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
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
"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. …