ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Annie Proulx won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, "The Shipping News." Her short story "Brokeback Mountain" became a Hollywood blockbuster. And her latest novel is her most ambitious work yet. It's called "Barkskins."
ANNIE PROULX: (Reading) The forest was always in front of him. He was powerless to stop chipping at it, but the vigor of multiple sprouts from stumps and still-living roots grew in his face, the rise and fall of his axe almost a continuous circular motion. There seemed always more and more trees on the horizon.
SHAPIRO: To say that Annie Proulx's book is about deforestation undersells the drama, the blood, the epic sweep of "Barkskins," which covers three centuries and at least as many continents. Annie Proulx, welcome to the program.
PROULX: Glad to be here.
SHAPIRO: I had never heard the word barkskins before I saw the title of this book. Explain what the word means.
PROULX: Well, it's rather self-explanatory - obviously somebody who has skin like bark. People who work in trees would be a natural to be called barkskins. It's not a word that's commonly used, and I can't find where I heard it or saw it. It's entirely possible that I made it up. I just don't know. But it was "Barkskins" before even a first word was written.
SHAPIRO: And did that suggest to you that it was going to be about not just the trees but the thick-skinned people, if you will, who made their lives around and through the destruction of them?
PROULX: Yes. The characters I did not give a lot of thought to, frankly. Characters are very simple for me to write. It was mostly the underlying story - literally the deforestation - and the sweep of it. At one point, this entire globe was covered with a thick, thick mantle of green, and we've taken it away.
SHAPIRO: If you asked me to imagine a book about deforestation, I would think about of a kind of quiet, nostalgic elegy. This is anything but.
SHAPIRO: Was that a conscious decision, or was it just the way the book came out of your fingertips?
PROULX: Have you ever been around a forest operation where trees were going down?
SHAPIRO: I actually haven't, no.
PROULX: Well, it's not quiet and contemplative, let me assure you.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) How much time did you spend in those kinds of operations?
PROULX: I've been around logging operations for most of my life. I've seen what's going on. I've studied them. I've heard them. I grew up in New England, where logging began early and has persisted unto this day. So logging is not gentle. It's fierce, and it's hard work it's. It's noisy. It's messy. And it leaves sad things behind - stumps and broken branches, so forth, so...
SHAPIRO: There's a real tension between, on the one hand, leaving sad things behind, as you say. It feels like a global tragedy that these forests have disappeared. And yet, the characters who cut down trees are your protagonists. They were almost heroic. You don't seem judgmental of them at all for what they're doing.
PROULX: No, that's the reader's job.
SHAPIRO: Tell me what you mean by that.
PROULX: Because readers are not dumb and they do not need to have it all carefully spelled out for them, they can figure out whether and interesting character who's a chopper is doing a bad thing or a good thing, to put it in a very bald and basic way. And if there's conflict in the reader's mind, good.
SHAPIRO: It's also a very violent book. People die in as diverse a range of excruciating ways as I could ever imagine. What do you think that brings to the narrative?
PROULX: Quite a lot, actually. I was, myself, surprised at the unusual ways that people died in past centuries - different kinds of accidents and so forth. So now, when we see that someone - that a logger was caught in the cleft of a tree or that someone froze to death in an ice storm aboard a ship, we're rather amazed. But no, these things happen to people.
SHAPIRO: I get the sense that you didn't shy away from writing those at all, that there was no sort of delicacy, that you kind of plunged in with gusto.
PROULX: Well, to a certain extent, yes.
PROULX: I mean, if you've got to kill off a character, you might as well do with a bit of panache.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Cannibals certainly qualify as panache.
PROULX: (Laughter) I would say.
SHAPIRO: I wonder - you know, you say writing characters is one of the easiest things for you.
SHAPIRO: Do you consider the forest one of the characters in the book?
PROULX: Oh, it's the character.
SHAPIRO: I mean, is the forest a hero, in any sense of the word?
PROULX: Absolutely. It's the underpinning of life. Everything is linked to the forest. This is but one facet of larger things, like climate change and the melting of the ice. So deforestation is part of a much, much larger package. If I'd been really ambitious and more crazy than I actually am, I would have tackled the whole shebang, but I didn't. I just concentrated on forests and depend on readers to put two and two together and come up with 17.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter). Well, Annie Proulx, thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us.
PROULX: Well, thank you.
SHAPIRO: Annie Proulx's new novel is called "Barkskins."
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