Annie Proulx's new book, Fine Just the Way It Is (Scribner), is the third collection in the Wyoming Stories, “the last,” Proulx says emphatically. And when Annie Proulx says it, you believe her.
She wants to write about something else, she says. “I like to keep moving... shake things up... try different things.” It's immediately clear that this is a woman with serious ideas, opinions and a view of the world, which, like her stories, is practical and often heartbreaking. Every story is careful, crystalline: “I was fourteen year old in nineteen and thirty-three and there wasn't a nickel in the world,” the old cowboy says in “Family Man.” There's the sad, sweet love story of Archie and Rose in “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” and a couple of stories set in hell “just for fun,” Proulx says.
Proulx says she starts writing with a story, a character or a phrase in her head. “Tits Up in a Ditch,” the title of the last story in the collection, is, Proulx explains, one of those expressions you don't hear in the east. “It means to be caught in an impossible, irreparable, inescapable situation; it seemed to fit in with the Iraq war.” It is about the war, but more about ordinary Wyoming people, the kind of people, Proulx says, “who have a sense of pride in sticking it out in a tough place, mastering difficulties.”
She's also no devotee of a happy ending: “Sometimes things do end badly. I'm not into joviality and dancing around the maypole.” But she laughs easily and out loud when I say that it seems hunting is more humane than ranching. “I like it!” she says without any further comment.
Born in Connecticut, Proulx's New England family roots go back to 1635. She lived for more than 30 years in Vermont, where she worked as a journalist, raised her children and in the early '80s published books on country living, books with titles like Plan and Make Your Own Fences and Gates, “to put meat and potatoes on the table.”
Fiction she calls '“an unconscious move.” It just happened, she says, although she thinks she might have been writing it in her head all along. She had more time, her youngest son had just left home, and it felt natural to her to “mess around with words.” What she likes is “the architecture of writing, the faint ideas in your head that become tangible on the page and then something gets off the page and walks around on its own legs.”
Heart Songs and Other Stories came out from Scribner in 1988, prescient stories of her future work, rural characters living hard in a bleak but beautiful landscape. Fellowships and grants followed and the novel Postcards (Scribner, 1992), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award. With her next novel, The Shipping News (Scribner, 1993), set in the harsh climate of Newfoundland, Proulx ruled the bestseller lists, saw a movie made and gathered prizes, both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.
As for fame and attention, Proulx says without rancor, “It's distracting and incompatible with the writing. You can't get anything done. Everyone is pulling at you. I think most writers are happiest left alone under the shady tree.”
In 1994, she moved to Wyoming, attracted again to geography and austerity, but of the move she says simply, “I went out there and found it very agreeable in its emptiness and places to walk. I had ancestors there with a fur expedition in 1825, so I felt some faint tie and I just stayed and stayed.” She wrote another novel, Accordion Crimes (Scribner, 1996) to mixed reviews, which followed the instrument around the country telling a story of immigration in America and with Close Range: Wyoming Stories in 1999, she mined the west like she had the east. That collection included “Brokeback Mountain,” the award-winning story that Ang Lee made into a movie nominated for eight Academy Awards. (It won three, including Best Director.)
But right now she's anxious to get back to finishing up “three or four big projects piled up on my desk,” one of them a contribution to a book about Wyoming's red desert. So much for Proulx sitting under that shady tree.