Middle-Class Cosmic Mechanic
By Derek Sheffield
About Author Ivan Doig and this Interview
Born in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, Ivan Doig was a ranch hand, newspaperman, and magazine editor and writer. His novels are The Sea Runners (1982), Bucking the Sun (1996), Mountain Time (1999), Prairie Nocturne (2003), The Whistling Season (2006), The Eleventh Man (2008), Work Song (2010), The Bartender’s Tale (2012), Sweet Thunder (2013), and his Montana Trilogy: English Creek (1984), Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), and Ride with Me, Mariah Montana (1990). Doig also wrote three works of nonfiction: two memoirs, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind (1978) and Heart Earth (1993), and Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America (1980), a book which fuses excerpts from the diaries of James Swan, an early settler of the Puget Sound region, with entries from Doig’s own journal evoking the same coastline. Doig’s final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published last month. He passed away on April 9, 2015.
Ivan received numerous writing awards, including a Wallace Stegner Award, a Christopher Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for Literary Excellence, the Governor’s Writers Day Award, and the David W. and Beatrice C. Evans Biography Award. This House of Sky was a finalist for the National Book Award in contemporary thought, and in 1989 the Western Literature Association honored Doig with its Distinguished Achievement Award for his body of work. A graduate of Northwestern University, where he received degrees in journalism, he held a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington and honorary doctorates from Montana State University and Lewis and Clark College. Annie Proulx has called him “one of the best we’ve got,” and Wallace Stegner writes, “Doig knows this country and this life from the bottoms of his feet upward, and has known it, as he might say, ever since his legs were long enough to reach the ground. Here is the real Montana, and real West, through the eyes of a real writer.”
Ivan lived in north Seattle with his wife Carol. The interview took place on December 29, 2000, at their home where I found my gaze drawn occasionally to the sizable window of Doig’s office, which looks, of course, west. Over a neatly gardened yard, past a steep bank, sailboats and freighters crisscrossed the Puget Sound. Beyond this slow and silent commotion, the Olympic Mountains stood sharply with such presence they managed to climb right into the dialogue. Around us, American history played along well-stocked bookshelves in the form of figurines: soldiers trudging, cannons aiming, and horses rearing. And one floor above, Carol Doig sipped tea and went about her business.
Though he reached some impressive heights in his writing, Ivan remained grounded in the ground he loves. He was congenial and had a rich and resonant voice that would have filled the airways, had he gone that way. His laughter riddled the interview as frequently as his Scotch wit. He loved language, spoken and written, and waded in it daily as his writing grew from considerable work habits. While thinking about how to describe Ivan Doig, I recalled some lines from Richard Hugo’s poem, “Letter to Levertov from Butte”:
no matter what my salary is
or title, I remain a common laborer, stained by the perpetual
dust from loading flour or coal. I stay humble
Derek Sheffield: I’ve read that you were 16 when you decided ranch work wasn’t in your future. When did you know that writing would be? That you would become the remembrancer, the tale-bringer?
Ivan Doig: Well, that turning point at age 16 was in the midst of a summer when we were running sheep up above the Two Medicine River and a freezing rain just after the sheep had been sheared sent a lot of them over an old buffalo jump and made many others simply lie down and give up their ghost. I knew by the time I went back to high school that autumn that I was going to do something else besides ranch work. I dropped out of Future Farmers of America and took typing and Latin. That moved me a lot closer in my mind to the high school teacher who became very influential in my becoming a writer. Her name was Francis Tidyman, and she’s described at some length in This House of Sky. One of these impossible prairie tornadoes who sometimes show up in small schools. She taught all the high school English and then she would teach Latin some years, Spanish other years, and she ran the high school paper, the annual, and so on. When I came within her reach, she had me on the school paper pretty promptly, and to a lesser extent, the school annual and I took most of her classes. My own inclination for turning towards trying to become a journalist emerged and so by the time I was seriously applying for scholarships my senior year, that’s where it had all led.
I had no notion then that it was going to lead on toward books. It’s not very well known that I was a broadcast journalism major in college. My intention, if anything, was to become Edward R. Murrow [laughter]. The radio had played an enormous role in our lives in Montana. It brought in whatever wafts of dream we had, like major league baseball, or drama, or comedy, and it also brought in the news, which caught my attention. I think that kind of magnet has proven a historically sound one. The great newsmen, particularly the CBS news crew which Murrow set up (the last of them, Robert Trout, died just a few weeks ago), did prove to be so superb that they were worthy models. It wasn’t until I got my master’s degree at Northwestern that I had to make the break between college and career—the one that so many guys my age had to, because the military was there waiting for me. I was in the Air Force Reserve during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When I came back out, my first job turned out to be a newspaper job, so that carried me on into writing.
Derek Sheffield: So it was the job that derailed you from broadcast journalism?
Ivan Doig: It was. It’s what was there. I came out of the Air Force at an awkward time of the year, March, when people weren’t particularly hiring. Northwestern was well networked in placing its students and that happened to be the best-looking thing at the moment, a job as an editorial writer for a chain of newspapers in down-state Illinois so I promptly took it and stayed with print media from then on.
Derek Sheffield: How did your family take your decision to leave ranch work for writing?
Ivan Doig: My dad always would say, “For God’s sake, get yourself an education.” Not unlike a lot of fathers who were working people. They wanted better things for their kids than they had had. Within him too, I now realize, was the Scotch respect for education, and his own limited education had been enough to show him that a little schooling could do quite a bit for you. He only went through the eighth grade, but he was good at arithmetic and went through life running crews of men where he had to keep track of wages and so forth.
Derek Sheffield: And he could count sheep.
Ivan Doig: Could he ever count sheep. And he could measure haystacks, which is a fairly complicated formula [laughter]. Also he could write perfectly well. His commas are in the right place, words are spelled right. He had hellish handwriting [laughter], apparently the Spencerian method did not get down to the end of his fingertips, but in terms of handling the language he was really quite good. So that’s a long way of saying that my father was always all for me getting an education, although his original notion of how far I could go—the pinnacle of jobs—was becoming a pharmacist, a druggist. One of his nephews had attained that and that’s kind of what he could see. And I’ve realized since that was not too bad an idea from his viewpoint. All those little towns had drugstores in those days. There weren’t malls or whatever. If indeed you wanted a portable career in the small-town West, druggist was a pretty good one.
My grandmother… (sigh) saw my going away as taking a piece of her heart with her. She was always all for whatever I wanted to do, and she would always end up telling me that. But she had so much more of an embrace of family and by the time I was leaving, she had lost one of her four children—my mother—through an early death. Another one was badly crippled with multiple sclerosis. A third one lived in Australia. So she had already seen a lot of people she cherished go from her, and my going out of state weighed on her.
Derek Sheffield: In English Creek you write, “Those firstborn always, always will live in a straddle between the ancestral path of life and the route of the new land.” In the context of the book, you’re speaking of Scotland versus America, but I want to apply it to ranch work versus word work. The physical, immediate, daily interaction with the world you had growing up was certainly hard work, but do you ever miss aspects of it? Or have you achieved a balance between time spent in the world and time spent re-creating the world?
Ivan Doig: Those two very different looking kinds of work actually have a lot of similarities in the chores involved, the habit of doing the chores. I even keep pretty much the same working hours that I grew up with on a ranch. I’m up very early, always before dawn, down here starting to milk the thesaurus about the time I would have been milking cows on a Montana ranch. This is something I’ve tried to do some serious thinking about. There is a kind of physicality to the habit of writing too, of words coming out the ends of my fingers, and it’s not always clear to me that they’ve lingered or ever been in my brain before they show up there on the keyboard. I’ve talked with some artist friends about this, the sculptor Tony Angell is one of them, and a jazz musician, and a watercolor artist. I’ve talked with them separately and we all feel what the sculptor has put a name on—“Getting it in the fingers.” Often I’m surprised how the physicality of sitting and caressing the language produces, physically produces, the work I’m after. So there’s that sort of mystical link to it.
The parts of ranch work I miss would be oriented to the land, I think, Derek. The way of life still is as tough as I figured out it was going to be. I keep in touch around the West as best I can and it’s still pretty preposterous for a 16-year-old kid today to think he’s going to be a farmer or rancher if there’s no land in the family, and it’s almost as difficult even if there is. So, as a viable fiscal way of life, there’s still not that much to be missed there. Being under the Rocky Mountain Front on a good day on a tractor is a pretty damn fine thing, I know. One of the lessons of life in northern Montana is that you aren’t gonna have that many good days sitting on tractors or trailing sheep. The ones that you do are going to be everlasting pageants in your head. But the incessant wind, the prospect of drought or enormous winters, just really kicks a lot of the romance out of the outdoor life. There are people, some of whom are my high school friends, who do seem to be cut out for that kind of life. Riley, the smart-mouthed newspaper writer I invented for Ride with Me, Mariah Montana, said something about guys not realizing they’re working themselves to death because they’re doing it out of doors. I’ve seen quite a lot of that. So I find it a lot more attractive and beneficial to my work to be able to go into the outdoors carrying a notebook and a pen and putting in dawn-to-dark days out there, looking at the country, listening to people, thinking it over.
Derek Sheffield: That reminds me of Van Gogh taking his canvas out into the fields.
Ivan Doig: It’s a pretty good idea to get out and feel the elements you’re writing about. Some of them I’ve been able to bring into my work from memory. I saw enough blizzards in the time I was growing up out there that I don’t feel compelled to rush out into a blizzard anymore. But the Montana droughts, I have gone there to experience because they weren’t around as viciously when I was growing up. Apparently the warming of the earth is now wheeling them around.
Derek Sheffield: Well, I’ve read in Elizabeth Simpson’s book about your thorough research habits, how you really take the time to know your material.
Ivan Doig: Right. I’ve always tried to go take a look at the geography I’m writing about. Indeed, went to Scotland to see where the young men of Dancing at the Rascal Fair take off from the old life there.
Derek Sheffield: Did the story of the draft horse come from Scotland?
Ivan Doig: It did, it did. The opening one. Now, this is the danger of being an interviewer, because notions about how carefully things are structured sometimes get disappointed by the time I’m done with them. I did come across, in a Scottish newspaper, an incident not far from the one that opens Dancing at the Rascal Fair, a horse being dragged into the Greenock Harbor by a cart that flipped off the dock. But it must have taken me a year and a half, Derek, before I thought of having something similar toward the climax of the book. And even at that point when Rob goes into the reservoir on a horse, it wasn’t because of that Scottish horse. It was a horse I had ridden across a similar reservoir. I made it safely, of course, but some years later on that same ranch a husky young ex-Marine did not. He drowned in an accident similar to what I have happen to Rob. Someone in an audience surprised me once by asking, “Now how did you carefully plan to have those two horse drownings?”
Derek Sheffield: That image of Rob and the horse drowning in that reservoir is as haunting to me, as a reader, as the elk in Craig Lesley’s Winterkill and the horses in Linda Bierds’s The Stillness, The Dancing.
Ivan Doig: Well, good. I’m glad to be in that company because those are images that are permanently on the cave walls in the back of my head, too. I remember working long and hard on that scene of the horse going into the reservoir. You try to bring to a book everything you have and one thing I have is an experience of nearly drowning, as told in This House of Sky. Consequently, I don’t know how many drownings there have been in my novels—one in The Sea Runners, two or three somewhere else. I’ve been able to draw on that as probably the closest risk I’ve ever been through and bring it into the fiction. At first I thought I should have gone out and taken swimming lessons after that. But I’ve decided since, “No, no, this is a very useful fear for me to have as a writer.” It’s like boating. I get seasick very promptly, which was just a great help when I was writing The Sea Runners, to give a character… uh…
Derek Sheffield: Misery.
Ivan Doig: Yes… to give misery to Wennberg.
Derek Sheffield: Richard Hugo writes, “Poets turn liabilities into assets.”
Ivan Doig: [laughter] Hugo was so great. He would sum up in one sentence what we’re trying in the whole damn interview to get at. I knew Hugo, incidentally.
Ivan Doig: Yeah. It’s kind of an odd loop in our case to Hugo. Carol, in her first job out of college, worked at the same college as Mildred Walker, a writer who ultimately became Hugo’s mother-in-law.
Derek Sheffield: Oh, Ripley’s mother.
Ivan Doig: And this was many years ago, before Ripley and Hugo ever made eyes at each other in his class. When I first went into a Missoula bookstore with This House of Sky, it’d been reviewed in the Missoulian by somebody I’d never heard of—Ripley Schemm. Carol knew instantly what was going on. So, out of that came some unusually wonderful kidding opportunities on Hugo. We could always threaten to sic his mother-in-law on him. [laughter]
Derek Sheffield: Well, the connection does seem to run deep. Primarily two landscapes inhabit your work, the coastal one of the Puget Sound, and Montana. In this respect, you are like Richard Hugo, but in reverse as he went a bit east and you west. In fact, you two even have Scotland in common. He spent some time there in Skye on a Guggenheim to produce his book The Right Madness on Skye. Of Skye, he said the weather and vegetation reminded him of the Puget Sound while the starkness was all Montana. He claimed that he was a landscape poet. Are you a landscape writer? And what does that mean?
Ivan Doig: You can get away with wearing the landscape sandwich board more easily if you are a poet than you can if you are a fiction writer, because reviewers and critics will quickly slap a fiction writer on the back of the sandwich board and leave the piece of paper that says regional. So I tend to balk a little bit at the notion that we’re writers with a sense of place out here, when it’s simply put that baldly, because I think there’s so much more going on in the writing in and about the American West, from Norman Maclean, down through the younger generations to, say, Deidre McNamer, and somebody like Melanie Rae Thon. I’m mostly familiar with writers more or less my own age, including Jim Welch, Mary Clearman Blew and Craig Lesley. You read their books and there’s a lot of landscape in them but, God, there’s pretty damn wonderful dialogue and I think a level of characterization in Western fiction which, if we hadn’t put landscape in, the critics would say, “Well, it’s a sense of person that these Westerners grew up with.” We’re not just writing travelogues out here, as the sense-of-place tag can too easily suggest. I sometimes try to make the landscape a character. I did it consciously in The Sea Runners. I managed to keep a journal of the writing of that novel, and so I’ve got the old file cards and entries that show quite consciously after one of the trips to Alaska that, by God, the way to handle this Northwest coast is to put it in there as if it’s the fifth character. Put it in in almost nonfiction terms. Just write a description of the coast and the tides and so on and maybe the humans are in the scene and maybe they’re not. My novels probably show it to a lesser extent. But the landscape, for me, is probably in the same creative territory as it is for Hugo. I’m aware that it triggers analogies in me. It sets me to thinking of ways to handle it and it keeps showing up when it didn’t particularly have to in my books. How the mountains look to one of the characters. In the book I’m writing now, Susan Duff, who was a prized schoolgirl in Angus McCaskill’s one-room schoolhouse, is going back to the abandoned homestead in Scotch Heaven in 1924, and the place has been abandoned since ’18 or ’19, and cows have gotten in the house as they tended to do in old homestead cabins. So she’s there scrubbing up after the cows, but the mountains are out, too.
Derek Sheffield: The landscape is a character in your work. Is it a character in your life as well?
Ivan Doig: Oh, yeah. It has let me down on the long rope of life to the Puget Sound here. Carol and I were married in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago. That’s where we’d had our education and where we’d had pretty good magazine jobs, and we found ourselves driving into northern Wisconsin on weekends to see scrubby little pine trees. That began to tell us something. Within not much over a year, it had led us out here. The combination of mountains and water have always lured us. I’m not any kind of a mountain climber, or rock climber, but it still means something to us that we’ve been on top of Mt. Townsend across here [pointing across the Sound toward the Olympic Mountains] and Elk Peak and Deer Park. We’ve hiked much of the shoreline that we can see from here.
Derek Sheffield: When you came to Seattle did you have the feeling of a familiarity that Angus does in Dancing at the Rascal Fair when he’s picking out a homestead site?
Ivan Doig: Let me try to describe as best as I can recreate it, pulling into Seattle on an August day in 1966. Carol and I left Chicago with the temperature and humidity both in the 90s, and we pulled across the floating bridge on a day when Mt. Rainier was out. Within a week or two we’d found a house up behind University Village to rent and our neighbors, who were lifelong Seattleites—the guy had been born and raised across the alley there—they were hiding out in their basement because the temperature was almost 80. I very much have the memory of us looking at each other and saying, “This feels about right.” [laughter] And Seattle had a lot of immediate attractions, including theater life. The university was a handsome campus to set foot on. The first time we walked in the quadrangle there we thought it looked like it had been there since Dink Stover came west from Yale. It was promptly a comfortable place. And I think your question does have a lot of carrying power because when it came time to look at leaving, once I had my Ph.D. and was in the job market, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Derek Sheffield: William Blake wrote, “We become what we behold.” Does this explain how landscape shapes identity?
Ivan Doig: I think it does, to a kind of intriguing extent.
Derek Sheffield: And how landscape, identity, and memory work their way into most of your work?
Ivan Doig: Yeah, although when I’m sitting around here, what I think I’m working on is usually the language. But I’m generally pounding away on one of those three themes.
The way that the landscape of the West has fixed a lot of people into place and kept them there maybe even against their better interest, perhaps leading hopeless ways of life, as the larger world would look at it—yeah, there certainly has to be a lot of unarticulated love that keeps people there. And it’s been one of the tugs that I’ve seen in a lot of friends. My own solution to it was that there are a lot of good places to live in the West, and I’ve chosen one which has its own appeal. It’s not the Rocky Mountain Front out there, but pretty damn good mountains even so.
Ivan Doig: I think so. That’s been on my mind lately too because I’m fairly recently back from a book tour in the upper Midwest. Saw many old friends there, one of my oldest friends from college, various people who have spent their whole lives on a flat disc of earth maybe a hundred miles across. And it apparently doesn’t bother them that this geography is out here waiting for them because I’ve tried to coax them out, to shame them [laughter]. But indeed if I had been brought up in that, maybe I would prize the banks of the Mississippi River, or the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin, as deeply I do these places of the West. So, yes, I think where you land into life does put some kind of a parenthesis of vision around you. I know when I worked in Evanston on The Rotarian magazine as a young assistant editor, anything that came from the West was just handed to me, and my habit at lunch, one of the guys pointed out to me once, was that I would go off by myself down to Lake Michigan rather than going to the cafeteria. I certainly wasn’t trying to mark myself off as “the lone Westerner” but these guys I worked with knew I was.
Derek Sheffield: Do you have a greater allegiance to one landscape over another, Montana over the Sound? Or is it a tie?
Ivan Doig: Well, it’s pretty close to a tie. There are a few enlightened countries in the world—I think Ireland is one—that give you dual citizenship. And I’ve had something like that in my writing and the reception to it. I’ve been exceedingly fortunate being able to go back to Montana and have readers there ask me, “Why don’t you live in Montana?” When I point out to them that I economically starved out as a young guy, my wife’s job is in Seattle, and I’m in Montana as much as I can be, there doesn’t seem any kind of rancor.
Derek Sheffield: In fact, they’ve been giving you honorary degrees.
Ivan Doig: Right. I’ve felt very fortunate in that reception, and I haven’t felt any rancor for living out here and writing the majority of my fiction about the Rocky Mountain Front area. The trellis of history and landscape that the McCaskills grow on certainly goes up along the Rockies there, Derek, but part of that is something I once heard Wallace Stegner talk about. Fortunately it was long after I started doing it myself, so it only confirmed me. He was speaking in Portland and someone in the audience asked him why he had stopped writing short stories, and he said, “Well, you use up your capital all the time.” And he meant in terms of characterization. That certainly was one thing Faulkner did not do. Faulkner just kept the genealogy pasted on the wall and thought, “Okay, if X burns down Y’s barn, how does that trigger what’s going to happen in another generation here.” And so I keep creating this long family line which serves as a kind of a trellis that my characters grow their lives on. That tends to be Rocky Mountain. It wouldn’t have to be. When I was researching Heart Earth in Arizona, asking questions about that winter my family spent there, the Tucson newspaper’s book editor grinned and said, “Well, if you hadn’t left you might be writing about the Grand Canyon country, might you?” Yeah. Could be worse.
Derek Sheffield: Well, Keats wrote about “negative capability,” and I think part of what he meant by that term was distance from the subject, a bit of a cool remove. William Stafford wrote his best Kansas poems when he was living in Oregon.
Ivan Doig: And the one I always cite. Joyce didn’t write Ulysses about Paris. We don’t have as good a book about Paris. In my case, I’ve always known that the writing is easier to get done here than it is back in Montana or somewhere else in the West. Part of that unfortunately means the shirking of perfectly good citizenship, which, if I lived in Montana I would feel quite compelled to pitch in on. Here, with the larger population in the state and with greater resources to the society, I’ve felt a lot more free to hole up in a suburb and work, and do not much anything else.
Derek Sheffield: Are you talking about, say, devoting some of your time to protecting the environment?
Ivan Doig: No, less that than participating in Montana’s educational community or something else. Jim Welch served on the parole board in Montana something like ten years. Kittredge is kind of a circuit-riding preacher, all the things he does. I think I would have to do, at the very least, writing conferences and poets-in-the-schools and so on.
Ivan Doig: It frees me up a lot. I’m able to try to pick my spots, and a lot of it does entail going back to Montana or to rural Utah through one of the state humanities councils or some kind of Nature Conservancy event. But I’m able to schedule those things outside of a writing stint. So in terms of sitting down and doing what I think I’m meant to do, a Puget Sound suburb is the most efficient place to do it.
Derek Sheffield: You mentioned earlier that your aim in the writing is to get the words right, not necessarily to evoke a theme, to get to what Maclean calls the “poetry under the prose.” I mentioned to a poet friend a few weeks ago that I was going to interview you and she knew your name but unlike most of the folks around here hadn’t read your books. So I read her a passage from This House of Sky, one of the memory sections and she said, “Oh my God, that’s beautiful. How did it ever get published?” I know she was responding to the poetry under the prose. Can you talk about that?
Ivan Doig: Sure. I did keep a journal part-time when I was writing This House of Sky. It wasn’t full-time because the work on This House of Sky was strewn across half a dozen years. But every so often I would put down what I was trying to do, and there is an entry somewhere back there—evidently after what I thought was a pretty decent day’s work—that it would be wonderful to write it all as highly charged as poetry if I could just do it. And I think the clearest answer, about trying to get the poetry in, is that I simply worked on it and worked on it as if the book were an epic poem.
Derek Sheffield: Did you read it aloud as you worked on it?
Ivan Doig: I would read aloud some. This goes back to broadcast journalism. I’ve always been aware of the power of spoken words and the power of rhythm, in particular. It maybe also goes back to a great stroke of luck in college, where the ungodly old scholarship dorm I landed in was also full of theater people and so you couldn’t walk through the front door of that place without Richard Benjamin imitating Wrigley Field, or Ron Holgate singing as he later would on Broadway. And my best friend was a theater major, so I went to many of the rehearsals in what was a marvelous theater department, and I read a lot of Shakespeare, read a lot of dramatists, and was aware of the wonderful trickeries of the language. Allied with that was my own mercifully brief stint in trying to write poetry when I was in graduate school in history at the UW. All of these combine into the passion for the sentence and working within the sentence which meant going back over the words countless times—I don’t know if I consciously did it on This House of Sky or not, Derek, but it’s the same process. On some books I have taken a colored marker and either done it myself or hired somebody to mark every verb. Look at every goddamned verb. Look at how every paragraph begins and ends. Look at every adjective, whether to take it out or leave it in. Try to be a cosmic mechanic on the language.
Derek Sheffield: In my ear, the poetry under the prose is still alive. It is less overt than in This House of Sky, but nevertheless present in the more recent books.
Ivan Doig: One of the things I’m embarked on now is, in fiction, to see how much I can drop it back a notch and still have lively language there, and maybe do something else within the story. Perhaps make a story move more quickly. Maybe extend the characterization or the interior. Maybe put the spotlight on something else within the story rather than on every showy verb. So I’ve been consciously tinkering.
Derek Sheffield: Much of the poetry in your prose, it seems to me, comes from the way people talk. In this respect, your work compares with William Stafford’s. And I’m certain that you’ve nailed it, that you’ve leashed the colloquial with your language. Recently I was about to go skiing with some folks and one said, “Okay, everybody read-aye?” This was in La Grande, Oregon. And I realized that I had just read that “read-aye” the night before in Mountain Time. I don’t know if I had heard it before, but this was the first time I heard it. It reminds me of another time, also in Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, when I saw these two deer leap away from the road and I immediately remembered the phrase Mary Oliver uses in one of her poems to describe a startled deer, “silky agitation.” She had recreated the deer in the language, just as you have recreated Western speech in “read-aye.” What’s the value of these real voices in your writing?
Ivan Doig: It seems to me there’s an intrinsic rightness. To anybody who knows anything about the society or part of the country you’re writing about, it punches that “validity” ticket. Perhaps it’s the familiarity. Perhaps it entertains them in a certain way. But to have the characters sound right and sound memorable is one of the best fundamentals you can have for a story. You see these file cards back here. A lot of these are dialogue, and they’re around here in various incarnations. There’s one box which is largely Scotchisms, many of them picked up from trips to Scotland, various turns of phrases which the characters in Dancing at the Rascal Fair use. There’s Montana lingo picked up in bars and cafes. The novel I’m working on now will have an African-American western guy who grew up there in the Two Medicine country. It’s been interesting to find that lingo. I’ve given him a sergeant in the black cavalry as a father, and so all these neighborhoods of colloquialisms are there to be visited and it’s an aspect of language that constantly tickles at people’s minds. You notice that computer geeks, who in many other aspects of life are just as dry and emotionless as they can manage to be, have produced almost instantly their own colloquial language as rich as cowboys’. And teenagers who don’t seem to know the time of day are as busy at it as Shakespeare.
Derek Sheffield: And we still have “cool.”
Ivan Doig: And “cool” comes back and back and back. I think this is its third time around in my lifetime. I got a card today from the Nature Conservancy inviting us up to the Skagit River on their boat trip to see the eagles and the guy says, “It’s going to be cold but it’ll be cool.” Lingo like that is one of the most fertile fields for a novelist to work in. What I say on love of lingo should be hedged in by something I should have mentioned earlier, that I’m a more natural editor than a first drafter, and I come at a lot of these things from the editing experience I picked up in journalism and probably from an inclination to tinker. I’m not particularly interested in immaculate conceptions. It maybe goes back to being used to doing chores. You have to get the firewood, you have to carry the water, you have to do thus and such. So I see my tinkering with the way my characters talk as a real part of the writing routine. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately too about how much to do it. Where do you draw the line? I feel fine in my own work, but I’ve been trying to put together a talk sometime for a speech request, about how other writers have done it, and how sometimes it’s been overdone. Flannery O’Connor was pretty vocal on how much you do. Not very much, according to her. In fiction writing, it seems to me, you want people to sound like perhaps clever bits of vaudeville, in the Shakespearean sense with the wonderful clowns. You don’t want them to sound like burlesque. So, it is a line to walk.
Derek Sheffield: You mentioned some work habits, like the early mornings. And I know Hugo had his sharpened, number two pencils.
Ivan Doig: Steinbeck did the same thing, I’ve read. It had to be a certain kind of pencil. And I always respected that, but thought it was a bit much. Now I’ve discovered I have to have these goddamn Ticonderogas. I blame it on the pencil industry because it’s getting harder and harder these days to pick up any pencil these days with a good dark lead. These small things. There’s a famous Hugo story—I’m not sure this is craft or what it is—but he’d be working away with the coffee pot about at his elbow, and he’d say, “Ripley, could you get me a cup of coffee?” [imitates Hugo’s voice] He couldn’t be disturbed that far.
In terms of habit for me, so many words a day is a good part of it. The output is pretty precisely measured—400 words a day—when I’m rough-drafting. Some of it is just the tiny touches I try to put into dialogue. As an example, in Dancing at the Rascal Fair—again, I’m aware of this because I consciously thought it up—Ninian Duff uses the Scottish “Ay” at the start of sentences, and Lucas Barclay uses it at the end of sentences. I’ve heard it both ways in Montana Scotch. I deliberately did that so that these characters—one’s a Bible banger and one’s a bartender—make a kind of dialogue parenthesis, to show that they have a commonality of language and expression, even though they may be opposed to each other. And that’s a conscious touch. Another example comes from my current manuscript. My African-American ranch hand and singer is very raw, in terms of his talent, and he’s never sung with the piano. At one point Susan Duff, in giving him lessons, says all right, it’s time to go to the piano. And I think he’s gonna say—instead of what I have had him say for the past six months—”I’ve never sang with a piano”—I think he’s gonna have to say, “I’ve never sang with a piana.” It’s dawned on me that it needs an “A,” the way I heard the bunkhouse guys on my dad’s crews say it.
Derek Sheffield: How planned is your writing? Do you write from an outline?
Ivan Doig: No, I’ve tried it a time or two. In fact I tried it with Dancing at the Rascal Fair. It had dawned on me that most of my books were turning out to have six or seven chapters or sections, and I thought, “Well, maybe I oughtta take a look at this.” And so I took the yellow pad and tried to do an outline of where I thought Rascal Fair would go, and it didn’t. It ended up with seven chapters.
What I actually start with is an arc of time, which I know: what the time span of the book is going to be. That becomes an armature to build a lot of the plot on because so much of my fiction relies upon people caught in the historical laws of gravity. World War I comes along and if you’re a young male in Montana, why, you’re swept away into it pretty surely. And if the 1919 flu epidemic comes along, it changes entire communities.
Ivan Doig: So the timescape is usually the plotting framework, and within that, various kinds of patchwork is done. How a character is going to talk will sometimes shape her personality. In English Creek, Jick fairly early says of his mother that when you start to hear her capital letters, you’re in trouble. I simply knew I wanted some character who had that trait, and I didn’t necessarily know it was going to be her.
Derek Sheffield: And Jick even gets his name from talk, from one of Stanley’s quips.
Ivan Doig: Yes. And in The Sea Runners, the blacksmith, probably the least likely candidate to have knowledge of the Bible, gets to be a Bible spouter because by the time it occurred to me that I needed one for 19th century flavor the other characters were already shaped and I just thought, “Well, by God, let’s make it interesting. Let’s give it to the least likely guy.” And so those kinds of decisions shape personalities and thereby the plots. Some turns in plots, skirmishes in them, will come about because you want to try something or see how far you can go out on the edge. I’m thinking of Bucking the Sun, the little sheriff there shoots a thief in the legs with a shotgun because he’s also a shrimp, as the sheriff is, and he’s kind of snickering at the sheriff companionably. “We’re both runts aren’t we?” is what his laugh is saying. I have no idea where that came from.
Derek Sheffield: Sticks and stones.
Ivan Doig: Sticks and stones. I had come across an old newspaper account of someone robbing jewelry stores across the Highline in Montana. It’s a funny serial robbery to do because all the towns are about 50 miles apart. And you wonder: how smart is this? So I wanted this sequence of dumb robberies just to see what would happen. And indeed my sheriff is patiently waiting for the guy when he hits Glasgow.
Derek Sheffield: Facts, history, really seem to stir your imagination, which makes a lot of sense considering your background in journalism and your doctorate in history.
Ivan Doig: It’s pretty hard to make things up as strange as things happen. If I had written a thriller about the election that has just finished it would be preposterous to have Jeb Bush in that plot. The guy’s brother is governor of the state? Come on. But that sort of thing seems to happen a lot simply because there’s so many of us and the pinball clicks of us against each other produce all this strangeness.
Derek Sheffield: When I was reading Dancing at the Rascal Fair, I was sure that people on long voyages would suck on limes. I was sure that that was some bit of history you’d come across in your research.
Ivan Doig: I don’t remember where I got that. I do remember something similar, coming across a bit of detail and saying, “Oh yeah, that’s going in.” Throwing the straw mattresses overboard when they’re off Sandy Hook. I had not known that, although I had read quite a bit about immigration, but I came across that one in a letter in the Scottish archives. Details like that are often the little watch spring parts that I imagine from.
Derek Sheffield: Your books are a living record of the West, particularly Montana. If I knew someone who was interested in the history of Montana, I could just point him to a stack of your books.
Ivan Doig: When I’m in Montana doing book signings, people do come up and say, “Oh I read your book and moved here.” And this is a little more responsibility than I or my books want. But one of the wonderful, totally unforeseen bonuses of my books has been the friendship of Western historians that they’ve engendered. Bill Robbins down at Oregon State has used English Creek in history courses about the West. Carol and I were down at Stanford last summer to do a talk in a summer seminar they do for their alumni and I was introduced by Richard White. Richard is a friend of ours, but he’s also one of the hottest Western historians, the most encyclopedic, and to my astonishment he introduced me as being more interested in history than historians are. At that moment I thought, “That’s a funny way to put it.” But I’ve spent part of this week sitting around here going back through a book called Lost Country Life, which is about Medieval agriculture, and how things were done, and what tools looked like, and how turns of phrase like “spitting image” came out of “splitting image”—cutting trees exactly in half so you would have matching beams in ships or house building. And I got to thinking that maybe Richard saw me in the right light.
Derek Sheffield: It vitalizes you and then you vitalize it in your writing.
Ivan Doig: Yeah, it’s kind of a shaped accident. I gave up dissipating it into magazine work. Now I am able to sit in one spot for two or three years at a time and shape it into a book. I don’t drink it away, I don’t talk it away, it is able to incubate its way into print. I see that as kind of a stroke of luck of personality, since I haven’t utterly forged myself.
Derek Sheffield: Success can be a difficult experience among writers, an inhibitor. Since you have staked out a lasting homestead in the hearts and thoughts of so many readers, has it been difficult to keep going?
Ivan Doig: I can say “no” pretty fluently. That has helped a lot.
Derek Sheffield: Well, I’m glad you didn’t say “no” to this interview.
Ivan Doig: [laughter] I haven’t gone on some of the circuits of success, particularly the summer writing workshops that I think can take a lot of time, energy, and attention. I’m pleased that others are able to, and there are so many good writers that I’m not really needed there. I do go out and give occasional talks and so on, but my level of success has been a comfortable one. I’m a fairly rare bird: a middle class novelist, in that my books don’t sell like Stephen King or John Grisham levels, but they sell healthily and consistently. So I’ve been able—largely on the basis of my writing and, always with the underpinning of Carol’s teaching career, in terms of medical coverage and some kind of pension to look forward to—to come from a three-room railroad shack in Ringling to this place. That’s been a reasonably comfortable arc of success to work within, Derek. One thing I was aware of at the time, when This House of Sky did not win the National Book Award, when The Snow Leopard carried the day, it dawned on me pretty promptly, “Well, this is going to make my life easier.” And indeed it probably has. With that goes the realization that you probably only get one crack at the National Book Award or Pulitzer or other prizes. But life doesn’t end if you don’t get it on that one crack. As long as you’ve got other books to write, your health, and a decent life and a good spouse and so forth. Hugo had, in a lot growlier way, that same attitude, because we were around him when he lost on the Pulitzer to Donald Justice and others year after year.
Derek Sheffield: Then there’s Robert Lowell who said something like, “A few years ago I couldn’t get anything published, and now I can’t stop from getting everything published, and that scares me more.”
Ivan Doig: Well, I benefited from a kind of internal stroke of luck. When I was a magazine freelancer for ten years, I wrote incessantly. I wrote a couple dozen pieces a year. It turns out that working on the books weaned me off that entirely. I don’t feel a compulsion now to do any of the shorter pieces that are asked of me.
Derek Sheffield: Financially speaking, you don’t have to.
Ivan Doig: Financially, I don’t have to, and even though the topic may interest me, I don’t feel I have to find out what I have to say on that topic. So I’m currently not even writing book reviews. I have reviewed more books than I will personally ever write, so I’ve contributed my bit to those great scales of reviewing justice. I worked very hard on book reviews, and had the habit—I got it in my magazine days—of including a paragraph which could be cut for reasons of space. More and more I found that paragraph was always cut so that the illustration could be goosed up. And I got to thinking, “Uh-uh. I’m not going to spend the weekend thinking up a good sentence or paragraph and then the graphic designer gets to yank it out of there.”
Derek Sheffield: You referred to some early Doig poems. How much money would The Seattle Review have to come up with to be able to reprint those?
Ivan Doig: [laughter] Eight or nine figures. Well, they probably already show up in dabs in the novels. I’m not sure there’s anything that hasn’t been cannibalized and the bones licked clean by now. They pop up a little bit in Mariah Montana. Riley does a column about homesteads and he alludes to Thomas Jefferson and “the red schoolhouse of his head.”
Derek Sheffield: “The red schoolhouse of his head.” That’s plundered from a poem.
Ivan Doig: Yes. And I’ve written all of the songs in my fiction—to the detriment of my fiction, I must add—but I have written all the sons of bitches.
Derek Sheffield: I wondered about that. Particularly in Dancing at the Rascal Fair because the song is so integral to the book.
Ivan Doig: None of that was early poetry, however. I wrote that song because I wanted to use the phrase as the book title. And I’m writing now, Lord help me, spirituals for the current book. I swiped a few lines I had left over in a notebook the other day for something there: “Does the hawk know its shadow?”
Derek Sheffield: So we have managed to get some Doig poetry in here.
Ivan Doig: For free, no less, you clever devil. [laughter]
Derek Sheffield: Can you say more about the new book your working on and maybe what’s coming after that? What are Doig’s readers going to see on the shelves five to ten years from now?
Ivan Doig: Within two or three years, I hope they’ll be seeing this novel about motives, and how much they can be read by other people, and even by ourselves, and what’s mixed in with them. It has three principal characters. Susan Duff, grown from schoolgirlhood in Dancing at the Rascal Fair, has become a singing teacher in Helena. She’s been a figure in the Suffrage Movement, and that was a vital piece of history in the West. The Western states’ suffrage amendments preceded the constitutional amendment by a number of years. So Susan’s been through those political wars. In the course of them she met and had an affair with a Bull Moose progressive, a Teddy Roosevelt sort of politician. But he’s one of the Williamsons of the hated WW Ranch. He’s a World War I hero, but so far I’m running him against the grain. He doesn’t come out of it disillusioned in the same way as the Lost Generation of the 20s. I want him to have different scars on him than the absolute kind of mandatory, stamped-out scars that have been attributed to that so-called Lost Generation. He’s not lost. He’s rich and he’s a lot of other things. But he has lost the governorship of Montana because he and Susan Duff were caught in this affair and he got blackmailed out of the running. The book opens with him showing up in her life four years later, in 1924. He surprises her, walks into the house, and says he has a prize student for her. And it’s his black chauffeur: Monty Rathbun, a ranch hand who’s grown up on the WW, the son of the African-American laundress on the place. Out of this comes the plot: What is everyone up to here with this singing scheme? So it’s a pretty interesting book to write. It’s given me an excuse to write some set places I didn’t know were in me. The Monty character, as it turned out when I sat down to write, has a background as a rodeo clown. That’s been his performing record so far, before this yet to be a singer. So the first time you see Monty, he’s in that barrel that they hop in when the Brahma bull takes after them. There are any number of unforeseen scenes in this book. There’s probably going to be one back in Scotland between Susan and the politician, flirting tooth and nail outside the castle in Edinburgh.
Derek Sheffield: It sounds pretty young still, full of intriguing possibilities.
Ivan Doig: Yes, I’m about two-fifths of the way along. I’m able to put that kind of a fraction on it because I sent the first chunk of the manuscript to my editor just before the holidays. The one useful thing the computer can do for us is count every goddamned word now. Beyond that, writing on a computer is a mixed bag. But you do always know how many words you have anymore. [laughter] So that’s the course of this book. There are some flashbacks in it. It’s a novel where time tunnels backwards into what has happened to shape the motives of these characters and how they respond to it.
Derek Sheffield: Doig Time. While reading your most recent book, Mountain Time, I was thinking there is such a thing as Doig Time. Your prolific use of the flashback and the historical perspective with which you and your characters see the West. I’m thinking of Lexa hiking down that mountain in the steps of Bob Marshall. What a gift to see the landscape like that, to hear those old steps. And that gift is being passed on in your books.
Ivan Doig: I feel lucky in being tuned in that way. I also see it as going with the storytelling impulse that a lot of my characters have, that I grew up around, and that I have, too. These historical flashbacks are technically analogous to the characters liking to tell stories. I’ve had reinforcement from readers, out on the bookstore trail, who tell me they like the flashbacks. They don’t see them as intrusive or something to be fast-forwarded over with the eye. Anybody who’s going to read my books soon knows they’re going to have to spend some time with them. And so if you take readers back to tell them more about a character, they probably will like that. I don’t know if I would ever try to write a book in the flat, contemporaneous straight chronology. I mean, there’s a certain appeal if you just sit down and tell a story from finger snap to thunderclap. I admire that stuff, but I’m not sure it’s in me. I’ve been reading John Fowles’s book of essays called Wormholes, where his mind goes off in every direction. You can kind of see how we got The French Lieutenant’s Woman out of that guy, that those great flashbacks are there if writers can just find the shutter to click.
Derek Sheffield: It seems that even though you are surrounded by teachers and teachers populate your books and have been prominent in your life, that it’s been best for you to avoid the teaching life, against the stream of so many writers today, and make your living as a writer.
Ivan Doig: This goes to the saying, “Life is choices.”
Derek Sheffield: Your father used to say that.
Ivan Doig: Yes, that’s right. It comes straight out of the family. Very early on, probably in graduate school, I realized I do not have the energy or metabolism, whatever you want to call it, to teach and write both. I liked teaching a lot as a teaching assistant at the UW. I found it a vitalizing way of life. But it took me over, too. So it’s a question of what are you going to be taken over by. And a lot of people can balance them, but I simply have a head that mulls only in one direction.
Derek Sheffield: And rather than shortchange one…
Ivan Doig: And I felt I’d be shortchanging both, actually, by trying to do both. So if they advance from Dolly and clone all of us, why yeah, I’ll be a teacher. But until then, I gotta be a writer.
This interview appeared previously in Page to Page: Retrospectives of Writers from The Seattle Review (University of Washington Press, 2006) and is reprinted by permission of the author.
Header photo of Olympic Mountains by Christopher Boswell, courtesy Shutterstock.