentedly alone; a true Yankee, often described as a woman devoid of vanity or worldly appetites; one tough biscuit, towering and recalcitrant, the Janet Reno of current fiction.
And then Proulx walks into a room, no Amazon, just an inch or two above average height, sporting Italian mules and a fuchsia dress. True, the dark hair is ravaged and appears self-cut, but the smile is sealed in plum lipstick, the nails in pale polish. A lover of under-peopled places and cold weather, she is hardly undone by a mecca smothered in heat.
"I no longer care to live in a city, though I find them very handy," she says. "But I've lived in New York, Tokyo and Montreal, which are not small places."
For someone who professes not to be polite, she has conducted countless interviews, many in her home, allowing nibby inquisitors into the house she largely built herself, now up for sale because it is "tall and small and overrun with books."
Proulx is an omnivore of books, all forms, all ages, all origins. She's currently reading an Icelandic author from the '40s. At a reading she celebrates "The Ashley Book of Knots," first published a half-century ago, illustrations from which open each chapter in "The Shipping News." She completed her doctoral studies at what was then Sir George Williams University in Montreal (now Concordia) in Renaissance economic history, the Canadian North and traditional China. "It was a small department," she shrugs.
Proulx has little interest in her past, doesn't believe anybody else should, either. "Write about what you don't know," she counsels at readings. What we don't know is about her. She offers little, bristling at inspection.
The E. is for Edna, disliked, long ago discarded. She grew up in Connecticut, the oldest of five sisters. "I'm a very visual person," she says. Her first word was "look." Her interest in the outdoors and gift for storytelling were acquired from her mother, an amateur watercolorist of landscapes. For half her life, Proulx has moved around Vermont, nestling in 13 different towns. She thinks about leaving now "because it's a very hard place to get in and out of."
Married early, she went to college late. Her first short story was published when she was in her early 20s, in Gourmet of all places. But to support herself and her sons, she wrote nonfiction articles on mice, cider (which took her to France and England), fishing and chili peppers (on to New Mexico), and penned "The Complete Dairy Foods Cookbook" and "Fences and Gates, Walkways, Walls and Drives." "I learned how to find things out," she says. It kept her poor, and from writing fiction.
"I didn't think of being a writer, of being anything. Young women in their early 20s back then didn't think," she scowls. "They just were."
She kept a sketchbook, like an artist, jotting down descriptions and characters. Proulx says: "I squeezed in short stories whenever I had the chance."
Later, she wanted to be a historian, then quit that. "I didn't really care for department politics," she says. Without planning, all the skills learned as historian and journalist poured into the river of her fiction. Proulx prefers to think of her novels as stories - that's how they come to her, the plot full and fleshed-out before she even puts pen to page. "The story is everything," she says. "Whatever the story demands, I'm pleased to supply."
"The Shipping News" came after "I fell madly in love with the names in Newfoundland on the map," then went to visit "and fell in love with the place." That visit was followed by six or seven more trips lasting a month or more. She also read 50 or 60 histories and studies of the place, plus old phone books where she discovered a cache of great names. The story was all there in her imagination before she sat down to write.
Proulx is now halfway through "Accordion Crimes." Scheduled for publication in the spring, it is about immigrant groups living near the Canadian and Mexican borders. She's halfway through, and has already ventured to several states for research. After that, she has two more "stories" in her mind, stacked up over the runway, waiting to land.
Proulx is now asked for advice, from admirers who flock to her readings, anxious to copy her success.
"It's very useful to have lived for a couple of years," Proulx says. "One understands how human beings are, how the heart works, how jealousy and treachery are everywhere. One understands the contours of the life. It's much better to start writing later."
Young writers tend to co-opt their lives. Proulx will have none of it: "The need to look into one's own little life for writing seems retarded," she scoffs.
Soon, she will be back in Vershire, tending to the busted water heater, the ancient correspondence, abandoning the finished books for the unfinished one. For all her apparent displeasure at having to promote her writing, the award year coming to a close will now allow her to write fiction full time, a dream she never thought of living.
"Have all the awards changed your life?" a woman asks at a recent reading.
"What do you think?" asks Proulx, proffering a rare smile, incandescent and bemused.