E. Annie Proulx's novel journey to literary celebrity status American Original

May 15, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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