Saturday, March 19, 2011

An Evening with Annie Proulx

On 14 March 2011, I was in conversation with Annie Proulx, best-known for her novel The Shipping News (1993) and the short story "Brokeback Mountain" (1997). Her first novel, Postcards (1992), won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and she has since won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, both times for Fiction. She was in Brisbane to promote her book Bird Cloud (2011), a complex, episodic memoir about her 640-acre property in Wyoming.

In Conversation with Annie Proulx, Garden's Theatre, QUT

At the centre of Bird Cloud is the story of the design and building of a large house, which from the onset Proulx conceives as a library that you can live in. She needs 56 bookshelves and a volunteer librarian before she can really unpack, a reflection of her collector's personality and the eclecticism that textures her fiction: as a reader, Proulx is an historian, but the type who finds and pauses over the oddities in the records. In our discussion, she commented defiantly there were things in her library that you'd never find on Google.

I had no trouble believing that, nor in seeing her revisiting the texts that have wandered with her in numerous homes too small to house them. Bird Cloud the building offers her plenty of space to read and write, even if a well-planned writing desk (with its window placed high enough to not offer visual distractions) is, in the end, forsaken for the kitchen table, and what one presumes are all the distractions of a cook's kitchen.

The house is ultimately distraction enough in itself, a bit of a folly as it can't be occupied in the worst of the winter months, when the access road becomes too bad to use. The promised isolation of a remote Wyoming property is actually too much isolation, and for a year Bird Cloud was on the market for $3.7 million. Perhaps fortunately, it didn't sell. In our discussion, she observed that for women in particular it takes a long time to get to a point when you can be alone, and that she was ready for some of it now.

She didn't mean now now, but all the same Proulx is not really at ease on stage, and I for one quite liked that unease: it suggested to me that, despite the difficulties of building at Bird Cloud, she would always rather be back there at her own table, writing.


Place, memoir, and writing

I collect some of her most interesting remarks here, paraphrased as accurately as I can.

On place:
  • Proulx commented that she always works on setting first, with a view that characters and stories ought to emerge out of the setting and out of one's research about a place.

On memoir:
  • Writing non-fiction is a less personal task than writing fiction. Writing the memoir was more like a 9-to-5 job that you could put down, whereas writing fiction is something that keeps you up at night, and is more "absorbing".

On writing:
  • She doesn't write for publication or for herself, she writes for the story. The story is an end in itself that must work on its own terms.
  • There is an architecture involved in writing stories, and it begins at the sentence level. You don't aim for the perfect sentence, you aim for the correct sentence for the story. And then you add one correct sentence to another one, and a correct paragraph to another correct paragraph.
  • She has no trouble farewelling characters. If anyone had trouble killing off their characters, they could send them round to her place. 

Coming down from the clouds

Bird Cloud hasn't enjoyed the best reception, and I must admit that I share some of the concerns about the memoir that have been raised by critics (see, for example, the New York Times' review here). Over a glass of wine before we went on stage, Proulx hinted at some frustration over the reviews, and agreed with my suggestion that one is best off reading Bird Cloud as a compilation of histories which coalesce around a particular piece of land: her family history, the area's natural history, the human uses of the area and the geological past, and now her own building project. That is, unity lies in the land (the setting) and the stories that come out of it.

Probably the main reason that critics have responded negatively is that the building project (and the rather middle-class problems it throws up) dominates, and perhaps also because we're never shown how to connect the histories, the "rattling trunk of miscellanies" as The Washington Post calls it. The memoir assumes that we'll relate all its information to Bird Cloud the landscape, whereas many readers will be too irritated by Bird Cloud the building project to be able to do so sympathetically.

I suppose that, rather like books, building projects are often not so much finished as abandoned, or at least left to later or to someone else to tidy up. I like to imagine that the story of Bird Cloud will eventually find another home in Proulx's fiction, where her chief fidelity is to story rather than to reality. The memoir that we have is, in the way of buildings, something of an act of joint authorship, insomuch as Proulx doesn't fully inhabit and own the narrative for herself: this costs her the effect of unity that she achieves in her fiction. As she says, in her non-fiction she stands slightly outside of the building, looking in.

Yet, and perhaps because I am influenced by having met and discussed these things with Proulx, I find myself not minding the distant and rather broken perspective. The histories that frame the centre of this book do indeed make a frame: they are joined, even if readers are asked to do some of the joining work for themselves. Bird Cloud the memoir is, like Bird Cloud the house, an idiocyncratic structure with an unusual choice for a main room. But it stands up. (I would love a library as my main room.)

A question I have recently been trying to answer in relation to both my own memoir (The Promise of Iceland) and the work of others is, how does place function as a mode of characterization, including that of the narrator? Ultimately, and in this sense in keeping with Proulx's fiction, Bird Cloud is an attempt to demonstrate an answer to that question: we see characters through their relation to place, and in Proulx's case this means a passion for the stories that emerge from it.

With Annie Proulx

Pictures by Romney Francis are courtesy of Brisbane Better Bookshops. (The Courier Mail's photograph from the evening is here.)