A Note to Readers

No one is likely to confuse my writing style with that of Charlotte Bronte, but when that impassioned parson’s daughter lifted her pen from Jane Eyre and bequeathed us the most intriguing of plot summaries—’Reader, I married him’—she also was subliminally saying what any novelist, even one from the Montana highlands rather than the Yorkshire moors, must croon to those of you with your eyes on our pages: ‘Reader, my story is flirting with you; please love it back.’ Our books come to you with bright-cheeked hope, but before you take the time to get to know them you might well want to know: where do these suitors in their printed jackets and composed pages come from? What, as Ms. Bronte would grant that you have a perfect right to ask, is their parentage? My own literary ‘begats’ now add up to a shelf full, and a biographical browsing of me customarily brings up such phrases as these:

Ivan Doig was born in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, in 1939... grew up along the Rocky Mountain Front where much of his writing takes place... first book, the highly acclaimed memoir This House of Sky, was a finalist for the National Book Award... former ranch hand, newspaperman, and magazine editor, Doig is a graduate of Northwestern University where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism... he also holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington... in the century’s-end San Francisco Chronicle polls to name the best Western novels and works of non-fiction, Doig is the only living writer with books in the top dozen on both lists: English Creek in fiction and This House of Sky in non-fiction... he lives in Seattle with his wife Carol, who has taught the literature of the American West.

Taking apart a career in such summary sentences always seems to me like dissecting a frog—some of the life inevitably goes out of it—and so I think the more pertinent Ivan Doig for you, Reader, is the red-headed only child, son of ranch hand Charlie Doig and ranch cook Berneta Ringer Doig (who died of her lifelong asthma on my sixth birthday), who in his junior year of high school (Valier, Montana; my class of 1957 had 21 members) made up his mind to be a writer of some kind.

At the time, my motivation seemed to be simply to go away to college and break out of a not very promising ranchwork future in Montana. Jobs in journalism followed—as an editorial writer in Decatur, Illinois, (where I truly grasped Keats’ meaning of "amid the alien corn") and as assistant editor of The Rotarian magazine in Evanston. Then, starved as we were for mountains and ocean, Carol and I left the Chicago area in 1966 and came to Seattle, with the notion that I would get a Ph.D. in history as background to bring to journalism teaching.

What graduate school taught me, though, was that I wanted to write more than I wanted to teach. I was continuing to free-lance magazine articles during grad school and I also began, to my surprise, writing poetry, which I had never even thought of attempting before.

My eight or nine published poems showed me that I lacked a poet’s final skill; the one Yeats called closing a poem with the click of a well-made box. But still wanting to work at stretching the craft of writing toward the areas where it mysteriously starts to be art, I began working on what Norman Maclean has called the poetry under the prose—a lyrical language, with what I call a poetry of the vernacular in how my characters speak on the page. (In Dancing at the Rascal Fair, for instance, the narrator remembers encountering the patriarch of the Scotch Heaven homesteaders: "Below a stonecliff skyline, a rider with feedbag whiskers looms as the sentry of a calm green valley.") One of my diary entries, midway through the half dozen years of effort on This House of Sky, shows me trying "to write it all as highly charged as poetry." On every book, that’s still my intention.

One last word about the setting of my work, the American West. I don’t think of myself as a "Western" writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate "region," the true home, for a writer. Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression—we’ve seen them both exist in William Faulkner’s postage stamp-size Yoknapatawpha County, and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nowhere village of Macondo, dreaming in its hundred years of solitude. If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.