Author Q&A: ‘Sweet Thunder’s’ Ivan Doig
By DOUG MITCHELL
Montana Magazine: Mr. Doig, thank you for taking some time to visit with me about your most recent book, Sweet Thunder. It is an extraordinary book.
Ivan Doig: Well, thank you, Doug. The paperback has made the Pacific Northwest Booksellers list for several weeks which is a further validation for me and I’ve had wonderful response in the bookstores from it, Doug.
MM: Well, I bet. I sure enjoyed it and I’ve already recommended it to fellow readers and Ivan Doig fans. The book for me was part history lesson, part political intrigue, part love story. When people ask you, Ivan, what the book is about what do you say?
ID: First of all I tell people when they ask what I write, that I write mainstream fiction. I see myself as a novelist, primarily using language and characters. History and plot and so forth follow on from that, or, maybe more properly, are found because they are necessary to make the language and the characters work on the page. So that is sort of the broad sense. With each book, too, I do try to sum up to myself, in one word if I can, what it’s about; what the ultimate feel of the story is. Looking back at recent books, with The Whistling Season I think that was about compassion. Work Song, the first book to put Morrie Morgan into Butte is about redemption. Bartender’s Tale is about conscience – what people do or don’t do according to their sense of right or wrong – and that brings us to this book. The pulse under the skin of the book I guess you would say, Sweet Thunder is deliberately about identity; personal identity, mistaken identity, finding identity and choosing identity. I see Morrie as part of a long line of people who have come west, to Montana in particular perhaps, to establish an identity. Morrie being Morrie he maybe establishes more than one in the book. That’s the kind of thing I try to do, but to me that simply has to be tucked into the story, not blaring out loud. I always say as a novelist that you don’t want the preaching to get in the way of the choir. People want to hear the singing, they want to hear the language and the characters and the turns in the plot. So that’s the approach I take and I think took with Sweet Thunder.
MM: As you talk about identity, I’m taken by the fact that you have chosen the location of Butte, America, which in itself is a very special place in terms of a city that has its own identity isn’t it?
ID: Yeah, it took me an embarrassingly long time, Doug, to work my way to that. I’m a full-blown Montanan all the way back to the times of the Anaconda Company domination, and I’m from the “other” Montana; the ranching Montana, the rural Montana, the outback Montana. So to us, Butte was always a scary place, I must say. We thought of it as Montana’s big city whether or not it quite justified that in population, but it was “The City.” It was foreign, it was tough, people made their living there in ways us sheepherders could not possibly understand – burrowing in the ground like gophers as we saw it. So that carried over with me into adulthood. One reason I did not end up in Montana newspapering or teaching or something, was still the Anaconda domination of all the newspapers except the Great Falls Tribune. When I was in college as a spirited, idealistic young journalist being trained at a very idealistic professional journalism school, Northwestern University, I looked elsewhere in the early 1960s and never got back to Montana to work. I thought, in the back of my mind, that I didn’t know enough about Butte to possibly write about it. But then along comes Morrie in The Whistling Season and he’s such a slick-tongued, golden character that when I decided, well he’s too good to waste, I want to bring him back…what can I do? Drop him into Butte and things are going to happen. Morrie and Butte are together and what came out of it are both Work Song and Sweet Thunder for that very reason. Of course, that led to learning a hell of a lot about Butte through endless research and going to Butte, standing in a miner’s cage that used to go down a mile deep into the ground and getting up on an early June morning and finding snow on our windshield. I have learned as much about Butte as I possibly could for the environment where Morrie could live and thrive.
MM: I think you got it just right and I think the people of Butte would feel likewise. It really is an incredible town. Every time I go there I am impressed by the pride that the people of Butte have in their town. I was really taken by what you said earlier about not being too obvious about the way you write and allowing the reader to enjoy the open spaces for what they are. One of the open spaces I enjoyed was the love story, if you will, between Morrie and Grace. I thought that part of the book was incredibly touching and interesting. How did that come together for you?
ID: By fusing two strong characters. Grace is, of course, Morrie’s landlady when he first alights in Butte in Work Song and it takes a whole book for them to really get together. In Sweet Thunder they come apart, but through various magnetisms a lot of them on Morrie’s side, they are drawn back. I spend a long time building my characters. I have file cards on them, I build dossiers on the characters, I go back and into historic photographs to find the lineaments as to how they might have looked, so these characters do live in my head for the couple of years it takes me to write a book. The plot turns take another department of imagination, I guess, as to what can happen – how can Grace and Morrie cross paths again as they do when Sam Sandison for instance is in the hospital. Morrie visits, Grace is already there – they go up into the waiting room where they have another spat to remind the reader of the, at that point, failed connection but a connection not terminally gone. It’s those kinds of things, a piecing together of things I guess.
MM: Well, it is elegantly done and, perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it seemed to me that it is at least partially the coming apart of Morrie and Grace that helped Morrie keep it all together. Is that reading too much into the tale?
ID: Well, I think that’s a fair point. Fairly often in my fiction, indeed, greater events of the world pry or throw apart my characters and then part of the process of living is finding ways around that, how to overcome it and hopefully, maybe they end up back together again, as they very much do at the end of this book. But, yes, Morrie is thrust more and more into the newspaper life and the fight against Anaconda and its hired gun, a journalist from Chicago because he lacks Grace and that’s certainly so.
MM: I understand with this call I’ve interrupted your writing on another book. What do you have in store next for us as readers?
ID: Well, what I’m working on now is the acknowledgements, so sitting here beside me on my desk is a copy of the manuscript which my editor has packed off to read for the first time this weekend. It’s a novel titled Last Bus To Wisdom, and as you might guess, “Wisdom” means not only the general attainment of knowledge and so forth, but that town in the Big Hole – the town of Wisdom – is a long time, necessary small town that hasn’t grown much, but it hasn’t gone away either down there in the Big Hole basin. I’ve set this in 1951, and it is a coming of age story about 11 year-old Donald Cameron and his great uncle “Herman the German” as they embark upon a cross country odyssey – headed to Wisdom, Montana. It is indeed a kind of western, Huck Finn and Jim journey back to Montana.
MM: Wisdom is a very special place and I, like you, have a very special affection for the Two Medicine Country from which you hale as well. I believe there are few places in the world that hold the kind of magic that landscape does.
ID: The novel is inspired, I guess you would say, by something that happened to me in 1951, as about an 11 year-old when indeed I was shipped off to aged relatives in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. But apparently it went perfectly fine for me, I don’t have any real memories of it at all. But I got to thinking, what if a kid a kid is put on the dog bus – Greyhound – and everything in the world happens to him? So, that’s how imagination began creating the plot and carrying out the plot for this one.
MM: If I go to the bookstore and there is a new Ivan Doig book on the shelf, I will buy it – whose books do you always pick up?
ID: One author whose books I will always read is the Albanian writer Ismael Kadare. I think he has been on the list for the Nobel various times and I can’t understand why he hasn’t received it. Kadare is a poet turned novelist, and that doesn’t always work. But it does, I think, with him. His books seep into English, often from Albanian into French and then to English which really waters it down. The best of his books, I think, are Chronicle in Stone, an early novel and his more recent, The Three Arched Bridge. I think they are great European classics and he is writing out of the time when Albania was more Stalinist than Stalin and more Maoist than Mao before the wall fell. He looks both back into the depths of Albania’s bloody history – almost tribal fighting – to the fantastic oppression brought on by almost hyper communism brought on by the Albanian government.
Author Q&A: ‘Lentil Underground’s’ Liz Carlisle
By DOUG MITCHELL
Montana Magazine: Congratulations on what I think is a very important book. I knew almost immediately upon opening the book that I was reading something special. Did you get a sense at some point in your research that you were breaking new ground with Lentil Underground? If so, tell us about that “aha” moment.
Liz Carlisle: Thanks! It’s a revealing metaphor, I think, that we speak of innovation in terms of “breaking new ground.” That has been the approach of agribusiness for most of the past century, and it’s a paradigm that runs pretty deep in contemporary American culture and American politics. So in a way, what makes the farmers in this book so unique is that they’re determined to heal some of that ground that’s been broken – and of course they’re drawing on equally powerful alternative strands of American culture and politics by articulating an agrarian land ethic. It’s hard to pick out my biggest aha moment, but I was pretty floored when David Oien told me, in 2012, that the farmers of Timeless Seeds harvested 80 percent of normal yields, even though they only got about 40 percent of their typical moisture. That was a crippling drought year across most of the grain belt, and I thought it was pretty remarkable that this group of people weathered it so well. So of course, I wanted to know why!
MM: Do you think it took a Montanan to see what you saw and to tell this story?
LC: That’s an interesting question. I suppose that in some ways, I have added appreciation for this story because I was born and raised in Montana. But in many ways, I come to this story as an outsider, because I am a Western Montanan, born and raised in Missoula. My childhood west of the divide might have occurred in the same state as the events I’ve written about in the book, but wow, what a different experience. I’ve been telling people that researching the book cured me of some of my Western Montana snobbery. The flat part of the state really can be quite beautiful!
MM: There’s really nothing quite like eastern Montana hospitality is there?
LC: There isn’t! One of these farmers, Jerry Habets, invited me to join his family for his parents’ anniversary dinner – on the first day I met them! Jerry and Kathy Sikorski, who farm midway between Baker and Ekalaka, sent me home with a huge trash bag of green lentils – they just filled it up straight from their grain bin. I think there’s a real wisdom in this generosity. People have an appreciation for the interdependence of their communities, and they’re more oriented to helping each other out rather than getting ahead and buying each other out. David Oien, the founding farmer of Timeless Seeds, told me something his dad said that’s really stuck with me: “I’d rather have the neighbors than the neighbors’ farm.”
MM: Contrast that view of community with what you found in Washington in the halls of Congress.
LC: I worked in the United States Senate from 2008-2009, which was a very different time in Washington, D.C. We were so full of hope! A diverse group of energetic young people descended on the city, eager to make a difference, and the ones I met were very open, very social. At that time, we thought we could get something done by working together. I’m sure there is still a lot of esprit d’corps among Congressional staffers, but it’s got to be frustrating, with all the gridlock and these periodic threats of government shutdown.
MM: What’s next for you – what are you working on now at Berkeley?
LC: Both of my parents and all four of my grandparents were educators, and I’m excited to follow in their footsteps. I just finished my PhD and I’m in the midst of the job search, so I can’t tell you where I’ll be teaching, but I’ll be teaching. I’d like to plan my next project in collaboration with my students. And I want to spend a bit more time growing food myself.
MM: Those are some lucky students! I can’t finish this interview without asking about your country music career. What was that like?
LC: It was an adventure. One night, I would struggle through a tough gig in a bar, and the next night, I would open for somebody famous in a really nice concert hall. And then in between were these long drives through rural America, I was in my early 20s, trying to figure out the meaning of life, and my place in this world. I worked really hard on my songs. I would cry sometimes when I wrote – it was that emotional for me, that personal. I’ve mellowed a bit, but I’m still a storyteller at heart. In many ways, Lentil Underground is a book-length country song.
MM: Do you still play at the occasional open mike in the Bay Area?
LC: Nope. I’ve come full circle to my first and favorite venues: the kitchen, the woods, and of course, the shower. I don’t have the performance bug anymore, but I still love music.
MM: So are we going to see you in Montana anytime soon?
LC: We had a string of Montana events during the last week in February and I’m hoping to come back in the summer. I haven’t made those plans yet, but keep all my events updated at http://lentilunderground.com.
Water Craft: Swan Lake family builds custom canoe legacy
By BUTCH LARCOMBE
Photos by LIDO VIZZUTTI
Tucked into the cozy shop is half of a canoe, its bow in the air and stern on the floor, retrofitted with shelves to hold brochures and magazines. When a visitor asks Greg Morley about his start in canoe building, he points at the upended craft and smiles.
That canoe, largely constructed of plywood and a remnant Morley’s first foray into boat building, was a means for a cash-strapped University of Montana graduate to explore rivers and lakes.
“I wanted a boat and it was a cheap way to get it,” he recalls.
Not long after fashioning the plywood boat and inspired by a conversation with “an old hippie in Portland,” Morley borrowed a technique used to make early racing canoes and fashioned a craft with a hull formed with long, thin cedar strips.
“They were really built for the method, not for performance and design,” Morley said.
- View a video about Morley Canoes by Nicolas Heitert of Lens Air Films
But that early strip canoe was the start of a long, fulfilling, still unfolding chapter in the life of Morley, his wife Anne, and more recently, Steve Morley, one of the couple’s two sons, who returned to Montana about a decade ago to build canoes alongside his father in the small shop that sits along Montana Highway 83 in Swan Lake.
Sitting in front of the Morley Canoe shop’s welcoming woodstove, the father and son shared stories of their paths into the canoe business. Outside, tall mountains cast shadows into the mirrored waters of Swan Lake, golden larch trees framing a postcard-worthy fall day.
To read the entire Morley Canoe story, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Ghost Sign Scrutiny: Butte grapples with how restore outside ads
By CLAUDIA RAPKOCH
Many a ghost story has been written about Butte.
The city’s metropolitan past is rich with colorful characters, drama and intrigue. But it was also an urban center where thousands of people lived their lives – and that made it a prime target for advertisers.
Long before interstate highway billboards or other forms of modern media existed, there was only one way to reach potential customers on a daily basis outside of the newspapers. Advertisers made use of the most readily available canvas at the time – buildings.
Companies hired sign painters, called wall dogs, to travel the country and promote their products. These painters were a combination of salesmen, artists, engineers, chemists and daredevils, and Butte’s population made it an obvious place to advertise regional national brands such as Bull Durham Tobacco, Rex Flour, Sweet Caporal Cigarettes and Coca-Cola.
That was long ago.
Today, the remnants of the advertisements painted on walls are called ghost signs.
To read the entire Ghost Sign Scrutiny story, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Art of the State: Montana artists well represented in museum’s permanent collection
By Kelsey Dayton
Every work of art in the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s 11,000- piece collection has a story.
Sometimes the stories are obvious and told in paint. Sometimes they are hidden, secured in history and legend. Sometimes the story is about the sculpture. Sometimes it is about the sculptor.
But when the best of the collection comes together it tells the stories of the histories of the museum, art and Montana.
To celebrate its 120th anniversary, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture is featuring an exhibit of 120 pieces from its permanent collection. Paintings, prints, ceramics, photography and tapestries, as well as traditional and contemporary Native American art and Southeast Asian textiles, are on display in the anniversary exhibit.
The show, divided into two galleries on the University of Montana’s campus, is meant to be a global experience, said Barbara Koostra, director of the museum.
Brandon Reintjes, museum curator, selected works that showcase the diversity of the permanent collection, along with works important to the museum.
MMAC is hosting a series of special events to celebrate the permanent collection’s 120th anniversary
Art of the State: Celebrating 120 years of the MMAC Permanent Collection
Show hangs through May 23 in the Paxson and Meloy Galleries in the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana. The museum is open to the public during the academic year from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday with a $5 donation. For more information call 406-243-2019 or visit http://www.umt.edu/montanamuseum.
- Free talk ““Predilections and Possibilities: the Virtues of a Teaching Collection” by art history and criticism professor Rafael Chacon 7 p.m. March 3 at the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
- Family treasure hunt day 1 to 3 p.m. March 7 in the lobby of the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
- Docent tour of the exhibit focusing on European and American masterworks, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. March 19.
- Display of two tapestries 7 p.m. March 19 in the Masquer Theater at the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana
- Docent tour of the exhibit focusing on contemporary and modern art 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. April 9.
- Family treasure hunt day 1 to 3 p.m. May 2 in the lobby of the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
To read the entire MMAC story, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Homegrown Guitars: Pieces of Montana provide perfect instrument material
By CORY WALSH
Photos by KURT WILSON
To build instruments that reflect a sense of place, Sean Kochel hunts down the materials other people are casting aside.
The wood from a barn a farmer planned to burn down. Refuse most hikers would ignore, such as spent ammunition and elk bones.
He knows there’s a surfeit of guitar-makers out there, and the vintage Montana look these materials provide helps the Potomac resident stand apart in the crowded marketplace.
“I was trying to stay with this Montana image – with Montana being kind of rustic” he said.
He doesn’t want his guitars to look too pretty, and doesn’t spend hours on a sparkly finish.
- View a video of musician Lou Shields playing a Kochel Guitar
Take one of his electric resonator models, which appears to have been squirreled away “in someone’s basement for 100 years,” he said.
The body and the neck are hand-crafted from wood he salvaged while tearing down an 1864 barn at the far end of the valley.
He’s collected an entire stack of reclaimed boards in his shop.
The Shelby native has used wood from torn down buildings in Toole, Pondera and Glacier counties, such as a 1903 commercial dairy in Cut Bank or a dilapidated 1895 railroad icehouse in Conrad.
Kochel saved the galvanized metal used to patch the barn to craft the pickguards. To accentuate the already weathered look, he rubs the scraps raw and pours acid on them, resulting in a rusted finish ribboned with bright oily tones that contrasts with the aged metal.
The nut, the small strip that separates the neck from the headstock, is carved from Rocky Mountain elk bone.
“When I first started doing this I saved all the bones when I went hunting. I boil ‘em up and then cut ‘em up,” he said, and then shapes them into an instrument-ready form.
The eye-catching tone and volume knobs originated with a special request from Josh Peyton, who leads an Indiana roots trio called Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.
The Reverend didn’t want standard knobs, which are typically utilitarian plastic or metal parts.
He wanted shotgun shells.
“Once people saw that, everybody wanted it,” Kochel said. It’s been standard on all of his designs since.
The frets, too, are marked not by ivory inlays, but the ends of spent ammunition.
He fires off those shotgun rounds himself. After all, the full-time, 60-instrument-a-year Kochel outfit is a one-man operation.
“From tearing it down to ripping the stinky elk hide off the bone,” he said.
He’s collected old beer cans from Highlander, Carlsberg and the like and makes them into old-school, dirty blues microphones.
There are limits to the Montana-made aspect. He works with Rio Grande, a high-end boutique pickup company in Texas.
Lately, he’s been using resonators from a defunct Tennessee factory owned by Dobro legend Tut Taylor.
However, Kochel recently bought a computer-controlled cutting machine, which will enable him to cut reclaimed metal into his own intricate designs.
Kochel has a handful of standard models, but each instrument is made to order with customized options available.
He has a Telecaster-like design, although the artificially aged finish looks striking compared to a glossy new factory Fender. To further stand out, he makes a resonator model as well.
The Tele, which he calls the “406,” has been a hit with customers in England, who’ve inquired about the area-code marker on the pickguard – he likes to tell them it’s the brand of Montana.
Kochel has many overseas customers – Italy, Germany, Australia and New Zealand – far-flung places that are home to many roots music fanatics – blues fans that can rattle off obscure trivia about their genre of choice.
“They have this admiration and knowledge that I think most Americans don’t seem to have,” he said.
He also makes acoustics, which are more time-consuming, and more obscure instruments such as a banjo uke, a hybrid instrument that has the scale and strings of a ukulele with the body, neck and tuning of banjo.
He said the instrument was popular in the vaudeville era, and disappeared along with it.
Kochel inherited his love of history from his father, Larry Kochel, who worked for Montana Power Co. for 35 years.
When Larry passed away in 2004, Sean took refuge in history-related, process-heavy hobbies. He taught himself the exhaustive techniques of wet-plate collodion photography – both he and his father admired the photos of Darius Kinsey, who documented Northwest loggers at their remote worksites. Kochel taught himself the archival process and he has since led classes on the art form, which can take 20 minutes to make a photograph.
He’d carved wood since he was young. When he’d mentioned that he wanted to start making guitars, his brother Rian forwarded him an email about cigar-box models.
After early success selling guitars at Missoula farmers market, he worked his way up to a production level of 60-some per year.
As more guitar-makers flooded the market with cigar-box models, Kochel decided to branch out into full-fledged six-strings.
Using old blueprints, online tutorials and much trial and error, he honed his craft to the axes he makes today. He estimates he’s built 1,700 guitars to date.
Through his regular booth at the Saturday art market and his website, the instruments have caught the attention of touring musicians who want a rootsy sound and visual sensibility.
Artist and blues musician Lou Shields picked up a cigar-box guitar at the market when a tour brought him through Missoula.
“Kochel Guitars hit all of my senses at the same time,” Shields said. “As a visual artist, I was first taken by the look and feel of his guitars and his inspiring designs.”
The musician was tired of “cookie-cutter” designs and rigs built overseas, and Kochel represented the direct opposite.
Then there was the sound: “vintage, dusty, earthy and doggone good,” a match for the roots and pre-war blues Shields favors.
He’s taken it all across the United States and used it on studio recordings.
Peyton, meanwhile, is a self-described guitar obsessive who happened upon Kochel’s work online.
He had his six-string custom-built with a few special requirements, such as a neck the size of “baseball bat” that could accommodate unusually heavy .016-gauge strings.
“Kochel did a great job making sure that it had all the things I wanted, and it was customized with things that really make it feel like mine,” he said.
“That comes across to me in the mojo of the thing,” he said. “I truly love it.”
Peyton takes his Kochel guitar on the road with him – including gigs across the United States, Canada and Europe, and played it on several tunes for the Indiana trio’s latest recording, “So Delicious,” which was released in February 2014 on Yazoo Records.
In addition to the sound, there’s the look.
He said it’s as much of a piece of “folk art as it is an instrument.”
And like all folk art, it’s tied to a particular time and place, down to the barn wood maple.
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