19 March 2011

Annie Proulx

"Well, if you want to get a library card, you just have to come back with some ID and a piece of mail with your address on it," the librarian said, smiling at Lizzie and me. "Just so we know you're in town, you know. But you can get out books and DVDs and magazines, and we sometimes have guest speakers like Annie Proulx-"

"Annie Proulx?!" Lizzie broke in.

The librarian nodded, adding apologetically, "That's all sold out, I'm afraid. She was supposed to go to Christchurch, but now she's coming here. Sold out, sorry - sold out that same day."

Lizzie and I chatted a few moments more with the pleasant lady at the desk of the Dunedin Library. when we finished and stepped out into the cool evening air, Lizzie leaned over and whispered urgently to me, "We have to ask Sue about it."


"Hey there!" Sue said, answering her phone. Her voice has a perfect Kiwi lilt, rounding her vowels musically. "So there's one ticket for you guys."

"Oh, wow!" I said into the phone, looking over at Lizzie and giving a big grin and dramatic waggle of my eyebrows. "Hey, no, one ticket is amazing! That's great, she'll love it! Thank you so much!"

Lizzie understood from my half of the conversation, and her eyes widened with happiness as I spoke. She waved her hands a little bit in excitement, then restrained herself to clutching her purse. She loves Annie Proulx, and in her purse at that very moment was a copy of Proulx's first book, Postcards.


I couldn't see Lizzie, but I knew she must already be seated inside the lecture hall. I waited in the small queue outside; some seven or eight other people had no tickets and were hoping for a chance to see the celebrated author speak. The librarians guarded the doors zealously. One enthusiastic young British man with a curly storm of hair actually tried to sneak in while they were looking the other way; they arrested him with a sharp glance. But really, who can get angry with someone for being so eager to see an author, in this day and age?

The librarians were clearly nervous. The elevator had been having trouble or something, so one of them stood nearby and fiddled with the door to the maintenance room. One librarian, rail-thin and kind, confessed that she would have just let us all in, but they'd done that before and "gotten burned when more people showed up." A different book release with a different famous author, it seems.

Finally she glanced nervously around one last time, and ushered us in.


Annie Proulx speaks in fluid paragraphs, spoken with great single breaths. Even when not reading from prepared text, she tended to swoop on at length - but then, she must get many of the same questions every time she goes to an event like this. She is an excellent public speaker, though, almost never stumbling or trailing off.

She is a woman with short gray hair and middling statute, tending towards girth but with the well-exercised good health of an outdoorswoman. She has a nice smile and good posture. She seems vigorous, with a tinge of sardonic humor.

Proulx's first sentence-paragraph set the tone, said in a single tone of voice even as it shifted from the speech in front of her to an extemporaneous question: "Thank you for having me here tonight, and I am going to speak to you of Birdcloud, and it's a story of a place and not a person, and is this thing on?"

Tap tap. Microphone problems.

Proulx writes a lot of depressing things. She has a great grasp of humanity and the sympathy of readers, but she usually uses it to belabor her characters with terrible events and passions. So it was unsurprising that her discussion of Birdcloud, her latest book about her new home in Wyoming, meandered after a few minutes onto the topic of suicide. "Wyoming is the most sparsely populated state in America," Proulx said, reeling off a few orphaned statistics. "But it has the highest suicide rate in the country."

The famous author spoke of a canyon near where she lives, carved out of the dirt by the scouring winds. For some reason, it became a tradition for suicidal ranchers to go to the bottom of this canyon to take their own lives.

As she proceeded to start reading the first section of her book, she would often break into the narrative with brief asides, usually wry explanations of the nature of Wyoming living. In reference to one local town, for example, she paused to mention that if you want to visit, you have to bring wire-cutters to pierce the private fences strung over public roads by the residents - "It's that kind of place," she commented.

The section of Birdcloud she read was about the early history of the community, centered around the life of one particular Scottish settler who had been drawn there by the lure of big-game hunting. By the end of her reading, all of the game was slaughtered and the land smudged into tracts of cattle ranches, and the satisfied Scot was reflecting on a life well-lived. Despite this book being non-fiction, there seemed little difference in the vissisitudes of a madcap fate. It's all in the story you choose to tell, I suppose.

When Proulx finished the selection from the book, there was time for questions. Some of the questions were what you might expect. One girl asked about the process of building her house in Birdcloud, giving the author a chance to remark that, "Books are the stuff of life for me." Her house was made to hold her books, she said, to such a degree that the architect called it a "bibliotech." I asked about how the community had received the book, and she replied that she didn't know because she'd been traveling, but she thought they'd probably hate it. "People in a place always hate it when you write about them, unless you just write that it's beautiful and the people are just fine and nice."

There were a couple of questions about her most popular book, The Shipping News. It's set in Newfoundland (she says they hated it) and Proulx spoke of how she got started on it when she visited on a fishing trip. "I have a habit of falling in love with places," she said. She told a joke about Newfoundlanders to illustrate the prejudice that exists about them.

Q: How many Newfies does it take for a firing squad?
A: As many as you want, since they stand in a circle.

When asked about her favorite authors, she halted and replied carefully the she loved J.F Powers' "The Wheat That Springeth Green", W.F. Hermans' "Beyond Sleep", and the works of Katherine Porter and Junot Diaz.

Two or three questioners were obviously big fans and eager to impress, so their questions were long, rambling statements capped off with a brief and irrelevant query tacked on as afterthought. I didn't get those down, but they were something like this:

I really loved The Shipping News and the way it related the plight of native peoples in a remote area when compared with visitors and newcomers, and I thought it was particularly interesting when you showed the evolution of their interactions over a period of time and how one group can actually transition to another and end up in a sort of between-state, and I thought it was actually particularly relevant to us down here in Dunedin when compared both to the native Maori and people who more recently have just come down from the north island, in two sort of larger ways, but have you had a chance to see much of the city since you've been here?

Proulx bore it calmly, and answered with the same care as she did everyone else.

At the end of perhaps an hour, the librarian in charge asked for final questions, and then called for a round of applause (delivered enthusiastically). Proulx stayed behind to sign books and answer questions. Lizzie waited in line, then offered her copy of Postcards to be signed.

"What was your name?" Proulx asked, joking. "You said 'Livy' - like the Roman writer?"

Unexpected things happen in Dunedin.

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