Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Readings on the Rio Grande: Annie Proulx

I went to hear Annie Proulx (pronounced Prue and rhymes with true) speak last Monday night at UNM's Woodward Hall as part of the "Readings on the Rio Grande" series ponsored by Bookworks and ABC Libraries.  Couldn’t talk anyone else—niece Jenny nor one of four CNM colleagues—into going with me so, like the Little Red Hen, I did it myself.

Proulx began by reading pages 15-22 of her new nonfiction book, Bird Cloud.  I enjoyed hearing stories from this literary elder in the company of 100-150 other members of the book tribe.  All we lacked was a bonfire, and that was for the best since the lecture hall is equipped with an overhead sprinkler system.

After reading from her book, Proulx introduced the subject of books in general and read parts of a newspaper column on the topic of—or similar to—‘50 things you can do with a book’ as opposed to an e-book.  I thought it odd that she made unfavorable comparisons between the two; after all, both are books, and both require reading.  A more suitable comparison, in my opinion, would have been between books and movies.  (I’m reminded of the statement—I forget who made it—that “There are worse things than illiteracy—such as aliteracy.”)

An aside:  in my online search to find the actual newspaper column Proulx excerpted, I came across this comparison between e-books and traditional books. As this webpage shows, authors earn less money when a reader buys an e-book instead of a hardback book whereas publishers and readers save more money on e-books.  But I sensed that Proulx objects to e-books not out of greed but out of love for bound, print-on-paper pages that hands can pick up, hold, riffle, and annotate.

At the end of the event, Proulx took questions.  Someone asked, “Who are your favorite writers?” and she answered with a long list that—drat!—I wasn’t prepared to write down.  Since she is one of my very favorite writers, I was keen to know from whom she draws her reading pleasure and inspiration.  I remember only these three:
  • Aidan Higgins
  • Dagoberto Gilb, one of the few writers, she said, who write about working class people. (When she mentioned his name, I remembered reading and enjoying a book of his short stories back in the ‘80s or early '90s and hearing him read at a New Mexico State University event sponsored by the English Department when I was a graduate student there.)
  • Francisco Goldman, Guatamalan/Jewish American writer whose wife died in Mexico during a resort vacation three years ago and whose novel, Say Her Name, about the tragedy is being published imminently

I did note that most of the writers on Proulx's list were men, and that makes sense to me since I’ve found her to be a “masculine” writer.  That is, if I hadn’t known her name, I would have assumed that Shipping News and Postcards were written by a man.  Why?  Because the writing is so technically precise and knowledgeable about traditionally male pursuits and because it describes men so insightfully.

Another person asked her if she works on more than one writing project at a time, and she said she did—that when she comes to a hard place in one piece of writing and doesn’t know yet how to proceed, she turns to another.

The last person asked what a typical day of writing looks like for Proulx, and she replied that she has no typical days because she travels so much, admitting that it’s not an ideal situation for a writer.

I bought two of her books and stood in line to get her autograph on them.  I was probably the eighth person in line, and she signed quickly.  As I stood in line, it occurred to me to ask her if she has a favorite aphorism or proverb and, if so, request her to write it above her signature.  (I’m a collector of quotations and sayings, and they often spring into my mouth on suitable occasions:  “A stitch in time saves nine.”  “Better to do and regret than not to do and regret.”  “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”)  But the question I asked—“Do you have a favorite proverb?”—wasn’t clear enough to express my request.

“No,” she replied.  Pause.  “Do you?”

“Many,” I said, surprised by her question and then realizing she was being polite.  I decided not to take more of her time by explaining myself.

In hindsight, it may be best she didn’t respond with a proverb.  She could have written, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool that to speak and remove all doubt.”  Or “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”  Or “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As another proverb advises, “Be careful what you wish for.”

One of Proulx’s books that I bought that night was Close Range: Wyoming Stories, a book of short stories that includes “Brokeback Mountain,” which first appeared in the New Yorker magazine and then was made into a movie.  I loved the movie but had never read the short story until yesterday.  As I did, scenes from the movie flooded back to me, and I felt again the pain of Ennis and Jack’s loss--pain that Ennis endures because “if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”

Proulx spoke of how she came to write “Brokeback Mountain” and her other stories and books, fruits of her choice to write about the lives of people in isolated rural communities.  And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I like her writing so well:  she writes about the kinds of people and communities I grew up in:  Park River, ND, and Clayton, NM.  


  1. Hi, thanks for this posting. I wrote a review (brief, it was cut n cut n cut) for the Local iQ where I'm an assoc ed on Proulx's book and was out of town -- in Wyo actually -- when she appeared. I was curious if she's as gruff in person as she seems in Bird Cloud and it sounds like she is. :) Still, I love her writing, and I appreciated your noting of her "masculine" style of writing. Did she mention if she lives in Albq or SF? Bookworks said Albq and another review said SF. I've been looking for her locally (in grocery stores, in the bosque walking) ever since.

  2. Hi, Cristina. I didn't find Proulx gruff at all but guarded, yes. In her shoes, I'm sure I would be the same. She did say she lives part of the year in Albuquerque--no mention of Santa Fe. I haven't yet read "Bird Cloud" because I just bought it.

    Thanks for your comment. I too love Proulx's writing. Nancy