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Writer's no longer at home on range

COLUMN ONE

'Brokeback Mountain' author Annie Proulx has made Wyoming her focus for a decade. But now, she's 'had enough.'

October 18, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

SARATOGA, WYO. — On bridge street, few shopkeepers know the name Annie Proulx. But they sure know the title of her most famous short story, "Brokeback Mountain."

"Yuck," says a wiry older woman in the Hat Creek Gift Shop, which sells cowboy tchotchkes. "Some people are just plain strange."

"I wish I'd never written it," Proulx says at her home five miles outside town, looking out enormous windows onto the river and the limestone cliffs that define her property.

Not because of the people of Saratoga, a town she doesn't think much of. Not even because the word "brokeback" has been misappropriated, as in, "Hey, you're not goin' brokeback on me, are you?"

It's all the manuscripts, screenplays and letters sent to her by men who rewrite or serialize her story, adding new characters, endings and even successive generations.

"These cover letters," she complains, "always begin with the sentence 'I'm not gay, but . . . ' They think that just because they are men, they understand men better than I do."

The story, says Proulx, spine straight, hands slapping her knees for emphasis, "was about homophobia in a place."

So much of Proulx's hard, fine writing is about place it's a wonder more people don't try to find her. After winning the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for her novel "The Shipping News," set in Newfoundland, Proulx became a fixed star in the literary constellation, winning almost every prize a writer could win.

She has often criticized the literary establishment for knowing nothing about what goes on in America outside its cities. She hates and generally refuses interviews (especially in her home). But she has agreed to talk -- although a polite e-mail from her publicist warns that she "takes a while to warm up to people." Her ferocity is literary legend, often cushioned by the phrase "doesn't suffer fools."

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No one in Saratoga knows her name, not the woman who runs the gallery, the man who runs the print shop, the women at the Valley Women's Christian meeting or the men in Shively's Hardware store. But they know "Brokeback," and they know the piece of land she lives on.

It is a bit of heaven -- 640 acres with a mile of riverfront on the lazy North Platte. To get here you ascend from Laramie through the Snowy Mountains and the Medicine Bow National Forest. Then you're in grasslands. The yellow aspen do that shimmering dance beside the deep green of the lodgepole pines.

The long road to Proulx's house passes Black Angus cattle and round hay bales. Two iron ravens guard her gate. Sheets hang to dry in a perfect blue Wyoming sky. The house Proulx had built here in 2004 is large and modern. With all those windows, you can see visitors kicking up dust on the road miles away.

Proulx bought the land from the Nature Conservancy, but now she is ready to move on, at least for the winters. "I like to keep moving," she explains.

The road into the house, though beautiful, turns to mush for much of the year -- weather prevents mail and visitors, and Proulx, 73, worries about emergencies. She lives alone, with no hired help, but has four grown children who want her to hold on to the property.

"As far as I know," she says, "they've never read a single one of my books. We've never spoken of them. It's not that we don't get along, it's just that we don't talk about my writing." She shoots a sideways look that says: "End of discussion."

This look -- in combination with Proulx's short, steely gray-brown hair, bright eyes, focused attention, utter lack of makeup or jewelry, and monastically simple clothing (white cotton shirt, linen pants and brown Merrells) -- is enough to make a person think twice before asking a personal question.

Proulx has a way of waiting politely while one stumbles, mutters and reveals personal tidbits entirely beside the point. And yet she is entirely gracious and hospitable, if a bit weary of where she lives and the people she lives among.

"I moved to Wyoming for the long sightlines and the walkability," she says, making coffee in a kitchen of steel surfaces and brightly colored cabinets with antler handles. "But I've had enough."

Glossy red tomatoes, which the author has grown from seeds she got in Italy, dry on a dish towel. "They're tart," she says slyly, as if delivering a metaphor, "so they make a great sauce."

This could be the recipe for Proulx's fiction. Her new book, "Fine Just the Way It Is," is the third in an astringent triptych of Wyoming story collections, joining "Close Range" (which includes "Brokeback Mountain") and "Bad Dirt."

The first of these books, Proulx explains, "was a backhand swipe at the mythology of the West -- the old beliefs that aren't really true, like the idea that there are no homosexuals in Wyoming. Everyone here is playing some role: the brave pioneer woman, the cowboy."

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