Powell’s Interview with Annie Proulx, Author of “Barkskins”
by Jill Owens
Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s latest novel, is a sweeping, epic story of the ecological and historical transformation of North America throughout the last three centuries. Though that might sound daunting, it’s incredibly tough to put down and as page-turning as a good thriller. Barkskins is divided into 10 sections which move ahead through time, beginning with 1693 and ending up in 2013. The novel is told through the intermingled stories of two families, the Dukes and the Sels, one mostly considered white and the other largely considered Native American, though both include a mix of the two heritages. Proulx’s characters, as always, are unforgettable — she gives us rich and realistic portraits of flawed, empathetic, remarkable people. And the harsh, beautiful, valuable forests, which seem (but of course are not) endless, are a major determiner of fate.
In a starred review, Publishers Weekly raves, “Annie Proulx’s Barkskins is remarkable not just for its length, but for its scope and ambition. It’s a monumental achievement….the kind of immersive reading experience that only comes along every few years.” And Booklist’s starred review predicts, “Proulx’s commanding, perspective-altering epic will be momentous.” Barkskins will be remembered, much like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shipping News and the beloved “Brokeback Mountain,” as a masterpiece, and we are thrilled to choose it as Volume 60 of Indiespensable.
Jill Owens: Where did you first run across the word “Barkskins”? Did that title and concept shape the book, or did it come later? It’s such a perfect fit.
Annie Proulx: I don’t know if I first saw the word or if I made it up. It is possible that I came across it in some old woodsman’s memoir or such, but most likely I cobbled together “bark” and “skins” to make a descriptive occupation. There are bark-eaters (loggers or sawmill hands), barkies (a pole with the bark on), bark-markers (those who branded log ends with the company mark), and many more uses of “bark.” A bald-headed fellow has obviously been “barked.”
In any case, “Barkskins” was in my mind before the first sentence was written.
Jill: What was the genesis of the novel?
Proulx: Trees and forests have interested me all my life, and I like big themes to underlie a story. In this book, deforestation (and climate change) are slightly submerged under the intersecting stories of the Duquet and Sel descendants. A great deal (about 150 pages) had to be cut from the book, which was too long when I “finished” it — and I could have written on for another year — and those pages were generally more concerned with the changing forest world and ways humans have shaped the environment.
But in earlier years I used to make long drives and one time, maybe 20 years ago, found myself on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I came to a junction that implied it was a settlement by the sign “Alma” and a Laundromat on one corner. Across the road from the washateria was a billboard that said something to the effect that in the 19th century on this ground grew the greatest stand of white pine in the world. I looked around and saw no trees, only brush and scrub growth. The last pines were long gone. I could not get Alma out of my mind, and I suppose it was the genesis of Barkskins.
Jill: How much and what kinds of research did you have to do for the novel? It covers so much historical and environmental ground.
Proulx: Oh well, years of research. I am an omnivorous reader anyway, and here was an excuse to wallow in countless books on ships and trade, trees and trickery, history, music, etc. — everything.
Here are a very few of those titles: The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600–1800, Ship’s Surgeons of the Dutch East India Company, Pine Trees and Politics, Professional Timber Falling, The Old Man Told Us, L’Abatis, Michel Sarrazin, Japanese Death Poems, The Earth as Modified by Human Action.
A full list would fill many pages.
Jill: Why did you choose to structure the book in 10 sections, each focusing on a slightly different time period and told through a different character’s viewpoint?
Proulx: It just happened that way. I had no intention of 10 sections. In fact, I planned more, with an important section on log poaching in Indonesia, but there was not time to do this nor room in the manuscript, already swollen. Nor could I get to Indonesia. I have a thing about visiting the places I want to write about.
A multitude of characters was necessary. The story covers 300 years — society changed in that period, and the obliteration of forests increased. As I was working in a long time frame, I needed many characters to carry the story along.
Jill: Did it remind you at all of writing short stories, to structure it this way?
Proulx: No. Each short story has its own particular and unique arc. The sections of Barkskins were always part of the larger whole (at least to me, that is). Readers may see a series of short stories. But I do not.
Jill: Outger, to choose just one example, is a great character — I love his stories. Who or what inspired him?
Proulx: Every story needs a fantasist, and Outger was ideal for such a role. He was such a misfit that inventing bizarre stories (like a writer?) was a pleasure for him. His presence is a reminder to readers that semi-mad and outrageous people are also humans.
Jill: Barkskins tells the early history of the two countries, Canada and the United States, largely through two families, who mingle with and marry each other as well as the Mi’kmaw Indians. How common was that, both the intermarrying and the extreme importance of family relationships and inheritance?
Proulx: Well, North America, yes, that’s where the big forests grew, but also New Zealand.
Intermarrying was common enough to carry this story. My father’s own family believed there had been intermarrying with native people back in the day, though DNA does not show this.
On the subject of family, my father’s ancestor, Jean Prou, came to Quebec around 1666 when he was 22 and worked as a domestique for Louis Couillard, Sieur de l’Espinay. When his three years of service were up, he was allotted three arpents of wooded land in Montmagny on the Caille River. So of course some of this personal back history leaked into the accounts of René Sel and Charles Duquet.
Jill: How did you think about the tone of the book? There’s a lot of tragedy and sadness, but there’s also a lot of humor (which is frequently dark).
Proulx: I have a strong sense of the absurd, which will out from time to time.
Jill: The less powerful characters in the novel seem to be more subject to outside forces, adrift in their own lives, but even wealthy people can be struck down arbitrarily with all kinds of misfortunes or unexpected ailments. This is of course still true, but fate seems a dramatic and looming presence back then. Is that something you were interested in exploring? There was so much risk, it seems, in every action.
Proulx: Yes, and accidents were common. There were a lot of ways to get hurt in earlier times, especially in logging. Today we live much safer lives. The ordinary person does not use an axe daily, nor have to make perilous voyages to fill an occupation, nor often work around dangerous machinery, hot kitchen stoves, etc. When such situations exist, we make the workers into television heroes.
We can shudder at the chances ordinary people — especially children — used to take as a matter of course. I remember reading long ago an RCMP report of a remote family in the Canadian north where the parents both had to make a trip out to civilization and left their 11-year-old son as caretaker of the house and smaller children. Somehow the boy accidentally shot and killed the youngest child, and that is what the friendly Mountie, making his rounds of remote houses, found when he opened the door. I have no idea what happened next.
Jill: The roles that women play in the book during these very patriarchal times are varied and full and interesting. Were there women who, like Lavinia, held a great deal of power in the timber industry?
Proulx: There are hidden and ignored examples of women in what were considered men’s roles throughout history, but we pay little attention to them. If there was a real-life Lavinia, I do not know of her. But the story needed her, and so she is there. That there were girls and women working in some lumber camps marking logs is a fact. And some women cooks came into the camps in the 19th century. I think it’s likely that there were women who swung an ax or who could scale logs (probably wives or sisters of lumberjacks in the same camps), who kept the books and even who ran the business, but history ignores them. Some tough history grad student might winkle them out some day.
Jill: I kept thinking of the epic world-building that you had to do for Barkskins, and then realizing that of course it was world-rebuilding, in a way. What appeals to you about that aspect of historical fiction?
Proulx: The same attraction that a cabinet-maker might feel to constructing a highboy instead of a nightstand.
Jill: Though everyone is interested in their own life — expanding their own wealth, etc. — the forest has a pull on even the most cynical, self-interested characters. There’s a kind of undercurrent that is important and perhaps even mystical in various ways. Do you feel that way about the forests now?
Proulx: My feeling for forests is partly one of sorrow and partly one of rejoicing when I see the brilliant green of new young trees pushing up despite the shadow of climate change. (The species composition of our familiar forests is beginning a massive change. If drought is the future, models show tropical and subtropical trees in the forest of the Pacific Northwest and in the Northeast — the maple, beech, birch, spruce and fir, the pines — unable to cope.)
Jill: I was very interested to learn about the kauri trees, and the timber industry’s connections to New Zealand, even so early on; I had never heard anything like that. How did you find out about that connection, and why was that a direction you wanted to include?
Proulx: I suppose I first heard about New Zealand’s kauri trees from reading about them, but I have been to that beautiful country many times and have visited the protected stand of surviving kauri trees on the west coast of the north island (Waipoua Forest) and stood amazed and ashamed for the loss of irreplaceable forest in the stunning Kauri Museum in Matakohe.
Jill: What are you reading and enjoying right now?
Proulx: I am rereading Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel, and Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard. I often have several books going at once, as I think every omnivorous reader may have.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted via email.
Annie Proulx is the author of eight books, including the novel The Shipping News and the story collection Close Range. Her many honors include a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and a PEN/Faulkner award. Her story “Brokeback Mountain,” which originally appeared in the New Yorker, was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Her most recent novel is Barkskins. She lives in Seattle.