Interviews | March 01, 1999

Interviewer: Your stories and novels cover a lot of ground, historically and geographically. Accordion Crimes, for example, is set all over the United States and spans much of the twentieth century.Postcards concerns World War II and post-World War II America. Can you talk about that?

Proulx: Place and history are central to the fiction I write, both in the broad, general sense and in detailed particulars. Rural North America, regional cultures in critical economic flux, the images of an ideal and seemingly attainable world the characters cherish in their long views despite the rigid and difficult circumstances of their place and time. Those things interest me and are what I write about. I watch for the historical skew between what people have hoped for and who they thought they were and what befell them.

Interviewer: Even your novels and stories that aren’t strictly historical all have a sense of history and place somehow going together and being at the center.

Proulx: Much of what I write is set in contemporary North America, but the stories are informed by the past; I like stories with three generations visible. Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determine what happens to them, although the random event counts for much, as it does in life. I long ago fell into the habit of seeing the world in terms of shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings. I try to define periods when regional society and culture, rooted in location and natural resources, start to experience the erosion of traditional ways, and attempt to master contemporary, large-world values. The characters in my novels pick their way through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.

Interviewer: You studied history at the University of Vermont and Sir George Williams University, now Concordia University, in Montreal. Was there a particular approach to history that most interested you?

Proulx: I was attracted to the French Annales school, which pioneered minute examination of the lives of ordinary people through account books, wills, marriage and death records, farming and crafts techniques, the development of technologies. My fiction reflects this attraction.

Interviewer: Had you already decided to write fiction during your university years?

Proulx: No, while I was studying history I had no thought of writing fiction and no desire to do so.

Interviewer: Was there any pivotal moment that propelled you toward writing fiction?

Proulx: The pivotal moment was not a moment but a slow, slow turning. I left graduate school and the study of history to live in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom with a friend. We were in a remote area with limited job possibilities; I started writing nonfiction, mostly magazine journalism and how-to books, for income. At the same time I began to write short fiction, mostly stories about hunting and fishing and rural life in northern New England, subjects that interested me intensely at the time. Almost all of these stories were published inGray’s Sporting Journal, then a new and strikingly beautiful quarterly concerned with the outdoor world in the same way Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories are about the outdoor world—the primary weight on literature, not sport. There was an intense camaraderie and shared literary excitement among the writers whose fiction appeared inGray’s, something I have never encountered since. It may have been that the struggles to get paid by Gray’s created a bond of shared adversity among the writers; it may have been the genuine pleasure in being part of this unusual publication that valued serious outdoor writing in contrast to the hook-and-bullet mags. It is hard to overestimate how important Gray’s was for many of us. Without it I would probably never have tried to write fiction.I continued writing short stories in a desultory way for the next five or six years. When my youngest son left home for school in the late 1980s, for the first time in my life I enjoyed long periods of unbroken time suited to concentrated work and began my first novel, Postcards.

Interviewer: In your latest book, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, you have returned to the short story. Can you talk about the differences between that form and the novel?

Proulx: The construction of short stories calls for a markedly different set of mind than work on a novel, and for me short stories are at once more interesting and more difficult to write than longer work. The comparative brevity of the story dictates more economical and accurate use of words and images, a limited palette of events, fewer characters, tighter dialogue, strong title and punctuation that works to move the story forward. If the writer is trying to illustrate a particular period or place, a collection of short stories is a good way to take the reader inside a house of windows, each opening onto different but related views—a kind of flip book of place, time and manners.

Interviewer: Interesting analogy. Speaking of which, your fiction sometimes seems to ride on a magic carpet of metaphor. How do you do it?

Proulx: Metaphors—a complex subject. What is involved in constructing them seems not so much a matter of seeking similitude or trying for explanation or description as multilevel word and image play. Metaphors set up echoes and reflections, not only of tone and color but of meaning in the story. The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded. For me, metaphors come in sheets of three or four at once, in floods, and so metaphor use often concerns selection rather than construction. There are private layers of meaning in metaphor that may be obscure to the reader but which have—beyond the general accepted meanings of the words—resonance for the writer through personal associations of language, ideas, impressions. So the writer may be using metaphor to guide the reader and deepen the story, for subtle effects but also for sheer personal pleasure in word play.

Interviewer: It sounds like it’s a natural mode of thought for you.

Proulx: I was very young, about three years old, when introduced to metaphor, and I remember the first sharp pleasure I felt in playing what seemed a kind of game. I was with my mother in the kitchen of our small house. Classical music came out of the radio, I have no idea what, some sweeping and lofty orchestral statement. I was not consciously listening until my mother, who was a skilled watercolorist, said, “What does this music make you think about, what do you see?” Immediately I translated the music I heard into an image. “A bishop running through the woods,” I answered. I had no idea what a bishop was but liked the word for its conjunction of hiss and hiccup. What the music made me see in my mind’s eye was a tall, glassy, salt-cellar figure—the bishop—gliding through a dark forest dappled with round spots of light. The connections of perception between the sounds of the music and the image of trees / slipping figure / broken light had been made. Thereafter, and forever more, I found myself constantly involved in metaphoric observation.

Interviewer: Do you have a standard operating procedure in the way you work? Do you start with place, or history, or character and story, or is it different with each book?

Proulx: Where a story begins in the mind I am not sure—a memory of haystacks, maybe, or wheel ruts in the ruined stone, the ironies that fall out of the friction between past and present, some casual phrase overheard. But something kicks in, some powerful juxtaposition, and the whole book shapes itself up in the mind. I spend a year or two on the research and I begin with the place and what happened therebefore I fill notebooks with drawings and descriptions of rocks, water, people, names. I study photographs. From place come the characters, the way things happen, the story itself. For the sake of architecture, of balance, I write the ending first and then go to the beginning.

Interviewer: What’s your approach to research?

Proulx: The research is ongoing and my great pleasure. Since geography and climate are intensely interesting to me, much time goes into the close examination of specific regions—natural features of the landscape, human marks on it, earlier and prevailing economics based on raw materials, ethnic background of settlers.

Interviewer: Where do you go for that kind of information?

Proulx: I read manuals of work and repair, books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology, regional weather, botanists’ plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. I read bulletin boards, scraps of paper I pick up from the ground. I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.

Interviewer: Have you ever fallen in love with one of your characters?

Proulx: I have never fallen in love with one of my characters. The notion is repugnant. Characters are made to carry a particular story; that is their work. The only reason one shapes a character to look as he or she does, behave and speak in a certain way, suffer particular events, is to move the story forward in a particular direction. I do not indulge characters nor give them their heads and “see where they go,” and I don’t understand writers who drift downriver in company with unformed characters. The character, who may seem to hold center stage in a novel, and in a limited sense does, actually exists to support the story. This is not to say that writing a character is like building a model airplane. The thoughtful and long work of inventing a believable and fictionally “true” person on paper is exhilarating, particularly as one knowingly skates near the thin ice of caricature.

Interviewer: I’m curious about Loyal Blood in Postcards. What was his germ?

Proulx: The character Loyal Blood leaped complete and wholly formed from a 1930s Vermont state prison mug shot. A friend gave me a small stack of postcards sent out by the Windsor Prison warden’s office in the 1930s to alert various sheriffs around the state to escapees. I knew nothing of the man on my postcard, but his face was arresting and the character jumped forward at once. The story’s genesis was sparked by a small stack of state fire marshal’s reports during the Depression. There were a number of dismal accounts of farmers burning down their houses and barns for the meager insurance money. They had nothing else. From this desperate arson, with its roots in the global economic slump, emerged the story.

Interviewer: Economic desperation is a common theme in your work.

Proulx: The failure of the limited economic base for a region, often the very thing that gave the region its distinctive character and social ways, is interesting to me. I frequently focus on the period when everything—the traditional economic base, the culture, the family and the clan links—begins to unravel. I have taken a fictional look at this situation in northern New England, Newfoundland and Wyoming. InHeart Songs I began to examine the decline of the small dairy farms that had been the backbone of northern New England’s economy since the late eighteenth century, but which began to break down after the Second World War and finally collapsed in recent decades as moneyed outsiders poured into the state. Postcards continued and enlarged on this theme, taking as its landscape the sweep of country from New England to California. The character Loyal Blood denies his natural calling as a farmer. He picks up a dozen different regional occupations on his long journey westward, an ironic and miniature version of the American frontier expansion westward. There is a subtext on the tremendously important rural electrification program. The novel was concerned with what happens when a region has only one economic base and it goes under—the breakup and scattering of families, the subdivision of land, the outflow of old residents or the new position they adopt as service providers to the rich moving in. A population shift of moneyed second-home owners began to replace seventh-generation farm families.

Interviewer: We see a similar concern in The Shipping News, as well as in Close Range.

Proulx: If all you have is fishing and the fish stock begins to collapse from overfishing, destructive pressures, foreign and domestic policies, etc., what happens to the fishermen who have no other way to make a living? Relocation, government programs and the like. The Shipping News caught a Newfoundland fishing outport on the edge of the abyss. A few months after the novel was published, the Canadian government proclaimed a moratorium on cod fishing, and the traditional culture and economy quickly began to dissolve as thousands of out-of-work Newfoundlanders streamed onto the mainland, an exodus that continues. In Close Range, a collection of short stories set in Wyoming, the focus was again on rural landscape, low population density, people who feel remote and isolated, cut off from the rest of the world, where accident and suicide rates are high and aggressive behavior not uncommon. Fifty percent of the University of Wyoming’s graduation class must leave the state to find work. Again I was interested in looking at a limited economic structure—cattle ranching and extractive industries. What happens when the coal and oil run out, when the beef market falls away, when there are few chances outside the traditional ways of life? On a more intimate scale the stories explore human relationships and behavior, the individual caught in the whirlpool of change and chance.

Interviewer: In Accordion Crimes you add another layer to the issue of economic struggle by focusing on the immigrant experience in particular.

Proulx: I was interested in the American character, unlike that of any other country—aggressive, protean, identity-shifting, mutable, restless and mobile. I wondered if the American penchant for self-invention was somehow related to the seminal immigrant experience, in which one had to renounce the past, give up the old culture, language, history, religion, even one’s birth name, and replace the old self with American ideals, language, a new name and new ways. The novel looked at several generations of nine ethnic families through the medium of the immigrant’s instrument, the accordion.

Interviewer: Do you believe that the ethnic variety of our nation—despite the “melting pot” history—is somehow forgotten or underappreciated?

Proulx: A major aim in writing Accordion Crimes was to show the powerful government and social pressures on foreigners that forced them into the so-called melting pot. The social pressures were enormous, and the cost of assimilation was staggering for the immigrants—their lives were often untimely truncated. They did not belong, they were ridiculed outsiders, they worked at the most miserable and dangerous jobs. They gave up personal identification and respect. The successes went to their children, the first generation of American-born. These American children commonly rejected the values, clothing, language, religion, food, music of their parents in their zeal to be 100 percent American. Hence the widespread disdain in America (nowhere else) for the accordion. Canada allowed its immigrants a large measure of cultural autonomy, and ethnic enclaves and settlements grew up in many regions, the so-called ethnic mosaic that contrasts with the melting-pot symbolism. Ironically, it is Canada that is plagued now by a separatist movement.

Interviewer: Does that imply that although the melting pot was responsible for suffering in the first generation of immigrants, it was the best thing for the nation?

Proulx: My thinking does not sort out this way—”best,” “worst,” etc. The so-called melting pot is a vivid phrase that represented a dominant, narrow and forceful attitude in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That social and cultural attitude had no tolerance for ethnic, cultural or linguistic diversity. Immigrants had to become “American” in order to succeed here. Many of them did not and could not conform to the American ideal, and they lived their lives in sometimes dangerous backwaters. It isn’t a question of whether or not it was the best thing for the nation or no. It was what it was, an expression of the American national character in that period. It was different in Canada—not better or worse, but different.

Interviewer: I can’t resist asking you one question about your experience with Hollywood. I understand that your experience with making The Shipping News into a movie has been a little frustrating.

Proulx: I sold the film rights to The Shipping News several years ago and so have no influence on, connection with or input into the fate of the novel in Hollywood’s fumbling hands. It was important to me during the option negotiations to plead that the film be made in Newfoundland, and the studio signed a letter of intent to that end. The seesaw history of the work since then, the inaccurate reports, the gossip, the confusion, is best learned from other sources than me. I am out of the loop.
The film rights of the short story “Brokeback Mountain,” the closing story in the new collection Close Range, were optioned by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who wrote an exceptionally fine screenplay. What happens next with it remains to be seen.

Interviewer: You have won numerous literary prizes, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. How has all the recognition affected your work?

Proulx: I don’t think prizes have affected me as much as they have my publisher. It is pleasant to have one’s work recognized and praised, and prizes certainly have an effect on the way the body of work is perceived, and on one’s income, but for me, when the manuscript of a story or novel is completed I am done with it and on to new work. I have a feeling of detachment for awards, perhaps because they come a year or more after publication, perhaps because it is difficult to believe that the work is considered prizeworthy. I am critical of my writing and tend to see the flaws and weaknesses. The best time for an award would be the instant one finally makes a stubborn paragraph or sentence lift its own weight off the page.

Interviewer: How important to you are the responses of your readers?

Proulx: Response of readers . . . depends on which readers you mean. Readers come in a highly variable assortment—critics, other writers, old friends, fans, reading groups, adversaries, error-chasers, punctuation mavens, clever scholars, those who deeply understand the territory of the book or story, those who don’t get any of it. Probably I value the response of fellow writers most highly because they under-stand the work of making fiction. But fine letters have come from every kind of reader, and I am grateful for them.

Interviewer: What, above all else, do you want your readers to take away with them after reading your works?

Proulx: The novel should take us, as readers, to a vantage point from which we can confront our human condition, where we can glimpse something of what we are. A novel should somehow enlarge our capacity to see ourselves as living entities in the jammed and complex contemporary world.

Interviewer: You have been criticized by some for overemphasizing the bad luck and failure of you characters—for not finding the mitigating factor in their lives, if only in the way you frame their stories.

Proulx: It is difficult to take this as a serious criticism. America is a violent, gun-handling country. Americans feed on a steady diet of bloody movies, television programs, murder mysteries. Road rage, highway killings, beatings and murder of those who are different abound; school shootings—almost all of them in rural areas—make headline news over and over. Most of the ends suffered by characters in my books are drawn from true accounts of public record: newspapers, accident reports, local histories, labor statistics for the period and place under examination. The point of writing in layers of bitter deaths and misadventures that befall characters is to illustrate American violence, which is real, deep and vast.

 The rural farmers of Heart Songs, the unlucky owners of the accordion in Accordion Crimes, the fatalistic westerners in Close Range: they’re on the ragged edge, and often—too often, some critics would say—they fall off.

Proulx: Immigrants to this country suffered unbelievable damage, both psychological and physical. Rural life, too, is high in accident and, for many, suffused with a trapped feeling, a besetting sense of circumstances beyond individual control. Real rural life, enlivened with clear air, beautiful scenery, close-knit communities and cooperative neighbors, builds self-reliant, competent, fact-facing people; but it is also riddled with economic failure, natural disaster, poor health care, accidental death, few cultural opportunities, narrow worldviews, a feeling of being separated from the larger society. Literary critics who live and work in urban and suburban milieus characterized by middle-class gentility and progressive liberalism are rarely familiar with the raw exigencies and pressures of rural life.
I am reminded of the uproar of disapproval over historian Michael Lesy’s 1973 Wisconsin Death Trip, the author’s gathering of newspaper accounts of nineteenth-century economic failure, madness, hoboes, suicide and murder in company with the extraordinary photographs by Charley Van Schaick. Real lives, real events, which displeased the many critics who denounced the book’s darkness as distortion of history. One protesting group got out a rival collection of photographs entitled Wisconsin Life Trip, showing happy families, picnics, affection and peace. There is something in us that wants to believe in sweet harmony against all evidence.
Since I am often accused of writing darkly, I might add that although I am not immune to the flashes of humor and intense moments of joy that illuminate our lives, I am in deep sympathy with Paul Fussell when he describes seeing his first dead in Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, ” . . . and suddenly I knew that I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just.”

Interviewer: Do you think that serious fiction, by definition, ends unhappily?

Proulx: No, of course not. I would like to get beyond this happy / unhappy-ending discussion, which seems to me to have more the character of trap than open door. It is very difficult to know what is “happy” or “unhappy.” I wrote The Shipping News in direct response to the oft-repeated criticism that Postcards was “too dark.” Ah, I said to myself, a happy ending is wanted, is it? Let us see what we can do. The “happy” ending of Shipping News is constructed on a negative definition—here happiness is simply the absence of pain, and so, the illusion of pleasure. I was quite surprised when readers and critics alike rejoiced in what they perceived as a joyful upbeat. The label “happy” is comparative, subjective, sometimes deliberately illusory, sometimes—as in Shipping News—ironic or not what it seems. In working endings for stories and novels I try simply for a natural cessation of story. Most of my writing focuses on a life or lives set against a particular time and place. This is the nature of things, and, though it sounds simplistic, this is what shapes my view of the past and present, both as related to my personal life and the lives of characters. One is born, one lives in one’s time, one dies. I try to understand place and time through the events in a character’s life, and the end is the end. The person, the character, is one speck of life among many, many. The ending, then, should reflect for the reader some element of value or importance in the telling of this ending among the possible myriad of stories that might have been told.

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