Introductions: Annie Proulx
June 29, 2016
On June 23rd, acclaimed novelist and short story writer Annie Proulx revealed the secrets of her writing process, family history, and Barkskins – her new masterwork – at Temple De Hirsch Sinai for SAL’s 2015/16 SAL Presents Series. This conversational interview was moderated by author David Laskin, and SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey gave an introduction to their talk, below.
I’ve moved quite a bit over the past two decades – 5 big moves and 9 different homes – and every move brings weighty consideration of each and every book. I’ve given away libraries worth of books, and it takes a very special book to survive all those moves and transitions. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is for me one of those precious touchstone books, and so to say I was looking forward to her newest work, Barkskins is a vast understatement.
And this beautiful new epic novel does not disappoint. The Washington Post called Barkskins “an awesome monument of a book, a spectacular survey of America’s forests dramatized by a cast of well-hewn characters.” In it, Proulx traces 300 years of the lives of two families while also vividly bringing to life the destruction of North America’s forests and the violence of colonization. She captures the forest as a living thing and the vastness, violence, and beauty of the natural world. And she captures the rapacious greed that led to the destruction of these forests. Here, in one of my favorite passages, she writes:
“You have seen birds of prey pick a fallen deer to the bone in one or two days? Consider settlers as human birds of prey, said Lennart. Birds of prey with the weapon of fire.”
Her great gift in this work is that she not only brings the forest and the march of colonization and destruction vividly to life, but also that she brings us compelling and complicated characters, masterfully illuminating how individual choices could add up to mind boggling deforestation. Here, she writes of Charles Duquet’s decision to leave fur trapping for the lumber trade: “The best that could come of it would be a short life of striving, of sleeping on riverbanks and looking up through the trees at a narrow slice of darkness stinging with stars like cast handfuls of salt.”
Annie Proulx’s prose is precisely like this – darkness stinging and singing with stars like cast handfuls of salt. She is the author of 4 short story collections, 4 works of nonfiction, and 5 novels, including The Shipping News, which won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. She has won several O Henry Awards, a PEN Faulkner Award and the Dos Passos Literary Prize for her body of work.
Her newest novel, Barkskins, is an important book. It’s a bracing book. It’s a book whose prose will move and astonish, and whose message will stay with us all, like settlers as rapacious birds of prey and stars as cast salt. It’s a book that will be worth moving around the country and considering deeply. Please join me in warmly welcoming one of my literary heroes – Annie Proulx.