Ivan Doig Part I

Describe your writing process.
When I’m asked, at booksignings and readings, what my working habits are, I tend to say something like “pathological diligence,” the patience of one of the odd patron saints of our trade, the late Flannery O’Connor, has always guided me in the long devotion of the writer’s backside to the seat of the chair where he or she sits and works. Flannery O’Connor was ill, most of her short writing life, but her collection of letters show her to have been a dedicated sardonic professional, as when she gave this unbeatable version of the experience of looking over one’s own writing: “I have just corrected the page proofs and I spent a lot of time getting ‘seems’ and ‘as if’ constructions out of it. It was like getting ticks off a dog.”
This is what she had to say about a writer’s necessary state of patience: “I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away… of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted….”
And then her conclusion, which I believe is at the heart of being a professional writer: “The fact is that if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.”
Ultimately, Flannery O’Connor’s advice does add up, I believe. In my case, I began as a journalist, and so from the start did not believe in that malady called “writer’s block”  — I never did meet a newspaper or magazine editor who would say, “Oh, that’s all right, we’ll just run a blank space there where you can’t think of anything to say.” The point always is to get something down on paper: describe the character, make up dialogue, dig something out of your pocket notebook or laptop. 
Thus I get up early — still on the lifelong ranch clock where the chores start at daybreak — and by 6:30 or so am beginning the morning’s work. With time out for a two-mile walk around our neighborhood with my wife Carol, I keep at the words until lunch, and if I don’t have my quota in that maximumly productive four or so hours which seems to be the creative limit in most of us, I go back to the first drafting in the afternoon; if I already have the words I’ll do research or edit myself in that half of the day. 
In any case, I write a given number of words a day on a manuscript, a given number of days a week, a given number of weeks a year. This varies from book to book, so that the job isn’t a permanent assembly line — on novels such as The Whistling Season, The Eleventh Man, Work Song and the forthcoming The Bartender’s Taleit’s been four hundred words a day. That’s two triple-spaced typed pages –it may not sound like much, but trust me, it’s a days work.
What’s it like having your work re-imagined by (playwright/production)
It’s intriguing to have my cast of characters become an actual theatrical one. Over the years I’ve been asked countless times who should play so-and-so in my books, something I’ve only whimsically indulged in once myself. When the movie rights to my first novel, The Sea Runners, were bought (although we’re still waiting for the movie after a couple of decades), I was asked who should play the four men who escape by canoe from Russian servitude in Alaska in 1853, and I chose Robert Duvall, for all four roles.
More recently, the associated Press reviewer of Work Songwrote that he could absolutely see Johnny Depp as Morrie and Nicole Kidman as Grace. Don’t I wish.
But now I am in the fortunate position of leaning back in a Book-It seat and watching the population of my imagination in Prairie Nocturne come to life onstage, and I couldn’t be more pleased to make their acquaintance.
Your work is informed by the landscape of Montana/West, what about that region captures your artistic eye?
Throughout my teenage years in Montana, the Rocky Mountain Front was practically a neighbor, although an upscale one, to the buffalo-grass benchlands where my family worked on sheep ranches. Just over the craggy horizon lay “The Bob,” the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area that is the million-acre heart of the northern Rockies. But out of reach to the likes of us, fading remnants of the lariat proletariat; hired hands do not go on hikes nor pricey pack trips.
Yet that monumental geography seemed to me a natural setting for the trilogy I set out to write in the 1980’s. — English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and Ride With Me, Mariah Montana — my fictional Two Medicine country, as I have made of it, has become the home country of my characters in several other books, as I suppose it is for my imagination.
Put simply, those unforgettable mountains and plains give me rich metaphoric  possibilities — and it should be noted that the very different Northwest Coast has done the same in two other of my books, The Sea Runners and Winter Brothers. I am always mindful of trying to write not regionally, but about that larger country — life — by putting my imagination to work as poetically and stylistically as I can on the face of the earth as well as the features of my characters.
Check in February 15 for Part II…

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.