NEW YORK — E. Annie Proulx is talking about her next novel. The one she has scoured seven states to research. The one she wants to lose herself in. But the one she can't write because praise for her most recent novel, "The Shipping News," has kept her on the road.
And not finishing this book is like having a bird locked in her head. She can't open her forehead and let it out, and it's in there beating and beating.
But Proulx must quell the bird--at least for this month. She had to travel to Ireland to pick up the prestigious Dublin Times international writing award for "The Shipping News," beating out Philip Roth and Vikram Seth. And once again she'll leave her typewriter in Vermont because she is a finalist for the National Book Award, to be announced in New York on Wednesday.
"If I win the National Book Award," says the tall, big-boned author as she struggles to pry open a hotel mini-bar during a recent stopover in Manhattan, "I'm going to run away from home."
This is all very amusing--that she would run away from the one place she desperately wants to be; that she can't open a mini-bar even though she is so accomplished with a hammer and hoe that she once built a log cabin and lived in it for a few years hunting, fishing and gathering to feed herself.
But after reading her sophisticated yet fresh prose in "The Shipping News" it is hard not to wish she would give up on life's mini-bars, dispense with all the hoopla--though certainly she deserves it--and pry open that brow of hers to liberate a whole beating flock of stories before she grows one day older.
Proulx (which rhymes with \o7 true\f7 ) is 58 years old. And she is what publicists like to call a late-in-life discovery.
She only began writing fiction full time five years ago. Before that she was raising three kids by herself, supporting them with odd jobs such as slinging hash and selling sandwiches to rich college girls.
Proulx, the daughter of an itinerant textile worker from New England, had dropped out of college in the 1950s to get married. After two divorces and roaming from New York City to the Far East, she returned to school in Vermont to study history. She was a few months away from earning her Ph.D when she quit academics. Though she was relieved to get out of the tweedy male environment of the university, she acknowledges that scholarly work is invaluable training for novel writing--examining the lives of individuals against the inexorable passage of events. Proulx eventually became a free-lancer for magazines, writing about weather, apples, canoeing, mountain lions, mice, cuisine, libraries, African bead work, cider and lettuce.
In 1988 she published her first works of fiction--a collection, "Heart Songs and Other Stories." In 1992, her first novel, "Postcards," came out and won the Pen/Faulkner Award. Her second novel, "The Shipping News," came out this year and is a breathtaking story of a third-rate newspaper man named Quoyle, a lumpish man whose early life is defined by "failure to speak clearly; failure to sit up straight; failure to get up in the morning, failure in attitude, failure in ambition and ability, indeed, in everything."
After Quoyle's whorish wife dies, he is so "brimming with grief and thwarted love" that he leaves Upstate New York for the storm-beaten coast of Newfoundland to make a new life for his two small daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, in his ancestral home.
Quoyle is an odd type of hero--he's an ugly man with an enormous chin; he is passive and pathetic and, in the beginning of the book, an unformed person. But in his name, Quoyle--the Old English spelling for a coil of rope--the reader should see the possibilities of many knots, or in this hero's case, turns of events that change his life. (Each chapter begins with a heading, often the description of a particular knot from "The Ashley Book of Knots.")
For this powerful novel Proulx has been compared by reviewers to everybody from Charles Dickens and Herman Melville to James Joyce and John Barth. And don't forget Nathaniel West, Samuel Beckett, and of course, Shakespeare. But the beauty of this novel is in the force of Proulx's prose and in her characters and the richness of their environment.
After wrestling a bottle of wine from that mini-bar, Proulx took time to talk about the 377-page world of "The Shipping News" and how she went about creating it:
Times: Was the basic story line percolating in your head for years and years?
Proulx: \o7 No, not really. I needed a story. I really wanted to write about Newfoundland and about the fishing problems there. But what I mostly wanted to write about is this country. And that is the back side of this story to bounce off. I wanted to step back two generations into what rural America must have been like in terms of cooperation and a cohesive almost-now-forgotten life.\f7