Annie Proulx

(1489 words)
  • Aliki Varvogli (University of Dundee)

E. Annie Proulx (the E. stands for Edna, and Proulx rhymes with true) was born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1935, the eldest of five daughters. Her father was French Canadian and her mother American, and the family lived in New England and North Carolina. Proulx's father started out as a bobbin boy in a textile mill, and worked his way up to become vice-president of the company. His work commitments meant that the family had to move frequently, but even so he was often absent from home, absorbed in his work. “I suspect my intense and single-minded work habits stem from his example”, says Proulx. Her mother was a keen story-teller, an amateur naturalist and a painter, and Proulx attributes her attention to detail and her painstaking descriptions of surfaces and textures to her mother's painterly eye. She says that her mother taught her to see everything, “from the wale of the corduroy to the broken button to the loose thread to the disheveled mustache to the clouded eye”. Proulx also finds that she inherited a love of story-telling from her mother: “There is a strong tradition of oral storytelling in my mother's family and, as a child, I heard thousands of tales and adventures made out of nothing more substantial than the sight of a man digging clams, an ant moving a straw, an empty shoe”. The experience of growing up surrounded by four sisters left Proulx slightly frustrated, because it did not offer her the opportunity to participate in activities more commonly associated with men and this frustration, according to the author, may explain why the main characters in her fiction are always male:

I always wanted a brother and I liked the things that men did; when I was growing up, women didn't go skiing, or hiking, or have adventurous canoe trips, or any of that sort of thing. I felt the lack of a brother whom [sic] I imagined could introduce me to the vigorous outdoor activities that my sisters were not particularly interested in. If you live in a woman's world and that's all there is, the other side of the equation looks pretty interesting. For me the invented male character perhaps put the brother I didn't have into a kind of reality.

Proulx was a late arrival on the literary scene. Her first book of fiction was published when she was 53, but the years that led up to its publication were formative ones in many ways. She studied history at the University of Vermont, and then completed a Master of Art's degree at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University). She stayed at the same institution for a doctoral degree, but after completing her coursework requirements she decided not to finish her dissertation. By that time she already had three sons that she needed to provide for, and this was probably the main reason why she could not pursue her studies. Proulx acknowledges that her academic background has contributed to the painstaking research that accompanies her fictional writing: “It became second nature to me to explore how and where things were done”, she explains, and what is reflected in her writing is the result of “serious academic hours in libraries and archives and an inborn curiosity about life”. Proulx's books always open with a page of acknowledgements which reveal the type and scope of her research; in addition to allowing the author to express her gratitude to those who helped her, these pages also invite the reader to question the relationship between fact and fiction in Proulx's writing. At the same time, they are also an indication of the lengths to which the author has gone in order to avoid the one piece of advice habitually given to aspiring writers: “write about what you know”. Proulx finds this “a constipated, navel-picking approach to the world that does not encourage growth of the imagination”.

Having abandoned her studies in the mid-1970s, Proulx moved to Canaan on the US-Canada border, and the question of how to make a living while staying in a remote rural area seemed to be answered by writing. She wrote journalism and published a series of how-to manuals on cooking, gardening and wine-making. Even though this work was undertaken mainly as a means of financial support, it also reflected the author's interest in country life and self-sufficiency: “What interested me at this time was the back-to-the-land movement – communes, gardening, architecture, the difficulty of maintaining a long, dirt-road driveway. Not only could I solve some of these problems in real life and observe what people were doing to make things work in rural situations, I could write about them and make some money”, she says. After leaving Canaan, she spent many years in Vermont, where she continued to explore the possibilities for self-sufficiency by building her own house. More recently, she has moved to Wyoming, which provided inspiration for her latest collection of stories, Close Range (2000). She consistently chooses to live away from big urban centres, in places where she can pursue her outdoor interests which include skiing, canoeing, fly-fishing, hiking and bird-hunting. Her chosen lifestyle seems untypical of a female American writer at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and her fiction is equally hard to categorise in terms of both gender and subject matter. This idea will be further explored in the entries dealing with each of Proulx's works of fiction.

Proulx's first book of stories, Heart Songs, was published in 1988, when the author was 53 years old. The stories had been written over a number of years, and some had been published in magazines, but on the whole until then Proulx was mainly a writer of non-fictional works. Heart Songs was well received by critics and the reading public alike, so the idea was put to her by her publishers that she should follow the book up with a novel. Even though she had earlier told her publishers that she “had not a clue” about writing a novel, she gave the matter some thought for the first time: “I sat down, and within a half-hour, the whole of Postcards was in my head”, she says. Needless to say, that magical half-hour during which the novel was conceived was the culmination of years of experience and, as we have seen, of a long and varied apprenticeship in writing and research. The novel was published in 1992, and it earned Proulx the P.E.N.-Faulkner Award for Fiction, making her the first female recipient of this prestigious distinction.

So it was that at the age of 57 the author of The Fine Art of Salad Gardening (1983) and The Complete Dairy Foods Cookbook (1982) found herself a celebrated literary writer, and the experience turned out to be a mixed blessing in some respects. Proulx realised that she was “desperate to write”: “After 19 years of writing tedious non-fiction, all these stories were just bottled up inside me”, she told an interviewer. At the same time, though, Proulx realised that the trappings of literary fame left her with little time to write. Invitations to book signings, promotional tours and literary festivals were at first hard to refuse, but the author eventually decided to scale down these activities. She is also loath to talk about her personal life, and these facts have combined to create an image of a semi-reclusive author which is not entirely accurate. Proulx may not court publicity, but she does not go out of her way to avoid it either; above all, she says, it is her desire to write that comes first.

An award-winning first novel creates expectations on the part of critics and readers, and this translates into a certain amount of anxiety for the author. Proulx need not have feared the pressure. Her second novel, The Shipping News, was published to almost unanimous praise in 1993, and by the end of 1994 it had won the National Book Award for Fiction, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it established Proulx as a major figure in contemporary American fiction. Three years later, John Sutherland wrote in The New Republic that it was a shame Proulx had won all those awards for The Shipping News, because she deserved to win them again for her latest novel, Accordion Crimes (1996). Around the time of the publication of Accordion Crimes, Proulx left her Vermont residence and moved to Wyoming, which provided inspiration for her story collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories (2000). In the preface to the collection, she thanked her publishers for allowing her to return to the story form, which she finds difficult but rewarding, and in recent interviews she has said that she has ideas and plans for many more novels. She continues to live in Wyoming, getting inspiration from the harsh weather and rough terrain around her, and her personal website contains a number of essays in which she reflects on the experience of rural living.

Varvogli, Aliki. "Annie Proulx". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 March 2002
[, accessed 28 September 2016.]

Articles on Proulx's works

  1. Accordion Crimes
  2. Close Range: Wyoming Stories
  3. Heart Songs and Other Stories
  4. Postcards
  5. That Old Ace in the Hole
  6. The Shipping News