The Life of an Author in Demand

1994 Pulitzer winner E. Annie Proulx discusses the popularity of her fiction and changes in her quiet writer's existence

IN April, E. Annie Proulx (the ``E'' stands for Edna, which she doesn't like) had just returned home to Vershire, Vt., from a trip to New York or Washington - she doesn't remember which.

She was standing in the kitchen, fixing herself a cup of coffee, when the telephone rang. It was the book editor of a large metropolitan newspaper telling her she had won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Fiction for her second novel, ``The Shipping News.''

``It was hours before I got that cup of coffee,'' Ms. Proulx says, recalling how the phone rang constantly for the next three days. ``I was stupefied. A lot of prizes have come my way this year, but this one was so remote to me, so unlikely, I didn't even think about it.''

``It left me gasping,'' she admits.

In the year since the ``The Shipping News'' was published, Proulx (rhymes with ``true'') has had precious little time to enjoy a cup of coffee in her kitchen, much less to write. In addition to the Pulitzer, ``The Shipping News'' won the 1993 National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award, among others.

The book, which recently came out in paperback, has reached No. 1 on the Publishers Weekly trade paperback bestseller list. Proulx, meanwhile, has been touring the country, reading from and autographing her books and meeting the press.

``It has changed my life immensely,'' she says, sitting on a park bench in Boston, dressed in a T-shirt and no-nonsense skirt - good traveling pieces. Her short, shaggy dark hair also bespeaks a no-time-for-fuss lifestyle. ``It's not so much that I cherish solitude, as that I need a sustained quietness to write. But you take it in stride, you know it comes to an end one of these days.''

``But it will stop. I'm not doing it any more, and I'm going back to work,'' she adds tersely.

The life of a ``writer in demand'' has taken this author by surprise, much the same way that Proulx has taken the book world by surprise. While her freelance articles have been appearing in magazines such as Esquire, New England Monthly, Yankee, and Gray's Sporting Journal since 1975, her first collection of short stories, ``Heart Songs and Other Stories,'' was published only six years ago, in 1988.

``I've known that I could write for a very long time,'' says Proulx, who was born in 1935, the oldest of five girls. ``What was odd is that I'd only thought of myself as a short-story writer, not a novelist at all.'' Part of the contract with her publisher, however, called for an unwritten work called simply, ``novel.''

``The novel requirement was thrown in there almost as an aside,'' Proulx says. ``But after the short stories were published and did quite well, my editor called me and said, `How about writing that novel now?' ''

Feeling skeptical, Proulx nevertheless sat down and in an afternoon laid out the idea for ``Postcards,'' a 1992 book about the turmoil of a Vermont farming family, which went on to win the 1993 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Proulx is the first woman to win the coveted prize, which was established in 1980.

The author adamantly dismisses any suggestion that her gratification over winning the PEN/Faulkner Award was related to the fact that it was finally being awarded to a woman. ``I didn't win the award. The book won the award,'' she insists. ``The book doesn't have any sex.''

She is equally unequivocal about the often-lavish praise given to ``Postcards,'' ``The Shipping News,'' and her skills as a writer. One reviewer says, ``E. Annie Proulx's `The Shipping News' is, doubt not, a wildly comic, heart-thumping romance.... Here is a novel that reinvents the tale and gives us a hero for our times.'' Another reviewer gushes, ``Proulx has George Eliot's gift of loving observation - her vision is wise and generous.''

``I don't pay much attention to reviews,'' Proulx says. ``I think it's dangerous if they're good and it can be daunting if they're bad. I think there's a real danger that writers will begin to think they're hot stuff - maybe better than they really are.''

``What you have to do,'' she adds, ``is concentrate on getting the story right, getting the writing to work.''

For this author who writes with pencil and pad in the morning (``because I'm so slow'') and types what she's written into a computer in the afternoon, getting the story right is everything. Proulx admits that she loves research, loves the ``library stack part'' of writing, and is perhaps a thwarted academic. She also travels everywhere her characters go.

``I'm not trying to live the character's life. I'm trying to get the landscape and the place in which the action occurs correct in terms of geology, flora, fauna, and weather climate - all that sort of thing,'' she says. ``It's just another thing you do.''

While gathering research for ``The Shipping News,'' Proulx went to Newfoundland eight or nine times, ``because the place was essential to the story.'' ``The Shipping News'' is the story of Quoyle, a failure in most things, a third-rate newspaperman. He marries Petal Bear only to have her cruelly reject him and then die in a car crash.

His aunt, a yacht upholsterer, persuades the grieving Quoyle and his two young daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, to come with her to Newfoundland, ``a new place, new people, new sights. A clean slate.''

In Killick-Claw, Quoyle joins the staff of The Gammy Bird, where he covers shipping news (which he knows nothing about) and car crashes (which turn his stomach). Slowly, tentatively, he comes to terms with his sordid family history; begins to appreciate a difficult, strange, and wonderful way of life; makes friendships unlike any he has ever had before; and falls in love - the kind of love that ``sometimes occurs without pain or misery.''

``There is a particular kind of personality and social situation I'm attracted to,'' Proulx says, ``and that is the individual, or group, or region, or place, or time that's caught in change, that's caught in flux, that balances on some kind of edge that's either disintegrating or coming together or both.''

Proulx, who between book tours has started work on a third novel, ``Accordion Crimes,'' about music and ethnicity, rankles at some reviewers' criticism that her characters verge on being superficial. ``All characters in novels are cartoons of a sort.... There's no such thing as getting a complete and full life,'' she says. ``The characters [in `The Shipping News'] did exactly what they had to do within that story.''

``Once the book is finished, once the manuscript is done, it is no longer the author's,'' she continues. ``How the reader reads it and what the reader sees in it really is another part of the book's life that the author has no connection with.''

All that's left for the author to do is travel the country, read from and sign her books, talk to reporters, and wait patiently for the day when she can return home, have a cup of coffee in her own kitchen, and begin to write again.

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