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.
‘It was a wonderful experience': How to find a bobcat in MT
The process of choosing a cover photo can be a long one.
We receive hundreds of photos for each issue from an impressive group of professional photographers that help tell the stories we feature across Montana. As we go through the photos, dozens of photos pop out as potential covers.
We test a couple. We print them out. We try them with different headline and logo color schemes. Until it’s just right. For the Jan/Feb issue, the photo of the snowy bobcat made by Jaime and Lisa Johnson jumped out at us immediately and beat out several others to earn the top spot.
But how do you find a bobcat in Montana so you can share it with MT magazine readers? As the Johnson’s told me, they can be very shy and spook easily. But luckly for us, the our cover star (which our Facebook fans voted to name Bob) was very friendly.
Here’s what they had to say about their experience finding Bob: