Ivan Doig lives and writes about a mile and a half from where I live and write – but there are times, and now is one of them, when it feels like he has taken up residence in my home office. I swear he’s standing right behind me, shaking his head and muttering unprintable things under his breath. I know Ivan reads most of what I write (he’s been force fed my last three books by blurb-hungry editors and publicists), and I’m acutely aware of how high his standards are. I cannot count the number of sentences I have deleted on the dead certainty that Ivan would judge them flabby, flaccid, fake, strained, insufficiently researched, high falutin’, or just plain cruddy.
Would Ivan cringe? I ask myself – and out it goes.
In my years of writing, I have learned to silence many a voice inside my head: The purse-lipped aunt who once asked, “What do YOU have to write about?”; the block-buster blusterer who told me to pursue only book ideas in which “a lot of people die”; the academic second-guesser who sniffed that unless you’ve “read everything” you have no business writing about it.
But Ivan’s is an internal voice I welcome. Ivan manages to be exacting and supportive at the same time. He does not suffer fools; he does not gush or hug or high-five; I’d estimate that he keeps at least two-thirds of what he’s thinking to himself. What he likes he praises; what he doesn’t like he doesn’t mention, the assumption being that we both know there is always room for improvement.
If memory serves, Ivan and I first came in contact after I reviewed his 1996 novel Bucking the Sun for the Washington Post. A postcard arrived (typed on a typewriter but with no sign of having been curled through a roller – a trick he has never revealed) thanking me for the review and remarking over the fact that we shared the same zip code. Ivan guards his privacy; I was in awe of my famous neighbor – so there was a bit of tap-dancing before we took it to the next step and actually spoke by phone. I was nervous and voluble; Ivan was measured, frank and collegial. We discovered we had a couple of friends and contacts in common. We edged, tripped, slid and finally settled into friendship.
But friendship doesn’t quite capture the flavor of our book-centric rapport.
Ivan is invariably the first person I call when I finish a book or need professional guidance. Trouble with an over-reaching editor? Gig organizer offering copious flattery but puny pay? Lousy review – NO review – dumb review? Call Ivan and the good news always feels better and the bad news becomes bearable, if not downright comic.
Does this mean I can claim Ivan as my mentor? If you don’t know, look it up, man, I can hear him barking. “An experienced and trusted counselor,” is how the Compact OED defines mentor. “From the root *men- (: mon-) to remember, think, counsel, etc.” If I had Ivan’s knack for braiding the erudite into the quotidian (the character Morrie Morgan has got to be Doig’s alter ego hiding behind some extra facial hair), I’d work in the fact that the original Mentor was a noble Ithacan whose identity the goddess Athena borrowed when she came down to, well, mentor Odysseus’ son Telemachus.
Never mind. Ivan is the experienced, trusted counselor par excellence. And the disguise part is strangely apt as well. His gruff, bluff manner hides fathomless generosity. When Ivan twinkles or teases or hums under his breath, it means he’s put in a good word for you behind your back. When the good deed surfaces and you try to thank him, you get a crooked half smile, a shrug, a hasty “Happy to help” – and the subject is changed.
A couple of snapshots from the Doig album of mentorship My new book The Family – the true story of the three radically diverging paths that my mother’s family followed in the 20th century – had a rather rocky genesis. I submitted the proposal to the publisher that had done my previous two books and they held onto it for an unconscionable amount of time while I twisted in the wind. Idiotically superstitious, I never disclose new book ideas even to friends and family until the deal is done – but in this case I broke down, called Ivan, sketched in the concept and confided how frustrating it was to be interminably on hold. “You’ve got a terrific book idea and you know it,” was Ivan’s immediate response. “Quit waiting and start writing.”
I plunged in and soon got a nice contract from Penguin (one of whose imprints currently publishes Ivan). Advance money in hand, I traveled to Israel where one branch of the family came to rest (branch #2 immigrated to the US at the turn of the last century and founded the Maidenform Bra Company; the third branch perished in the Holocaust). Not long after that first research trip, I was sitting, drink in hand, in Ivan’s living room droning on about my struggle to incorporate a few choice quotes on the psychology of early Zionist pioneers from some high-toned academic study. “Don’t quote,” Ivan told me point blank. “Tell the story. Readers want to know what happened to your family – not the insights of some academic. Save that for the footnotes.”
I went home, summoned the manuscript onto my computer screen, and deleted every sentence that began “As Professor Suchandso wrote …” At a stroke I had taken out yards of slack and tightened the narrative focus by several critical notches.
I usually hate unsolicited advice – but I’ve taken every turn Ivan has steered me into and never gone wrong yet.
Just the other day we were having lunch and I brought up the subject of envy – the plague of writers with newly published books. How did he feel when a bit of fashionable fluff by some whippersnapper Montanan by way of Malibu topped his latest opus on the bestseller list? “Look at it this way,” Ivan rumbled, “the more money the publishers earn, the more there is in the pot for the rest of us.” Never thought of it that way.
But wasn’t there anyone whose success has gotten under his skin? Ivan stopped to ponder. He finally allowed that there was one recent bestselling nonfiction author (I’ll leave out any identifying details, as I’m sure Ivan would prefer me to) who annoyed the hell out of him by making a couple of narrative claims that strained credulity.
Ivan in a nutshell. As long as you’re scrupulous, as long as you do your homework, as long as you work hard and write well and don’t sling the bull – Ivan is behind you all the way. Fudge, fib, or hang even the shadow of a toenail over the snake-pit of plagiarism and you’ll see that lopsided smile turn into a fixed icy frown faster than you can say The Whistling Season.
That’s another thing I like about having Ivan nearby. He keeps me honest, at times he keeps me sane, and he always makes me proud to work at this crazy trade.
Since I’m talking about Ivan here, let me call it a profession. “Professional” is high praise indeed in Ivan’s book – and I can honestly say that he is the most professional writer I have ever known or ever hope to know.
If Ivan Doig counts you a fellow professional, you’ve made it. You’ve cleared a hurdle, you’ve lived up to a standard, you’ve got a seat at the table – and by God don’t screw up the next time you set fingers to keyboard.
David Laskin, three times winner of the Washington State Book Award, is the author most recently of The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century (Viking). Ivan Doig hailed the book as “a true triumph of historical storytelling.”