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Getting up close with Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx.
Annie Proulx.

One of the highlights of this year’s Writers at Woody Point literary festival will be a session titled “Up Close & Personal: Annie Proulx in Conversation with Lisa Moore.”

The author of eight books, Proulx’s “The Shipping News” won her the Pulitzer Prize, the US National Book Award and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.
A work of fiction about a reporter working for a newspaper in Northern Newfoundland, “The Shipping News” was adapted as a film of the same name.
Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain,” was made into an Academy Award-winning film.
The author took time recently to answer questions for “The Western Star” via e-mail.
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Most people from this province know you for your novel “The Shipping News.” When did you first visit Newfoundland and which areas of the province did you spend time in?
Sorry, I don’t remember the specific year—sometime in the 1990s. I was living in Vermont. I was curious to see this place, in part because in graduate school at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) I had been repulsed by the number of Newfie jokes I heard. I wondered what sort of place engendered such unpleasantries. And in those days I liked fishing more than I do now. A fishing pal came with me on the first trip. As the ferry entered Port-aux-Basques I suddenly fell blindly in love with the place for its beauty, its strangeness (to me), its smell of sea and forest and frying fish. On this and subsequent trips I spent most of my time on the west coast, from Port-aux-Basques to L’Anse-aux-Meadows.

What were your initial thoughts about the area?
I just swallowed everything I saw and heard, absorbing, rather than thinking. I listened and looked. I couldn’t get enough of the place, even with blackflies, but after a bear got at our high-hung provisions in a provincial park, my friend wanted to go home to Vermont. We went and the next time and all the times following I came alone.

Did the characters that eventually made their way into the novel form in your mind during your subsequent trips?
Not really. I was interested in the place and all my trips were aimed at getting a sense of how things worked. To me the importance of place is paramount in a story. I feel that stories come out of geography, climate, weather … out of wind and mud, the placement of houses and villages, local landscape markers and anomalies. Once I felt I had a working feel for the west coast I could concentrate on the characters. I already had a shadowy sense of Quoyle as inept in profession and personal life. I do not use specific living people for character models. I prefer to invent each character from scratch using general habits and ways of local people and some details of action from historical figures. I wrote most of the book while I was at a writer’s retreat in Ucross, Wyoming. Although there is a sub-theme of the fishing crisis and the population shift from small fishing ports the moratorium had not yet been enacted.

It’s been almost 25 years since “The Shipping News” was released. The book won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the US National Book Award for Fiction. Did you have any idea when it was released that it would do so well?
No, of course not. I’m still a little puzzled by its popularity.

You released your most recent book “Barkskins” in 2016. The book is about the demise of the world’s forests. Would you call yourself an environmentalist?
I am an observer of life, not an activist—but I care very much about what humans have done and are doing to the natural world. Climate change is a massive fact of our existence and our accelerated affairs and swelling population over the last few hundred years. So gigantic is climate change that geographers agreed last year that the Holocene Epoch in geological time periods has ended, replaced by the Anthropocene, a human-altered world. Because climate change was too massive a subject with countless vagaries and sub-currents I did not have the temerity to try and write about it. Instead I settled on deforestation as one facet of this massive shift that I might be able to use as the basis for a story. It could have been about the sixth extinction or the frightening masses of plastic choking the oceans but forests appealed to me as the right medium despite the lack of a good definition of “a forest.”

What advice could you share with novice writers?
Don’t be afraid to underpin your work with large themes. Be aware that you have a responsibility to the time you live in. A writer is an interpreter of the world whether in small compass or great. Find your own way. And read omnivorously.

How did you feel when you were invited to take part in the Writers at Woody Point Festival this year?
Terrified. Suppose the place has utterly changed? I am concerned that the Newfoundland of the past and of my imagination might have disappeared as so many places have in recent years.

What do you hope to share with your audience?
An appreciation of a certain place washed by the North Atlantic. And maybe some fish and chips?

•••
The Writers at Woody Point literary festival is organized and presented by Friends of Writers at Woody Point. CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers hosts the event.
“Up Close & Personal: Annie Proulx in Conversation with Lisa Moore” takes place at Aug. 17 at 2 p.m. at the Woody Point Heritage Theatre. (Proulx turns 82 on Aug. 22).
Proulx’s appearance at the festival is made possible through the support of The Rooms at Woody Point (www.theroomsatwoodypoint.ca).
The festival runs from Aug. 15-20. Information about the schedule and tickets can be found at www.writersatwoodypoint.com

danette@nl.rogers.com
 

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