Washington -- Annie Proulx, a writer who won almost every major fiction prize over the past year, has just been asked how it feels to be the literary equivalent of Whitney Houston.
"Oh, my GOD!" she says, bursting into laughter at the image of such an odd coupling. Still, despite her bemusement, Annie Proulx (rhymes with true) understands the comparison between herself and the singer who won -- what? -- about a gazillion awards for singing "I Will Always Love You."
Here's why she understands it: In what amounts to an astonishing year, Ms. Proulx won an unprecedented five major awards -- including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last month -- for two different novels.
The only two novels, incidentally, that Ms. Proulx has written.
Not bad for a woman whose first novel, "Postcards," appeared in 1991, the same year its author turned 56. She won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for "Postcards," the first woman ever to be awarded that coveted prize. Her second novel, "The Shipping News," published last year, earned her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And the National Book Award. And the Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune. And the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.
Oh, what a lovely year it was.
And what an intrusive one, too, in the life of Annie (forget the E.; it's for Edna, which she hates) Proulx, a woman who lives alone in the small, rural Vermont town of Vershire.
"It has totally thrown my old, quiet life into a spin," she says of the publicity that's accompanied her new celebrity status. "I'm used to long stretches of silence, of being uninterrupted and just steadily immersed in work and working in a very concentrated way." She pauses, letting out the smallest of sighs. "It's horrifying but it's not going to go away, so I have to learn to live with it."
Still, the woman who greeted the news of the Pulitzer by saying she intended to "vacuum my floors; it's mud season up here," acknowledges it's pretty hard to feel too unhappy about the events that have changed her life. "Yeah," she says, smiling, "one is unhappy about the work being interrupted but at the same time you're also very, very glad. And a lot of it is fun. It's just plain fun."
Unexpectedly, so is Annie Proulx. Just plain fun, that is. It's unexpected because her novels, particularly "Postcards," have a dark current running through them. In "Postcards," for instance, the book's protagonist, Loyal Blood, lays out a view of life that seems to inform Ms. Proulx's own understanding of how things work: "Life cripples us up in different ways," says Loyal Blood, "but it gets everybody is how I look at it. Gets you again and again and one day it wins."
A lot of laughter
But during a recent visit to Washington, Ms. Proulx is hardly dark. She laughs, which she does a lot, when asked whether she wishes recognition had come earlier in life. "Occasionally, I do. Particularly when photographers are on the scene. I think, 'Geez, why couldn't this have happened when I was young and good-looking?' "
Still, she can seem an intimidating figure initially. Partly this is because her reputation for brilliance and an intolerance for certain kinds of questions -- personal questions -- from reporters has preceded her. And partly, it's because anyone who reads her books recognizes immediately that Annie Proulx is her own person. It is a dangerous quality, one that allows its possessor the kind of freedom to speak, as Thoreau did, the truth. At least the truth as she sees it.
It is one of the qualities that helped her win the PEN/Faulkner Award, says novelist Frederick Busch, one of the three judges for that contest. "We gave her the prize because she's an absolute American original," he says. "She had a unique voice which imitated nobody. . . . As a reader you are convinced she is telling the truth about the conditions of the human heart."
And it is clear that Ms. Proulx, despite her reluctance to answer questions about her personal past, has lived a life that required facing a wide array of conditions of the human heart. Born in Connecticut, the oldest of five daughters, she spent her early life moving from state to state, the result of her father's work in the textile business. In the early '50s she dropped out of Colby College to "experience two terrible marriages, New York City, the Far East and single-mother-with-two-children poverty."
In 1963 she went back to school at the University of Vermont, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and in 1975 passed her doctoral orals in history, specializing in Renaissance economic history, the Canadian North and traditional China, at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. By this time, there had been a third husband and a third divorce; also a third son, but she declines to be specific about this part of her past.
A single mother, Ms. Proulx supported her three sons by doing free-lance journalism. From 1975 to 1988 she "wrote articles on weather, apples, canoeing, mountain lions, mice, cuisine, libraries, African beadwork, cider and lettuces for dozens of magazines." Her full-time fiction writing began only six years ago. She had always written fiction but the need to "put bread on the table" prevented her from pursuing it fully; when finally she did, like most writers she had doubts about her talent.
"She was very shy at first, not personally shy -- she's got a good, strong personality -- but shy in literary terms," says writer Edward Hoagland, a friend of Ms. Proulx's. "She hesitated about applying for grants because she was afraid she wasn't good enough. But I pushed her to do it. And she got them." He pauses. "I think she does have a very healthy confidence now."
It's the kind of healthy confidence that allows Ms. Proulx to write books that incorporate detailed accountings of such things as the history of rural electrification, uranium mining, boat building, home repair and the technicalities of knotting. It would never occur to her, she says, to question whether or not readers might think, for instance, that rural electrification is not exactly a subject they want to read about in a novel.
She laughs. "That's why I like the subject. . . . I love obscure facts and odd quirks and finding out about them. To me, it's boring to write about what you know."
In fact, she says, the worst advice you can give to a writer is: " 'Write what you know.' I think it's bad advice that's responsible for the frightful, interior novels that seem to be glutting the market. To me, it's boring to write about what you know. And I feel absolutely no need and no interest in writing about myself or my life. I know that. What I'm interested in is story; I like the unknown and making another life on paper and living through that life very intensely for a while."
Still, her friend Robert F. Jones says he sees the Annie he knows in some of the characters she creates. "In the women figures, there's a directness of vision, an inner strength and a no-b.s. attitude that's pure Annie." And in her wandering male protagonist, Loyal Blood, he sees "Annie's desires to travel as far as she can and as often as she can in the world to see how it works."
Which brings up an interesting question: Why, Ms. Proulx is asked, has she chosen to create male protagonists for both novels?
"Well, it may have something to do with growing up in a family of five girls," she says. "You know, I lacked men. And I think men are quite excellent. It's more interesting for me to write about men and try to figure out this character -- how the mind and interior works here."
And from where, she is asked, does she draw her knowledge of how men feel and think?
Ms. Proulx's eyes, behind her no-nonsense glasses, catch you in their steady gaze. "I assume," she says, pausing between each word, "and this may be rash on my part -- I assume that men are human." Then she laughs. "I really do feel that men operate interiorly as women do in many, if not all, cases."
Apparently, she managed to get it just right -- the male point of view, that is -- in the person of Quoyle, the main character in "The Shipping News." "I can't tell you," she says, "how many men have come up to me and said, 'Ah, Quoyle. That's me. Quoyle is me.' I mean, very successful, important men who feel themselves inside as Quoyle, this inept, bumbling, third-rate fool."
Her assumption that both men and women are "human" and share "feelings of insecurity" is a reflection of what she calls her "lack of gender-consciousness." The fact that she is the first woman to win the PEN/Faulkner -- among those nominated in the past were the likes of Cynthia Ozick and Anne Tyler -- does not have any particular import to her. "I just don't factor it in. I tend not to see a very sharp division between the behavior of men and the behavior of women."
But she is interested in the issues of feminism. "Absolutely. But I don't allow myself the luxury of adopting a political posture. It's foreign to my nature. I am a professional observer. I am not a feminist; I am not an anti-feminist."
Still, she says she's been bothered a bit by a recently published book, "Failing at Fairness," which addresses the problem of how girls are treated unfairly in the classroom. "Reading this book last week, I got this very uncomfortable feeling. The thought that kept coming to me was, 'What's wrong with these spineless girls that they let themselves get trodden by this?' There's a mythification going on here. I guess the thing I don't like about it is that girls are becoming classed as 'girls' -- that a girl is a 'thing' instead of a discreet personality."
But it is not Ms. Proulx's style to make a judgment about such things. Judgments are not what she's about. "I've been trained as an historian," she says. "And my attitude, I think, is more objective." Even as a child, she says, with all the moving around to new schools and new places, she "always had this posture of being on the sidelines, of being the new person who comes in and watches and observes." Along with this idea of an observing nature, the theme of change dominates Ms. Proulx's writing voice. It also dominates her thinking voice. "I think change is part of my life. And, of course, the seven years of graduate study in history just reinforced that. That's what the study of history is about; transition. To me it was, anyway. So that reinforced my own personal attraction to the shifting ground."
Now, of course, with her sudden appearance as a star in the literary skies, Annie Proulx will have another transition to observe and absorb. Right now, however, she's thinking about the new novel in the works. It's titled "Accordion Crimes."
"It's about second- and third-generation Americans and the sense of ethnic identity embedded in accordion music," says Ms. Proulx, barely able to contain her enthusiasm. "It's going to be a
lot of fun."