Annie Proulx: “Reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of American novelist Annie Proulx, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for her second novel, The Shipping News.

Proulx was born Edna Ann Proulx in Norwich, Connecticut. Her father’s family had come to the U.S. from Quebec. Both her parents valued fresh air and exercise, and Proulx spent her childhood traipsing outside and reading, especially science fiction and books by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. As an adolescent, she was devoted to William Faulkner, S.J. Perelman, and Dante. She said, “Almost every book I’ve read has left its mark.”

She attended Colby College briefly, but left to get married. She had children and later returned to college, earning a B.A. from the University of Vermont, but she dropped out of a Ph.D. program after realizing she wasn’t fit for the academic life. She said: “I’m not a person who works well with others. Having to get along with people you don’t respect very much, having to deal with a bureaucracy, just the whole weight of idiots turned me off.”

Proulx divorced her husband and raised three sons as a single mother, earning money by writing how-to books like. . .The Fine Art of Salad Gardening. She was also writing short stories about rural life that often involved hunting and fishing, which she sold to magazines like Gray’s Sporting Journal and Esquire. She even traded one story for a canoe when the magazine didn’t have enough to pay her. . . .

Her first story collection, Heart Songs and Other Stories, was published in 1988. She wrote mostly about rural life and the men who worked farms, mills, and oil rigs. Her writing style was spare and poetic. She once described a female character as “thin as a folded dollar bill, her hand as narrow and cold as a trout.”

Proulx was 56 when her first novel, Postcards, was published. She was living in Newfoundland  and working on what would become her second novel, The Shipping News, about a sad man named Quoyle who moves to a small fishing village in Newfoundland. . . .

She says, “I wrote that one because I was madly in love with Newfoundland, so for me it was a joy.” Proulx was inspired to write the book after finding an old copy of The Ashley Book of Knots at a yard sale. She bought it for a dollar and was fascinated by the illustrations and quotes, which she ended up using for chapter headings in the book. The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a best-seller. It was made into a film in 1992, as was her short story Brokeback Mountain, about two cowboys who fall in love. . . .

Proulx’s books often detail the labors and history of rural work like fur trapping and hog farming. She researches on the internet and also likes to drive and take long walks when she’s working out a scene. When she’s finishing a project, she works 16 hours a day. . . .

Now 85, she calls herself “bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered, single-minded.” Her newest novel, which took her 10 years to write, is Barkskins, a 700-page novel about capitalism and deforestation that begins in the 17th century.

On writing, she says: “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different worlds on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”

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