Annie Proulx keeps her distance

Literature: The author of `The Shipping News' intends to write no more novels.

January 04, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Pulitzer Prize-winning author E. Annie Proulx casually dropped a bomb:

"I hope never to write another novel," said Proulx, whose second novel, The Shipping News, won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and has been made into a major-release film starring Kevin Spacey. "I prefer writing short stories. They're difficult and demanding, but they don't eat you alive the way a novel does."

At that particular moment, Proulx might have been feeling especially consumed. When she was interviewed at the Four Seasons Hotel, where she was promoting the film, she was just days away from finishing her fourth novel, That Old Ace in the Hole. All she would say was that it has to do with the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle, hog farms and windmills.

Not only does Proulx set her novels in vast, unpeopled spaces, but she also lives in them, making her home in the tiny town of Centennial, Wyo., which is 175 miles from the nearest cineplex. She watches perhaps one film a year.

So when a producer approached her about adapting The Shipping News for the big screen, Proulx stayed far away from the process. "That's why they have agents," she said. Proulx never read one version of the screenplay, never visited the set and never met the actors. But one early development caught her attention.

"I was definitely depressed when they thought John Travolta was going to be the lead and that it was going to be shot on the coast of Maine," she said. "I thought, `Oh man, this is going to be so bad.' "

The project moved on without the Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction star. Proulx is quite happy with the final product, which currently is running in area theaters. Kevin Spacey is the lead character, Quoyle. Judi Dench (Chocolat) is Aunt Agnis, Cate Blanchett (The Gift) is Quoyle's predatory wife, Petal, and Julianne Moore (Hannibal) is the quiet local Wavy.

"I was fearful of a romantic, water-downed thing," Proulx said. "I was braced to be disappointed, and I was enormously pleased. I found it highly intelligent and a witty, strong thing unto itself."

Her distaste for ostentation is apparent from her appearance (she has red-tinted hair and wears glasses) and even her name. The E is for Edna, but Proulx (pronounced Proo) goes by Annie. And while she doesn't dismiss the movie industry, she wants nothing to do with it professionally.

"I take it seriously, with interest," said. "In this country, literary work isn't really validated in the minds of many people unless or until it is made into a film."

Proulx always thought her book would be difficult to make into a movie. Producer Linda Goldstein Knowlton acquired the rights while The Shipping News was in galley form, before Proulx became a literary sensation with its release in 1994. Proulx's "overnight" success at age 57 - now, she's 65 - gave heft to her notion that writers should accrue as many experiences as possible before attempting a novel.

She was a postal worker, waitress, free-lance magazine writer and mother of four before her first novel, Postcards, about New England farmers, was published in 1992. Her second novel was inspired by a map of Newfoundland that Proulx had come upon years before. She was transfixed by the topography and places with such names such as Bay of Despair and Dead Man's Cove. Proulx made repeated visits to the Canadian island and chatted up the locals. She emerged with The Shipping News, a tapestry of a harsh landscape that could heal the battered psyche of a makeshift family.

Proulx's third novel, an immigrant saga called Accordion Crimes, came out in 1996. Her last collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, was published in 1999.

The protagonists of Proulx's stories are mostly men, and Proulx has had admittedly complicated relationships with the opposite sex, divorcing three times. She is not seeking new companionship. "I have work to do," she said.

A home that the author keeps in Newfoundland has become a small tourist attraction. Visitors take pictures of it from atop a hill. The author can deal with the nuisance, but her handyman took a little time adjusting.

Early in the film's development, she said, location scouts appeared at the home and said they were from Columbia, as in Columbia-Tri-Star Pictures. The handyman thought they were South American drug dealers and forced them off the property.

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