February 9 - February 15, 1995


aNO FOAM CUPS: E. Annie Proulx is in Tucson for the first time and she's thirsty, terribly.

She comes downstairs to a conference room at the Windmill Inn and asks her guide from the Arizona Humanities Council for a glass of water.

"But not if it's in those plastic cups," she says. "I hate the plastic cups."

As a matter of fact, I allow, standing nervously at the ready for our scheduled interview, the cups are foam. Proulx gives me a piercing look and heads for the soda machine. She doesn't want foam. The AHC woman anxiously hurries off to find a glass of glass.

Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News, has had a difficult couple of days. She signed on for this two-day Writing Life residency sponsored by the AHC a year and a half ago and now the timing is bad. She's just moved from Vermont to Wyoming and she wants to get back to her writing. She drove down to Arizona in her truck and she was in snowstorms all the way through Colorado and into Santa Fe. And she's been on Arizona's hot roads all afternoon. She's probably used enough truckstop foam cups to build a Newfoundland dinghy.

The author's a big woman, close to six feet, I'd say, and she's formidable-looking. Dressed all in black, hair a wiry gray-black, she's got these piercing eyes that seem to sum you up in a minute. She's not interested in small talk. I should feel prepared for this interview. I respect Proulx's work enormously. I've read all three of her books--besides Shipping News, there's her first novel Postcards and Heart Songs, a book of short stories. Heck, I've even read some of the journalism articles she wrote years ago. I've got pages of questions to ask her and I've got only 20 minutes.

Still, I'm starting to feel like the bumbling Quoyle, the hapless newspaperman of Shipping News who "had a fatal flair for the false passive."

"So what brings you to Wisconsin?" I say.

"Wisconsin?" She shoots back, peering up at me. If the look was piercing before, it's withering now.

Damn. I never have gotten all those big sprawling midwestern and upper western states straight. Wyoming, I meant Wyoming.

Then I flub again. Proulx has been telling me that some ancestors of hers founded the town of LaBarge, Wyoming, and that's one reason she's ended up there. That and the fact that some 60 million people now live within a day's drive of Vermont. I'm thinking, LaBarge, a French name like Proulx, and I misspeak again.

"Are you Quebecois?" I ask. What I meant to ask was whether her family was originally from Quebec. I know all about Proulx's bio, know that she was born in Connecticut.

Another one of those looks, this one even fiercer.

"I'm an American," she says.

A hotel housekeeper barges in. The man's heard the famous author wanted something but her request for a glass has gotten garbled along the way.

"I understand you need a chalkboard," he says.

Proulx, still thirsty, grimaces. Things are not going well. I should have believed Proulx's publisher, whose publicity person assured me that Proulx does NOT do interviews. I should have believed her agent, who said the same thing. I should have believed the Arizona Humanities Council, who dittoed the other two.

Then, mysteriously, the AHC offered to set one up while she was here. I thought I'd be up to the task. Once upon a time I won over Bobbie Ann Mason, another author who's a reluctant interviewee. Mason even invited me to a party later.

I don't think Annie Proulx's ever going to be inviting me over.

She is not amused by my question about Postcards, about the overdevelopment that's poisoning rural America. I wonder whether the book hit her emotionally closer to home than the others, since she seems distressed by the loss of the land in Vermont and Wyoming, indeed all over the country.

"I don't have an emotional relationship with the books I write," she says. "It's an intellectual exercise."

Nor does she find any validity to my theory that there is a connection between the journalism she did for outdoor magazines for 20 years and the fiction writing she does now.

"No, I've just always had an inquisitive mind," she says.

"It's not that the novels are constructed from bits and pieces of the articles."

But it's not all bad. When I comment that she writes about men with a great deal of empathy, she says, expansively, "I grew up in a family of all girls. It made all of us very curious about males. I like a lot of outdoor things. At the time I started doing them--canoeing and fishing--women weren't doing them. My buddies were men. I like men. That's reflected in my work. I think many women writers write about women because they feel an obligation to."

Discussing the "big themes" of her books, she notes, "I like broad themes, the big questions. The interior life has been the stuff of our novels for a long time. I don't like to read or write that kind of thing. I like what I call edge books, that deal with people on a tight wire, with places that are in dissolution, with social change. That's what I like about Arizona, what excites me. Thousands of people pouring in, all these water issues. Water is a great novel waiting to be written."

Speaking of water, housekeeping comes back with a pitcher of ice. No water. No glasses. The man genially tells Proulx that there are plenty of foam cups over there on the sideboard.

Proulx's still thirsty and I'm running out of questions when the AHC woman comes back to put a blessed end to the interview. Proulx heads out, graciously saying she hopes she's given me something I can use, perhaps thinking of Quoyle, who lives in constant fear of getting fired.

I decide to make use of some of that ice. I pick the pitcher up and aim it into my foam cup. Proulx, of course, is right about those cups. The foam tips over. The ice scatters all over the table and onto the floor.

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February 9 - February 15, 1995

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