Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn knew the lauded author for nearly 20 years, and she shares some insights into the author and the man behind the books.
I was in Britain when I got the news that Ivan Doig was failing. I had read him, interviewed him and written about him for 16 years, and I didn’t even know he was sick. I was gobsmacked, as the Brits would say, and very, very sad, because I never admired and respected any writer more than Ivan Doig.
Ivan had battled multiple myeloma for nine years, nine years in which he wrote and prepared for publication four books (his final novel, “Last Bus to Wisdom,” will be published in August). He kept the circle of people who knew he was ill close until he died on April 9. He cut down on a few activities, but he never failed in his mission to connect with his readers.
Ivan, 75, had a website and sat for YouTube trailers. In 2012, he came into The Seattle Times office for a live chat with readers, dictating his carefully composed answers to a staffer. The man whose forebears crossed the ocean, moved to Montana and eked out a hard existence on the plains was not afraid to try new things.
My colleague Christine Clarridge wrote a lovely obituary for Ivan, but here are some of my memories of him:
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1. He had a tough start.
There was a lot of Ivan’s life in his stories of hardship and perseverance. His father was a ranch hand; his mother, a cook. “My parents worked their way up to the equivalent of sharecroppers,” Ivan told The Washington Post’s Marie Arana in 2004. “They would run a herd of livestock for a year, see them through the lambing and the shearing, and then get a small cut of the profits. But they never had capital, never owned anything.” His mother died when he was 6.
A raging talent might have been snuffed, but other adults stepped in. An aunt with asthma read him stories; his teenaged uncles read him newspapers, wrote Arana. A high-school teacher who taught Ivan English for four years and Latin for three, who ran the school paper and put on the school plays, took an interest. “Any time I felt myself going verbal, I had Mrs. Tidyman, a force of nature, to tell me what I needed to know,” Ivan told Arana.
2. He was disciplined.
Ivan went to Northwestern on a full-ride scholarship — a formidable leap for the son of a ranch hand. He studied journalism, which helped him learn to meet a deadline. He met his own deadlines, every day.
“I write a given number of words a day, currently about 400, and I do it five days a week when I’m working full strength on a book,” he said in that live chat. If he got stuck, he and his wife, Carol, would go for a walk. “There’s some kind of process by which a morning walk of about 35 minutes reliably produces an idea at about the two-thirds point, halfway up a 200-yard hill — I often think of a word or an answer to something I’m working on then and there as the blood starts to perk.”
I loved this statement — so precise, so vivid, so Ivan.
3. He was a meticulous researcher.
Ivan went on to get a doctorate in history from the University of Washington, though the breakout success of his memoir “This House of Sky,” a National Book Award finalist, ended any thought of an academic career.
But he never lost his zeal for the facts. He and Carol would tour the libraries of Montana, leaving a trail of librarians thrilled to have contributed to an Ivan Doig book. He found pleasure in the most obscure sources: calling himself “a pretty serious scholar of lingo,” he told a Seattle Times reader that “I have files of many kinds from folklore quarterlies … Probably the most exotic source I’ve ever used was for my first novel, ‘The Sea Runners,’ in inventing how my mid-19th-century Swedes escaping from Russian servitude in New Archangel would swear. The examples were in an obscure sociological journal published … at the University of Texas, called The Journal of Verbal Abuse.”
4. Above all, he cared about character.
Some writers are brilliant stylists, some are investigators. What Ivan cared about was character, the dark and bright truths of the human heart.
In a 2004 essay about writing for The Washington Post, he wrote of following his father around the saloons of Montana, looking for workers for seasonal haying. “Those small-town saloons where I was lucky enough to sit with him were his hiring halls, and, as he would sound out a hay hand on whether he had ever handled the reins of workhorses, quite a sizing-up ritual went on,” he wrote. “So it was back there, as I subversively hoped that my elder would make a rare bad guess and hire some breezy faker whose team of horses would run away with him the instant he climbed onto the hay rake …, that I developed an abiding interest in the trait called character and its even more seductive flowering into a plural form, characters.”
Even minor characters got his full attention: Asked about his favorite authors by a Seattle Times reader, Ivan named Joseph Conrad, who he admired “for a reason I’ve never heard any academic stick up for — his minor characters, who stay on and on in the mind. I take great pains with mine, bearing in mind Laurence Olivier’s acting advice: ‘The third spear-carrier from the left should act as if the play is all about the third spear-carrier from the left.’ ”
5. He had an audacious wit.
Ivan loved to entertain with an anecdote and a story. At the end, there would always be a little zinger that left you feeling a little awe-struck.
David Williams, a Seattle author, was one of a number of younger authors befriended by Ivan. “He was a truly outstanding person, generous, caring, whip smart, devoted to Carol, and with a no-nonsense approach, which periodically boiled over to some wonderfully colorful language,” Williams remembers. His friends and admirers treasured those boiling-over points.
6. His fans were legion.
I interviewed Ivan several times, sometimes on stage. He always showed up on time and he always wore the same corduroy sports jacket. His fans always showed up too, by the hundreds. When we hosted Ivan in the live chat, more readers tuned in than for any other Seattle author. More than Timothy Egan, more than Sherman Alexie.
His readers loved his humor, his honesty and his fidelity to the truth. One fan, noting her favorite book of Ivan’s was “This House of Sky,” praised “the expressions people use in the book, the way they make decisions about their lives, and (how) their strengths and weaknesses portrayed so accurately the people I grew up with.” She and Ivan were, “I think, of an age, and although I grew up in the Bitterroot, the characters — including the minor players — rang absolutely true.”
His legions of fans are mourning the loss of Ivan Doig. I certainly am. But you know what? He did exactly what he wanted to do, he did it well, and he made millions of readers the richer for it. I think that must be the best legacy possible for a writer. RIP, Ivan Doig.