Too Many Awards? Annie Proulx Would Rather Be Writing

Article excerpt

SITTING in comfort, E. Annie Proulx is miserable. She hates the luxury of the hotel and the sumptuousness of her chair.

"This is the worst chair I've ever sat in," she says, getting up abruptly and pushing it forward, further distancing herself from the world. "I like chairs that are wooden, hard and preferably splintery."

A question is misinterpreted. She believes it's about her old anathema, confessional fiction, when her writing, infused with a febrile imagination, couldn't be further from it. A storm front brews. A banging on a table, a slash of an answer pickled in disgust.

"I am not a polite person," Proulx says.

Perhaps, but charm laps at her toes.

Had a good year? Proulx has had a better one. She has won five awards, big ones, the sort you can't shake: the Pen/Faulkner for "Postcards" and the Pulitzer, National Book Award and Irish Times and Chicago Tribune Heartland prizes for "The Shipping News," currently on top of the Publishers Weekly trade paperback list.

A marvelous, original tale, "The Shipping News" is the story of poor Quoyle, "a great damp loaf of a body. . . Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic." A dump of mediocrity, "a third-rate newspaperman," Quoyle finds a sort of peace in his ancestral home of Newfoundland, surrounded by odd fellows Tert Card, Nutbeem and Jack Buggit.

These are her only novels, the first published two years ago when she was 56. "The Shipping News" is in its seventh paperback printing with 300,000 copies in circulation.

During the last year, Proulx (rhymes with "grew") has tended to her deserved success and the business of publishing - which she sees as diametrically opposed to writing - collecting plums, inking books, enduring interviews.

"Once a book is finished, it becomes the reader's book to use and interpret. I truly believe it's none of my business what happens between the reader and what's been written," says Proulx, attacking another cup of coffee. "I don't care about sharing the experience. It's finished for me. It's over."

The year is almost over, and Proulx is fraying. It is keeping her from writing, inviting misery. Any day now, she plans to return to Vershire, Vt., a speck of a town, home to 400, and her life might, possibly, get back to what it was, which was rising at 4 a.m., writing, reading and not wasting time with strangers.

"I desperately need a rest," she says.

It's easy to sympathize with Proulx's yearning, even the sporadic wrath. She is a complex person, the author of wondrously complex books. Yet over and over, she has been summed up in platitudes that inch toward myth: a pioneer type who can patch and forage and hunt and fish; a loner who had three brief marriages, mothered three now-grown sons and currently lives contentedly alone; a true Yankee, often described as a woman devoid of vanity or worldly appetites; one tough biscuit, towering and recalcitrant, the Janet Reno of current fiction.

And then Proulx walks into a room, no Amazon, just an inch or two above average height, sporting Italian mules and a fuchsia dress. True, the dark hair is ravaged and appears self-cut, but the smile is sealed in plum lipstick, the nails in pale polish. A lover of under-peopled places and cold weather, she is hardly undone by a mecca smothered in heat.

"I no longer care to live in a city, though I find them very handy," she says. "But I've lived in New York, Tokyo and Montreal, which are not small places."

For someone who professes not to be polite, she has conducted countless interviews, many in her home, allowing nibby inquisitors into the house she largely built herself, now up for sale because it is "tall and small and overrun with books."

Proulx is an omnivore of books, all forms, all ages, all origins. She's currently reading an Icelandic author from the '40s. At a reading at Borders Book Shop in Center City, she celebrates "The Ashley Book of Knots," first published a half-century ago, illustrations from which open each chapter in "The Shipping News. …