It was an overcast day in June when we met with Ivan Doig and his wife, Carol, at their home. We settled into the study where Doig writes, next to a wall of windows facing the Puget Sound and the islands. Sitting high above the pewter-colored water, we watched the Kingston ferry making its way West and container ships maneuvering through the channels to Seattle’s ports. The view is what you’d expect when you think of books written in the Pacific Northwest: gray skies, darker water, and trees that appear almost black.
We came to talk with Doig about his new book, The Bartender’s Tale, the story of an odd kind of family. Rusty turns twelve in the summer of 1960. When his mom abandons them, his father, Tom Harry, the best bartender in the world, raises him the way he knows best, bringing him along to the bar. Rusty learns a lot of secrets about the locals, whose stories filter through the backroom vent.
This is the summer Rusty makes friends with Zoe, a quick-talking tomboy of a girl who is everything Rusty could ever need or want in a friend. They find themselves caught in the maze-like mysteries of the adult world. Proxy, an old friend out of Tom’s held-close-to-the-chest past, and her beatnik daughter, Francine, suddenly show up in town. Certain rumors start to fly about Tom and Proxy’s relationship. Could it be that Rusty might have a sister?
Doig’s canon is well known and loved by readers of Western literature, and he carries the distinction of having won five book awards from the independent booksellers of the Pacific NW Booksellers Association—more than any other author.
Doig was kind enough to give us some time for photos and a conversation. As he thought about his answers, he looked out across the Sound, his hands steepled in front of him.
Due to a voice recorder malfunction that day in June, René got to go back for a second interview in early August. The Q-and-A below is a composite of both interviews.—René Kirkpatrick and Thom Chambliss
ID: Well, The Bartender’s Tale is the closest of my books to my own experience as a kid when I tagged along with my dad into the small Montana bars, which were hiring halls for his haying crews. After the death of my mother, I was his frequent companion going into the nine saloons of our little town of 1,000, White Sulphur Springs, Montana. This experience of a challenged but ultimately resourceful single father raising an only child is one I haven’t summoned since my first book, This House of Sky. But the chance to reinvent a fabled bartender, Tom Harry, brought to life in an earlier novel, to bring an inadvertent child into his life, to write in Rusty’s distinctive voice, was something I couldn’t pass up. This could really be a grand adventure in storytelling, drawing on my own experience, giving the imagination full throttle. I hope that’s how it came out!
NWBL: Will we see more of Tom Harry? Is his story over?
ID: I never say never when I’m asked about a character’s future, but he’s not at the forefront of my imagination right now. I’m not terrifically far from the end of the sequel to Work Song, so I’m living in 1921, Butte, and that’s what’s taking up most of the room in my head. But people have asked about Tom, and Rusty, in particular. They’ll probably be heard from again! [laughs]
My characters seem to have continuing lives. In the eleven novels, most of them set in the Two Medicine country over the last 30 years, there are more than 500 characters, from tiny background appearances to those who’ve played really sizable roles. A background character can get a starring role, like Harry! These characters are all muscling each other out of the way for survival in my imagination. We’ll see, after Work Song Junior, who wants their story told next?
NWBL: Your head must be stuffed with people and words right now. What’s that like?
ID: I’m living in 1921, Butte! I’m figuring out the lingo of the times. Norman McLean, he talks about the poetry under the prose. I’ve tried to use the vernacular, the workingman’s lingo, to give a kind of shimmer behind the story, letting the appeal, the wonder, the interest of the vernacular itself come through.
In 1921 Butte, Morrie has latched on as a pro-union newspaperman at The Butte Thunder, something he’s named in a flight of fancy. The title comes from Shakespeare, and I’m paraphrasing here: she’d never heard such a wonderful discord, such sweet thunder. Morrie’s trying to make a sweet thunder. That’s a bit of the vernacular of the newspaper folks of the time. His editor shouts, ‘Give me a Screamer!’ when he wants a big headline.
And if you’re one of my characters, you still have to respond to the historical laws of gravity, the history happening at the time. So, 1921: Warren G. Harding, described as the most wooden member of senate ever, is president. Normalcy is settling in during the terrific aftermath of WWI, but there are red scares, Palmer raids, radical anti-German sentiment. These are some of the things characters meet up with inside my head.
NWBL: How do you relax when you’re not writing?
ID: Carol and I, we hiked a lot in the earlier years, all the big caves in Washington and Oregon, lots of camping in the sacred geography most special to us.
And I garden tooth and nail! I’m quite a dedicated, well, at least a stubborn, vegetable gardener. We have quite a lot of garden and tonight we’re going to eat a big lettuce salad and green beans from the garden, some spuds, that kind of thing.
NWBL: I was going to ask you about your lettuce.
ID: The lettuce is still looking good; the red is getting a little leggy but it’s still good.
ID: I don’t know if it’s just because it’s summer but Carol and I are both reading Alexander McCall Smith, and a particular favorite in this household are the Martin Beck mysteries by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, 10 books set in Sweden, real police procedurals. There’s a lot of craft in the writing of the characters.
Lots of the reading around here is serious, and I don’t always know what I’m going to do with it. I just read the Richard Holmes book, The Age of Wonder. It was a very interesting book, the kind of thing that Morrie or Rusty in The Bartender’s Tale would have picked up in their day.
NWBL: Is there anything you’d like your readers to be aware of, to think about, while they’re reading The Bartender’s Tale the first time through?
ID: I’d like them to grasp that Rusty and Zoe are natural best friends. They simply click; I hope the reader might reflect on that a little bit, that that was possible back in that day and age. And to reflect on the nature of storytelling. I hope the reader can lean back and think, ‘That book just swept me away!’
I’ve been interested in the craft of storytelling all the way back to Dickens and Twain and Conrad; it’s a form of ‘literary enchantment,’ I suppose. I delve into their bag of tricks as deep as my own writing arm can reach! I’m always glad to be described, as sometimes happens in reviews, as an old-fashioned storyteller.
NWBL: What about those chicken guts?
ID: Val Ryan, the owner of Cannon Beach Book Company, picked up on something that I’ll poach on for a bit: that I’m gently making a little fun of fancy fishing, fly fishing and so on, in that my characters are chicken guts fishermen. My family, my dad and I, just about everybody we knew fished to eat, using chicken guts. I kind of regret that Norman MacLean isn’t around anymore, so that he and I could fence with each other about this, given his famous A River Runs Through It. I miss Norman in so many ways but one regret is that eternally missed chance to ask of him a “what if?” Norman has that magnificently memorable perspective of the religious fly fishing family that imagines that God is not only a fisherman, but a dry fisherman. I wanted a chance to say, that’s fine, Norman, but, what if you get up there into the trout stream of the Presbyterian after-life and God is a fish?
NWBL: Is there anything no one’s asked you that you wish they would?
ID: I usually wish people would ask more about the craft of writing because that’s what I see as my job: try to make the language dance on the page.
I’m quite conscious about working with the language at least as much as the story. Say you’ve got a bartender and a kid he has to raise by himself. That’s the idea that propels the book. I spend my days writing the language that brings them to life and their surroundings into view there on the page. I feel a writer has to be a cosmic mechanic of the language; you’ve got to tinker with it to make it the way you want it.
I was a closet poet. I’d come home from history classes to write poetry, but I realized that they didn’t have that final snap. As Yeats said, ‘A poem has to close with the click of a well made box.’ I knew I could handle the individual lines, make them sing and dance a little, but extending them into a wonderful, organic, Yeats-ian, Shakespearean poem, I probably didn’t have that.
But, hell, I could take the individual lines and make them do something. So, when I began writing fiction, in went songs and some poetry. There are lines of poetry in Angus McCaskill’s head in Dancing at the Rascal Fair.
NWBL: There’s some songwriting in The Bartender’s Tale, too.
ID: I didn’t have any direct intention of putting a song in The Bartender’s Tale but then along comes Del Robertson. He’s collecting languages a la Alan Lomax, who’s trouped through the swamps and hollows of the south and found musicians like Sonny Leadbetter, the great Leadbelly. And the first thing I know, I look down at the page and Del, illustrating what Lomax is up to, and what he’s trying to emulate, he’s growling out blues, but it’s not Leadbelly’s blues! It’s my blues! Now there are a couple of blues songs added to my musical curriculum!
NWBL: Has anyone put music to your words?
ID: Some of that happened this winter with Book-it Repertory. Their season was the three of us: Jim Lynch’s Border Songs, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, and my Prairie Nocturne. They put four or five of my Prairie Nocturne songs in it. They put my words to music, and it really knocked me out! It opened with the woman character, Monty Rathbun’s mother, stepping out there Aretha Franklin-like, belting out a song of mine called a Mouthful of Stars.
We’re still awaiting commercial recognition, but it knocked me right back in my seat. I was thrilled, laughing, damn near tears.
Doig will be out on the road in the next few months, sharing The Bartender’s Tale with people in bookstores and libraries across the Northwest. Catch him at Third Place Books next Tuesday (August 21) at 7pm; at Graham’s Books & Stationery in Lake Oswego September 15 at 12:30 pm and at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane September 18 at 7 pm, among many other appearances. Go here for his full events schedule.