Appearing as part of Toronto Harbourfront’s IFOA Weekly, Annie Proulx read from Barkskins in the Fleck Dance Theatre on June 17, 2016.
She began reading on the first page of the novel, her tone even and measured, but filled with expression when appropriate, particularly in dialogue.
She captured the accent of her New France inhabitants perfectly, and she held the attention of the attendees completely, even through the long and poetic descriptions which characterize her depictions of landscape.
Even though she had presumably caught a tinge of a cold from Adam Gopnik, during the interview prior, she was alert and responsive through the conversation with Jared Bland, current Arts editor of The Globe & Mail.
Inserting a light-hearted moment in the first exchange, he thanked the author for the reading and also for mentioning that her last interview was with The New Yorker staff editor: “no pressure”, he quipped.
Whenever I have heard Jared Bland interview an author, I have been convinced that he wholly and completely admires their work, that every question comes from a sincere desire to listen to their answer.
This was true too with his questions for Annie Proulx, although he began with a predictable question about the genesis of the work. Her answer, however, stretched back further in time than I would have anticipated (which made me wonder if his research had alerted him to the fact that this seemingly simple question would lead to interesting places).
The idea for this novel came to her years ago, when she was driving around North America, across and through the United States, exploring backroads and settlements. She spotted an old billboard, upon which someone had written that the land below had been covered with a vast white pine forest once upon a time.
She roamed the area for some time and eventually did discover a small copse of white pine trees, on a raised outcropping of land, which would have been inaccessible to the workers who razed the remainder of the trees in the past.
Not far away, there was a group of five headstones, also made from white pine, solidly planted in the Earth, but illegible.
That is not what I would have imagined as a genesis for such a vast and expansive novel. Barkskins is a dramatic undertaking, covering more than 300 years of history, four continents and two familial lines (trees included in the back of the novel for much-needed reference apparently).
But as she described it, I could imagine the names of the characters she had read about, carved or burned into the wooden tombstones, her fingers tracing the imagined shapes of those letters as she mused upon their possible backstories.
But the hard work of her novel-writing does not begin with musing. Rather, with research. Her habit, with this book, was to research a particular time period (sometimes two or three spans of time) and then to allow the characters to come forth, to announce themselves.
“They’re as real as real people when you’re in it,” she explained, in response to a later question. When asked if she had a favourite character, she did not play coy and insist that they are all her favourites, but named two, and admitted that Jared Bland’s favourite character wasn’t one of hers: “she was a hard case”, she declared.
Even so, she elaborated upon the demands that a 19th-century business woman would have faced, and encouraged readers to investigate further, if she was a favourite character of theirs as well, for although such women do not appear in the pages of the history books, “they were there and they did things”. (Jared Bland joked that this is actually one of his favoured Google searches.)
In speaking of business practices, Proulx observed that the outlook of the times was rooted in the inhabitants’ experience of the world: “They believed in infinity.”
But she also suggested that contemporary characters, contemporary personages, would not necessarily behave any differently in terms of resource management, that the “horrible sense of inevitability” carries on.
Bland questioned whether perhaps it is too late, even if we recognized that greed and opportunism has reigned unchecked for too long; however, she suggested that it might not be as much about whether it is too late to change our ways, as whether we would choose to do so anyhow.
“It’s like we can’t shift easily,” she continued. Perhaps it is some “fatal flaw”, that we simply “keep on and refuse to change”. She has been thinking about this for a very long time, and said that she thinks she “will be thinking about it forever”.
She might well have a different definition of forever than I, than many of the audience members. From the second-row I would have guessed her to be in her sixties, but she is, in fact, 80 years old.
The only outward indication of her eighty years could have been as much an indicator of anxiety: a deliberate and repetitive folding and unfolding and refolding of a tissue, which remained unused despite her attentions. In another writer’s hands, this might have been distracting, but it seemed to accentuate her measured and deliberate approach to even the smallest action.
It might have seemed, at times, as though she would be writing Barkskins forever, but apparently her publisher hastened its completion, which drove her to an all-consuming work schedule for the year prior to her final deadline. No letters written and nothing else to do in the morning but sit down to write, she outlined.
“Do you have a process?” Jared Bland asked. What’s it like to produce such an extensive work? “It helps if you really like to write, which I do,” she replied.
She had originally conceived of a different ending to the story, but was unable to complete that portion of the manuscript. But when asked f there be a sequel? “No,” she answered: “I’m out of the woods now.”
But perhaps even more interesting than the unwritten ending is the epigraph which Jared Bland suggested might have been included as an indictment of privileged (white) thinking.
It’s “there to provoke readers and make them ask a lot of questions,” she said.
And isn’t that just what good storytelling is all about.