Edna Annie Proulx (pronounced PROO) was born in 1935 in Norwich, Connecticut, which was her mother’s ancestral ground. For young Annie, Norwich was only a temporary home: the Proulx family, headed by a driven textile-executive father, moved frequently. Eventually they settled in Vermont, where Proulx attended the University of Vermont and studied history.
Proulx’s studies continued in Canada, at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University), where Proulx became immersed in the philosophies of the French Annales school. According to this school of thought, history is best understood from the perspective of social science, incorporating qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The probing style of Proulx’s prize-winning fiction, which invites readers to participate in thorough, intimate examinations of characters set against their particular time and place, owes much to the Annales approach. Proulx has also credited her fiction to the deft storytelling of her maternal grandmother and the observant qualities of her mother, a painter.
After graduate school, Proulx earned a modest income as a freelance journalist, writing mostly rural-interest pieces for various magazines. Her career as a reporter deepened her observational abilities, and between writing freelance articles, she wrote short stories. Careful research is integral to Proulx’s fiction, which is invariably based on factual details of geography, landscape, culture, economy, history, and populace.
Until recently, Proulx was perhaps best known as the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Shipping News (1993), a novel (and later a film) that centers on a man named Quoyle, who, having lost his parents and wife, moves back home to a small Newfoundland harbor town. Following the release of Ang Lee’s film adaptation of the short story “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005, Proulx has enjoyed even broader recognition. The critical and box office success of the film, which took home several Academy Awards in March 2006 as well as a slew of other industry honors, has catapulted the story on which it is based into the highest level of public consciousness. It has also made the story’s protagonist, Ennis Del Mar (artfully portrayed onscreen by Heath Ledger), into an iconic film figure.
“Brokeback Mountain” was first published in 1997 in the pages of the New Yorker. The spare and deeply emotional tale was awarded both the National Magazine Award and the O. Henry Prize in 1998. One year later, Proulx’s publisher, Scribner, collected “Brokeback Mountain” and other stories in a volume entitled Close Range, Wyoming Stories, which in circular but fitting fashion took home the New Yorker’s Book Award for Best Fiction in 2000.
Like most of Proulx’s work, “Brokeback Mountain” concerns the struggle of individuals to carve out an existence in a world that is constantly in flux. Proulx pins her characters to concrete locations, painting vivid backdrops and evoking landscapes that speak volumes about their inhabitants. To her, time and place are of utmost importance to a piece of fiction; a story or a novel derives its impact from this ring of truthfulness. A human being cannot be understood out of context—this is Proulx’s insistent refrain. Human behavior and relationships are outgrowths of economic, cultural, and geographical circumstances, which are never static. Proulx’s fiction is, in her own words, an exploration of these “shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings.” The characters of “Brokeback Mountain” may reel us in with their tragic stories, but it is the unflinching portrayal of the “grieving plains” of Wyoming—where Proulx planted roots in 1994—that affirm and explain their conditions in a profoundly moving way.