Annie Proulx tells the story behind "Brokeback Mountain"

By Mike Grippi

Originally published on Advocate.com December 17 2005 1:00 AM ET

Annie Proulx
figured no magazine would touch her short story
"Brokeback Mountain," the tale of two Wyoming cowboys whose
romance is so intense, it sometimes leaves them black and
blue. But The New Yorker published it in 1997, and it
went on to win an O. Henry prize and a National
Magazine Award. Now the movie version is a leading
Oscar contender, with starring performances from Heath
Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.

In a telephone
conversation with the Associated Press from her home in
Wyoming, Proulx, a 70-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winner,
declined to discuss the origins of her two roughneck
lovers, citing an upcoming book written with
screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Instead, she
spoke about homophobia, her fascination with rural
life, and the process of making Twist and Del Mar live
and breathe.

AP: You've said
"Brokeback Mountain" began as an examination of
homophobia in the land of the pure, noble cowboy.

Proulx:
Everything I write has a rural situation, and the Wyoming
stories, in the collection Close Range, which
includes "Brokeback Mountain," did contain a number of those
social-observation stories—what things are like for
people there. It's my subject matter, what can I say?

AP: Were you
trying to accomplish something specific with this story?

Proulx: No. It
was just another story when I started writing it. I had no
idea it was going to even end up on the screen. I didn't
even think it was going to be published when I was
first working on it because the subject matter was not
in the usual ruts in the literary road.

AP: You've said
this story took twice as long to write as a novel. Why?

Proulx: Because I
had to imagine my way into the minds of two uneducated,
rough-spoken, uninformed young men, and that takes some
doing if you happen to be an elderly female person. I
spent a great deal of time thinking about each
character and the balance of the story, working it
out, trying to do it in a fair kind of way.

AP: How did you
feel about seeing it on the big screen?

Proulx: It was
really quite a shock because I had had nothing to do with
the film. So for 18 months, I had no idea what was
happening. I had no idea if it was going to be good or
frightful or scary, if it was going to be terribly
lost or sentimentalized or what. When I saw it in September,
I was astonished. The thing that happened while I was
writing the story eight years ago is that from
thinking so much about the characters and putting so
much time into them, they became embedded in my
consciousness. They became as real to me as real,
walk-around, breathe-oxygen people. It took a long
time to get these characters out of my head so I could get
on with work. Then when I saw the film, they came
rushing back. It was extraordinary—just
wham—they were with me again.

AP: What did you
think of the performances by Heath Ledger and Jake
Gyllenhaal?

Proulx: I thought
they were magnificent, both of them. Jake Gyllenhaal's
Jack Twist...wasn't the Jack Twist that I had in mind when I
wrote this story. The Jack that I saw was jumpier,
homely. But Gyllenhaal's sensitivity and subtleness in
this role is just huge. The scenes he's in have a kind
of quicksilver feel to them. Heath Ledger is just almost
really beyond description as far as I'm concerned. He got
inside the story more deeply than I did. All that
thinking about the character of Ennis that was so hard
for me to get, Ledger just was there. He did indeed
move inside the skin of the character, not just in the shirt
but inside the person. It was remarkable.

AP: Would you
characterize the story as groundbreaking?

Proulx: I hope
that it is going to start conversations and discussions,
that it's going to awaken in people an empathy for
diversity, for each other and the larger world. I'm
really hoping that the idea of tolerance will come
through discussions about the film. People tend to walk out
of the theater with a sense of compassion, which I
think is very fine. It is a love story. It has been
called both universal and specific, and I think that's
true. It's an old, old story. We've heard this story a
million times; we just haven't heard it quite with
this cast.

AP: Have you
gotten any response from gay organizations?

Proulx: No. When
the story was first published eight years ago, I did
expect that. But there was a deafening silence. What I had
instead were letters from individuals, gay people,
some of them absolutely heartbreaking. And over the
years, those letters have continued and certainly are
continuing now. Some of them are extremely fine, people who
write and say, "This is my story. This is why I left Idaho,
Wyoming, Iowa." Perhaps the most touching ones are
from fathers, who say, "Now I understand the kind of
hell my son went through." It's enormously wonderful
to know that you've touched people, that you've truly
moved them.

AP: Is that why
you write?

Proulx: It's not
why I write. I had no idea I was going to get any
response of this sort. I wrote it from my long-term stance
of trying to describe sections of rural life,
individuals in particular rural situations and places,
well, first the places. That it came out this
way—it just happened to touch certain nerves in
people. I think this country is hungry for this story.

AP: Why?

Proulx: Because
it's a love story and there's hardly much love around
these days. I think people are sick of divisiveness,
hate-mongering, disasters, war, loss; and need and
want a reminder that sometimes love comes along that
is strong and permanent, and that it can happen to
anyone.

AP: Do you think
straight men will watch this movie?

Proulx: They are
watching this movie. Of course, why wouldn't they watch
it? Straight men fall in love. Not necessarily with each
other or with a gay man. My son-in-law, who prides
himself on being a Bud-drinking, NRA-member redneck,
liked the movie so much, he went to it twice. Straight
men are seeing it, and they're not having any problem with
it. The only people who would have problems with it
are people who are very insecure about themselves and
their own sexuality and who would be putting up a
defense, and that's usually young men who haven't figured
things out yet. Jack and Ennis would probably have trouble
with this movie.

AP: Do you think
Jack and Ennis will come back?

Proulx: They're
not coming back. There's no way. They're going to stay
where they are. I've got other things to write. (Sandy
Cohen, AP)