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Original Essays | July 24, 2014

Jessica Valenti: IMG Full Frontal Feminism Revisited



It is arguably the worst and best time to be a feminist. In the years since I first wrote Full Frontal Feminism, we've seen a huge cultural shift in... Continue »
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Original Essays | June 20, 2014

Lauren Owen: IMG The Other Vampire



It's a wild and thundery night. Inside a ramshackle old manor house, a beautiful young girl lies asleep in bed. At the window, a figure watches... Continue »

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Powell's Q&A

Ivan Doig

Describe your latest project.
"Can't cook, but doesn't bite." It is only the line atop a classified advertisement in a weekly newspaper, that of "an A-1 housekeeper, sound morals, exceptional disposition" seeking to relocate to Montana early in the twentieth century. But for young Paul Milliron, his two younger brothers and his widower father, and his rambunctious fellow students in their one-room school, it spells abracadabra.

Paul is the voice of the book: a bit wry, contemplative, and literally bedeviled by dreams — lifelong, he has had the disturbing knack of vividly recalling the episodes of imagination that swirl in his mind at night. Paul has risen to become the state superintendent of education, and at the vantage point of 1957, strapped for budget in what he knows is going to be a changed world of education because of the Soviet landing of Sputnik, he is facing what is more like a nightmare, everything he has believed in is "eclipsed by this Russian kettle of gadgetry orbiting overhead." In his heart he knows the powerful political pressures on him to "consolidate" the rural one-room schools, which will be the death knell of those perky idiosyncratic little institutions such as the one that produced him at Marias Coulee.

Before his crucial convocation of rural educators to give them his decision, though, he impulsively drives out to Marias Coulee, now a scatter of mostly abandoned homesteads just beyond the northern fringe of a successful irrigation project. There the story begins, with Paul swept back in memory to 1910 when the Milliron family's hard-bargained new housekeeper, Rose Llewelynn, and her unannounced brother step down from the train, "bringing several kinds of education to the waiting four of us."


  1. The Whistling Season
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  2. Heart Earth
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    Heart Earth

    Ivan Doig

  3. The Sea Runners
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    The Sea Runners

    Ivan Doig

  4. Prairie Nocturne
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    Prairie Nocturne

    Ivan Doig

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Been done, at least the biography of my books up until the last few, and Elizabeth Simpson was as astute in her title as her assessment of my wordcraft: Earthlight, Wordfire: The Work of Ivan Doig.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Ismail Kadare, who really should need no introduction because he lately won the biggest book award in the world, the first Man Booker International prize, over García Márquez and other usual suspects. But much of his work was written in Albania before the Iron Curtain collapsed, and his poetic prose has been slowly seeping out in translation. Chronicle in Stone is the novel to start with.

What is your favorite literary first line?
William Faulkner, The Bear:
"There was a man and a dog too this time."

Notice the magic "this" casts: this time — boy, oh boy, what happened those other times; what's gonna happen this time?

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Browsing in a bookstore; what else is there? I judge by the first page, the voice on the paper, and Tim Winton's in his collection of western Australia stories, The Turning, cannot be resisted:

After five years of high school the final November arrives and leaves as suddenly as a spring storm. Exams. Graduation. Huge beach parties. Biggie and me, we're feverish with anticipation; we steel ourselves for a season of pandemonium. But after the initial celebration, nothing really happens, not even summer itself.

Why do you write?
A lifetime of reasons, but here's one: for the love of language and that daily tryst of the pair of us, it and me, creating something that did not exist before.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Bill Reid, the late great British Columbia artist of carving, the Michaelangelo of our Northwest. (If you haven't seen his big carving of Raven Discovering Mankind, at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, you're in for a mind-stretching experience. Reid's other masterpiece, to me, is his canoe-load of Haida history, lore and legend titled "The Spirit of Haida Gwai." I believe there's a version in the Vancouver airport terminal, but the one I always pay a pilgrimage to when I'm in Washington, D.C., is in the forecourt of the Canadian embassy; that, and the Vietnam Memorial, speak to me of the better artistic angels of our nature.)

Here's a set of quotes from Bill Reid I came across while I was structuring Winter Brothers:

  • "In Northwest coast art, perhaps more than in any other art, there's an impulse to push things as far as possible."
  • "Haida artists worked mostly within a rigid, formal system, but occasionally burst out and did crazy, wild things which out-crazied the other people of the coast."
  • "They weren't bound by the silly feeling that it's impossible for two figures to occupy the same space at the same time."
What better inspiration, for a writer as well as other artists, to be daring, there in the white space of creation?

Make a question of your own, then answer it.
Q: Why do you write the songs and poems that show up in your fiction instead of simply tapping into the existing body of music and literature?

A: Because it's a chance to flagrantly indulge in what my friend Norman Maclean said was the secret of writers like him and me, the poetry under the prose. From the snatch of 19th-century Scandinavian drinking song in The Sea Runners to the old Scottish ballad (entirely made up by me) that provided the book title I wanted to use, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, to the "spirit songs" Monty Rathburn sings during the Harlem Renaissance in Prairie Nocturne, I have tailored rhyme and rhythm, to fit the time period, in all eight of my novels.

Although there's only one dab of singing in The Whistling Season, when the Marias Coulee community of homesteaders greets the appearance of Halley's Comet in the Montana sky of 1910 with, "When I see that evening star/Then I know that I've come far/Through the day, through all the plight/To the watchfire of the night, I seem to be more hooked than ever." Note: the front rhymes (When/Then and Through/To) as well as the line endings. spacer

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