Jonathan Raban: I felt pretty happy that I was still alive

The author on his recovery after a stroke and his fears for a dis-United States

On 11 June 2011, a few days before his 69th birthday, Jonathan Raban was sitting with his daughter Julia at home in Seattle. Hed felt foggy and out of sorts since waking. Having reheated a casserole, he looked down to see that, try as he might, he couldnt make the knife in his right hand touch the food on his plate.

His voice lifts in remembered surprise. It was very strange. I said to Julia: I think Im having a stroke.

He was. A few hours later, Raban was in a hospital in the north of the city, looking at scans of his brain. The stroke was haemorrhagic, and massive: the damage to the right side of his body would be impossible to erase.

Carefully balancing a glass of red wine with his good hand, he gestures down at the wheelchair he now uses. Not quite instantly, but within a very few weeks, I was transformed into an old man. A second later, he concedes gruffly: I did feel pretty happy that I was still alive.

Appropriately for a man best known for his nautical writing, Rabans home feels rather like the upturned hull of a boat, with coffee-coloured redwood beams and a clutter of charts, sailing photos, engravings and mock-ups of the covers of his books. Every so often theres the drone of a seaplane coming in to land.

As soon as he got home from rehab,Raban did what he has always done: he began to write, and to research accounts of other peoples strokes (mostly unreadable, he grunts), English social history, his parents letters; searching for a way to braid the experience with the other skeins of his life.

I remember a doctor came to the rehabilitation ward, about my age, and said: Oh, youre the one who used to be a writer. I told him: Im still a writer, and I intend to write about this.

Raban talks in unhurried, intricately woven sentences, languid vowels barely touched by two decades in the US; it feels a little surreal to encounter him here in the Pacific Northwest. But Seattle, he goes on to explain, is as close to a home as he has found. Born in Norfolk in 1942 and educated at the University of Hull where he became friendly with Philip Larkin he started out as an academic. But as his anthology-cum-memoir For Love and Money (1989) attests, he lasted only a few years, writing fiction and journalism during University of East Anglia vacations and trying to gain a ticket of entrance to the city at the end of the line. He launched himself as a freelance writer in London in 1969, lodging with the poet Robert Lowell and becoming part of the bibulous in-crowd that centred on Ian Hamiltons magazine New Review.

The
The Mississippi river, the subject of Old Glory. Photograph: Macduff Everton/Getty Images

Even the capital seems to have been a temporary halt. Within a few years Raban was flitting around the Middle East, as recorded in Arabia: Through the Looking Glass (1979); then floating down the Mississippi in an open-topped boat (Old Glory, 1981). Soon after that adventure, be bought a larger boat and piloted it around the British Isles. The project became Coasting (1986), which is as sui generis as Rabans other books part memoir, part rite of passage, part discourse on fluid mechanics, part sly satire on British islomania during the Falklands campaign. In the wake of Brexit, it is a salutary read.

Afloat, Raban writes, he found a sea-distance that matched his sense of estrangement from Britain, and the grounding stability that eluded him on land. But the thing that genuinely fascinates him, and makes his prose leap and surge, is water an eerily still North Sea off East Anglia, as calm and full of mercurial colour as a pool of motor oil; a corner of the north Pacific off British Columbia, like a bolt of grey silk, lightly undulating, that seeps its way into his brooding travelogue Passage to Juneau (1999).

The love affair began early, Raban recalls. Water, one way or another, hasbeen a means of escape for me from pretty much infancy. When Isawa river or a pond or a lake, Isawfreedom and solitude. I could behappy in those places, in a way that I couldnt be at home.

Raban has often written about his tussles with his father, an army captain-cum-cleric whose return from the second world war he brusquely resented as a child, and whose dog collar and cassock, with its greasy antique patina like the sheen on a blowfly, represented everything to rebel against. But his interest in literature is something he owes to his mother, who once wrote short stories for womens magazines.

The
The thing that fascinates Jonathan Raban is water. Photograph: Alamy

She taught me to read, which was my one proficiency. My father gets all the attention, but partly thats because he intruded on this relationship with my mother. There is a curt laugh. I harboured the usual fantasy.

It seems not insignificant that his first published work, printed in John Londons Weekly when he was 17, concerned a child whose father is presented with a shattered china dog as a gift after returning from the war. Rabans writing has grown infinitely more sophisticated since then, but its leitmotifs struggles with overbearing authority, a search for refuge in a world that seems aslant have remained.

He insists his arrival in the US, tracked with droll self-scrutiny in Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990), wasnt intended to be permanent he retains British citizenship but it seems appropriate that he alighted on the West Coast, the favoured destination for people wanting to slough off old lives and try on new ones for size. One of that books most moving chapters chronicles the time Raban spent with Korean immigrants to Seattle, whose travel-shocked recalibration to wide wide wide America is partly, one senses, his own. The section closes with Raban setting himself up downtown in a former luxury hotel; in his room is a gold-painted desk that had once been used by Elvis, and a name label reading Rainbird on the door.

Marriage to Jean, a dance critic and journalist in the city, swiftly followed; Julia was born not long after that, and is now in her mid-20s. Among the cavalcade of identities Raban has tried out during his 74 years, the one that really seems to fit him is fatherhood, which came late. Its a role he still seems enjoyably astonished by, and which has provided some much-needed anchorage. Though the relationship with Jean came to an end, Julia now lives nearby and the two see each other nearly every day.

Im interested in his thoughts on genre; though his books are filed in the travel sections of bookshops, does he feel himself to be a travel writer? He snorts. I see a travel writer as someone whos sampling other peoples holidays and writing a bright little piece about the glories of Weston-super-Mare or something. Bruce Chatwin bridled at being called a travel writer; when Songlines was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook award, he wrote a stiff letter saying that it was impossible for it to be entered because it was most certainly an invented journey. I feel sympathetic to that.

A
A protest march against President-elect Donald Trump in Seattle, Washington, 14 November 2016. Photograph: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

Wait didnt Raban himself win the Thomas Cook? His grin is lizardish. Twice. But I was hungry for prizes.

Though travel often features in his non-fiction and the three novels Raban has so far written, he most often uses the verb intransitively, with no obvious destination in mind. I always thought of it as escaping from genre together, the mixture of memoir and travelling not going to get anywhere, but going for the goings sake. Perhaps the notion is pretentious, but its of what a journey could really be: a miniature scale-model life, which you would survive miraculously at the end.

Though he talks with wit and candour, there is a reserve about him that Englishness, perhaps that seems at odds with the intimate scrutiny of his prose. I ask if hes ever regretted committing something to the page. The grin reappears. I want to say, je ne regrette rien. Not much.

Even in Passage to Juneau, which chronicles in agonising detail the death of his father and the collapse of his marriage to Jean? Even that.

The books only begin to make sense in long recollection, he adds: Writing about journeys, I have to forget the memory in its too-precise form and dive into the experience as if it were happening almost fictionally. Its a getting away from the experience in order to be able to write about it.

Im curious about what happened to the boat. Oh, it was sold, even before the stroke. Id written as much as Icould about sailing. Also, my appetite for it diminished sharply after 2001. Want to meet Republicans in this part of the world? They all have boats.

It is impossible to avoid the subject of Donald Trump, whose victory Raban had been dreading for months, and which still plainly nauseates him. Hes been rereading Ian Kershaws biography of Hitler, an unlikely but nevertheless effective source of consolation: The consolation comes in the very different state of Weimar Germany and the contemporary US. For all Trumps blustering authoritarianism, he would run straight into the checks and balances of Americas state and city governments.

Jonathan
Jonathan Raban is best known for hs nautical writing. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Soon after the election, Seattles mayor, Ed Murray, held a press conference to say that the city would remain a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, and similar statements have been made in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

So hes optimistic, in a way?

Trump may well turn out to be more of a danger for the rest of the world than for the dis-United States. But whatever happens is going to be abloody, bloody mess.

These days his journeys may be moreimaginative than real, but he fights shy of the idea that Ive encountered Raban at rest. His thinking is as restless and ambulatory as ever; the wheelchair is another kind of narrative vehicle, a fine place in which to write and read. When we meet hes halfway through the proofs of a biography of Jan Morris, whom heencountered in Cairo: A proper traveller, he writes in Arabia, atouchruefully.

Most of all, though, hes mapping out the territory of the new book, and the connections he wants to draw between his early life and the lightning bolt that hit him in 2011. Progress is slower than hed like; more meandering. There are far too many threads.

He sighs faintly, and reaches for thebottle of red. But then, a friend reminded me over email, there alwaysare.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/30/jonathan-raban-author-recovery-stroke-fears-dis-united-states

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.


Jake
Riding high: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lees 2005 film based on Proulxs short story. Photograph: Kimberly French/AP

It has been a decade in the making, during which time she has read countless historical documents, diaries and rare books on forestry. I was trained as a historian, so thats what I love to do, she says. (It isnt all shes been doing in her 70s: as well as writing Bird Cloud, she has also edited a book on the Red Desert in Wyoming, published a collection of short stories and written the libretto for an operatic version of Brokeback Mountain.)

The deforestation is what Barkskins is all about, she says. There are two epigraphs in the book. One of them is the key to the book, but nobody reads epigraphs, which is fine by me.

I cant remember them either. Er, can you expand on that? I ask.

No. Silence. I swallow.

Its on a page at the front where the epigraphs go She shrugs her shoulders, staring at my discomfort. I am transported back to the classroom.

I find the quote later. Its taken from a 1967 essay written by the historian Lynn Townsend White Jr in which he put forward the idea that Christianity was the root of the ecological crisis: By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.

Ask Proulx about something shes not keen to talk about and there is a pause before she answers coolly and sparingly. I enquire about her children and she gives the briefest details. Her daughter, Muffy, by her first husband (whom Proulx dropped out of college to marry when she was just 20), stayed with her father when they divorced after five years. Proulx married again in the 60s and had three sons Jonathan, Gillis and Morgan before divorcing and marrying for a third time in 1969.


Annie
Wild at heart: Proulx as a young woman camping
in the woods near her home. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

She once said that she grew up in an era when you were supposed to get married, adding: I dont think I was a particularly good or diligent mother. It took a long time for the obvious to become obvious: I could not operate in a conventional family.

These days, Proulx says, she and her children enjoy regular get-togethers. I get along with all my children rather well and they like each other, which makes me very happy. You want them to be friends as well as relatives.

Find the right subject and Proulx is stimulating company: animated, occasionally passionate and wryly amusing. We talk about climate change. She tells me about an initiative to restore the number of monarch butterflies by urging gardeners to plant milkweed. Are people doing enough, I ask. Some people are, but most people couldnt care less about it. They would give you a blank stare if you mentioned that monarch butterflies need milkweed to complete their life cycle.

I mention the Paris climate change agreement signed by 177 countries last April. Too late, she thinks. Some of the countries that are now in play in the world economy and culture dont have an interest in those things. They are still happy to rip out their raw materials and natural resources for things like refrigerators and iPhones. They dont seem to get that there isnt any more.

Her voice rises: Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened. I ask if the thought of Donald Trump, a denier of manmade climate change, in the White House frightens her. I think the country has more or less brought this on themselves, she says. I dont have personal feelings about it because thats not who I am, but I am watching.


Winds
Winds of change: at home in Vershire, Vermont, back in 1994. Photograph: Toby Talbot/Associated Press

Proulx finds her strengths harder to list than her faults, but she thinks shes a good observer. Im one of the ones at a party where you can always tell the writer because Im leaning against the wall watching everybody else have fun.

Her self-confessed shyness is easy to misinterpret it as crotchetiness. Look at her reaction to literary prizes. I know that one should feel grateful and pleased and delighted, and jump up and down and scream, but I couldnt do it. As for women-only prizes, harrumph. This has always bothered me, the division: as though there was something about women who write that is very different.

For Proulx writing is all about the making of the object. I look on it as a craftsman would making a table. Her research is meticulous. She visited all the countries that feature in Barkskins. Shes a frequent, intrepid traveller, thanks to a pioneering spirit instilled as a child when her family moved many times Vermont, North Carolina, Maine and Rhode Island because of her French- Canadian fathers job with a textile company.

She ended up with an abundance of material and had to cut 150 pages from the first draft, a process she describes as maddening. My editor, Nan Graham, was absolutely wonderful, but I hated her deeply while we were doing this because she wanted to take out some of my favourite things. A lot of the deforestation material went.

While much of the book is bleak, there are moments of dark humour. I mention finding an incident involving a wig amusing. Shes delighted. Do you? Good, my editor wanted to cut that. Youre a Brit, thats why.

Proulx was a latecomer to the literary world, publishing her first novel, Postcards, when she was 56. She had abandoned a PhD in the mid-70s to support her family by scraping an income as a freelance journalist, writing about everything from apples to mice and canoeing, and producing how-to books on cider making and DIY. During these years, with her third marriage disintegrating, she lived a back-to-the-land lifestyle with her boys, moving around several backwoods towns in Vermont where she fished, hunted and gardened. She later described herself to an interviewer in the early- 90s as wild at this time, her examples including: throwing a knife at (and thank God missing) someone I thought I hated; driving north in the south-bound lane; hanging out with a wide variety of rough dudes in a wide variety of situations.

In 1988 her first collection of stories was published and the novels that followed brought her instant acclaim. She has no regrets that success came late. You have time to have a life, to see change, to understand a bit how people work, how the world works, how society works, how things shift around, how slippery things can be, everything from politics to personal relationships. Its a great advantage to have that stuff under your belt when you start to write.

Talking with Proulx is like reading one of her books: bracing yet rewarding. She speaks as she writes, and lives the same way: with measured efficiency and flashes of mischievous humour.

As our interview comes to an end, she picks up A History of Mens Fashion and flicks through the pictures. Chuckling at an artist in a garish shirt, she says: I dont remember his work, but who could forget that haircut? I ask if shes interested in fashion. Only for the sake of characters. I like them to have the clothes they might have worn.

Then its back to the trees. She gamely agrees to pose for photographs amid the red cedars. The photographer had set up his equipment before he knew of her allergy and she wont hear of him moving it. It takes a day or so before they affect me. The bear could get me first, she jokes as we walk outside, before adding wistfully: I love the way they look. Its too bad they make me miserable.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx is published by Fourth Estate at 18.99. To order a copy for 15.19, go to bookshop.theguardian.com

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/05/annie-proulx-ive-had-a-life-i-see-how-slippery-things-can-be

Jonathan Raban: I felt pretty happy that I was still alive

The author on his recovery after a stroke and his fears for a dis-United States

On 11 June 2011, a few days before his 69th birthday, Jonathan Raban was sitting with his daughter Julia at home in Seattle. Hed felt foggy and out of sorts since waking. Having reheated a casserole, he looked down to see that, try as he might, he couldnt make the knife in his right hand touch the food on his plate.

His voice lifts in remembered surprise. It was very strange. I said to Julia: I think Im having a stroke.

He was. A few hours later, Raban was in a hospital in the north of the city, looking at scans of his brain. The stroke was haemorrhagic, and massive: the damage to the right side of his body would be impossible to erase.

Carefully balancing a glass of red wine with his good hand, he gestures down at the wheelchair he now uses. Not quite instantly, but within a very few weeks, I was transformed into an old man. A second later, he concedes gruffly: I did feel pretty happy that I was still alive.

Appropriately for a man best known for his nautical writing, Rabans home feels rather like the upturned hull of a boat, with coffee-coloured redwood beams and a clutter of charts, sailing photos, engravings and mock-ups of the covers of his books. Every so often theres the drone of a seaplane coming in to land.

As soon as he got home from rehab,Raban did what he has always done: he began to write, and to research accounts of other peoples strokes (mostly unreadable, he grunts), English social history, his parents letters; searching for a way to braid the experience with the other skeins of his life.

I remember a doctor came to the rehabilitation ward, about my age, and said: Oh, youre the one who used to be a writer. I told him: Im still a writer, and I intend to write about this.

Raban talks in unhurried, intricately woven sentences, languid vowels barely touched by two decades in the US; it feels a little surreal to encounter him here in the Pacific Northwest. But Seattle, he goes on to explain, is as close to a home as he has found. Born in Norfolk in 1942 and educated at the University of Hull where he became friendly with Philip Larkin he started out as an academic. But as his anthology-cum-memoir For Love and Money (1989) attests, he lasted only a few years, writing fiction and journalism during University of East Anglia vacations and trying to gain a ticket of entrance to the city at the end of the line. He launched himself as a freelance writer in London in 1969, lodging with the poet Robert Lowell and becoming part of the bibulous in-crowd that centred on Ian Hamiltons magazine New Review.


The
The Mississippi river, the subject of Old Glory. Photograph: Macduff Everton/Getty Images

Even the capital seems to have been a temporary halt. Within a few years Raban was flitting around the Middle East, as recorded in Arabia: Through the Looking Glass (1979); then floating down the Mississippi in an open-topped boat (Old Glory, 1981). Soon after that adventure, be bought a larger boat and piloted it around the British Isles. The project became Coasting (1986), which is as sui generis as Rabans other books part memoir, part rite of passage, part discourse on fluid mechanics, part sly satire on British islomania during the Falklands campaign. In the wake of Brexit, it is a salutary read.

Afloat, Raban writes, he found a sea-distance that matched his sense of estrangement from Britain, and the grounding stability that eluded him on land. But the thing that genuinely fascinates him, and makes his prose leap and surge, is water an eerily still North Sea off East Anglia, as calm and full of mercurial colour as a pool of motor oil; a corner of the north Pacific off British Columbia, like a bolt of grey silk, lightly undulating, that seeps its way into his brooding travelogue Passage to Juneau (1999).

The love affair began early, Raban recalls. Water, one way or another, hasbeen a means of escape for me from pretty much infancy. When Isawa river or a pond or a lake, Isawfreedom and solitude. I could behappy in those places, in a way that I couldnt be at home.

Raban has often written about his tussles with his father, an army captain-cum-cleric whose return from the second world war he brusquely resented as a child, and whose dog collar and cassock, with its greasy antique patina like the sheen on a blowfly, represented everything to rebel against. But his interest in literature is something he owes to his mother, who once wrote short stories for womens magazines.


The
The thing that fascinates Jonathan Raban is water. Photograph: Alamy

She taught me to read, which was my one proficiency. My father gets all the attention, but partly thats because he intruded on this relationship with my mother. There is a curt laugh. I harboured the usual fantasy.

It seems not insignificant that his first published work, printed in John Londons Weekly when he was 17, concerned a child whose father is presented with a shattered china dog as a gift after returning from the war. Rabans writing has grown infinitely more sophisticated since then, but its leitmotifs struggles with overbearing authority, a search for refuge in a world that seems aslant have remained.

He insists his arrival in the US, tracked with droll self-scrutiny in Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990), wasnt intended to be permanent he retains British citizenship but it seems appropriate that he alighted on the West Coast, the favoured destination for people wanting to slough off old lives and try on new ones for size. One of that books most moving chapters chronicles the time Raban spent with Korean immigrants to Seattle, whose travel-shocked recalibration to wide wide wide America is partly, one senses, his own. The section closes with Raban setting himself up downtown in a former luxury hotel; in his room is a gold-painted desk that had once been used by Elvis, and a name label reading Rainbird on the door.

Marriage to Jean, a dance critic and journalist in the city, swiftly followed; Julia was born not long after that, and is now in her mid-20s. Among the cavalcade of identities Raban has tried out during his 74 years, the one that really seems to fit him is fatherhood, which came late. Its a role he still seems enjoyably astonished by, and which has provided some much-needed anchorage. Though the relationship with Jean came to an end, Julia now lives nearby and the two see each other nearly every day.

Im interested in his thoughts on genre; though his books are filed in the travel sections of bookshops, does he feel himself to be a travel writer? He snorts. I see a travel writer as someone whos sampling other peoples holidays and writing a bright little piece about the glories of Weston-super-Mare or something. Bruce Chatwin bridled at being called a travel writer; when Songlines was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook award, he wrote a stiff letter saying that it was impossible for it to be entered because it was most certainly an invented journey. I feel sympathetic to that.


A
A protest march against President-elect Donald Trump in Seattle, Washington, 14 November 2016. Photograph: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

Wait didnt Raban himself win the Thomas Cook? His grin is lizardish. Twice. But I was hungry for prizes.

Though travel often features in his non-fiction and the three novels Raban has so far written, he most often uses the verb intransitively, with no obvious destination in mind. I always thought of it as escaping from genre together, the mixture of memoir and travelling not going to get anywhere, but going for the goings sake. Perhaps the notion is pretentious, but its of what a journey could really be: a miniature scale-model life, which you would survive miraculously at the end.

Though he talks with wit and candour, there is a reserve about him that Englishness, perhaps that seems at odds with the intimate scrutiny of his prose. I ask if hes ever regretted committing something to the page. The grin reappears. I want to say, je ne regrette rien. Not much.

Even in Passage to Juneau, which chronicles in agonising detail the death of his father and the collapse of his marriage to Jean? Even that.

The books only begin to make sense in long recollection, he adds: Writing about journeys, I have to forget the memory in its too-precise form and dive into the experience as if it were happening almost fictionally. Its a getting away from the experience in order to be able to write about it.

Im curious about what happened to the boat. Oh, it was sold, even before the stroke. Id written as much as Icould about sailing. Also, my appetite for it diminished sharply after 2001. Want to meet Republicans in this part of the world? They all have boats.

It is impossible to avoid the subject of Donald Trump, whose victory Raban had been dreading for months, and which still plainly nauseates him. Hes been rereading Ian Kershaws biography of Hitler, an unlikely but nevertheless effective source of consolation: The consolation comes in the very different state of Weimar Germany and the contemporary US. For all Trumps blustering authoritarianism, he would run straight into the checks and balances of Americas state and city governments.


Jonathan
Jonathan Raban is best known for hs nautical writing. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Soon after the election, Seattles mayor, Ed Murray, held a press conference to say that the city would remain a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, and similar statements have been made in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

So hes optimistic, in a way?

Trump may well turn out to be more of a danger for the rest of the world than for the dis-United States. But whatever happens is going to be abloody, bloody mess.

These days his journeys may be moreimaginative than real, but he fights shy of the idea that Ive encountered Raban at rest. His thinking is as restless and ambulatory as ever; the wheelchair is another kind of narrative vehicle, a fine place in which to write and read. When we meet hes halfway through the proofs of a biography of Jan Morris, whom heencountered in Cairo: A proper traveller, he writes in Arabia, atouchruefully.

Most of all, though, hes mapping out the territory of the new book, and the connections he wants to draw between his early life and the lightning bolt that hit him in 2011. Progress is slower than hed like; more meandering. There are far too many threads.

He sighs faintly, and reaches for thebottle of red. But then, a friend reminded me over email, there alwaysare.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/30/jonathan-raban-author-recovery-stroke-fears-dis-united-states

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.


Jake
Riding high: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lees 2005 film based on Proulxs short story. Photograph: Kimberly French/AP

It has been a decade in the making, during which time she has read countless historical documents, diaries and rare books on forestry. I was trained as a historian, so thats what I love to do, she says. (It isnt all shes been doing in her 70s: as well as writing Bird Cloud, she has also edited a book on the Red Desert in Wyoming, published a collection of short stories and written the libretto for an operatic version of Brokeback Mountain.)

The deforestation is what Barkskins is all about, she says. There are two epigraphs in the book. One of them is the key to the book, but nobody reads epigraphs, which is fine by me.

I cant remember them either. Er, can you expand on that? I ask.

No. Silence. I swallow.

Its on a page at the front where the epigraphs go She shrugs her shoulders, staring at my discomfort. I am transported back to the classroom.

I find the quote later. Its taken from a 1967 essay written by the historian Lynn Townsend White Jr in which he put forward the idea that Christianity was the root of the ecological crisis: By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.

Ask Proulx about something shes not keen to talk about and there is a pause before she answers coolly and sparingly. I enquire about her children and she gives the briefest details. Her daughter, Muffy, by her first husband (whom Proulx dropped out of college to marry when she was just 20), stayed with her father when they divorced after five years. Proulx married again in the 60s and had three sons Jonathan, Gillis and Morgan before divorcing and marrying for a third time in 1969.


Annie
Wild at heart: Proulx as a young woman camping
in the woods near her home. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

She once said that she grew up in an era when you were supposed to get married, adding: I dont think I was a particularly good or diligent mother. It took a long time for the obvious to become obvious: I could not operate in a conventional family.

These days, Proulx says, she and her children enjoy regular get-togethers. I get along with all my children rather well and they like each other, which makes me very happy. You want them to be friends as well as relatives.

Find the right subject and Proulx is stimulating company: animated, occasionally passionate and wryly amusing. We talk about climate change. She tells me about an initiative to restore the number of monarch butterflies by urging gardeners to plant milkweed. Are people doing enough, I ask. Some people are, but most people couldnt care less about it. They would give you a blank stare if you mentioned that monarch butterflies need milkweed to complete their life cycle.

I mention the Paris climate change agreement signed by 177 countries last April. Too late, she thinks. Some of the countries that are now in play in the world economy and culture dont have an interest in those things. They are still happy to rip out their raw materials and natural resources for things like refrigerators and iPhones. They dont seem to get that there isnt any more.

Her voice rises: Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened. I ask if the thought of Donald Trump, a denier of manmade climate change, in the White House frightens her. I think the country has more or less brought this on themselves, she says. I dont have personal feelings about it because thats not who I am, but I am watching.


Winds
Winds of change: at home in Vershire, Vermont, back in 1994. Photograph: Toby Talbot/Associated Press

Proulx finds her strengths harder to list than her faults, but she thinks shes a good observer. Im one of the ones at a party where you can always tell the writer because Im leaning against the wall watching everybody else have fun.

Her self-confessed shyness is easy to misinterpret it as crotchetiness. Look at her reaction to literary prizes. I know that one should feel grateful and pleased and delighted, and jump up and down and scream, but I couldnt do it. As for women-only prizes, harrumph. This has always bothered me, the division: as though there was something about women who write that is very different.

For Proulx writing is all about the making of the object. I look on it as a craftsman would making a table. Her research is meticulous. She visited all the countries that feature in Barkskins. Shes a frequent, intrepid traveller, thanks to a pioneering spirit instilled as a child when her family moved many times Vermont, North Carolina, Maine and Rhode Island because of her French- Canadian fathers job with a textile company.

She ended up with an abundance of material and had to cut 150 pages from the first draft, a process she describes as maddening. My editor, Nan Graham, was absolutely wonderful, but I hated her deeply while we were doing this because she wanted to take out some of my favourite things. A lot of the deforestation material went.

While much of the book is bleak, there are moments of dark humour. I mention finding an incident involving a wig amusing. Shes delighted. Do you? Good, my editor wanted to cut that. Youre a Brit, thats why.

Proulx was a latecomer to the literary world, publishing her first novel, Postcards, when she was 56. She had abandoned a PhD in the mid-70s to support her family by scraping an income as a freelance journalist, writing about everything from apples to mice and canoeing, and producing how-to books on cider making and DIY. During these years, with her third marriage disintegrating, she lived a back-to-the-land lifestyle with her boys, moving around several backwoods towns in Vermont where she fished, hunted and gardened. She later described herself to an interviewer in the early- 90s as wild at this time, her examples including: throwing a knife at (and thank God missing) someone I thought I hated; driving north in the south-bound lane; hanging out with a wide variety of rough dudes in a wide variety of situations.

In 1988 her first collection of stories was published and the novels that followed brought her instant acclaim. She has no regrets that success came late. You have time to have a life, to see change, to understand a bit how people work, how the world works, how society works, how things shift around, how slippery things can be, everything from politics to personal relationships. Its a great advantage to have that stuff under your belt when you start to write.

Talking with Proulx is like reading one of her books: bracing yet rewarding. She speaks as she writes, and lives the same way: with measured efficiency and flashes of mischievous humour.

As our interview comes to an end, she picks up A History of Mens Fashion and flicks through the pictures. Chuckling at an artist in a garish shirt, she says: I dont remember his work, but who could forget that haircut? I ask if shes interested in fashion. Only for the sake of characters. I like them to have the clothes they might have worn.

Then its back to the trees. She gamely agrees to pose for photographs amid the red cedars. The photographer had set up his equipment before he knew of her allergy and she wont hear of him moving it. It takes a day or so before they affect me. The bear could get me first, she jokes as we walk outside, before adding wistfully: I love the way they look. Its too bad they make me miserable.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx is published by Fourth Estate at 18.99. To order a copy for 15.19, go to bookshop.theguardian.com

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/05/annie-proulx-ive-had-a-life-i-see-how-slippery-things-can-be

Jonathan Raban: I felt pretty happy that I was still alive

The author on his recovery after a stroke and his fears for a dis-United States

On 11 June 2011, a few days before his 69th birthday, Jonathan Raban was sitting with his daughter Julia at home in Seattle. Hed felt foggy and out of sorts since waking. Having reheated a casserole, he looked down to see that, try as he might, he couldnt make the knife in his right hand touch the food on his plate.

His voice lifts in remembered surprise. It was very strange. I said to Julia: I think Im having a stroke.

He was. A few hours later, Raban was in a hospital in the north of the city, looking at scans of his brain. The stroke was haemorrhagic, and massive: the damage to the right side of his body would be impossible to erase.

Carefully balancing a glass of red wine with his good hand, he gestures down at the wheelchair he now uses. Not quite instantly, but within a very few weeks, I was transformed into an old man. A second later, he concedes gruffly: I did feel pretty happy that I was still alive.

Appropriately for a man best known for his nautical writing, Rabans home feels rather like the upturned hull of a boat, with coffee-coloured redwood beams and a clutter of charts, sailing photos, engravings and mock-ups of the covers of his books. Every so often theres the drone of a seaplane coming in to land.

As soon as he got home from rehab,Raban did what he has always done: he began to write, and to research accounts of other peoples strokes (mostly unreadable, he grunts), English social history, his parents letters; searching for a way to braid the experience with the other skeins of his life.

I remember a doctor came to the rehabilitation ward, about my age, and said: Oh, youre the one who used to be a writer. I told him: Im still a writer, and I intend to write about this.

Raban talks in unhurried, intricately woven sentences, languid vowels barely touched by two decades in the US; it feels a little surreal to encounter him here in the Pacific Northwest. But Seattle, he goes on to explain, is as close to a home as he has found. Born in Norfolk in 1942 and educated at the University of Hull where he became friendly with Philip Larkin he started out as an academic. But as his anthology-cum-memoir For Love and Money (1989) attests, he lasted only a few years, writing fiction and journalism during University of East Anglia vacations and trying to gain a ticket of entrance to the city at the end of the line. He launched himself as a freelance writer in London in 1969, lodging with the poet Robert Lowell and becoming part of the bibulous in-crowd that centred on Ian Hamiltons magazine New Review.


The
The Mississippi river, the subject of Old Glory. Photograph: Macduff Everton/Getty Images

Even the capital seems to have been a temporary halt. Within a few years Raban was flitting around the Middle East, as recorded in Arabia: Through the Looking Glass (1979); then floating down the Mississippi in an open-topped boat (Old Glory, 1981). Soon after that adventure, be bought a larger boat and piloted it around the British Isles. The project became Coasting (1986), which is as sui generis as Rabans other books part memoir, part rite of passage, part discourse on fluid mechanics, part sly satire on British islomania during the Falklands campaign. In the wake of Brexit, it is a salutary read.

Afloat, Raban writes, he found a sea-distance that matched his sense of estrangement from Britain, and the grounding stability that eluded him on land. But the thing that genuinely fascinates him, and makes his prose leap and surge, is water an eerily still North Sea off East Anglia, as calm and full of mercurial colour as a pool of motor oil; a corner of the north Pacific off British Columbia, like a bolt of grey silk, lightly undulating, that seeps its way into his brooding travelogue Passage to Juneau (1999).

The love affair began early, Raban recalls. Water, one way or another, hasbeen a means of escape for me from pretty much infancy. When Isawa river or a pond or a lake, Isawfreedom and solitude. I could behappy in those places, in a way that I couldnt be at home.

Raban has often written about his tussles with his father, an army captain-cum-cleric whose return from the second world war he brusquely resented as a child, and whose dog collar and cassock, with its greasy antique patina like the sheen on a blowfly, represented everything to rebel against. But his interest in literature is something he owes to his mother, who once wrote short stories for womens magazines.


The
The thing that fascinates Jonathan Raban is water. Photograph: Alamy

She taught me to read, which was my one proficiency. My father gets all the attention, but partly thats because he intruded on this relationship with my mother. There is a curt laugh. I harboured the usual fantasy.

It seems not insignificant that his first published work, printed in John Londons Weekly when he was 17, concerned a child whose father is presented with a shattered china dog as a gift after returning from the war. Rabans writing has grown infinitely more sophisticated since then, but its leitmotifs struggles with overbearing authority, a search for refuge in a world that seems aslant have remained.

He insists his arrival in the US, tracked with droll self-scrutiny in Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990), wasnt intended to be permanent he retains British citizenship but it seems appropriate that he alighted on the West Coast, the favoured destination for people wanting to slough off old lives and try on new ones for size. One of that books most moving chapters chronicles the time Raban spent with Korean immigrants to Seattle, whose travel-shocked recalibration to wide wide wide America is partly, one senses, his own. The section closes with Raban setting himself up downtown in a former luxury hotel; in his room is a gold-painted desk that had once been used by Elvis, and a name label reading Rainbird on the door.

Marriage to Jean, a dance critic and journalist in the city, swiftly followed; Julia was born not long after that, and is now in her mid-20s. Among the cavalcade of identities Raban has tried out during his 74 years, the one that really seems to fit him is fatherhood, which came late. Its a role he still seems enjoyably astonished by, and which has provided some much-needed anchorage. Though the relationship with Jean came to an end, Julia now lives nearby and the two see each other nearly every day.

Im interested in his thoughts on genre; though his books are filed in the travel sections of bookshops, does he feel himself to be a travel writer? He snorts. I see a travel writer as someone whos sampling other peoples holidays and writing a bright little piece about the glories of Weston-super-Mare or something. Bruce Chatwin bridled at being called a travel writer; when Songlines was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook award, he wrote a stiff letter saying that it was impossible for it to be entered because it was most certainly an invented journey. I feel sympathetic to that.


A
A protest march against President-elect Donald Trump in Seattle, Washington, 14 November 2016. Photograph: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

Wait didnt Raban himself win the Thomas Cook? His grin is lizardish. Twice. But I was hungry for prizes.

Though travel often features in his non-fiction and the three novels Raban has so far written, he most often uses the verb intransitively, with no obvious destination in mind. I always thought of it as escaping from genre together, the mixture of memoir and travelling not going to get anywhere, but going for the goings sake. Perhaps the notion is pretentious, but its of what a journey could really be: a miniature scale-model life, which you would survive miraculously at the end.

Though he talks with wit and candour, there is a reserve about him that Englishness, perhaps that seems at odds with the intimate scrutiny of his prose. I ask if hes ever regretted committing something to the page. The grin reappears. I want to say, je ne regrette rien. Not much.

Even in Passage to Juneau, which chronicles in agonising detail the death of his father and the collapse of his marriage to Jean? Even that.

The books only begin to make sense in long recollection, he adds: Writing about journeys, I have to forget the memory in its too-precise form and dive into the experience as if it were happening almost fictionally. Its a getting away from the experience in order to be able to write about it.

Im curious about what happened to the boat. Oh, it was sold, even before the stroke. Id written as much as Icould about sailing. Also, my appetite for it diminished sharply after 2001. Want to meet Republicans in this part of the world? They all have boats.

It is impossible to avoid the subject of Donald Trump, whose victory Raban had been dreading for months, and which still plainly nauseates him. Hes been rereading Ian Kershaws biography of Hitler, an unlikely but nevertheless effective source of consolation: The consolation comes in the very different state of Weimar Germany and the contemporary US. For all Trumps blustering authoritarianism, he would run straight into the checks and balances of Americas state and city governments.


Jonathan
Jonathan Raban is best known for hs nautical writing. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Soon after the election, Seattles mayor, Ed Murray, held a press conference to say that the city would remain a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, and similar statements have been made in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

So hes optimistic, in a way?

Trump may well turn out to be more of a danger for the rest of the world than for the dis-United States. But whatever happens is going to be abloody, bloody mess.

These days his journeys may be moreimaginative than real, but he fights shy of the idea that Ive encountered Raban at rest. His thinking is as restless and ambulatory as ever; the wheelchair is another kind of narrative vehicle, a fine place in which to write and read. When we meet hes halfway through the proofs of a biography of Jan Morris, whom heencountered in Cairo: A proper traveller, he writes in Arabia, atouchruefully.

Most of all, though, hes mapping out the territory of the new book, and the connections he wants to draw between his early life and the lightning bolt that hit him in 2011. Progress is slower than hed like; more meandering. There are far too many threads.

He sighs faintly, and reaches for thebottle of red. But then, a friend reminded me over email, there alwaysare.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/30/jonathan-raban-author-recovery-stroke-fears-dis-united-states

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.


Jake
Riding high: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lees 2005 film based on Proulxs short story. Photograph: Kimberly French/AP

It has been a decade in the making, during which time she has read countless historical documents, diaries and rare books on forestry. I was trained as a historian, so thats what I love to do, she says. (It isnt all shes been doing in her 70s: as well as writing Bird Cloud, she has also edited a book on the Red Desert in Wyoming, published a collection of short stories and written the libretto for an operatic version of Brokeback Mountain.)

The deforestation is what Barkskins is all about, she says. There are two epigraphs in the book. One of them is the key to the book, but nobody reads epigraphs, which is fine by me.

I cant remember them either. Er, can you expand on that? I ask.

No. Silence. I swallow.

Its on a page at the front where the epigraphs go She shrugs her shoulders, staring at my discomfort. I am transported back to the classroom.

I find the quote later. Its taken from a 1967 essay written by the historian Lynn Townsend White Jr in which he put forward the idea that Christianity was the root of the ecological crisis: By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.

Ask Proulx about something shes not keen to talk about and there is a pause before she answers coolly and sparingly. I enquire about her children and she gives the briefest details. Her daughter, Muffy, by her first husband (whom Proulx dropped out of college to marry when she was just 20), stayed with her father when they divorced after five years. Proulx married again in the 60s and had three sons Jonathan, Gillis and Morgan before divorcing and marrying for a third time in 1969.


Annie
Wild at heart: Proulx as a young woman camping
in the woods near her home. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

She once said that she grew up in an era when you were supposed to get married, adding: I dont think I was a particularly good or diligent mother. It took a long time for the obvious to become obvious: I could not operate in a conventional family.

These days, Proulx says, she and her children enjoy regular get-togethers. I get along with all my children rather well and they like each other, which makes me very happy. You want them to be friends as well as relatives.

Find the right subject and Proulx is stimulating company: animated, occasionally passionate and wryly amusing. We talk about climate change. She tells me about an initiative to restore the number of monarch butterflies by urging gardeners to plant milkweed. Are people doing enough, I ask. Some people are, but most people couldnt care less about it. They would give you a blank stare if you mentioned that monarch butterflies need milkweed to complete their life cycle.

I mention the Paris climate change agreement signed by 177 countries last April. Too late, she thinks. Some of the countries that are now in play in the world economy and culture dont have an interest in those things. They are still happy to rip out their raw materials and natural resources for things like refrigerators and iPhones. They dont seem to get that there isnt any more.

Her voice rises: Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened. I ask if the thought of Donald Trump, a denier of manmade climate change, in the White House frightens her. I think the country has more or less brought this on themselves, she says. I dont have personal feelings about it because thats not who I am, but I am watching.


Winds
Winds of change: at home in Vershire, Vermont, back in 1994. Photograph: Toby Talbot/Associated Press

Proulx finds her strengths harder to list than her faults, but she thinks shes a good observer. Im one of the ones at a party where you can always tell the writer because Im leaning against the wall watching everybody else have fun.

Her self-confessed shyness is easy to misinterpret it as crotchetiness. Look at her reaction to literary prizes. I know that one should feel grateful and pleased and delighted, and jump up and down and scream, but I couldnt do it. As for women-only prizes, harrumph. This has always bothered me, the division: as though there was something about women who write that is very different.

For Proulx writing is all about the making of the object. I look on it as a craftsman would making a table. Her research is meticulous. She visited all the countries that feature in Barkskins. Shes a frequent, intrepid traveller, thanks to a pioneering spirit instilled as a child when her family moved many times Vermont, North Carolina, Maine and Rhode Island because of her French- Canadian fathers job with a textile company.

She ended up with an abundance of material and had to cut 150 pages from the first draft, a process she describes as maddening. My editor, Nan Graham, was absolutely wonderful, but I hated her deeply while we were doing this because she wanted to take out some of my favourite things. A lot of the deforestation material went.

While much of the book is bleak, there are moments of dark humour. I mention finding an incident involving a wig amusing. Shes delighted. Do you? Good, my editor wanted to cut that. Youre a Brit, thats why.

Proulx was a latecomer to the literary world, publishing her first novel, Postcards, when she was 56. She had abandoned a PhD in the mid-70s to support her family by scraping an income as a freelance journalist, writing about everything from apples to mice and canoeing, and producing how-to books on cider making and DIY. During these years, with her third marriage disintegrating, she lived a back-to-the-land lifestyle with her boys, moving around several backwoods towns in Vermont where she fished, hunted and gardened. She later described herself to an interviewer in the early- 90s as wild at this time, her examples including: throwing a knife at (and thank God missing) someone I thought I hated; driving north in the south-bound lane; hanging out with a wide variety of rough dudes in a wide variety of situations.

In 1988 her first collection of stories was published and the novels that followed brought her instant acclaim. She has no regrets that success came late. You have time to have a life, to see change, to understand a bit how people work, how the world works, how society works, how things shift around, how slippery things can be, everything from politics to personal relationships. Its a great advantage to have that stuff under your belt when you start to write.

Talking with Proulx is like reading one of her books: bracing yet rewarding. She speaks as she writes, and lives the same way: with measured efficiency and flashes of mischievous humour.

As our interview comes to an end, she picks up A History of Mens Fashion and flicks through the pictures. Chuckling at an artist in a garish shirt, she says: I dont remember his work, but who could forget that haircut? I ask if shes interested in fashion. Only for the sake of characters. I like them to have the clothes they might have worn.

Then its back to the trees. She gamely agrees to pose for photographs amid the red cedars. The photographer had set up his equipment before he knew of her allergy and she wont hear of him moving it. It takes a day or so before they affect me. The bear could get me first, she jokes as we walk outside, before adding wistfully: I love the way they look. Its too bad they make me miserable.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx is published by Fourth Estate at 18.99. To order a copy for 15.19, go to bookshop.theguardian.com

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/05/annie-proulx-ive-had-a-life-i-see-how-slippery-things-can-be

Recipe found in medieval mystics writings was probably for ‘dragges’

Margery Kempe was known for religious fervour, and a list in the manuscript of her pioneering autobiography has been analysed as a prescribed cure for her fits

It is a case that has intrigued historians, psychiatrists and theologians for the last 80 years, but an academic has found what may be the oldest known attempt to diagnose Margery Kempes erratic religious behaviour. A recipe for medicinal sweets, written 600 years ago in the back of the medieval mystics memoir, has been deciphered by Dr Laura Kalas Williams and the Exeter University-based researcher is convinced that it reveals an attempt to prescribe a cure for Kempes notorious fits of devotion.

Though the recipe, written in the final portfolio of the 1438 manuscript, has long been known to scholars, it had hitherto proved impossible to read. Dr Andrea Clarke, the British Librarys lead curator of medieval and early modern manuscripts, suggested multispectral-imaging technology be used to reveal its secrets. Kalas Williams and two colleagues, Professor Eddie Jones and Professor Daniel Wakelin, were then able to decipher the ingredients and discovered it was a cure for flux, defined in the Medieval English Dictionary as a pathological flowing of blood, excretions or discharges from any part of the body, or dysentery.


Roughly,
The recipe translates as containing: Sugar with aniseed, fennel seed, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger [to make the] confection and to [then] beat them together in a mortar and heat them in the manner of food and drinks and dry first and last eat. Photograph: Board of the British Library, Dr Andrea Clarke and Christina Duffy

Kalas Williams said she was convinced the recipe was a response to the mystics various bouts of illness as well as her copious crying. I dont think [the recipe] has been written there randomly, the academic said. The book tells us that at one point, she suffered a terrible episode of flux (probably dysentery) and was given extreme unction, thinking she was going to die, so the presence of this recipe at the end seems more than a coincidence.

A middle-class mother of 14, Kempe lived in Norfolk from about 1373 to 1440. After the birth of her children, she took a vow of chastity, and for the rest of her life undertook pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Italy and Germany.

Described by Kalas Williams as the Marmite of medieval mystics, she was infamous for loud cries and boisterous weeping in church and dramatic displays of religious devotion, which included mystical visions that placed her at the heart of the action during the nativity and crucifixion. They also made her as many enemies during her lifetime as they did followers; she was arrested for heresy and narrowly missed being burned at the stake.

Kalas Williams admitted her thesis was controversial. Scholars have speculated about the significance of the recipe since the manuscript was rediscovered in 1934. Though medieval books often feature arbitrary jottings because parchment was expensive, no other random notes appear in the manuscript, which was dictated by the mystic between 1436 and 1440, initially to her son. There are many other annotations in the book, but all of these directly engage with the words on the page, in dialogue with the content, the academic said. This makes it improbable that the recipe is a random, thoughtless, annotation.

The
The original manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe. It is thought to have been finished and bound between 1442 and 1450. Photograph: Board of the British Library, Dr Andrea Clarke and Christina Duffy

Initially, the recipe was thought to be for a drink to cure the flux, but the thermal imaging revealed it to be dragges herbal sweets used to refresh the palate and cure a variety of ills. The ingredients sugar, aniseed, fennel seed, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger were luxuries at the time.

The manuscript, which is the only surviving copy of the memoir, thought to be the oldest autobiography by a woman in the English language, has proved controversial since it was rediscovered in the 1930s. Many attempts have been made to explain Kempes profuse weeping, collapsing and roaring while under the influence of her visions. As well as epilepsy, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, it has been posited that the mystic suffered postpartum depression, as her first extreme religious experiences and demonic torment followed her first difficult pregnancy.

Kalas Williams dismissed attempts at diagnosis as anachronistic and preferred to use Kempes memoir to understand the medieval view of womens bodies and health. For me, Kempe is a tenacious figure, determined to be heard in a culture where womens voices were not supposed to be heard, and brave enough to express her emotions publicly and viscerally, added the scholar, who is writing up her findings for academic publication later this year.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/28/recipe-found-in-medieval-mystics-writings-was-probably-for-drugges-margery-kempe