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Writer’s no longer at home on range

Times Staff Writer

On bridge street, few shopkeepers know the name Annie Proulx. But they sure know the title of her most famous short story, “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Yuck,” says a wiry older woman in the Hat Creek Gift Shop, which sells cowboy tchotchkes. “Some people are just plain strange.”

“I wish I’d never written it,” Proulx says at her home five miles outside town, looking out enormous windows onto the river and the limestone cliffs that define her property.

Not because of the people of Saratoga, a town she doesn’t think much of. Not even because the word “brokeback” has been misappropriated, as in, “Hey, you’re not goin’ brokeback on me, are you?”

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It’s all the manuscripts, screenplays and letters sent to her by men who rewrite or serialize her story, adding new characters, endings and even successive generations.

“These cover letters,” she complains, “always begin with the sentence ‘I’m not gay, but . . . ' They think that just because they are men, they understand men better than I do.”

The story, says Proulx, spine straight, hands slapping her knees for emphasis, “was about homophobia in a place.”

So much of Proulx’s hard, fine writing is about place it’s a wonder more people don’t try to find her. After winning the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Shipping News,” set in Newfoundland, Proulx became a fixed star in the literary constellation, winning almost every prize a writer could win.

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She has often criticized the literary establishment for knowing nothing about what goes on in America outside its cities. She hates and generally refuses interviews (especially in her home). But she has agreed to talk -- although a polite e-mail from her publicist warns that she “takes a while to warm up to people.” Her ferocity is literary legend, often cushioned by the phrase “doesn’t suffer fools.”

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No one in Saratoga knows her name, not the woman who runs the gallery, the man who runs the print shop, the women at the Valley Women’s Christian meeting or the men in Shively’s Hardware store. But they know “Brokeback,” and they know the piece of land she lives on.

It is a bit of heaven -- 640 acres with a mile of riverfront on the lazy North Platte. To get here you ascend from Laramie through the Snowy Mountains and the Medicine Bow National Forest. Then you’re in grasslands. The yellow aspen do that shimmering dance beside the deep green of the lodgepole pines.

The long road to Proulx’s house passes Black Angus cattle and round hay bales. Two iron ravens guard her gate. Sheets hang to dry in a perfect blue Wyoming sky. The house Proulx had built here in 2004 is large and modern. With all those windows, you can see visitors kicking up dust on the road miles away.

Proulx bought the land from the Nature Conservancy, but now she is ready to move on, at least for the winters. “I like to keep moving,” she explains.

The road into the house, though beautiful, turns to mush for much of the year -- weather prevents mail and visitors, and Proulx, 73, worries about emergencies. She lives alone, with no hired help, but has four grown children who want her to hold on to the property.

“As far as I know,” she says, “they’ve never read a single one of my books. We’ve never spoken of them. It’s not that we don’t get along, it’s just that we don’t talk about my writing.” She shoots a sideways look that says: “End of discussion.”

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This look -- in combination with Proulx’s short, steely gray-brown hair, bright eyes, focused attention, utter lack of makeup or jewelry, and monastically simple clothing (white cotton shirt, linen pants and brown Merrells) -- is enough to make a person think twice before asking a personal question.

Proulx has a way of waiting politely while one stumbles, mutters and reveals personal tidbits entirely beside the point. And yet she is entirely gracious and hospitable, if a bit weary of where she lives and the people she lives among.

“I moved to Wyoming for the long sightlines and the walkability,” she says, making coffee in a kitchen of steel surfaces and brightly colored cabinets with antler handles. “But I’ve had enough.”

Glossy red tomatoes, which the author has grown from seeds she got in Italy, dry on a dish towel. “They’re tart,” she says slyly, as if delivering a metaphor, “so they make a great sauce.”

This could be the recipe for Proulx’s fiction. Her new book, “Fine Just the Way It Is,” is the third in an astringent triptych of Wyoming story collections, joining “Close Range” (which includes “Brokeback Mountain”) and “Bad Dirt.”

The first of these books, Proulx explains, “was a backhand swipe at the mythology of the West -- the old beliefs that aren’t really true, like the idea that there are no homosexuals in Wyoming. Everyone here is playing some role: the brave pioneer woman, the cowboy.”

Although she admired Ang Lee’s film of “Brokeback Mountain,” it irks her that so many men thought they understood her characters better than she did. (She has just met with composer Charles Wuorinen to begin work on an opera based on the story for the New York City Opera.)

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In her fiction, she has shown more interest in men than women because, she explains, men in rural communities tend to be the ones who get out and do things. But it’s also true that at this point in her life most of her friends are men.

When asked about the interruptions to her career caused by three marriages and three divorces, she shrugs. “You can like ‘em,” she jokes about men, “but it doesn’t mean you have to sample every single one.”

What fascinates Proulx, going back to her days as a history student at the University of Vermont, are cultures in their death throes. She studied the French Annales School method, which involves looking carefully at documents, receipts, census reports, recipes -- any record of daily life.

This is what Proulx does with her fiction, researching everyday lives in a place. She uses this -- although not, she says, the actual characters -- along with bits of dialogue picked up in bars and restaurants. Her life is a whirlwind of bits of paper, notes on envelopes, notebooks that cohere, tornado-style, into her tight, unsentimental stories.

For this, she needs time and isolation, so her anonymity in Saratoga is a good thing. But there is a larger problem. Writers, especially famous ones, do not make good neighbors in the warm and fuzzy sense. Locals don’t always appreciate seeing themselves in fiction’s wobbly mirror.

Proulx says she doesn’t mind, that “writing is a solitary pursuit,” that she likes to be alone. Still, it’s interesting when a writer, identified for over a decade with a particular region, decides that the fit is not right, that it’s time to move on.

“The downside of the writing life is that you are a constant observer of other people’s lives. I was always the one at parties standing against the wall.”

Proulx has another book coming out this fall, “Red Desert: History of a Place.” It began as an introduction to a collection of photographs by Saratoga photographer Martin Stupich of the 6,000-square-mile desert less than an hour from town.

When Proulx went to the University of Wyoming library in Laramie to research her introduction, however, she found that not one book had been written on the desert.

Between encroaching development and extraction industries (especially natural gas), the desert flora, fauna and geology have been imperiled for decades and are now, with hundreds of roads, wells and refineries getting the go-ahead each month, on their last legs.

The book, Proulx insists, is more a commemoration than a plea to save the desert. She gathered scientists and historians to contribute chapters. All found something new, something hitherto undiscovered -- rock paintings, subspecies of plants, never-before-seen insects.

Proulx liked the people she worked with, but she is not a fan of what she calls “sanctimonious environmentalists.” She seems angry at their failure to save this place. “We never, on all our trips to the Red Desert,” she says, “ran into any of those people out there. How come the rest of us didn’t know what was happening? There’s a lot of talk and very little action. I don’t like all the speeches and the glossy pamphlets.”

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Proulx got a late start as a writer. Her first book appeared in 1988, when she was 53 (unless you count the book/pamphlet on how to make hard cider). She says it’s not really a late start if you “count the lifetime of reading” she did before she was published. “You treat characters differently when you know something about how life works -- how folks handle disappointments and wounding.”

Proulx lived for 30 years in Vermont (“the only thing people talked about there was wood -- how many cords for the winter, what kind burned the best”), where she wrote for an outdoor magazine called Gray’s Journal. It was the closest she has ever come, as a writer, to a community.

“There were eight or 10 of us,” she remembers, “including Ted Hoagland and Howard Mosher. The journal was an alternative to the hook-and-bullet press, more in the style of the 1890s field-and-stream pieces you used to see. The pay was always late.”

These days, she complains of having no writing time. “It’s a big house,” she says, eyeing a line of dust atop a photograph that has been bothering her for the last hour or so. “It’s hard to keep clean. I read with stupefaction of men who rise every morning and write until 2, then come downstairs to begin drinking.”

Toward the end of the writing process, Proulx will often work 16 hours a day. “I love shaping things, pruning out the unnecessary, shaping unshapely sentences. After things are published I never read them again. I never, ever read reviews.” (In the case of “Fine Just the Way It Is,” that’s just as well, since the reviews have been mixed.)

Proulx believes the computer is “the enemy of careful writing.” She prefers to write by hand, using the computer as “a joinery device.”

“There’s something about the rhythm of writing on the page with a pen,” she says, “that is richly fulfilling -- like drawing a picture.”

It is now hunting season in Wyoming: deer, elk and grouse. Pronghorn huddle in record numbers inside fences on private land. With their big eyes and white saddle markings, they outnumber the cattle. Roadside signs read “Open Range. Loose stock.” It can seem like another planet, and people here like it that way.

Sunday morning, the little deli/cafe called Espresso Bellissima on the corner of Bridge Street and Route 130 is packed. A man everyone calls Buck says he enjoyed the movie “Brokeback Mountain.”

Buck is 93 and has lived in Wyoming all his life. “People’s choices are their own business,” he says.

Father Karl, who has just delivered the sermon at St. Ann’s, says he gave a copy of “Close Range” to his brother.

“Wyomingites had a hard time with that story,” he says. “I like her books -- they get you to think about stereotypes; they help you expand and grow. I talk to a lot of people who struggle with homosexuality. But that’s not totally what a person is -- you have to be compassionate even if you don’t agree with their lifestyle.”

Saratoga seems to be run by women who cluck at the mention of the word “brokeback.” Since the bookstore closed six months ago, the nearest is now over an hour away. A few beefy men are in evidence at the Inn or the Old Baldy Golf Club.

“How’d you get in here?” the woman in charge of the Women’s Valley Christian Assn. meeting asks when I wonder if she knows the author of “Brokeback Mountain” lives just a few miles down the road.

Another woman with bright eyes says she’s heard of Proulx. “Don’t worry about them,” she exclaims, gesturing at the group. Her favorite Proulx book is “Accordion Crimes.”

“You’d have to be reclusive to write those books,” she says conspiratorially, grabbing my elbow. “If you’re out yee-hawing, you’re not writing those books, now are you?”

Meanwhile, Proulx wanders her vast library, with its tall, frighteningly organized shelves. Paintings of Wyoming landscapes hang opposite the crisply framed views of the cliffs.

She plans to spend this winter in a little apartment in Albuquerque, “doing research” at the University of New Mexico. Her delight at the prospect is palpable.

She’s paring down and it shows in this last story collection, which is highly sculpted. “I depend on my readers,” she says, “to fill in the empty spaces.” For a writer who respects precision, Proulx leaves a lot of open spaces in her work.

Perhaps she is simply finished here; finished with the house, finished with Wyoming as a source.

Then again, it’s possible that being a regional writer has nothing to do with liking or disliking the region one writes about. Perhaps it’s just a state of mind.

“I’ve often thought,” Proulx says, “that if you could have an unlimited library, if they would bring you any book you wanted when you asked, it would be all right to be in prison.”

Only a true writer, living in a house many of her readers would call paradise, could entertain such an idea.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com


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