Annie Proulx, inspiration
Today, Annie Proulx has been named as the latest recipient of one of the highest honours in US fiction, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and praised for her “deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America”. You can read about this latest award here.
Annie Proulx describes herself as a ‘digger of the world,’ going on to say, ‘a whole set of metaphorical shovels is part of my tool collection,’ in her article 'Inspiration? Head Down the Back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales'.
The article goes into great depth about the particular way Proulx operates. It reinforces the connections between her extensive research and her award-winning novels. Themes of indigenous dialogue, fishing trips and the outback of America are introduced. You can almost see her ideas roll seamlessly into words on the page. She travels far and wide to create the stories we’ve come to know and love, collecting mismatched books and avoiding the library at all costs. Proulx keeps her eyes and ears open at all times and is adamant that that is where so many of her stories start – by endlessly absorbing human behaviour and the beauty of the natural world.
‘I listen attentively in bars and cafes, while standing in-line at the checkout counter’ – all good writers inhabit this same space and find that it’s one of their most essential tools. Proulx’s constant attention to the minutiae of the everyday world shows in her enviably naturalistic dialogue. In The Half-Skinned Steer, Rollo, a working class, born-and-bred American says ‘plenty of guys has them,’ giving away a thick southern US accent. Proulx is discreet and unobtrusive, but she executes speech and rhythm wonderfully, making a regional dialect jump from the page, simply by replacing ‘have’ for ‘has’ and ‘really’ for ‘real’. Her naturalistic dialogue is the result of a lifetime of hard work and it works subtly and so engagingly throughout all her stories.
For Proulx, listening is a vital part of her writing. Not only does her dialogue add gritty realism to her work, it also brings individuality, nuance and depth of understanding to all her characters so that readers find it easy to sympathise and engage with them. The way someone talks gives away so much about their class and background but only if the writer is sophisticated enough to make sure the dialect she writes is well-drawn and subtly observed. Lesser writers stumble here.
The glorious and sometimes bleak settings Proulx brings to life in her novels are also highlighted as important themes in her work. ‘The rules of road drift are simple: Always take a branching side route, stop often, get out and listen, walk around, see what you see.’ In her short stories, Proulx’s descriptions of mountainous countryside add depth and beauty to every part of her prose. In The Bunchgrass Edge of the World she writes – ‘THE COUNTRY APPEARED AS EMPTY GROUND, BIG sagebrush, rabbitbrush, intricate sky, flocks of small birds like packs of cards thrown up in the air, and a faint track drifting toward the red-walled horizon.’ She transports you to the scene and I believe that her acutely carved descriptions can only come from first-hand experiences.
Not only does Proulx manage to visually transport you into a story, she is also able to awaken other senses. ‘The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey, of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheep soap.’ A description I find totally captivating. Another part of her wide commitment to research is exploring all the extra details that are ignored by lesser writers, ‘I need to know which mushrooms smell like maraschino cherries and which like dead rats…’ Proulx pinpoints the smells that add depth to a description and has the ability to make readers retch or sigh with satisfaction. Proulx observes everything, capturing reality in a way that will not only enthral the reader but always manages to sound effortless and so subtle. Try this description for example, ‘note that a magpie in flight briefly resembles a wooden spoon…’
Perfect and so accessible.