Famous First Words: Postcards
An honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work. Supper for a song. Canoe for a story. It’s all relative, really. Particularly if you’re in the market for a canoe.
Born in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1935, Annie Proulx was an established freelance writer in the 1980s when Gray’s Sporting Journal found themselves low on cash one month and offered her a canoe in lieu of payment for a short story that she had written for them. Unorthodox though the terms were, this kind of situation wasn’t especially uncommon for the magazine at the time. The first issue of Gray’s Sporting Journal in 1975 had been a welcome arrival for writers like Proulx, an avid fisher and hunter who found the traditional outdoor-related fare—confined almost exclusively to sensationalized accounts in men’s magazines detailing brushes with death in nature—to be severely lacking in both craft and substance. Gray’s represented the essential alternative to this dilemma, and they offered excellent compensation to an eager cast of contributors. In those early years, however, the magazine often had trouble coming up with the funds necessary for commissioned content. The solution, in this case, was to run an advertisement for Mad River Canoe, who paid for the ad with a sample of their merchandise, which was then transferred to Proulx.
By her own account, it was an excellent canoe. And Proulx had by then adopted a decidedly businesslike approach to her work; she had been writing on assignment consistently since leaving Concordia University in 1975 just shy of a PhD in history (completing everything but her thesis), and had covered a range of subjects that spanned cooking, fishing, home construction, horticulture, wildlife, and anything else that required elucidation in the pages of a newspaper, magazine, pamphlet, or instructional book. What started out largely as a matter of financial necessity gradually began to prepare her for subsequent ventures—including a small newspaper that she founded in Vermont in 1984 (The Vershire Behind the Times) and the increasingly frequent excursions into fiction that she’d rarely had the luxury of indulging before.
Much of her early fiction ended up in Gray’s, but she began to receive mainstream attention when a story of hers called “The Wer-Trout” was picked up by Esquire editor Tom Jenks for the June 1982 issue. Jenks printed two more of Proulx’s stories while he was there, and a few years later, after moving on from Esquire to a job with Charles Scribner’s Sons, he called on Proulx to assemble some of her stories for a collection. The resulting Heart Songs and Other Stories was released in 1988 and got a warm reception on the whole, allowing Proulx to transition belatedly into her new role as a working fiction writer. But it was an additional line in her publishing contract with Scribner that was the impetus for her next leap forward.
Packaged into her deal for Heart Songs was an agreement for another book, referred to simply as “Novel.” This designation constituted the entirety of the information supplied about the project, and, with the exception of a collaborative exercise she had undertaken with a friend many years before and abandoned, it would be Proulx’s first real attempt at a novel. Taking her cue from Depression-era Vermont fire marshal reports about a trend of fires on local farmsteads that were carried out in order for the owners to collect whatever scant insurance money they could claim, Proulx found the inspiration for a novel that would employ as its backdrop the stark, harrowing economic desperation of 1930s America. With the help of foundation grants and an advance from Scribner, she was able to launch herself into the operation over the next couple of years.
Having always gravitated toward the distinct challenges of the short story, Proulx nevertheless quickly settled on a storyline about a man who flees his family’s home after a fatal accident and heads off to a life of itinerant exile. She made several trips cross-country that followed a rough approximation of her protagonist’s path, eventually arriving in Wyoming, where she hammered out the book during a six-week residency in 1990. Postcards, the somber and rigorously polished first novel from a writer who had already served her apprenticeship several times over, was published in January of 1992 and won the PEN/Faulkner Award the next year. After the critical and commercial impact of Postcards, there was no going back for Proulx—she followed it up immediately with The Shipping News, taking home a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award this time. From that point onward, she’s grown (somewhat grudgingly) accustomed to being recognized primarily as an author of fiction, though if Proulx’s word is to be trusted, she rarely reads fiction at all, preferring instead to detour back into the “earthy concerns” that have informed her work from the start.