The intro read:
Write only about what you know, aspiring writers are told. “Nonsense,” says E Annie Proulx. Barbara Else talks to the author of The Shipping News about fame, craft and accordions.GIVE ME A PLUMBER ANY DAY
This interview was the last for E Annie Proulx in a long day of media events in Wellington before the beginning of Writers and Readers Week in March. She has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly; I was wary. In fact, she couldn’t have been more agreeable.
Proulx certainly runs the show as far as her writing is concerned. Her novels are carefully planned beforehand, and nothing is allowed to interfere.
Writers of fiction range from the purely intuitive to the utterly logical. The difference between the two showed at a Writers and Readers Week session on “Real Characters”. Of the panel of four writers, Keri Hulme said she had a character she’d been trying to kill off for two years but he refused to go. Proulx leaned across the table. “Give him to me for the weekend,” she said.
The audience had no doubts. Were you one of her characters, you’d do exactly as you were told.
She became a full-time writer of fiction after 19 years as a journalist. Her fascination with research, her meticulous organisation, must come from that background, as must her interest in the wide-ranging material she uses in her fiction.
Proulx is one of those rarities, a writer of literary fiction who also appears on bestseller lists. The short stories in her first book, Heart Songs, were written during the journalist years. Its successor, Postcards, was the first novel written by a woman to win the PEN/Faulkner Award. The Shipping News, published in the UK in 1993, has won an extraordinary string of prizes, including the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Knowing she has been interviewed for four years about The Shipping News, I said she must be sick to death of it. She smiled in grim agreement. However, in order to uncover how Proulx operates as a writer, the book had to be mentioned.
When did she realise The Shipping News was going to be the phenomenal publishing event it’s proved to be and how has success affected her?
“It took me by surprise, but I tried to ignore it,” she said in her low strong voice. “I’m not here to be a celebrity. I’m here to work on my books. Every book is bound to be different, so you can’t let the success of one affect you.”
She has seen too many other writers badly affected by fame. Some freeze up, too frightened to write anything else. Others become unbearably full of themselves. Proulx just wants to get on with the next book, then the next.
Her third novel, Accordion Crimes, is due out mid-year. It begins in Sicily in 1890 and follows a large cast of characters, through many different locales, up to the present day. The accordion of the title is passed from owner to owner, moving from New Orleans to Texas, Montana, Maine, among descendants of Mexicans, Poles, Germans, Irish-Scots and Franco-Canadians.
She has no personal favourites among the characters or settings, she says – they are all there to serve the story, which is always her main interest.
Proulx is confident that Accordion Crimes will stand on its own; she doesn’t feel The Shipping News is a hard act to follow.
“The Shipping News was all finished for me when it went to publication. Each new book should be a development from the previous work.”
Elements of The Shipping News that continue to capture readers are the strong sense of place and the central character of Quoyle. In Accordion Crimes, particular features that the publishers think will capture the reader are the wide variety of characters and settings.
The main character is the accordion itself. This, for Proulx, was the trigger for the entire story. It becomes a symbol of lower-class immigration to America; it carries the music and folk songs of many different cultures and is appreciated or despised depending on an individual’s attitude to their ethnic roots.
I commented that it was brave to use an inanimate object as a main character. With a mischievous, knowing smile, Proulx said, “Accordions breathe.”
Accordion Crimes uses several techniques different from her earlier work. One is the flash forwards. Proulx said she couldn’t think of any other writer who had used it as she has done. I asked if the device was to keep the reader interested in a long involved story. She laughed. “More to keep me interested!”
She also uses a very different style in Accordion Crimes from the clipped sentences of The Shipping News. The language is ornate, with a more complicated sentence structure. When Proulx, at the opening of Writers and Readers Week, read a description of the accordion and its first Sicilian owner, the audience reacted well to the more elaborate style, the details, the quiet humour in the passage.
Many writers during a first or even second draft feel the writing process is a journey with no clear end in sight. Not for Proulx, who is confident about her work from the moment she starts writing. In fact, she writes the endings first to make sure the story keeps direction and focus.
The end may change in detail as she works towards it, but those initial, often sketchy, paragraphs keep everything on track. The thought of characters misbehaving as Hulme’s recalcitrant described above makes Proulx’s eyebrows knit in astonished disapproval: “My characters are firmly harnessed to the story from the start.”
In crafting the story, rather than thinking of it as going through different drafts, Proulx concentrates on searching for the exact details that will bring it to life. She loves to cut, to trim down. She will spend an hour searching for the one significant word, one loaded sentence, that will do the work of many. “I feel the weight of words,” she says. She also likens the writing process to darning or needlepoint, crafting the smallest details.
She has written more often about men than women, though when her stories need strong women characters she provides them, as in the aunt and Beety in The Shipping News.
Coming from a family of five daughters, she sees men as mysterious people: that may be one reason she writes about them. The main reason, though, is that much of the world, even these days, is still inhabited largely by men. Various trades and occupations remain as male preserves. It’s in these so far that Proulx has seen the most intriguing stories to be told.
She constantly collects material for future books and has shelves at home set aside for this. Showing for once an overtly intuitive side to her writing nature, she is reluctant to talk about those next books. “You can’t talk about a novel too soon or it will disappear. You have to approach a novel sideways, sneak up on it.” Having lived off the land for a period in her youth, she knows what she’s talking about. As she showed in Postcards, Proulx can set a trap-line.
Writing is a solitary, sedentary business and Proulx welcomes the daily isolation. “Why would you want to talk about your work with anyone else?” However, she enjoys seeing friends in the evenings and at weekends.
She appreciates meeting other writers at events like arts festivals, but her close friends tend not to be writers. After all, she knows how to write. “Farmers, fishermen, teachers, ski-bums, they’re more interesting. Give me a plumber any day.”
She enjoys gardening, but the climate dictates against it for most of the year in the Medicine Bow Mountains, Wyoming, where she lives. For relaxation and exercise, she skis, canoes, hikes or goes mountain biking.
What of the other common occupation among writers, reading reviews? She doesn’t read her own. “The book is finished, so a review cannot be useful to you,” she says - though she does admit she wanted to read the first review of The Shipping News published in a Newfoundland paper. The locals can be tough on outsiders who write about them. “Proulx got it right,” said the review, and she was satisfied.
She has made it her business to find out all she can about the publishing process and is amazed how many writers seem to feel that knowing anything about the practical side of publishing somehow detracts from pure art. Though she could clearly manage her own negotiations, she is equally astonished at writers who say they don’t need an agent. “An agent has special talents, they know the traps. Of course I use an agent.”
According to Proulx, the worst advice anyone can give a writer is to write only about what you know. “Nonsense,” she says. “If a writer doesn’t know something, that is the best reason to write about it, to discover it. No door should be closed to a writer.”
None could long stay closed to her, I think.