Annie Proulx: Ive had a life. I see how slippery things can be
At 80, Annie Proulx is as acute (and prickly) as ever. As her latest book, Barkskins, is published, Lucy Rock visits her woodland home to talk trees, Trump and why shes bored with navel-gazing novels
Annie Proulx loves trees. For the past 10 years she has studied them, written about them and travelled the world looking at them. Recently she moved to a house set in a forest of lofty red cedars. It was here she discovered that not all trees love her.
Ive been sick since Ive arrived, she tells me as we settle into comfy grey sofas at her home 20 miles outside Seattle, Washington. Finally we figured out that, ironically, Im really allergic to red cedar, which is all around me. It brings on asthma and other symptoms. It affects my whole immune system, so I have to pull up stakes and go somewhere else where it wont follow me.
The Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain has created an oasis here, amid her five acres of woodland. Shrubs and saplings have been planted in the gardens, encouraging unwelcome visits from nibbling deer and even a bear. The four-bedroom wooden house (yes, red cedar, she thinks) has been renovated inside using natural tones and materials creamy walls, slate and wood for the floors. We sit in front of a stone fireplace flanked by well-stocked bookshelves and a coffee table where A History of Mens Fashion tops another pile of books. Picture windows frame views of the distant Cascade Mountains. Its cosy and serene.
But she plans to move to New England, where she and her four younger sisters lived as children, and one sister lives still. While she doesnt relish the upheaval, shes not wedded to Washington especially not Seattle, the thriving tech city where she briefly lived.
Its just a place that is more irritating to me than anything else, she says with a tiny shudder. Its one eternal traffic jam and everything seems mismanaged. I get tired of seeing people high-fiving each other. Its full of techies; its just bursting with tech people. My own son is one, so I cant complain.
Proulx moved to Washington two years ago after selling her beloved Bird Cloud, the house she built on 640 acres of wetlands, prairie and cliffs in Wyoming. She wrote about the painstaking two-year process it was completed in 2006 in her eponymous memoir of the place. That home suited her love of the natural world and the rural and remote, the usual subjects of her writing. I ask why she decided to leave and she replies with a shot of sarcasm. Because I sold it and the new owner didnt particularly want me there as well.
She pauses, then: I dont know. Ive asked myself that a thousand times. There was a lot of driving, hours and hours of driving, to get decent groceries and get anything done, to see the dentist blah blah blah. I do miss it, every part of it.
Married and divorced three times, Proulx lives alone; her youngest son, Morgan, the techie, lives in Seattle and stays over most weeks. She will clearly miss his visits when she goes. By her own admission in Bird Cloud, Proulx is bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered and single-minded.
She might be 80, but shes far from ready to slip into retirement. While her skiing, hunting and canoeing days are behind her, shes physically fit (apart from the tree allergy). Her mind still buzzes with story ideas. Her look is unfussy and unchanged: salt-and-pepper cropped hair, black-rimmed glasses, no jewellery, simple grey sweater and trousers. Her home is the same: tidy, tasteful and functional.
We meet to talk about her latest book, Barkskins, a 700-page novel of high drama whose theme is deforestation. It starts with two Frenchmen in the late 17th century, Ren Sel and Charles Duquet, arriving in New France (now the United States and Canada), where they work as woodcutters for a feudal lord. Sel marries a woman from the indigenous Mikmaq people, while Duquet runs away and sets up a successful timber company. The book recounts the displacement and resettlement of multiple generations of each man, finishing in 2013. It charts their travels across North America, China, Europe and New Zealand and includes all manner of violent deaths. All this is set against the destruction of the worlds forests where they make their livings and which they believe to be infinite.
Its kind of an old-fashioned book, Proulx says. Its long; it has a lot of characters; it takes a big theme. It isnt a navel-staring, dysfunctional-family thing thats so beloved of most American writers. Its different, but I think people probably miss those books that were written some time ago the big book that was written with care.