A legacy undefined
By DOUGLAS MITCHELL
I spoke most of these words in August at an event sponsored by the Lewis and Clark Library Foundation to celebrate the posthumous release of Ivan Doig’s “Last Bus to Wisdom.”
Pam at The Montana Book Company asked me to read a passage from the book and to give my perspective about Doig’s place in the literary landscape.
When this magazine asked me to write an essay to accompany my review of “Last Bus to Wisdom,” I knew right away I wanted to take a similar approach. I decided to reflect on those remarks, refine them and share them here – for better or worse.
If you are a regular reader of this magazine, you will know that last December, Mr. Doig was kind enough to spend the better part of a half-hour with me by phone to talk about his 2013 book, “Sweet Thunder.” I was reviewing the book, and he was gracious enough to answer some questions for an interview that accompanied the review.
During our conversation, we had the chance to visit about “Last Bus to Wisdom” and, as I read the advanced reader’s edition this summer, I reflected not only on that conversation – which I will always treasure – but on the larger question of Ivan Doig’s impact on writing, writers and the literature of the American West.
This is a complicated subject, and my thoughts on this matter may be both bold and provocative. So be it.
I believe the impact of Ivan Doig’s writing will be better appreciated in 2115 than it is in 2015. Many in the “literary establishment” would have us value more the work of writers like Ford, Russo, Updike and Cheever as the literature that defines a generation. While I have a deep appreciation for all four of those exceptional writers, and believe they deserve a place as major contributors to American literature, I believe Doig will, over time, find a place on that list too.
History is on my side.
None other than Henry James derided a fellow author of his time as “the greatest of superficial novelists” and went on to call it an “offence against humanity to place” that same author “among the greatest novelists” of his time. And James was not alone in his view. William Wadsworth and others were offended by the author’s storytelling and plain language.
The author in question? Charles Dickens.
Similarly, the now widely revered French novelist Honoré de Balzac was not initially fully embraced by the contemporary literary community. His feverish production of novels was somehow deemed unseemly, and while he was credited as being one of France’s most prolific novelists, it has been the work of the authors he inspired – including Dickens – and posthumous academic reconsideration of his true impact on the novel as art for Balzac to be fully appreciated.
I know what you are thinking – is this guy really comparing Ivan Doig to Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac? Why, I guess I am – and I’m not crazy. I’m not going to try to convince you that 100 years from now, every high school student in the world is going to read Doig the way they read Dickens. Nor am I going to try and convince you that the list of the writers Doig inspired, although many, can rival Balzac’s – Proust, Dickens, Poe and Wilde just to name a few.
But I am going to challenge you to look at the similarities between these three authors and their work. Sir Walter Scott called Balzac’s writing “observation and imagination.” Which of us would not say the same about Doig?
Mary Ann Evans – famous under her nom d plum George Eliot, said that Dickens had “the utmost power of rendering the external traits of our town population” – another perfect description of Doig.
One of the undergraduate papers I wrote in college was about Balzac – particularly about his novel “Le Pere Goriot.” Published in 1834, the book is set some years earlier – Paris in 1819 to be specific – and features a set of recurring characters from Balzac’s other works. Sound familiar?
Doig’s characters, his depiction of the American West, and the voice he gives through his writing to the working men and women of America, is compelling and important. He has left for us – and for future generations – a set of stories that let us live in the time and place of his writing. His stories, this place, seem familiar to us now and I believe that’s why they are without some of the significance that will be correctly attributed to his writing in years to come.
My wife Julie and I were recently in Paris with a group of students from the Helena school district, and one of them took us to Pére Lachese cemetery. It’s the last resting place of not only Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, but less famously Honore de Balzac.
In his euology of Balzac, Victor Hugo said this about the impact of his friend’s writing, “Henceforth, men’s eyes will be turned towards the faces not of those who are the rulers, but of those who are the thinkers.”
I believe the impact of Ivan Doig’s writing can be described with the same epitaph.
Doig has turned the eyes of a generation of readers to the American West. He has given us characters and landscapes with texture to endure through generations. His books, like those of Dickens and Balzac, will endure because they are genuine and compelling.
Future readers will feel a thrill of discovery as they open the pages and find themselves in a world that seems miles away and generations apart. That will be when the final measure of Doig’s impact can truly be assessed – not by those of us too close to the stories and the scenery, but by those for whom a “dog bus” to Wisdom, Montana, seems as impossible to them as does factory life in the industrial revolution.
Perhaps then, the title of Doig’s final book will have new meaning, as the “Last Bus to Wisdom” will be less a proper noun describing a destination than a common noun calling us to a journey of personal discovery.
Last Bus to Wisdom
New York, New York, 2015
By DOUGLAS MITCHELL
It was with very mixed emotions that I received the advanced reader’s edition of “Last Bus to Wisdom.” As always, I was excited to hold in my hand a new offering from Ivan Doig. I knew I was in for a treat. And yet, I also knew I was holding Doig’s last contribution to the literature of the American West.
And what a contribution this book is. It is almost as if Doig knew this would be his last book. While it does not have the broad literary shoulders of “This House of Sky,” it has a personality that makes it accessible and charming. As a reader, I found myself hearing Doig’s voice and imagining a twinkle in his eyes as he crafted this story of a raucous adventure across the Great Plains.
“Last Bus to Wisdom” is the first person memoir of Donel Cameron and his escapades during the summer of 1951. And what a summer it turns out to be. The 11-year old Donel, also referred to as Donny, is living with his grandmother on a ranch in Gros Ventre, Montana, where his grandmother is the cook. When his grandmother needs surgery, Donny is shipped off via the “dog bus” (Greyhound) to spend the summer with his grandmother’s sister Kate and her husband Herman in faraway Wisconsin.
The book starts in typical Doig fashion by grabbing you with an evocative first sentence that gives the reader a good sense of what kind of story and storytelling lies ahead. Doig begins the book by proclaiming, “The town of Gros Ventre was so far from anywhere that you had to take a bus to catch the bus.” Classic.
I’m not going to tell you much about the actual story because part of the magic in this book is the surprising twists and turns. In fact, I recommend not reading the book jacket. I didn’t read it until after I finished the book and I think it gives away a bit too much. Put a sticky note over it, or take the dust jacket off altogether and just enjoy the ride. At first you might wonder how the “dog bus” journey is going to last for 400 pages, but that puzzle will be solved for you in due time and with great hilarity.
As I read “Last Bus to Wisdom,” I kept comparing it to another classic memoir, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” by Bill Bryson. The stories are very different, but the eras are similar and the styles (although Bryson’s is purportedly a true account) share a carefree voice that is funny and charming and smart.
Doig though, as only he can do, gives his characters more than just a voice. He gives them purpose. With the ease we have seen in earlier works like “The Bartender’s Tale” and “Sweet Thunder,” Doig effortlessly imbues the story with teachable moments and thought-provoking encounters. The characters will deal with race, class, crime, punishment, religion, sex and prejudice in a way that seems perfectly natural in a story about an 11-year-old boy.
I laughed out loud more than a few times and found myself in wonder about Doig’s ability to weave together history and fiction. I’ll say no more, other than to encourage you to read and remember the quote Doig features on the page following the dedication as just one cool example of how this special author constantly respects his readers by including details in this and each of his stories.
I will miss not being able to look forward to what Ivan Doig has up his sleeve next. At the same time, though, he has left us a great gift through his writing, a gift we can rediscover over and over.
Bob Stitt coaching history
Bob Stitt coaching history
1987: Defensive back coach, Doane College
1988: Running backs coach, Nebraska Wesleyan University
1989: Graduate assistant, Northern Colorado
1990-93: Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, Doane College
1994-98: Associate head coach, Austin College
1999: Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, Harvard
2000-14: Head coach, Colorado School of Mines
Present: Head coach, Montana
UM head football coaching results 1986-2014
- Don Read (1986-95) Wins:85 Loses:36 .702 percent
- Mick Dennehy (1996-99) Wins:39 Loses:12 .756 percent
- Joe Glenn (2000-02) Wins:39 Loses: 6 .867percent
- Bobby Hauck (2003-09) Wins:80 Loses:17 .825 percent
- Robin Pflugrad (2010-2011) Wins:13 Loses:6 .684 percent
- Mick Delaney (2012-2014) Wins:24 Loses:14 .631 percent
*Ties not computed in percentage
– Courtesy of University of Montana Athletics
Author Q&A: ‘Big Sky Siren’ author LA Ramirez
By Doug Mitchell
Montana Magazine: Congratulations on your book. How did you become a writer?
L.A. Martinez: Thank you and thank you for this interview Doug. That is a good question. I never imagined I’d be a writer, but I cannot remember not being a story teller.
My father had been a merchant seaman, and in his seafaring years, he spent much of his time on cruise and cargo ships. He would regale me with adventures of the high seas and travels to exotic ports. He met many interesting people along the way, including Bogart, Bacall and Hemingway. His accounts ignited my imagination, and I conceived my own tales of far-off places and intriguing characters.
Money was tight and we lived simply, but we always had books. I dreamt of seeing some of the places my father had spoken about, and through reading I have been able to feel the experience of those places and stories. By junior high I amused myself with Frost, O Henry, Poe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and L’Amour. Quite a list for a young mind.
During our childhood, my brother and I would make up dramatic yarns, one would start with an idea, and the other had to expand on it. He steered toward sci-fi, while I always added suspense and mystery.
After getting married and raising a family I found the time to jot more of my stories on paper. One of my children read a short story I wrote, and he said, “Mom, if that were a book I’d read it.” His words inspired me to expand that one short story into my first full length novel. I never published it, but it provided the muse to write my second novel, filling four composition books. My husband, my biggest support through all this, encouraged me to turn it into a publishable book. Big Sky Siren, first of The Big Sky Series was born.
MM: So do you write your stories longhand? Or are the composition books just a brainstorming venue?
LAM: I started out writing everything long hand, but found when I typed it into the computer, it took too much time. On my current work in progress, I type it out, and use long hand to write inspirations and brainstorming.
MM: So tell us a bit about the inspiration for Keeva.
LAM: Keeva’s character is a combination of many women. My first feminine role model was my paternal grandmother, who arrived from Austria as a teenager and later worked in kitchens to raise her three sons. Other elements of Keeva come from my daughter and daughter in-law, who inspire me with their hard work and intelligence. Finally, the many assertive women I’ve met in Montana, particularly those farming and ranching women who have shown me being feminine can be possible, while still being strong and resilient. Keeva’s Irish heritage is an homage to my own ethnicity, and to the many women I have met in Montana, whose roots can be traced to Ireland.
The conceptualization of the antagonist in the story came to me at the same time Keeva did. I realized then that the brave and assertive protagonist would fit very well in contrast with the antagonist’s flaws.
MM: What was the hardest part of writing Big Sky Siren?
LAM: For me the hardest part of writing Big Sky Siren has been the nuances of producing a novel. I am a storyteller, and editors want to make sure I got it all right.
Keeping my “voice” has also been important and challenging. I have my agenda, editors have theirs, and sometimes that has been a struggle. I have been very fortunate that the two editors who worked with me understood my needs until we were all satisfied.
MM: What was the most fun?
LAM: So much of it was enjoyable. Once I had sketched the story, I had a lot of fun developing the characters, and getting to deeply understand them by the time I finished the manuscript. Breathing life into ideas and characters is a very exciting process.
Research was also enjoyable. Among several research topics, I learned about firearms, and studied personality disorders. I drove around the locations where the story takes place in order to construct the scenes realistically.
I have to admit, holding the first paperback was the most satisfying moment. It still feels surreal.
MM: Well, congratulations again on your first novel and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. We’ll keep an eye out for the next installment of the series.
Author Q&A: ‘the same sky’s’ Amanda Eyre Ward
By Doug Mitchell
Montana Magazine: I have to tell you, I could hardly put this book down. I was immediately taken that you chose to tell this story, or these stories if you will, in the first person voices of Alice and Carla in alternating chapters … how did you come to the decision to present the book in that way?
Amanda Ward: I try to trust what voices I have access to, and in this case, both Carla and Alice – their first-person voices, their personalities, even their character arcs – came to me fully formed. I’ve never had this experience before, and it’s glorious! Writing the book was almost a matter of transcribing the two women’s stories.
MM: Your book is coming out just as we as a people are having a serious public policy debate about immigration. What do you want people to take from the same sky to educate that debate?
AW: It’s such a complex and nuanced issue – but that doesn’t mean we can turn away from it. The news tends to talk about “surges” or “waves” of unaccompanied minors, but the fact is that each child has a unique story. My hope is that readers will listen to one girl’s voice and be changed, however minutely. I think it’s impossible to turn away from these kids once you allow yourself to understand that they are frightened, brave children…children who have a great deal to teach us about faith.
MM: For me, Carla demonstrates such a deep faith in everything she does. In your writing though, it’s more than that … it is faith combined with action. She doesn’t just have faith things will change on their own, she takes decisive action to bring about change. Is that part of the message of your book … that we have to both have faith and take action to change lives?
AW: To be honest, I’m not really sure what my message is. I let the characters evolve, let them say what they will, and in the very last drafts I try to hone in on what themes seem to have developed. I’m starting a new book now, for example, and I thought it was about one thing…but it seems to be moving away from that original theme. For me, it’s a strange and humbling process, figuring out what a novel is mea
MM: Can you give us a sneak preview of what’s next for Amanda Ward fans?
AW: Yes, I have sold my next book, tentatively-titled “The Last Lullaby.” I thought it was about two women: a heart surgeon who (with her husband) hires a young waitress to bear a child for them. As the book begins, the birth mother decides she cannot give up the infant and goes on the run. But now another little girl has started speaking to me – a lonely girl living in a New Orleans motel room with her drug-addicted mother. So who knows?
This is absolutely my favorite part of the process: spending mornings in a fictional world, without having to organize or make sense of anything. Though I have an enormous, sunlit room overlooking the hills to write in, I moved into the dark closet next to the lovely space–I am happiest typing here in my pajamas, hidden.
MM: Last question: Do you get back to Montana often?
AW: No, though I dream about it many nights…
Author Q&A: ‘The Given World’s’ Marian Palaia
By Doug Mitchell
Montana Magazine: First of all, congratulations on a fantastic debut novel. When did you first realize you had this story inside you waiting to come out?
Marian Palaia: Thank you very much, and I have to say, I don’t really know the answer to that question, but I’ll give it a shot. I guess there was no one moment or time of realization, but more of a slow dawning, as the chapters came, and Riley’s story started becoming clearer to me. I had one chapter – “Girl, Three Speeds, Pretty Good Brakes” – written long before I ever thought about a novel. It was a short story, and for years I thought that’s all it would ever be. Once I had two more chapters – the one set in Vietnam, and the one about Lu – I began to understand what was there, and to accept that it might someday become a coherent piece of fiction. The support and encouragement I got from everyone at Madison while I was doing my MFA were also invaluable, not to mention having deadlines. Deadlines are definitely my friend. Which has nothing to do with the original question, but there it is.
MM: Montana plays a foundational role in the book. Tell us a little more about how your time in Montana influenced your writing?
MP: I came to Montana very young, like 23. Young and pretty dopey. I got married, but that didn’t last too long – only a few years – and when it was over I packed up my broken heart and left, and ended up in San Francisco, but I kept coming back to Montana. Most summers I came back and spent time on my ex-husband’s ranch, about 50 miles east of Missoula. I know that might sound strange to some, but our entire relationship seems to have been built on the understanding (unconscious, mostly) that (things) happens, and you move on, but you keep the parts that work for you, and our friendship works for us. At any rate, I started writing fiction when I lived on that ranch, and it became the place I wrote from for many years. Montana, as you know, is a place that gets inside you, and once that happens, it stays there.
MM: The Given World is about life and love and loss … what do you hope people get from your book?
MP: That war does damage in a million different ways. And that all of those people you see out there on the street, and who maybe, in your less-generous moments, you judge; they all have stories that are every bit as true and viable, and lives that are every bit as precious, as yours.
MM: I was quite taken both by the variety of secondary characters in the book and the way you develop them. You get us to know and care about Darrell and Primo and Frank and Lu, and my guess is that many readers will find a favorite (mine was Primo). Do you have a particular character with whom you feel a particular kinship?
MP: Lu and Cole are, more than any of the other characters, based on people I actually knew and loved, and both of them are dead now. “Lu” was my best friend, through all the craziness, and Cole was the nearest thing I’ll ever have to a son. I miss them both every day, but the whole time I was writing them, I felt so lucky, to get to bring them back to life for a time. That’s what it felt like, like they were actually right in front of me, so close I could almost touch them. A gift, and I’m not lying.
MM: Many of the characters draw. Riley is clearly impacted by her brother’s drawing, and that theme continues to play itself out in the book. Is your inclusion of drawing/illustrating in the book intentional?
MP: Nope. I actually never even thought about that until just now. But, since you mentioned it, it makes sense in a way, because when they first meet, Lu reminds Riley of Mick, and maybe it was an unconscious effort to give them some of the same characteristics. Or, more likely, it was just an accident. The real “Lu” was an artist, though. Self taught. I have a bunch of her work and I love it. It’s all just as unique, crazy and lovely as she was.
MM: Late in the book, on the train, Grace catches Riley by surprise by asking “Is this where you came from?” Where does novelist Marian Palaia “come from.”
MP: That has always been an impossible question for me to answer succinctly. I was born in Riverside, California, but we left there when I was pretty young and moved to Washington, DC. I went to high school in Kensington, Maryland, moved from there to Boulder, Colorado for a few years, then to Olympia, Washington for college, to Montana to be married and to learn that “creative writing” was actually a discipline, to San Francisco for sixteen years and then back to Montana for nine years. In between I’ve lived in Hong Kong, Saigon and a very small village in Nepal that you won’t find on any map. Ironically, or maybe it’s not ironic at all, I was the family navigator when I was a kid. I love maps. I love to go places, though having a dog has put a bit of the kibosh on long trips without him. He has a lot of road miles on him, though. In the tens of thousands, I reckon.
MM: Riley made her way back to Montana … do you ever get back to Big Sky Country? Any chance you’ll be here to sign some books this summer?
MP: I actually own a pretty little house on Missoula’s northside, and try to spend my summers there, as I am the worst cold-weather wimp ever, probably because I am, originally, a California girl, and not ashamed of that. (How’s that for a long sentence?) Maybe if the sun came out more often in Missoula in the winter; I don’t know. It would be really hard to leave San Francisco’s 60-degree winters, though I hear it’s been pretty warm in Montana this year. And I will definitely be signing some books in (at least) Missoula this summer, at Shakespeare and Company, sometime in mid-June. Not that I need an excuse to come, but if I did, that would be a very happy excuse. I’m already itching to get on the road.
MM: Last, what’s next for you as a writer?
MP: I’m working on a new book, slowly. I’ve been working on it for a little over two years now and have about 150 pages, but those pages have been edited just about to death. I am finding out that publishing a novel is a very busy business, but “next” is moving forward on the new book as soon as I can get back to it. It is also set in Montana, but is a far different book than The Given World. It’s called The Hello Kitty Justice League and I am dying to see how it ends.
Portfolio: Glacier’s glaciers, before they’re gone
Photography of Seth Eagleton
The Glacier National Park Seth Eagleton’s kids see today won’t be the park they see when they’re grown.
Whether the 25 glaciers remaining inside Glacier are gone in 5 years or 20, their retreat is changing the face of the Crown of the Continent.
“When I was hiking around in high school there was 35 (glaciers),” Eagleton said. “At the turn of last century, there were 150, they’re fading fast.”
As the Columbia Falls native scrambles and climbs through the wild backcountry in the park he considers his backyard, he knows there’s nothing he can do to stop the glaciers from melting.
Instead, Eagleton has created the Glacier Preservation Project, and is on a mission to carefully and artfully photograph each of the park’s remaining glaciers.
“I want to make sure we’ve got something to remember them by,” said Eagleton, who noticed no one was attempting to capture photos of all the glaciers when he worked gathering social media content for Glacier Park Inc.
Now a full-time wedding photographer who works with his wife, Jill, Eagleton has visited and photographed a good portion of the glaciers in the past several years.
Glacier Preservation Project is currently a digital project. Eagleton posts images from the glaciers he and his family visit online at glacierpreservationproject.com, and on several social media sites where the project has a steady following.
According to the U.S. National Park Service, there were 150 glaciers inside Glacier in 1850.
Today, there are 25 that “remain large enough (at least 25 acres in area) to be considered a functional glacier.”
It’s predicted that by 2030, all the glaciers will be gone, according to NPS.
Eagleton’s journeys to the glaciers are often arduous – finding a safe hiking approach to the most inaccessible glaciers is a constant challenge.
Along with backpacking gear, Eagleton hikes with as much as 65-70 pounds of camera gear.
Recently, he’s had several of the older set of his six kids in tow as well.
Eagleton says there’s never been this kind of comprehensive photographic documentation of Glacier’s glaciers – at least none with such an artistic twist.
Eagleton photographs each glacier in several ways. First, finding a wide, more scenic “distance” shot. Then, he gets on the glaciers and examines the “details” so “you catch on to the atmosphere,” he said, to show “what did it feel like to be there?”
“Some are really bleak; it’s melting fast so nothing has had a chance to grow up. Some are really lush and it really speaks of Glacier National Park and what it has to offer,” Eagleton said.
Eagleton will focus on glaciers in the northern portion of the park this summer, and if weather and routes cooperate, he’ll finish photographing the glaciers this summer.
Then, Eagleton is planning to self publish a book about the project, funding it through an upcoming Kickstarter campaign.
What Eagleton won’t do is get political. He said he can’t say exactly what is causing the glaciers’ retreat.
“I’m not trying to push a bunch of controversial subjects, the fact is we’re losing our glaciers,” he said. “We’re going to lose them and whether it’s in 5 years or 10 years – I’m not a scientist, I’m good at observation – it would just be a shame if we didn’t have something to remember them by.”
- Glacier Preservation Project: To learn more about Seth Eagleton’s Glacier Preservation Project, and for a link to the Kickstarter campaign to help fund a coffee table book about the project, visit glacierpreservationproject.com.
To view the entire Glacier Preservation Project Portfolio, subscribe today.
Author Q&A: ‘Sweet Thunder’s’ Ivan Doig
By DOUG MITCHELL
Montana Magazine: Mr. Doig, thank you for taking some time to visit with me about your most recent book, Sweet Thunder. It is an extraordinary book.
Ivan Doig: Well, thank you, Doug. The paperback has made the Pacific Northwest Booksellers list for several weeks which is a further validation for me and I’ve had wonderful response in the bookstores from it, Doug.
MM: Well, I bet. I sure enjoyed it and I’ve already recommended it to fellow readers and Ivan Doig fans. The book for me was part history lesson, part political intrigue, part love story. When people ask you, Ivan, what the book is about what do you say?
ID: First of all I tell people when they ask what I write, that I write mainstream fiction. I see myself as a novelist, primarily using language and characters. History and plot and so forth follow on from that, or, maybe more properly, are found because they are necessary to make the language and the characters work on the page. So that is sort of the broad sense. With each book, too, I do try to sum up to myself, in one word if I can, what it’s about; what the ultimate feel of the story is. Looking back at recent books, with The Whistling Season I think that was about compassion. Work Song, the first book to put Morrie Morgan into Butte is about redemption. Bartender’s Tale is about conscience – what people do or don’t do according to their sense of right or wrong – and that brings us to this book. The pulse under the skin of the book I guess you would say, Sweet Thunder is deliberately about identity; personal identity, mistaken identity, finding identity and choosing identity. I see Morrie as part of a long line of people who have come west, to Montana in particular perhaps, to establish an identity. Morrie being Morrie he maybe establishes more than one in the book. That’s the kind of thing I try to do, but to me that simply has to be tucked into the story, not blaring out loud. I always say as a novelist that you don’t want the preaching to get in the way of the choir. People want to hear the singing, they want to hear the language and the characters and the turns in the plot. So that’s the approach I take and I think took with Sweet Thunder.
MM: As you talk about identity, I’m taken by the fact that you have chosen the location of Butte, America, which in itself is a very special place in terms of a city that has its own identity isn’t it?
ID: Yeah, it took me an embarrassingly long time, Doug, to work my way to that. I’m a full-blown Montanan all the way back to the times of the Anaconda Company domination, and I’m from the “other” Montana; the ranching Montana, the rural Montana, the outback Montana. So to us, Butte was always a scary place, I must say. We thought of it as Montana’s big city whether or not it quite justified that in population, but it was “The City.” It was foreign, it was tough, people made their living there in ways us sheepherders could not possibly understand – burrowing in the ground like gophers as we saw it. So that carried over with me into adulthood. One reason I did not end up in Montana newspapering or teaching or something, was still the Anaconda domination of all the newspapers except the Great Falls Tribune. When I was in college as a spirited, idealistic young journalist being trained at a very idealistic professional journalism school, Northwestern University, I looked elsewhere in the early 1960s and never got back to Montana to work. I thought, in the back of my mind, that I didn’t know enough about Butte to possibly write about it. But then along comes Morrie in The Whistling Season and he’s such a slick-tongued, golden character that when I decided, well he’s too good to waste, I want to bring him back…what can I do? Drop him into Butte and things are going to happen. Morrie and Butte are together and what came out of it are both Work Song and Sweet Thunder for that very reason. Of course, that led to learning a hell of a lot about Butte through endless research and going to Butte, standing in a miner’s cage that used to go down a mile deep into the ground and getting up on an early June morning and finding snow on our windshield. I have learned as much about Butte as I possibly could for the environment where Morrie could live and thrive.
MM: I think you got it just right and I think the people of Butte would feel likewise. It really is an incredible town. Every time I go there I am impressed by the pride that the people of Butte have in their town. I was really taken by what you said earlier about not being too obvious about the way you write and allowing the reader to enjoy the open spaces for what they are. One of the open spaces I enjoyed was the love story, if you will, between Morrie and Grace. I thought that part of the book was incredibly touching and interesting. How did that come together for you?
ID: By fusing two strong characters. Grace is, of course, Morrie’s landlady when he first alights in Butte in Work Song and it takes a whole book for them to really get together. In Sweet Thunder they come apart, but through various magnetisms a lot of them on Morrie’s side, they are drawn back. I spend a long time building my characters. I have file cards on them, I build dossiers on the characters, I go back and into historic photographs to find the lineaments as to how they might have looked, so these characters do live in my head for the couple of years it takes me to write a book. The plot turns take another department of imagination, I guess, as to what can happen – how can Grace and Morrie cross paths again as they do when Sam Sandison for instance is in the hospital. Morrie visits, Grace is already there – they go up into the waiting room where they have another spat to remind the reader of the, at that point, failed connection but a connection not terminally gone. It’s those kinds of things, a piecing together of things I guess.
MM: Well, it is elegantly done and, perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it seemed to me that it is at least partially the coming apart of Morrie and Grace that helped Morrie keep it all together. Is that reading too much into the tale?
ID: Well, I think that’s a fair point. Fairly often in my fiction, indeed, greater events of the world pry or throw apart my characters and then part of the process of living is finding ways around that, how to overcome it and hopefully, maybe they end up back together again, as they very much do at the end of this book. But, yes, Morrie is thrust more and more into the newspaper life and the fight against Anaconda and its hired gun, a journalist from Chicago because he lacks Grace and that’s certainly so.
MM: I understand with this call I’ve interrupted your writing on another book. What do you have in store next for us as readers?
ID: Well, what I’m working on now is the acknowledgements, so sitting here beside me on my desk is a copy of the manuscript which my editor has packed off to read for the first time this weekend. It’s a novel titled Last Bus To Wisdom, and as you might guess, “Wisdom” means not only the general attainment of knowledge and so forth, but that town in the Big Hole – the town of Wisdom – is a long time, necessary small town that hasn’t grown much, but it hasn’t gone away either down there in the Big Hole basin. I’ve set this in 1951, and it is a coming of age story about 11 year-old Donald Cameron and his great uncle “Herman the German” as they embark upon a cross country odyssey – headed to Wisdom, Montana. It is indeed a kind of western, Huck Finn and Jim journey back to Montana.
MM: Wisdom is a very special place and I, like you, have a very special affection for the Two Medicine Country from which you hale as well. I believe there are few places in the world that hold the kind of magic that landscape does.
ID: The novel is inspired, I guess you would say, by something that happened to me in 1951, as about an 11 year-old when indeed I was shipped off to aged relatives in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. But apparently it went perfectly fine for me, I don’t have any real memories of it at all. But I got to thinking, what if a kid a kid is put on the dog bus – Greyhound – and everything in the world happens to him? So, that’s how imagination began creating the plot and carrying out the plot for this one.
MM: If I go to the bookstore and there is a new Ivan Doig book on the shelf, I will buy it – whose books do you always pick up?
ID: One author whose books I will always read is the Albanian writer Ismael Kadare. I think he has been on the list for the Nobel various times and I can’t understand why he hasn’t received it. Kadare is a poet turned novelist, and that doesn’t always work. But it does, I think, with him. His books seep into English, often from Albanian into French and then to English which really waters it down. The best of his books, I think, are Chronicle in Stone, an early novel and his more recent, The Three Arched Bridge. I think they are great European classics and he is writing out of the time when Albania was more Stalinist than Stalin and more Maoist than Mao before the wall fell. He looks both back into the depths of Albania’s bloody history – almost tribal fighting – to the fantastic oppression brought on by almost hyper communism brought on by the Albanian government.
Author Q&A: ‘Lentil Underground’s’ Liz Carlisle
By DOUG MITCHELL
Montana Magazine: Congratulations on what I think is a very important book. I knew almost immediately upon opening the book that I was reading something special. Did you get a sense at some point in your research that you were breaking new ground with Lentil Underground? If so, tell us about that “aha” moment.
Liz Carlisle: Thanks! It’s a revealing metaphor, I think, that we speak of innovation in terms of “breaking new ground.” That has been the approach of agribusiness for most of the past century, and it’s a paradigm that runs pretty deep in contemporary American culture and American politics. So in a way, what makes the farmers in this book so unique is that they’re determined to heal some of that ground that’s been broken – and of course they’re drawing on equally powerful alternative strands of American culture and politics by articulating an agrarian land ethic. It’s hard to pick out my biggest aha moment, but I was pretty floored when David Oien told me, in 2012, that the farmers of Timeless Seeds harvested 80 percent of normal yields, even though they only got about 40 percent of their typical moisture. That was a crippling drought year across most of the grain belt, and I thought it was pretty remarkable that this group of people weathered it so well. So of course, I wanted to know why!
MM: Do you think it took a Montanan to see what you saw and to tell this story?
LC: That’s an interesting question. I suppose that in some ways, I have added appreciation for this story because I was born and raised in Montana. But in many ways, I come to this story as an outsider, because I am a Western Montanan, born and raised in Missoula. My childhood west of the divide might have occurred in the same state as the events I’ve written about in the book, but wow, what a different experience. I’ve been telling people that researching the book cured me of some of my Western Montana snobbery. The flat part of the state really can be quite beautiful!
MM: There’s really nothing quite like eastern Montana hospitality is there?
LC: There isn’t! One of these farmers, Jerry Habets, invited me to join his family for his parents’ anniversary dinner – on the first day I met them! Jerry and Kathy Sikorski, who farm midway between Baker and Ekalaka, sent me home with a huge trash bag of green lentils – they just filled it up straight from their grain bin. I think there’s a real wisdom in this generosity. People have an appreciation for the interdependence of their communities, and they’re more oriented to helping each other out rather than getting ahead and buying each other out. David Oien, the founding farmer of Timeless Seeds, told me something his dad said that’s really stuck with me: “I’d rather have the neighbors than the neighbors’ farm.”
MM: Contrast that view of community with what you found in Washington in the halls of Congress.
LC: I worked in the United States Senate from 2008-2009, which was a very different time in Washington, D.C. We were so full of hope! A diverse group of energetic young people descended on the city, eager to make a difference, and the ones I met were very open, very social. At that time, we thought we could get something done by working together. I’m sure there is still a lot of esprit d’corps among Congressional staffers, but it’s got to be frustrating, with all the gridlock and these periodic threats of government shutdown.
MM: What’s next for you – what are you working on now at Berkeley?
LC: Both of my parents and all four of my grandparents were educators, and I’m excited to follow in their footsteps. I just finished my PhD and I’m in the midst of the job search, so I can’t tell you where I’ll be teaching, but I’ll be teaching. I’d like to plan my next project in collaboration with my students. And I want to spend a bit more time growing food myself.
MM: Those are some lucky students! I can’t finish this interview without asking about your country music career. What was that like?
LC: It was an adventure. One night, I would struggle through a tough gig in a bar, and the next night, I would open for somebody famous in a really nice concert hall. And then in between were these long drives through rural America, I was in my early 20s, trying to figure out the meaning of life, and my place in this world. I worked really hard on my songs. I would cry sometimes when I wrote – it was that emotional for me, that personal. I’ve mellowed a bit, but I’m still a storyteller at heart. In many ways, Lentil Underground is a book-length country song.
MM: Do you still play at the occasional open mike in the Bay Area?
LC: Nope. I’ve come full circle to my first and favorite venues: the kitchen, the woods, and of course, the shower. I don’t have the performance bug anymore, but I still love music.
MM: So are we going to see you in Montana anytime soon?
LC: We had a string of Montana events during the last week in February and I’m hoping to come back in the summer. I haven’t made those plans yet, but keep all my events updated at http://lentilunderground.com.