When wandering through the wild literary landscapes of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author Annie Proulx’s latest novel, Barkskins, it’s difficult not to think of the old adage about seeing the forest for the trees. The epic tale of two American families, which begins in the late 17th century and ends in the present day, covers three centuries and what seems like a hundred characters, but readers shouldn’t get lost among the years and faces, as Proulx’s true focus in Barkskins is humanity’s sometimes sacred sometimes abusive relationship with the forests of the Earth.
I had a chance to ask Proulx some questions by email about the monumental novel before she makes a rare trip to Houston for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, and so I had to inquire about how her own writerly relationship with nature.
Many of Proulx’s novels and stories, including The Shipping News and "Brokeback Mountain" delve just as intimately into the landscapes of her settings as much as her created characters, and Barkskins, which spends many of its 700 pages exploring the forests of North America, with stops in Europe, China and New Zealand, is no different. Proulx confessed from an early age she felt a concern for and connection to wilderness.
“Since childhood I had lived near forests and woodlands, and was something of a weather buff, so when climate change began to penetrate the world’s consciousness I was inclined to pay attention to the trees,” she said.
Proulx has stated that she got the inspiration for the novel decades ago, when traveling through Michigan she happened upon a marker for a white pine woods that was no longer there. In fact, that species of tree no longer grew in the state at all.
“The trip through Michigan and noticing the absence of white pine that had once grown there to great size was simply the time point when I decided to write a book about the falling of the forests,” she described, and then went on to explain how stumbling upon an absence of forest led to the creation of a novel’s worth of diverse characters.
“I had no characters in mind and no story, no beginning —only the urge to write about the disappearance of what had been considered permanent tree cover. It took years of thought and reading before characters and story line actually gathered into a shape.”
That shape became two central, sprawling family sagas that begin with two French immigrants who travel to the new world of North America on a contract of indentured servitude. René Sel and Charles Duquet work side by side cutting down trees in the forests of Canada, for only a few days, but their descendants lives will intertwine throughout the centuries.
“René Sel was vaguely based on my ancestor, Jean Prou, who came to New France in the late 17th century. Duquet was an amalgam of many men who made their fortunes through natural resource extraction,” Proulx explained.
Glimmers of Hope
Proulx characters live hard lives and some experience gruesome deaths, but it might be her descriptions of the leveling of the great old forests that readers mourn the most. And while all that destruction might leave readers with no choice but to surrender to the bleak beauty of Proulx’s narrative, Barkskins does end in hope with characters like Sapatisia Sel, the descendent of both Sel and Duquet.
“The specific character Sapatisia Sel was a late-comer in the book’s development,” Proulx revealed. “But I knew I would have someone thinking and doing the things she did. It was necessary to give her hope for the future, or her actions would have been futile,” explained Proulx, who might also be giving hope to readers.
An Operatic Adaptation
While it’s likely a few of those readers at the Inprint event will have discovered Proulx’ work through the film adaptations of her stories, specifically The Shipping News and the Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain, Proulx has resisted that contemporary novelist trend to try her hand at screenwriting or pitching a show idea to television producers. She remained focused on novels and short stories, until recently.
In 2014, her collaboration with composer Charles Peter Wuorinen on a Brokeback Mountain opera reached the stage. When I asked her if she found she had a different relationship to the opera than to the films which were adapted by others, Proulx had a rather wry and Proulx-esque response.
“Not really. Because I was doing something out of the usual, I was, myself, out of the usual. Could have been anyone, right?” she replied, but she did find writing the libretto a “fun” experience with the added “pleasure of a friendship with the composer.”
Proulx is 81 now and only occasionally does reading appearances anymore, so Inprint fans who got their tickets early to the now sold out event are in for a special authorial treat. “I asked my publisher to limit the book tour,” Proulx explained to me. “I truly hate air travel and living in the Pacific Northwest makes travel to almost everywhere onerous.”
For those not lucky enough to grab a ticket a month ago, Proulx hasn’t braved the long flight for just one event. She will also participate in a free and open to the public Inprint Craft Talk/Q&A on Monday, January 23, 1 pm, at the University of Houston Honors College Commons, M. D. Anderson Library.
Annie Proulx appears for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series at the Wortham Center on Monday, January 23 at 7:30, but the event is sold out.