00:00 Saturday 11 July 2009  Written by Jackie Keogh

Annie seeks links between West Cork and Wyoming

FROM time to time people have letters printed in The Southern Star asking for help tracing their ancestors.

So, it is with some small sense of service, that The Southern Star prints a request by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx for information about people who left West Cork in the mid-1900s and settled in central Wyoming.

Speaking to five hundred people at the West Cork Literary Festival's first ever sell-out event, she said the stories of the people who populated Butte, Montana, and worked the copper mines is very well documented.

But there is little or nothing to account for the Irish names (like John and Timothy Mahony, who came from Kilcrohane, Pat Sullivan, Eugene McCarthy William Daly, Richard and Peter Tobin) that are attached to the vast ranches and remote regions in central Wyoming, and she named historian, Hazel Vickery, as her local contact, her "touchstone."

Annie Proulx explained how she and her friend, Dr. Dudley Gardner, a historian and archaeologist at the Western Wyoming College, have been making a study of these people.

It also explains why the West Cork Literary Festival could enjoy such a magnificent coup in getting the author of The Shipping News to attend the festival and give a reading from her new collection of short stories, Fine Just The Way It Is.

The book is described as being Annie Proulx's return to the Wyoming of Brokeback Mountain and the familiar cast of hardy, unsentimental prairie folk.

From that collection she chose to read Them Old Cowboy Songs because the family of the main character, Archie McLaverty, comes from Bantry.

The audience knew that Annie Proulx had agreed to read one story but because she is known for being a bit standoffish they didn't dare to hope for much more.

But even if Annie Proulx hadn't gone on to give an intelligent and often humorous question and answer session, she had already delivered - big time - in her reading of the thirty-page short story, which is set in 1885.

Standing at the podium with just a spotlight on her face, Annie Proulx re-created Little Weed, a remote homestead populated by Archie and his wife Rose McLaverty.

Archie, who speaks with a hard, clear, laconic voice is capable of tears at coitus and leaving his pregnant wife to go off and work as a cowhand because, as he said: "We need the chink."

There is a musicality to Annie Proulx's writing, yet it manages to retain a spare, pared back feel to it, especially in the spoken word.

Her use of language is as broad as the places she writes about ("countryside as wide and flat as an old newspaper"), but every story has a cutting edge - a deep visceral stab - often violent, or sexual, that shocks the reader senseless.

In the short story Brokeback Mountain there is no film fade and the gay cowboy meets his end with a tyre iron to the head. When you read Them Old Cowboy Songs don't expect it to be pretty.

In the question and answer session people asked 'how stories start' and 'when did she start writing'. In reply she said: "Reading and books have always been my passion since I was four years old. I was 58 when I started writing.

"You need some life experience. The tough stuff; the hard stuff not favoured by publishers or readers who want a happy ending, but that is not the way life is."

It's all about use of language for Annie Proulx. She talked about preventing "TV speak" being used in Brokeback Mountain. She said she insisted that the language had to stay the same. And, anyone who has seen the love story, will attest that the words stayed tight and terse.

Annie Proulx was asked about living in Wyoming, Newfoundland, and more recently in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

She said: "I like difficult places. In Wyoming it's a basin and range and you can see for 150 miles. It was a fine place for me to write. Walking in Wyoming works with writing."

Former festival director, Clem Cairns, was his usual mischievous self when he asked the author: "Have you mined the area where you live and are now ruthlessly moving on?"

The tone of irony was not lost on Ms. Proulx who said: "I hate to leave it, but I have to. My house is very remote. There's no public transport and the medical care is frightful."

She said her house is often subjected to horrific winds of over 100 miles an hour, the landscape gets locked-up with 25ft snow drifts like "white concrete" and the council don't plough the road.

Okay, she admitted that some people don't like what she's written about Wyoming.

She said one woman came up to her at a talk and told her that the members of her book club were annoyed with her for "dragging Wyoming through the mud. Then she asked me to sign her book - that's people."

Noting that she was born in 1935, she said she also had to be mindful of her advancing years.

But she said Albuquerque was an interesting place, populated with interesting people. What she actually said was "it's very yeasty, exciting and interesting and I want to write about that."

Who's her favourite writer? Annie Proulx named Irish writer, Aiden Higgins, who now lives in West Cork. So that's him anointed then. A five-star rating by Annie Proulx has got to be up there with an endorsement by Oprah.

Annie Proulx was asked if the magic that is evident in her writing is there in the first draft, or the tenth, and she replied: "Would that it were so short. Some pieces are re-drafted 30, 40, 50 times" because she searches for "the right word that moves the story and speaks to the reader."

Annie said her characters "have jobs to do; they have to tell the story. A character is shaped by what the story needs."

She described Quoyle, the main character in the Pulitzer Prize winning The Shipping News as "a wallowing, helpless creature" who is given shape and direction by his paternal aunt, Agnis Hamm.

Before leaving the stage to sign hundreds of books, the author was most sincere when she told the audience: "Writers love to come to Ireland. The Irish are the best audience in the world - bar none!"

It was warm words from a woman who is all about using the vernacular, like one character who promised violence on another saying he would "clean his plough good," so - with the indulgence of the editor of a regional newspaper - we pay Annie Proulx the compliment of saying: This is one resolute lady who is full of piss and vinegar.

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