A Q&A with Seattle-area based author Ivan Doig, a Montana native whose latest novel, "Work Song," is a sequel to his popular 2006 "The Whistling Season," featuring Morrie Morgan, the schoolteacher with a mysterious past.
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Authors never tire of good reviews — not even Ivan Doig. Last week Doig, who’s been writing critically acclaimed books about the American West for 30 years, and wife Carol were enjoying a treat delivered by a visitor — a Los Angeles Times rave for Doig’s new novel, “Work Song.” Said the L.A. Times staff critic: “As enjoyable and thought-provoking a piece of fiction as you’re likely to pick up this summer.”
Good reviews are a constant, but some things have changed for Montana native Doig, now 71. The Innis Arden resident has a website (www.ivandoig.com) and a book trailer on YouTube. He’s cut down on touring because a “cranky” hand makes signing 400-500 books a day difficult. But he still visits Washington state bookstores.
“Work Song” is a sequel to Doig’s popular 2006 book “The Whistling Season” and features Morrie Morgan, the “Whistling Season” schoolteacher with a mysterious past. Doig plops Morgan down in 1919 Butte, Mont., an ethnic stew of Cornish, Irish, Welsh and Finns (among others), the copper-mining capital of the world and the biggest town between Seattle and Milwaukee-St. Paul. It’s a story of labor unrest, love and libraries, among other things.
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Why Butte in 1919? Doig answered that and other questions:
Q: Talk about why you sent Morrie to Butte.
A: Butte has always been a place full of what I call big elbow-y stories. And Butte was at its biggest in 1918 and in 1919, the same year as the Seattle General Strike. That was very much on the minds of the authorities in Butte, and one reason they were worried about the Wobblies (the radical International Workers of the World union). There are Butte people at all my readings, from half a dozen to 20 or 30. They’re still proud of Butte and still taken with it.
Q: Reintroduce us to Morrie Morgan.
A: What he’s been doing (since the end of “The Whistling Season”) has been left to the imagination. He’s older. Morrie is going … where are the riches? He’s a lightweight, 125-130 pounds. He loves his duds, loves his books, loves the high life.
Q: Is the character Sandy Sandison, the Butte city librarian with the dubious past and a lust for rare books, based on a real person?
A: Sandison is based on a historical character, Granville Stuart, an early cattle king and one of the many powers behind the Montana cattlemen’s association. They were trying to wipe out rustlers in the Missouri Breaks area. (Sandison’s vigilante activities are based on this history).
(After a severe winter wiped out his cattle), Stuart wound up as the librarian of Butte. He didn’t have anything else, and he always was bookish. I made up Sandison — Stuart took the job to have an income. Sandison became the librarian because he was a book aficionado par excellence.
Q: Which do you prefer, writing or research?
A: The research is the necessary spadework. Even when I was working on my doctorate (history, University of Washington) I was writing poetry, the occasional magazine article. I’m more of a magpie researcher than someone who wants to live in it all the time.
Q: Hilary Mantel’s novel “Wolf Hall,” based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, won the Man Booker prize last year. What do you make of the current popularity of historical fiction?
A: I hope it’s a great wave I’m caught up in. I don’t think of myself as a writer of historical fiction. There are historical laws of gravity in historical fiction; big things are happening in the world, and my characters are affected by those.
Q: What’s your work schedule?
A: We’re early risers — that’s from ranch life, from military life. We switch on the 5 a.m. news to get the weather forecast. I get down to the keyboard at 6:30 a.m. or so and work through the morning. I take a daily one-half hour walk with Carol around the neighborhood to help me think.
I try to write at least a couple of hundred words a day. If I don’t get those in the morning (he goes back and completes them) in the afternoon. I don’t necessarily write (in sequence); maybe a location, or a scene, or dialogue, or the weather … What I’m good at is the connecting. I like doing that.
Q: Your Montana memoir “This House of Sky” was published when you were 39 — you’ve been writing and publishing books for more than 30 years. Does it get any easier?
A: No. I wish.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or
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