January 2011

Annie Proulx

At long last, finding home
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Annie Proulx is a bit of a nomad. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain” moved 20 times as a child, and she’s kept the habit alive as an adult. A constant series of unsatisfactory houses—too big, too small, no bookcases—made her long for a home that reflected who she is as a woman and a writer.

Proulx almost has that ideal home on 640 acres in Wyoming, a landscape she writes about in her first nonfiction book in two decades. Her house and her book are called Bird Cloud.

Bird Cloud is many things: part memoir, part social history, part nature observations, with a little archeology tossed into the mix as well. However, it’s not exactly the book Proulx was planning to write.

“I hadn’t planned to write a memoir. What I thought I was going to be writing about were the problems and solutions in constructing my house because I find that sort of thing interesting. And there was a lot more of that in the book before my editor decided maybe there shouldn’t be,” Proulx says by phone from New Mexico. Laughing, she adds, “So a lot of that went out the window. And it gradually, by itself, turned into a memoir because life is holistic, not compartmented.”

The problems with the house began long before Proulx broke ground. She had been looking for land—beautiful, wild land—for some time when she found a former nature preserve by the North Platte River. But acquiring it proved a touch dicey, as she explains:

“I didn’t think we were going to get the land when we were bickering and dickering back and forth with the Nature Conservancy, from whom I bought it. And one day I was driving from the east to the west; the weather comes out of the west. And I was living on the other side of the Medicine Bowl Range at the time. And as I turned glumly into the driveway, I glanced up at the sky and there was this enormous, enormous bird-shaped cloud. . . . And I thought, oh, that’s cool. It must be a sign that I’m going to get the place, and it should be called Bird Cloud.”

Anyone familiar with Proulx’s work knows the physical settings of her fiction are often love poems to the land itself. Naturally she wanted the house she built on her Wyoming prairie, with its towering cliffs and gorgeous wetlands, to reflect that. As she writes in Bird Cloud, “Because place is such a major part of my writing and life, I thought it important that Bird Cloud breathe in and out of the landscape. A house subject not only to the wind, but to the drowning shadows that submerge it every evening and the sharp slice of sunlight at the eastern end of the cliff.”

And did her architect design such a wonder for her?

“Indeed he did! I love the place,” she says. “It’s incredibly beautiful, it is calming, it’s a fine place to work, all my books are there. The problem is, I can’t be there in the winter.”

All it took was one winter. Wyoming’s 80-90-mph winds pack the heavy snows into something resembling concrete. The stuff can’t be shoveled—it has to be poked with sharp stakes in an effort to break it up. Plus, Proulx has a half-mile-long driveway. When the snow gets packed like that, snowplows are useless. Proulx realized her house was only perfect about eight or nine months of the year—the other months she’d be trapped inside, unable to leave her beautiful prison. Wonderful as Bird Cloud is, she still hasn’t achieved a perfect house she can live in all year long.

“I was having exactly this conversation with my middle son and his girlfriend yesterday. There’s always a trade-off. There’s always something that’s awful and wonderful about the place. When we look at it, we usually see the wonderful things and not the awful things. It’s when we start living in it that the awful things become quite upfront.”

When the weather begins to worsen in Wyoming, she relocates to New Mexico, where she spends the winters. That’s why she was in Albuquerque when our conversation took place.

Proulx’s new book isn’t just about her house or her life in Wyoming, fascinating as that is. She also shares the entertaining histories of some of the more colorful characters who lived there in the 19th century (and some equally colorful ones who live there now), her theories on the extinction of the woolly mammoths and her lyrical observations on the flora and fauna. She’s got a rich source of material: There are pelicans, bald eagles, golden eagles, great blue herons, ravens, scores of bluebirds, harriers, kestrels, elk, deer and a dozen antelope.

“That’s been one of the great pleasures of the place, to have watched the private lives of all the local birds. They recognize me and they recognize the James Gang who worked on the house. But when strangers come, they get all agitated,” Proulx says.

In addition to the hardcover edition, Bird Cloud is also being released in audio format. When asked if she’s the one reading it, Proulx crisply replies, “Heavens, no! I’m far too busy for that. I did read the introduction for the audiobook, but I left the rest of the book to someone else. I don’t have time for it.”

Does that mean she has another project in the works? Proulx says yes, but offers no details. Just like the men of the Old West she writes about in Bird Cloud, she likes to hold her cards close to her chest until she’s ready to lay ’em down.

Get the Book

Bird Cloud: A Memoir

Bird Cloud: A Memoir

By Annie Proulx
ISBN 9780743288804

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