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Annie Proulx
tells the story behind "Brokeback Mountain"

Annie Proulx
tells the story behind "Brokeback Mountain"

" >

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)

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Annie Proulx
tells the story behind "Brokeback Mountain"

" >
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