Interview with Author Ivan Doig

(from Harcourt Brace, publisher)

Question: In “The Whistling Season,” Paul and his brother decide to keep a secret from their father because doing so will deliver the right outcome. Throughout the book, Paul becomes the guardian of an increasing number of secrets. What are your feelings about individuals who withhold potentially damaging information out of a sense of personal justice? Do you sense this type of behavior was more prevalent a century ago than it is today?

Ivan Doig A: Paul indeed starts to feel inundated with secrets, some of them of the slyly funny, schoolyard variety and some vitally serious. He is a very bright thirteen-year-old, who at one point realizes his life is about to change, that he is “less than a man but starting to be something more than a boy.” But in the case of the ultimate secret, he has to draw on instinct and innate decency to reach his decision. So I see Paul’s chosen course as one of compassion, in the name of giving his family a chance to knit itself together and to offer amnesty to someone who has made a misstep in life, but who shows every sign of having retrieved her full worth. To me, and I suppose this is reflected in Paul, there is sometimes not just one justice in a situation but rather a choice, and my hope is that Paul chose wisely.

Paul’s kind of decision possibly was more in line with his time and place—the early twentieth century and a community, rural, but full of nuance toward neighbors and family—than our screen-driven, tell-all era of e-mail, television, movies, and so on. Yet, my belief is that decent behavior is never out-of-date.

Q: Rose Llewellyn is an interesting, endearing character. She works hard and is understanding; however, her motives are suspect and we learn that her behavior—both past and present—is less than respectable. As a woman of the early 1900s, Rose is a bit unconventional. Would her behavior be considered acceptable in today’s society, or would she more likely be viewed as an opportunist rather than as a good businesswoman?

A: Mark Twain, a Halley’s Comet among writers whose spirit is invoked at one point in “The Whistling Season,” liked to refer to his hard-dealing publisher of that time, Harper & Brothers, as Sharper & Brothers. Rose has a bit of that quality of a “sharper.” She is a clever dealer, someone you really don’t want to play poker with. But the incident in her past that left her “less than respectable” was a scam played on a disreputable bunch, much in the same way Paul Newman and Robert Redford delightfully fleece the gamblers in The Sting. As I see it, her endearing side—not to mention her capacity for work and caring for others—wins out. If she were in today’s society, she’d still be Rose and we would have to gauge her as individually as Paul, Morrie, and the others do in the book.

Q: On your Web site,, you mention that your initial motivation to be a writer was “simply to go away to college and break out of a not very promising ranchwork future in Montana.” But your talent has led you far beyond those modest goals. In “The Whistling Season,” Paul is an ardent student, yet seemingly destined for the same ranchwork life. How much of yourself, if any, have you infused into Paul’s character?

A: My secret is out, sort of, kind of. Maybe more than any other character or, at least any other narrator who I have ever created, Paul has a few of my mental fingerprints. He loves language, even Latin—which I took in high school. He’s an inveterate reader of books. He eavesdrops with his eyes. He admits to a bit of a pedantic streak. He’s his own person, though. I’ve never had his nightly flood of dreaming, and I could not function in politics and government as skillfully as he does. I have never had any siblings. Nor, full disclosure, did I ever attend a one-room school.

Q: Please tell us a bit about your love of “poetry under the prose.”

A: As squarely as I can look at myself and the kind of writing I’ve produced—which on the one hand relies on dogged research and on the other, fancy flights of words—I seem to be something like a poet yearning to be a clerk, or a clerk fumbling around with poetry. In either case, I can tell you poetic leanings caught up with me in an unexpected place—while I was working on my Ph.D. in history. What graduate school taught me in the late 1960s was that I didn’t have what it takes to be on a university faculty. During grad school at the University of Washington, I found myself writing freelance magazine articles—as if I didn’t have any seminar papers due. I also began, to my complete surprise, to write poetry, which I had never even thought of attempting before.

My eight or nine published poems showed me that I lacked the poet’s final skill, the one Yeats called closing a poem with the click of a well-made box. But I still wanted to stretch the craft of writing toward the areas where it mysteriously starts to be art. It was back then that I began working on what my friend Norman Maclean referred to as the secret of writers like him and me: poetry under the prose. Rhythm, word choice, and premeditated lyrical intent are the elements of this type of writing. In the diary I kept while working on This House of Sky, I vowed to try to have a “trap of poetry” in the book’s every sentence. I suppose that inclination is visible in all my books.

It maybe hasn’t been generally recognized, but one way I have openly indulged in this is by writing the songs and poems that show up in my fiction, instead of simply tapping into the existing body of music and literature. From the snatches of the nineteenth-century Scandinavian drinking song in The Sea Runners, to the old Scottish ballad that provided the book title I wanted to use for Dancing at the Rascal Fair, to the “spirit songs” Monty Rathbun sings during the Harlem Renaissance in Prairie Nocturne—I have tailored rhyme and rhythm to fit the time period in all eight of my novels. There’s only one dab of singing in “The Whistling Season,” when the Marias Coulee community homesteaders greet the appearance of Halley’s Comet in the Montana sky of 1910:

When I see that evening star,
Then I know that I’ve come far,
Through the day, through all plight,
To the watchfire of the night.

I seem to be more hooked than ever—note the front rhymes, “When/Then” and “Through/To,” as well as the ending rhymes.

Q: Your first book, This House of Sky, is a memoir. Fifteen years later you complemented it with the memoir Heart Earth. In the time between the two books you have concentrated more on fiction. The ability to create fiction and nonfiction with the poetic phrasing for which you are known is a rare talent. Do the experiences of the characters in your works of fiction differ greatly from the experiences described in your works of nonfiction? Or is there a point where the experiences between fictional characters and real people begin to blur?

A: I started my writing life as a journalist, and I am devoutly careful to keep real people and my fictional characters separate. True, on a couple of occasions I have used incidents from history as a springboard for fiction—the four men escaping servitude in Russian Alaska in 1853 were reimagined into The Sea Runners. Most notably, my townsman Taylor Gordon’s rise to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance was fashioned into Monty Rathbun’s singing career in Prairie Nocturne. But even there, the fictional counterparts are sheerly residents of my imagination, as distinctly different from the historical templates as I can make them. My profession as a novelist is to create, not to copy. In an article I wrote for The Washington Post about creating characters, I counted up some 360 characters I had invented in my fiction at that time, and the head count in “The Whistling Season” must be another fifty or more. I make up these people from file cards, historical photographs, books of lingo, and imagination. So, no, I don’t let the actual and fictional blur together.

Q: You have recorded several audio books including This House of Sky. How does listening to an audio recording of a book differ from the traditional reading experience? Do you feel the listening experience is altered when someone listens to an audio book recorded by the writer as opposed to one recorded by a professional voice actor?

A: I think good writing is as pleasing to the ear as it is to the eye. The main difference I can discern is the delicious ability offered by the printed page: to reread a phrase or a line you like.

An actor certainly can provide a more theatrical reading than a writer, but there is no reason why a writer shouldn’t be a professional voice, too, particularly in this day and age of bookstore readings. I admit to my own personal angle on this—a little-known secret about me is that I majored in broadcast journalism in college, when worthy giants such as Edward R. Murrow still worked in that profession. I also am an inveterate practicer, professional as I can be, before giving speeches and readings. But anything worth doing is worth doing well, so I believe writers should work to become good readers—aloud, too. It has paid off for me not only in the popularity and recognition of the audio recording of This House of Sky. For my participation in the recording of Norman Maclean’s classic and national bestseller, A River Runs Through It, I received an Audie—the audio recording industry’s equivalent to an Oscar.

Q: How long does it take you to research and write a new book and what processes help you to successfully achieve this goal?

A: Generally, it takes me three years to put a book together. The processes are many, but I’ll cite just one trade secret: when I am rough-drafting a manuscript, I write four-hundred words a day, every day.

Q: Are you currently involved in any new projects?
A: I always have book ideas cooking and, blessedly, the next one is on the burner right now for Harcourt. The novel is set during World War II in the American West and various theaters of combat, and involves a soldier caught in a mystifying duty in the world of war and a hotshot woman pilot who ferries fighter planes from the factory to the flight line. Look for it in three years or, if my sainted editor and I are lucky, sooner.