Feature • December 29, 2005
The Pulitzer prize-winning writer Annie Proulx shares her insights on the short story and film adaptation of Brokeback Mountain.
Brokeback Mountain is destined to go down in history as Annie Proulx’s gay cowboy movie, even though the two main characters are not really cowboys, and it could be debated that they’re not “really” gay.
But such details are insignificant to those who have something to gain or lose in the continued color-coding of American culture. Indeed, both the gay-friendly and gay-frightful used the occasion of the Dec. 10 Rocky Mountain premiere of Ang Lee’s film in Jackson Hole, Wyo., to issue various statements: The Teton County chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays held a panel discussion on what it’s really like to grow up in Wyoming with an alternative sexual orientation, while a letter writer to a valley newspaper claimed Proulx’s short story was an insult to the “integrity and intelligence of good and honest people” and Proulx “should slink back to whatever East Coast hole she crawled out of.”
It appears, however, that many of the Jackson Hole residents who actually went to the two $25 screenings actually saw the film Lee made and the story Proulx wrote: a heartfelt and beautifully rendered story about the risks of love.
Just as society dictates the fate of Ennis and Jake’s affair, so, too, will it call the shots as Brokeback Mountain opens to wider release in the coming months. Will it frame the discussion in terms of the culture war or will it answer the simple question everyone wants to know about a new movie: Was it any good?
In the following interview, filmmaker Matthew Testa asks the author about living and writing in Wyoming, her thoughts on the story, the movie, and the controversy surrounding the film.
Matthew Testa: How did you come to write Brokeback Mountain? What inspired the story?
Annie Proulx: Brokeback Mountain was/is one of a number of stories examining rural Western social situations. I was trained as an historian (French Annales school), and most of my writing is focused on rural North American hinterlands. The story was not “inspired,” but the result of years of subliminal observation and thought, eventually brought to the point of writing. As I remarked in a 1999 interview with The Missouri Review, place and history are central to the fiction I write, both in the broad, general sense and in detailed particulars. Rural North America, regional cultures, the images of an ideal and seemingly attainable world the characters cherish in their long views despite the rigid and difficult circumstances of their place and time interest me and are what I write about. I watch for the historical skew between what people have hoped for and who they thought they were and what befell them.
MT: Did it surprise you that, of all the pieces in your Wyoming collection, Close Range, it was the story of a hidden love affair between cowboys that was adapted into a major Hollywood film?
AP: Diana Ossana, Larry McMurtry’s writing partner, read the story in The New Yorker shortly after it was published eight years ago and urged Larry to read it. They both wanted to make a film from it even though the material was strong and risky. They optioned the story from their own pockets, most unusual for screenwriters. I was doubtful that it actually would get to the big screen, and, in fact, it took years before it did.
MT: I think it’s clear to anyone who reads Brokeback Mountain that above all, it’s a wrenching, star-crossed love story. It is about two cowboys, but it seems inaccurate to call it gay literature. How do you feel about the film being assailed as gay agitprop emerging from liberal Hollywood? Did you ever intend for the story to be controversial?
AP: Excuse me, but it is not a story about “two cowboys.” It is a story about two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids in 1963 who have left home and who find themselves in a personal sexual situation they did not expect, understand nor can manage. The only work they find is herding sheep for a summer—some cowboys! Yet both are beguiled by the cowboy myth, as are most people who live in the state, and Ennis tries to be one but never gets beyond ranch-hand work; Jack settles on rodeo as an expression of the Western ideal. It more or less works for him until he becomes a tractor salesman. Their relationship endures for 20 years, never resolved, never faced up to, always haunted by fear and confusion. How different readers take the story is a reflection of their own personal values, attitudes, hang-ups. It is my feeling that a story is not finished until it is read, and that the reader finishes it through his or her life experience, prejudices, worldview and thoughts. Far from being “liberal,” Hollywood was afraid of the script as were many actors and agents. Of course, I knew the story would be seen as controversial. I doubted it would even be published and was pleased when The New Yorker very quickly accepted it. In the years since the story was published in 1997, I have received many letters from gay and straight men, not a few Wyoming-born. Some said, “You told my story,” some said “That is why I left Wyoming,” and a number, from fathers, said “Now, I understand the hell my son went through.” I still get these heartbreaking letters.
MT: It’s hard to think of Brokeback Mountain and not be reminded of the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepherd in Laramie, even though your story is set in the ’60s and the Shepherd killing happened just a few years ago. Wyoming is the Equality State—where independence, neighborliness and a live-and-let-live attitude abound—but there’s also a bitter dislike of interlopers and change. Which is it? Is Wyoming generally a tolerant or intolerant place in your experience?
AP: Matthew Shepherd was killed a year after Brokeback Mountain appeared in The New Yorker. Yes, Wyoming is called the Equality State (a reference to women’s suffrage rights granted in 1869, the world’s earliest rights to women to vote and hold office), but today it is also the state where women get some of the lowest salaries in the United States for doing the same work as men, where ranch women often do outside work, raise the kids, manage the account books and much more but often have little say in running things, do not inherit the ranch if there is a brother or son—despite the 1869 legislators’ act “to protect Married Women in their separate property, and the enjoyment of the fruits of their labor.” Independence? How many Wyoming people depend on agricultural aid, social security, pension checks? How many small-business people fight monopoly instead of competition? How many residents actually garden, put up preserves, make their own clothes, hunt for the freezer, repair their own cars, build their own houses? Some few, of course, still do, and they are in that older rural tradition and therefore quasi-independent; such people can be found wherever there are country people—people “with the bark on,” as Remington called them. Neighborliness is also a general rural quality in many parts of the world, in the American West based on early settlers’ need to help each other out or perish. I admire people who work hard, know how to fix things, tackle big jobs, lend a helping hand, all common rural Wyoming qualities. I respect ranchers, many of them under great duress, men and women who preserve landscape and cultural elements of the state. Although today only a miniscule percentage of the state’s income comes from ranching, ranch life remains the ideal for many here, and that’s a pretty good ideal to have and hold. Although there is generally a live-and-let-live attitude in the state, there are also bigots, mean people, haters, drug addicts, poachers, wife-beaters, kid-neglecters, embezzlers as in every other place in the world. Wyoming also has the highest suicide rate in the nation, especially among elderly, single men. The state is hardly perfect, and we should not pretend it is some noble utopia. It is a complex place in its geography and its residents’ psychologies, both tolerant and intolerant, as all of us are.
MT: It would be difficult to find two screenwriters better suited to adapt your story to the screen than Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Part of their job was to expand on major events in the lives of your characters that, in the short story, you describe with amazing economy in just a sentence or paragraph. Did the screenwriters consult with you during the process?
AP: Beyond some early questions, Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry did not consult with me while they were working on the screenplay. But I trusted them with the story, especially Larry McMurtry, whose ear and eye for Western America is equaled by none. I would likely have said no to any other screenwriter(s) who approached me on this story.
MT: I imagine it’s difficult to entrust your fiction to other artists for adaptation. Did you read any drafts of the screenplay before it went into production, or do you find it best to turn a story over entirely and walk away?
AP: Yes, of course it is difficult. I did read several versions of the screenplay. [McMurtry and Ossana] sent me a first draft as soon as it was done and I noted a few infelicities. The question of whether or not it is better to walk away or butt into the screenwriters’ work is an individual choice. Since I don’t write screenplays, and since films are different in pacing and structure than stories or novels, I let the experts do their work. I had enough work on my plate to keep me busy and felt no need to interfere.
MT: Are you interested in writing screenplays, either original ones or adaptations of your own fiction?
AP: I doubt I could write screenplays—and I am not tempted.
MT: Have you seen the film? How much does it resemble your original vision of the story—its landscapes and characters, themes and dramatic moments? Do you feel it accurately represents Wyoming?
AP: I have seen the film. It resembles the written story very closely, and the McMurtry-Ossana enlargement is seamless. I do feel it accurately represents Wyoming some decades in the past. It is not clear—to me, at least—what the current character of the state is. Some think Wyoming is changing, becoming more aware and tolerant of diversity and differences in people, and there is evidence to support this view. Some think it will not ever change.
MT: You’ve described yourself as passionate about getting details right, particularly details of place like local vernacular, landscape and regional culture. Are you bothered at all that the film was shot in Canada rather than Wyoming? Would you like to see more film production brought to Wyoming?
AP: I had hoped the film would be shot in Wyoming, and, in fact, Ang Lee and I looked at places in and around the Big Horns. But the decision was not mine to make. The film was shot in Canada because, I was told, Wyoming did not have an infrastructure (read big city Calgary with daily air service and hotels) that could support a film crew. The production designer, Judy Becker, toured Texas (where some of the story is set) and Wyoming, making notes so that the selection of landscape shots in Alberta would match what is on the ground in Texas and Wyoming. Except for a scene in which horses are moving through a forest with deep ground moss, the landscapes very much fit Wyoming. Of course I would like to see more film production brought to Wyoming. I think the state is missing a good opportunity to diversify economically. Some years ago New Mexico, then quite a poor state, decided that they would offer film companies interest-free loans if they would make their films in New Mexico. The offer was attractive and since then many films have been shot in New Mexico. The average film brings millions of dollars into a state, from housing, meals and lodging, extras, transportation, local consulting and so forth. Since then many other states have set up loan situations to attract filmmakers to their locales. It is good that we are seeing more realistic and representative backgrounds in film. I think there are great opportunities here for Wyoming, and not only with film, but with all the arts.
MT: It seems there could be no other name for this story than Brokeback Mountain—it conjures a remote, sublimely beautiful place, but it’s also an ominous name, suggestive of physical harm and disfigurement. Is it a real place? How did you find the name?
AP: Brokeback is not a real place. There is, on a map I once saw, a Break Back Mountain in Wyoming which I have never seen, but the name worked on several levels and replaced half a dozen more pedestrian names I had been trying out.
MT: You’ve now published two short-story volumes set in Wyoming. Is there something about the state that lends itself to the short form rather than the novel?
AP: I’ve also written a collection of short stories set in rural Vermont—Heart Songs, the old name for country-western music. Sometimes good story material just isn’t enough for a long novel, or it fits my state of mind to work on a story instead of a longer work. Mostly I use the short-story form for working with strong material or humor. I find it satisfying and intellectually stimulating to work with the intensity, brevity, balance and word play of the short story.
MT: I’ve read you’re a lover of coffee shops and yard sales—places where you can listen in on conversations, picking up on local dialects, aphorisms, story ideas. With your increasing notoriety, is it hard for you to stay anonymous in Wyoming so that you can move about unobtrusively as a writer?
AP: I don’t love coffee shops, but I used to drive across the North American continent once a year, usually by back roads and stopped at many cafes along the way where I did sometimes hear interesting things. One can hear equally interesting conversations in line at the grocery store and post office. Yard sales have been good places to find old books for me, especially valuable as so many small secondhand bookshops are disappearing. No, it is not difficult to move around Wyoming anonymously. Women of a certain age are invisible. And most Wyoming people don’t give a damn whether you write novels or knit mittens.
MT: I understand that some Wyoming folks have criticized you for being a relative newcomer to the state, someone not “local” enough to write about the West. Does this kind of talk faze you at all? Is it always the role of the writer to be something of an outsider, an observer, anyway?
AP: The innocent belief that only people who have been born and brought up in a place can know it well enough to write about it is more folklore than fact. It might seem logical, but it is not the way literature works. Certainly there have been many outstanding regional American writers, but the outsider’s eye is invaluable in writing and art, and most American literature has been written by outsiders, including much Western material: Walter Van Tilburg Clark (The Ox-Bow Incident, Track of the Cat) came from Maine, Owen Wister (The Virginian) came from Pennsylvania, Theodore Roosevelt (The Winning of the West) from New York, Jack Schaefer (Shane) had never been west of Toledo when he wrote his novel of the Johnson County war. There is room for both kinds of writers—local people and “outsiders.” Outsiders certainly do not stop local people from writing whatever they wish. There’s a little thing called “freedom of speech” which applies to writing.
MT: What drew you to Wyoming as a place to live and write? Where does your interest in rural places and people come from?
AP: All of my fiction, with the exception of Heart Songs, has been written in Wyoming. Both Wyoming and the Texas Panhandle attracted me as interesting places both for landscape and American history. I was trained as an historian and much of my story material is drawn from real historical events, sometimes reset in other periods. My mother was a painter and from her, I and my four sisters learned to use brush and pencil from the time we were children. We all have an eye for landscape and place. Moreover, one of my ancestors, Joseph Maria La Barge, from Assomption in Quebec and later St. Louis, was in Wyoming in 1825 with Ashley’s fur trappers. He got himself scalped on the little stream near the Wyoming town that today bears his name, and although Clymer says he perished, he returned to St. Louis and lived a long and happy life until he cracked his head on a curbstone. His sons were history, one of them, Joseph LaBarge, the captain of the Yellowstone. My people on my mother’s side have been in New England since 1635 (the original land they owned was given them by Squanto and until very recently remained in the family since Colonial times), and on my father’s side, in Quebec since 1637. I feel that I, along with all other writers, am free to write about any place in the world, but I have an especial interest in North America. I have always lived in rural places and wouldn’t have it any other way. I have a deep affection for Wyoming. I also have a deep affection for history and the fascinating multiplicity of its various masks and guises, especially in the creation of Western and national myths. In travels across the country decades ago, I recognized Wyoming as my place to write. The long sight lines and landscape that called me to walk and explore it loosened ideas, created images and even sentences and phrases. I would have moved here much earlier than 1995, but I had a responsibility to my mother in New England. Six weeks after she died, I came to Wyoming.
MT: Films have a way of romanticizing even the harshest rural settings, but you resist that sentimentality in your writing. Even in Brokeback Mountain, where the eponymous hilltop is a refuge and sanctuary for Jack and Ennis, it is the ruggedness of the land and the bitter cold that drives the characters together. Do you think this idea was maintained in the film? How do you experience the Wyoming landscape—as inviting, forbidding or both things at once?
AP: The characters Jack and Ennis are poor ranch kids —autochthonous—native, born to the soil, part of the place. Their lives are hard in multiple ways. Neither they nor their stories have sentimental qualities. My writing is not sentimental and neither is Ang Lee’s film. The Wyoming landscape, like human behavior, is extremely complex, and I think the basic basin-and-range topography, the mix of high plains, forested mountains, desert, highways and dirt roads, with all that such varied landscape can mean psychologically, is expressed in both the story and the film.
MT: What are you working on now?
AP: I, with a number of other people, am working a history of Wyoming’s Red Desert region, a history of human activities and wildlife from Native American times to early white settlers, a look at the Cherokee Trail and the great diamond hoax, at horse-catching and oil exploration, at teepees and homesteads, big ranches and at least one utopian colony. We are examining reports of the last vestiges of native bison in the area, Thornburgh’s march down to the site of the Milk Creek battle, desert elk and thumper trucks, present-day poachers, Finnish labor history and the Union Pacific Railroad. Geology and hyrodology from Lake Gosiute to coal mines are part of the picture. We are concerned with Irish, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, with mine explosions and gumbo roads, with sagebrush, insects, an old horse-catcher found sitting dead on a rock, Ora Haley, Wiff Wilson, “Doc” Chivington, outlaw hideouts, mystery fences, archeology and rock images. In addition I am working on a new novel set mostly in the North American northern forests and New Zealand.
Former Jackson resident Matthew Testa is a writer, director and television producer. He holds an MFA in directing from the American Film Institute and is at work on several projects, including a feature film set in Wyoming. He lives in Los Angeles and New York. This story originally appeared in Planet Jackson Hole on Dec. 7, 2005.