Happier to write than love

PROFILE: E Annie Proulx. She's waited 50 years to tell her stories and nothing's going to stop her now. By Ros Wynne-Jones
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The Independent Online
WHEN The Shipping News coasted unassailably to the centre of the literary stage in 1993, its author, E Annie Proulx, was virtually unknown. There were two questions every interview needed to answer. What did the "E" stand for? And, given that her first novel, Postcards, had been published in 1991 when she was 56, what had she been doing for the previous half century?

Four years and a string of literary awards later, we now know that the "E" stands for "unwanted Edna". We also know that she was unable to pursue her vocation as a novelist for so many years because she was too poor to write fiction, hustling at journalism instead, across a startling range of subjects: mountain lions, apples, weather, mice, canoeing, food, African beadwork, cider, lettuces.

But beyond these snippets of biography, Proulx remains elusive. A proudly self-sufficient woman, she lives shut away from those who would unpick her life, powering her way through the many novels that have been "stacked up" in her acute imagination during her wilderness years.

Last year, after a book tour across 20 cities to promote her third novel, Accordion Crimes, it seemed stardom was keeping Proulx from her life's work as surely as poverty once had. In her own eyes, she had become a performing monkey. "I think that writers are much more comfortable standing in the corner of the room watching other people," she says, "and not putting on the party hats and doing the dances themselves." She felt tired, used up, marketed to death. She went home to write, leaving would-be interviewers to understand her through her fiction.

Only occasionally does she offer a fleeting view of herself in person. Tomorrow, she is to make a rare public appearance in Britain, reading from her third and most recent novel, Accordion Crimes, which has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize to be judged on Wednesday.

EDNA ANNIE PROULX was born in Connecticut in 1935, the eldest of five daughters in a family of millworkers, inventors and artists. Her father was a French-Canadian who had dissembled into Yankee ways, jettisoning his ethnic identity if not his immigrant name. Her mother, an artist, was a born storyteller like her mother before her. Proulx thinks this is where she gets it from.

Although Proulx's family had been in the New World for several generations - her mother's family emigrated from County Mayo, Ireland, in 1635, her father's from France to Quebec in 1637 - the experience of being an outsider pervades her early novels and becomes the core theme of Accordion Crimes, an immigrant tableau. The saddest of the novel's interwoven tales is reserved for a French-Canadian orphan, Dolor Gagnon, whose plight is so acutely felt by the author, he could almost be her ancestor.

Meanwhile, the book's central character, a two-row button accordion, is buffeted like a pioneer across America - cursed, reviled and misunderstood.

Proulx went briefly to college in the Fifties before abandoning her degree course for an unhappy marriage. Two more marriages followed with little more success. "I had a talent for choosing the wrong people," she says. She was left with three sons to raise alone and a daughter, Muffy Clarkson, with whom she has recently been reunited after years of estrangement. Interviewers have found it useless to probe further. Proulx's marital and family situations are a closed subject. Personal questions are fended off politely but firmly.

In a roundabout way, Proulx has implied that she is so caught up in her love affair with fiction that she has no desire to spare for people. The implication that she cannot write and love, and so would rather just write, adds a note of pathos to the final, life-affirming optimism of the closing phrase of The Shipping News. "And it may be," she writes, "that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery".

In 1963, aged 28, Proulx went back to college to study history at the University of Vermont. This time she completed her degree, took an MA and began work on a doctorate (she abandoned it in 1975). She became a journalist "literally to put food on the table", a single mother in a shack in rural Canaan, on the Canada-US border. "Payments were late and small," she recalls. "It was a miserable way to make a living."

An account of her "brutally poor" existence finds its way into the title story of Heart Songs, her collection of short stories, where the protagonist Snipe is torn between his responsibilities and his dreams of playing the guitar. Snipe gives up his day job stripping furniture, leaving his wife to make ends meet by making hamburgers at Poochie's Bar and Grill and borrowing money from her "rotten-rich" parents. Proulx had all Snipe's angry frustration and none of his advantages; no one to support her so that she could tell the stories that burned within.

It was a bitter time. Writing was for money and literature was for scribbling on scraps of paper in dentists' waiting rooms, ready to be made into stories in a future life. But there were compensations in Canaan, including silence, spiritual if not financial independence, and good fishing. For Proulx, the best things in life were free: canoeing, camping, bird-hunting, gardening, home-made bread, the changing seasons, the golden skies of late autumn.

Proulx's life was sustained by books. She describes her literary diet as "omnivorous": novels, dictionaries, mining journals, speed-boat magazines, and her favourite, The Ashley Book of Knots, which illustrates each chapter of The Shipping News. All the time she was soaking up those obscure bits of information which suffuse her writing and give it its distinct and authoritative voice.

She is an obsessive researcher, so much so that after she wrote The Shipping News, her harsh but loving portrait of Newfoundland life, it was widely assumed she had spent her life there. For Accordion Crimes, she pored over old photographs of immigrants from every culture until she could hear them talking in her head, see them eating and laughing.

Proulx is a pioneer spirit. She is a wood-chopping, truck-driving fisherwoman with a big, spare body and calloused outdoor hands. After the shack she built her own house, a "little, tall" clapboard house on a remote hill in Vermont, with bits added as she sold her stories. It is easy to imagine her in old age as one of her own characters: "At 86, she had a skin like a slipcover over a rump-sprung sofa, yet her muscled forearms and strong fingers suggested she could climb a sheer rock-face."

Proulx's books are filled with accidents - fatal or life-affirming or both. In Accordion Crimes, a mishap with strychnine wipes out a family and a woman fatally inhales a shrimp while laughing at a joke. In The Shipping News it is an accident - his wife's death in a car-wreck - that sets Quoyle, the lumbering protagonist, free from failure. It may have been talent which was to set Proulx free, but she claims it as an accident. Her short stories - the ones scribbled in dentist's waiting rooms and between chopping the firewood and growing chillies for salsa - were being published in magazines at a rate of about two a year. Then along came John Glusman, an editor at Scribners Books, who offered to publish a collection, offered a contract for a novel and E Annie Proulx hit the best-seller list running. In The Shipping News, Proulx says that Jack Buggit, the irascible editor of the Gammy Bird, talks "like a rivet gun". This is how Proulx writes. Once relieved of her day job, her novels and short stories left on ice for half a century have spilled out, to borrow one of her own similes, like cornmeal from a ripped sack.

She rises every day at 4am, makes coffee and writes quickly by hand all morning releasing the log-jam of words, then stitches extra meaning into every loose phrase as she types up in the afternoons. Prose pours out at a furious pace, often without time-consuming prepositions, as if she is on a pay-phone and has only 10 pence in which to say it all. "You see, I've waited all this time to write them," she says of her novels. "I got them all stacked up in my head."

Awards followed, from the Pulitzer to the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, but Proulx felt the commercial side of publishing swallowing her. In one of those hated interviews on the Accordion Crimes book tour, she said: "You erased everything you had been, everything that meant anything to you ... you gave up the food you'd been used to eating. You gave up the landscape ... Your clothing was not accepted, you had to give up that too - everything - and make yourself into something new." She was speaking of immigrants losing their identity in the New World, but she could have been talking about herself. Soon after she announced her last interview, cried off the rest of the tour with an ear infection and retired to her mountain retreat to get back to work.

Tomorrow she will reluctantly return to London for a three-day visit. She has agreed because she has been visiting her other spiritual home, Newfoundland, where the names, as mysterious as her own - Dead Man's Cove, Plunder Beach, Bay of Despair - were enough for her to fall in love with the place and inspire The Shipping News . London, in the wide-arced way in which Proulx views the world, is only another stop-over on the way home.

She will be here in person, but in spirit she will be where she always is, in frontierland. Like Snipe, in Heart Songs, who gives up his guitar to do his duty, she will be thinking "how it would be out west with the flat, sepia-tinted earth and the immense sky of a hard, lonely blue ... Snipe saw himself alone, driving a battered old truck through the shimmering heat, the wind booming through open windows." Home, for Annie Proulx, is where the writing is.

Tomorrow E Annie Proulx reads from 'Accordion Crimes' alongside other writers shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction: Anne Michaels, Deirdre Madden, Manda Scott and Jane Mendelsohn. Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1, 7.30pm. Ticket office: 0171-388 8822