Writer’s Interview

The Writer’s Workshop will regularly feature an interview with a well-known author of fiction or nonfiction. These interviews explore the art and craft of writing, making clear how these writers got their start, how they developed their style, and how they continue to find inspiration in their work. /

Landscapes of a Western Mind: A Conversation with Ivan Doig

Interview by Nick O’Connell

Ivan Doig grew up in northern Montana along the Rocky Mountain Front where much of his writing takes place. He knows the country well, having worked it as a ranch hand for the first part of his life and written about it for the second part of his life. After eking out a living as a freelance writer, Doig got his career off the ground when his memoir, This House of Sky (1978), was nominated for the National Book Award in contemporary thought.

“The language begins in western territory and experience but in the hands of an artist it touches all landscape and all life,” wrote Robert Kirsch in the Los Angeles Times. “Doig is such an artist.” Winter Brothers (1980), a nonfiction account of the past and present of the Pacific Northwest, won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, as did The Sea Runners (1982), his first novel. Subsequent works such as the novels English Creek (1984), Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), Ride With Me, Mariah Montana (1990), Bucking the Sun (1996), and the memoir Heart Earth (1993) have widened and enhanced his reputation, as have subsequent titles Prairie Nocturne (2003), The Whistling Season (2006), The Eleventh Man (2008), and Work Song (2010). Throughout his career, Doig has found new ways to conjure up the people and place of the Northwest.

Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig. Photo by A Wayne Arnst.

Born June 27, 1939, in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, Doig received a B.S. in journalism from Northwestern University in 1961, an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern in 1962 and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington in 1969. He won a National Endowment for the Arts Fiction Fellowship in 1985. He lives with his wife, Carol, in a ranch-style house in north Seattle. The interview took place there in quiet of Doig’s book-lined study. The author has red hair, blue eyes, and the air of a philosopher about him.

How did you get started writing? 

I suppose I was going to be a writer of some kind from about my junior year in high school. My notion was to go away to college to break out of what seemed to me not a very promising ranch future in Montana. So I went to Northwestern, specifically to the school of journalism. I thought at the time I was going to be a newsman. That idea held through college and through the first couple of jobs. I began to shift when Carol and I were living in the Midwest, where we were both working on magazines. I wanted to have more time to think about things. That’s when I thought I would like to become a journalism teacher. So we came out here with the notion that I would get a Ph.D. in history and would know more background to bring to journalism teaching.

Graduate school taught me that I didn’t want to be on a university faculty. I was continuing to freelance magazine pieces even during graduate school and I began, to my surprise, writing poetry–which I’d never done before.

Have you ever published it?

Eight or nine published poems–mostly during the graduate school years or just afterwards. But I don’t have any great facility in it, that I can see. Once I began This House of Sky, I began working on what Norman Maclean has called the poetry under the prose–a somewhat poetic kind of language. That fulfilled whatever urge I had toward poetry.

So you could do in fiction writing what you were doing in poetry?

Yes, as I savvy it. I’ve read and learned a great deal from Richard Hugo’s book The Triggering Town. Looking at the individual vowels and consonants, the interiors of words, for instance. I imagine my use of rhythms in some of my prose has a kind of poetic urge behind it, too.

Did you know Richard Hugo?

Yes, Carol and I knew Dick and his wife, Ripley, to a point where we were friends but not close friends. We were around them six or eight times. We never lived in the same community. He was someone of considerable stature by the time I got to know him. I was just glad he was around, writing as he was about Montana, living that sometimes outrageous life he did. I knew him during his great spate of creativity when, Christ, every time we saw Hugo, he had a new book of poetry coming out. I got to know him well enough to kid him about that a little bit, and he’d say “Aw, I wrote these years ago. They just happened to come out now.” You’d look up next and he’d have a mystery novel out.

Was it both his lifestyle and poetry that impressed you?

I think it was his commitment to language–his burning himself and his life up for the sake of his language. This was a guy doing the job to his fullest. I like writers who pour themselves into their work.

Did you have an affinity for Hugo’s subject matter?

It was more his verve. You got that not only in his poetry, but being around him and hearing stories about him. There were more stories about him than any other writer out here. There was a dimension to Hugo; there was a lot of him [laughs] in every way. I don’t know that we could have stood each other as roommates for more than twenty-four hours. But he was someone very bracing and he was very generous to me in his estimation of my work, in his comments.

As a full-time writer, what keeps you going? What about writing is continually demanding?

It may be because I look on it as a craft that it’s perpetually interesting to me. I’ve done it as various phases of craft. At the newspaper phase I wrote editorials, did a bit of reporting, book reviews, editing.

I mentioned the poetry, and freelance magazine pieces are entirely a craft in and unto themselves. Then, trying to stretch the craft toward the areas where it mysteriously starts to be something more than craft–art, literature or whatever else you want to call it. Above all, I’m interested in the language. Language is the alpha and the omega. I’ve worked on this trilogy [English Creek is the first book in the trilogy] where I tried to use the Montana slang and get at the flow of life, the deep aspects of life, as well.

And to get at the deeper aspects of this life, you have to use the idiom of Montana?

Having a first person narrator, as each of these three books does, provided me a distancing device–the way Marlow is in some of Conrad’s material. A person was there speaking in ways which I wanted him to, but he was not me and therefore he could say more, in some ways, than I could. Because I invented him he had aspects which I don’t particularly have myself. There’s a richness to be got at by having a Montanan narrator speak Montanese.

Did journalism help your writing?

Yes, it did help. Much of the course work I had at Northwestern was in what was called radio/television editing. I was taught by excellent journalistic craftsmen. Among other things, they taught me to write for the ear–because that’s mostly what radio news is about. They taught me to write bright leads because you have to attract the listener. No one is being paid to listen to you or to read your stuff.

I see this as similar to the way writers used to get their training. Hemingway and O’Hara worked on newspapers. Until the rise of writing courses at colleges and universities, that’s the way you did it. Both journalism school and the almost ten years I put in as a magazine freelancer were part of that training. Not always the most pleasant training, particularly in freelancing, because of the financial impossibility involved. But it does teach you to do certain things with words.

Does there come a point where journalism will hurt your writing?

If you don’t keep pushing the form of whatever you’re in, you simply curl up and die away. I don’t think it’s the genre or form itself that is necessarily constricting, if you try to reinvent it.

Why did you move to Seattle?

We came out here largely pushed by the flatness, the lack of distinction of the Midwest. Both Carol and I were hungry for mountains and water.

What makes the Northwest distinctive?

In a lot of ways, the geography is its attraction. But I think out here–in the Mountain West as well as the Coastal West–you’re around people choosing to live here for the sake of geographic place, rather than profession or family or social class. There’s a force field attractiveness to that.

What are people’s reactions to your books, say, This House of Sky, for instance?

There’s much enthusiasm for This House of Sky, which is taught in courses in Montana starting with high school English, and then the Montana and Western literature courses at colleges and universities. It ranges from that to phone calls and letters I’ve had from ranch foremen, forest rangers, saying, “Godammit, I don’t read that many books, but that was sure a good one.”

That must be very gratifying.

Yes, it is. Again, when you work at this as a craft, to have it recognized by the people who know the country, who know what you’re writing about–that is gratifying.

I try to run as much of my writing as I can in manuscript past people of this sort. The payoff on that is, when it finally gets into print, it’s been tinkered with, corrected if necessary, to the point where people are not sending letters all the time saying, “God, you got that assbackwards.”

What’s the value of that strict authenticity?

Well, intrinsic [laughs]. It takes on a rightness in itself. I can’t defend it financially. A lot of writers would not bother to defend it in terms of the time and energy it takes. But by God, you ought to do it right, it seems to me, even if it does take more time and energy. Nobody ever said this was going to be an easy business to be in. Some of this goes back to people I grew up around. There simply was a right way to build a haystack or build a fence in these people’s minds–my dad among them.

What is distinctive about the writing that comes out of the Northwest?

In terms of living out here, some of the writers I’m aware of as fellow professionals and craftspeople are Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Tom Robbins, Ernest Gann, and certainly Ken Kesey. Of those, what I have in common with Robbins and Herbert is our journalism background, which is not much recognized because now our writing and the topics we work on go in three very diverse directions. But all three of us paid our dues. All three of us are fairly productive writers, fairly regular writers. And Ursula Le Guin probably produces more than any of us. So, there are a number of us out here who have the right work habits. We hole up and do our work.

Do you feel your writing grows out of a certain tradition?

Not literarily. Socially and culturally, I’m aware of being part of a lineage, a family tree of Western writers because I have read and know of Wallace Stegner and Mari Sandoz and Hamlin Garland. They are people whose growing up was somewhat along the lines of mine–on ranches, farms, homesteads. People who came out of rural places to be writers. A. B. Guthrie is also in that family tree. He was around as an example, when I was a kid, that a Montanan could, indeed, grow up to write famous books.

The Western tree continues in my own generation–Jim Welch, Bill Kittredge, and Mary Clearman Blew, up in Havre, Montana. Norman Maclean is kind of an honorary member of our generation, even though he’s thirty-five years older, because he began publishing about the same time we did. I’m aware of being a part of these people, because some of them are friends and people I admire for how they’ve made their way in life. But professionally, I don’t compare my work to other regional writers. Or anybody, for that matter.

Where does your writing fit within the scheme of Western writing?

What seems to me distinctive about what I’m trying to do is an interest in working people in the American West. In this trilogy, [English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, Ride With Me, Mariah Montana]my interest was in using working language of the area, trying to find a style within it for these three Montana novels.

Because this hadn’t been done before?

Well, I don’t know and I don’t much care if it’s been done by other people. Again, I felt it was worth doing in its own right. You don’t use up a literary topic by writing about it once. Who’s going to write better about the sea than Joseph Conrad? And yet there are other sea stories to write. There have been endless coming-of-age stories–none of which bothered me one bit in writing 340 pages about a fourteen-year-old, Jick, in English Creek. His coming of age was unique to me.

I don’t think you have to forever be searching for the topics that haven’t been done. If the story is coming out through you, then it hasn’t been done. I don’t think there need to be new literary fashions and topics constantly. When they are done, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be done just for their own sake. If you’re going to do them, do them right, as Garcia Marquez has or Vargas Llosa or Russell Hoban in Riddley Walker.

When you first started publishing books, why did you choose to write a memoir about your growing up, rather than a novel?

I’m quite literal minded, and a memoir seemed to be the best way to tell the story, and so I didn’t see why it shouldn’t be done that way.

Do you think your writing is moving away from personal experience and history? Are you moving toward writing solely fiction?

Well, the project of the ’80s was this fiction trilogy. The third book appeared in 1989. Fiction has been a liberating and exhilarating phase for me. You’re no longer bound to the fact of the people you’re writing about. You’re free to make up the book’s population. I still feel bound by the authenticity in which they live, but the people themselves are a liberation.

Are there things that you can accomplish in fiction that you can’t in nonfiction?

There are things that I wouldn’t know how to get at in nonfiction. The circumstances would have to present themselves in nonfiction for me to equal it, and that’s not too likely to happen. In writing fiction about the Depression generation in English Creek, or the homestead generation in Dancing at the Rascal Pair–there are scenes I felt I could get at that I couldn’t otherwise, simply because the people were no longer alive, or I couldn’t see the actualities. So I created the actualities. I’ve been working on the opening scene of my two young Scotchmen on a dock on the River Clyde, getting ready to come to America. I can’t see them, back there a hundred years ago. I’ve seen the dock, I’ve seen the River Clyde, I’ve seen the town these guys come from–I’ve seen a lot but I have not and cannot see these two actual guys. So the way to see them, therefore, is fiction.

So fiction fills in what you can’t discover otherwise?

Yeah, and as it fills in it takes its own forms. It pushes the bounds of actuality. It’s a hot, molten mass. It moves the form of the writing around to new patterns. You find your fictional people getting into predicaments, having troubles, having good times, which maybe people do and maybe they don’t in actuality.

But the fiction must still be authentic, it still could have happened?

Yes, so far, my writing “could have happened.” I don’t believe you have to be goosing the reader with outlandish surprises all the time, the notion that fiction has to be hyped up–Ho! Here comes an axe murderer! Huh! Here’s a Russian submarine! Jesus! Here’s the killer comet from outer space! Life is vivid enough in itself. Look what happens to people as they go through their years. Everybody’s got a story, everybody’s got drama, good times and bad. There’s a lot of intrinsic drama, and I think it cheapens fiction by having artificial sweetener in the plot all the time.

Why did you base The Sea Runners on an actual event, rather than making it out of thin air?

It didn’t occur to me. I had lived out here at that time twelve to fourteen years, I’ve been along the coast as a hiker and had thought at various times of trying to write something about it, but it never dawned on me that anybody could have, would have, made that particular voyage by canoe.

I turned to fiction in The Sea Runners because I didn’t see any way to do it as nonfiction. So it looked like the best way to do that particular story was to take the historical kernel–the fact that it happened–and base fiction on it. My imagination works off facts, by and large.

Is that your newspaper training?

Well, could be. Could be 700 years of Scotchmen in my background. It’s simply there and it’s what propels me through life, and I try to work with it. Once I do have a fact, I’m perfectly game to do something imaginative from it if I’m working on fiction. But apparently I need that seed of fact.

In Winter Brothers, you quoted extensively from the diaries of James Swan. Does your own writing build on writers like Swan?

In that they are the eyes and ears into a time we can’t reach ourselves, yes, they’re utterly invaluable. Swan would prove in his diaries to be so good, so deft a writer, that I would find a kinship and admiration and a reminder to myself, “Okay, he is doing something I would like to do in his situation.” Sometimes it might come just out of the words, whatever their topic might be. But I–maybe it’s the direction my writing has taken in fiction–I tend to look on people like Faulkner as the real liberators.

Liberators in what sense?

Through their particular obsessions in language, obsessions in their work, they have shown us what is possible and make our own obsessions a bit easier. Faulkner has shown us you can live in backwater Mississippi and be great. Maybe your neighbor didn’t even know it and maybe if they did know it they were against it. That didn’t matter. You could still be great.

To see greatness in writing come out of a guy like Faulkner, that’s exciting to somebody trying to work with words. You don’t have to be striving to be great–I don’t mean anything that extreme–but just to see how proficient a guy like that could be in his circumstances. That’s a wonderful example for a writer.

In writing This House of Sky, did you need several years to get an emotional distance from the story?

It took me quite a while to accumulate the emotional ingredients of This House of Sky, to get the material brought out of memory and taken back to Montana and expanded or verified by talking to other people and seeing the places where things actually took place. The work on the prose, of trying to make each sentence carry its weight, took two and a half years at the typewriter.

Did the book flow out of you or was it painful to write?

It did not flow, but none of my writing flows [laughs]. It comes out a word at a time and a sentence at a time. Because of the way I work, carving away at this craft of mine, that’s simply the way things happen. I don’t feel I was emotionally blocked, no. It was simply a matter of needing the time to work on the language and find the stuff and think about it. The old-fangled philosophy of taking some time to think produced a lot of that book.

What about the Montana landscape inspires you to write so movingly about it?

You can’t be around that landscape without it being on your mind. The weather governed our lives on the ranch, often determined whether the entire year was a success or not. Our lives turned on the weather, in combination with the landscape. This carries over into my writing.

So in a way you’re still working the landscape like your dad was?

An even smaller patch of it than he was. I work on these small sheets of paper, still trying to make a living out of the landscape.

One of the reviewers of English Creek criticized the book as slow-moving while another reviewer contradicted this and said the pace was entirely appropriate for the period and the characters. Did you design the pace so that it would reflect the way life was during that time?

It never dawned on me that the actualities of life and how working people lived and went about their labors could be considered plodding; that you had to have green-eyed invaders from outer space before anything was happening. I thought, and still think, a lot of things do happen in English Creek.

Along with its seasonal life had to go, I believed, description of the sense of the country, sense of the past, as people tell stories and listen to stories. This does not bother me at all as a reader and so it doesn’t as a writer. But, Christ, you can edit Faulkner and Conrad and Shakespeare and everybody else down to a third their length and pretty much preserve what ostensibly happens. What you’d lose is the richness in life, and the richness in life is what I’m trying to get at. If a reader or reviewer is bothered by that, he’s got the greatest fast forward ever invented–the human eye. Just flip ahead in the pages.

So, yes, the pace was meant to be natural. I’m trying to write each book on its own terms. The pace of The Sea Runners, which is much swifter, is meant to match the tension in that book. In English Creek, you’re meant to take in the seasonal change as it comes month by month through the summer, and meant to be catapulted into what’s coming next in history.

Do you have any other books planned?  

I always have other books in mind, but it remains to be seen which of them will hold up as intentions over the next five years and which will look most appealing then. I have ideas all the time of things I’d like to do. We say around this house, “Life is choices. Decide what seems most worth doing and work on that.”

Nick O’Connell is the publisher of The Writer’s Workshop Review. This interview is excerpted from his book, At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers.

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