I got a few minutes to chat with Ivan Doig last night at the Friends of MSU Libraries dinner. I told him about my mother’s evaluation of his novel, English Creek. Mom was unimpressed with his description of life in rural Montana during the Great Depression. “He just wrote about things the way they were,” she said.
Ivan chuckled politely and his wife, Carol, quickly added, “but he worked so hard to get it right.” So the joke didn’t get the hearty laugh I expected.
Of course, I know how hard it is to bring the past to life accurately. I’ve tried it myself a few times. Besides, anybody who has read the acknowledgement sections in Doig’s books knows how hard he works to get the details right. If you haven’t read his acknowledgments, you should. That would give you a greater appreciation of Doig’s work.
In his speech, Doig talked about his work in libraries “listening for voices in the quiet of the past” and looking for “crystallizing details” in places where “Google doesn’t go.” Classic Doig: precise colorful phrases that stick in the skull and move the narrative.
Doig focused on his “Montana Trilogy,” books that span the state’s first century by chronicling three generations of the fictional McCaskill family. Much of the authentic detail for English Creek, the Depression era novel, came from the WPA Writer’s Project documents held and the Merrill G. Burlingame Special Collections of the MSU Libraries.
Doig praised the New Deal project, which sent unemployed writers to gather and write the history of every state, as “an almost miraculous effort.” He also told the story of how Dr. Burlingame, who was a MSU History Professor, made a “heroic rescue” of the papers of the Montana writer’s project when he found they were going to be thrown in the Silver Bow County dump.
(I’ve worked with the WPA papers several times myself, so I know what a tragedy that would have been. If you’d like to see a sample of the work that might have been lost, get a copy of An Onery Bunch: Tales and Anecdotes Collected by the WPA Montana Writer’s Project 1935-1942.)
Doig told other tales about such incidents as putting on his coat to search for documents in the icy basement of Saint Andrew’s University Library in Scotland for another book in the Montana Trilogy, Dancing at the Rascal Fair. The main characters of this novel migrated to Montana from Scotland at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. Doig was delighted to find letters from a Scots emigrant describing a trans-Atlantic crossing and if you’ve read Dancing, you know why.
Doig also talked about Work Song, his new novel set in Butte in 1919. In this book, he said, a library becomes a character. Doig said a photograph of the grand library building that Butte citizens built to show the world there was culture in the rugged mining city inspired him. Doig didn’t talk about his head librarian character that obviously is based on Granville Stuart, whose diaries are one of the best descriptions of frontier Montana. I’d love to hear him talk about that.
After the speech, I chatted with a library friend who said he was amazed at what a good speaker Doig was. While I agreed that Doig’s style and finesse as a speaker is superlative, I said I wasn’t surprised. He is a master wordsmith who works hard to reach his audiences. Of course, that shows in his speaking as well as his writing.