As someone who deals in both the newspaper world and the world of books, I found Ivan Doig's newest novel, "Sweet Thunder," an absolute delight.
I last interviewed the Seattle author in 2006 for his book "The Whistling Season," and since his lead character, Morrie, makes a reappearance in the new novel, I felt it was time to talk to Doig again. He's on tour, with a stop Tuesday, Sept. 17, at Village Books, so it was most convenient to email him.
Here is our electronic conversation. He's 74, by the way.
Question: How do you see the role of journalists - you call them "wordslingers" in "Sweet Thunder" - today?
Answer: Like so much else, journalistic "wordslinging" has changed over the years, maybe most notably in the almost total decline in the number of cities with rival newspapers - it'd be hard to find a Thunder and a Daily Post lambasting each other daily, as in my Butte editorial writer Morrie's time - and in the upsurge of TV talking heads and blogs, most with more mouth than brainwork behind their constant comments.
My wife, Carol, and I are old-school Northwestern University journalism majors, and we both cut our teeth on newspaper jobs, so it's been heartbreaking to see what's happened to daily newspapers with the loss of readers, jobs and ultimately papers, such as the Seattle P-I.
We believe the country is much poorer for that, not having responsible, investigative journalism backed up by intelligent, perceptive editing. Certainly newspapering is still honorable work, maybe more so than ever in the onslaught of the profession's hard times.
Q: Would you expand on your comment on your website about the editorial writer's role of "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted?"
A: As an editorial writer back in the sixties, when civil rights marchers were being met by Bull Connor's cops with fire hoses in Birmingham, I came to believe then and still do that "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted" was a natural given role for an editorial page.
In having Morrie take on the domineering Anaconda Copper Mining Co. with his typewriter, I wanted that journalistic role simply tucked into the story, not blaring out loud on the page - as a novelist, you don't want the preaching to get in the way of the choir; readers are there to hear the singing.
Q: What's your "trick" of creating such delicious words in your books?
A: The "trick" of using the language on the page as I do is to work at it all the time, two to three years per book. While crafting a rough draft, partly on a manual typewriter as a way of feeling the shape of each sentence, akin to sculpting on the paper, then revising on the computer, I do make a lot of changes as better turns of phrase come to mind. (Through my decades as a professional writer I've always carried a pocket notebook for jotting, if I'm not close to a keyboard.)
When I have perhaps 50 or a hundred pages of manuscript, I have Carol look it over, as she has a great eye for plot and pace, but we agree she doesn't insist on changes and I don't necessarily make them - we're old pros, trusting how the book will shape up by the time I'm done with it.
Some language comes easier when you borrow it from Shakespeare, as I did for the title of this third Morrie Morgan novel. I somehow noticed the line "So melodious a discord, such sweet thunder," from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and immediately thought that's just the kind of thing that would make Morrie go off on one of his "balloon ascensions" of erudition and end up sonorously naming the miners' union-backed newspaper the Thunder, in rivalry with the Anaconda Co.'s corporately muted Daily Post.
Q: Is a journalist compelled to take an editorial stand on say, the coal issue in the Pacific Northwest, or the minimum wage?
A: By the standards of the old sacred wall between news and opinion, which I think still should hold, the newsroom journalists - reporters and editors - ought not take a stand for or against, say, the coal terminal and coal trains issue, or the state minimum wage issue. Their job, as Morrie says it best, is to tell "chapters of the earthly saga, old as the alphabet. Humanity's never-ending tale of who did what to whom, when and where, and if told right, how and why."
The editorial page staff, on the other hand - I'd include columnists here - must make itself heard on such matters of critical importance to the community.
Again, Morrie: "A newspaper without a cause is little more than a tally sheet of mishaps local and national and whatever social gatherings and sporting events will fill the rest of the pages."
Q: How do you envision the future of books?
A: As to the future of e-books, online, and "physical books," I'll echo my editor who says those of us trying to "peddle quality literature" will be okay as long as people keep reading book-length works in some format. I must add that from the writer's wallet point of view, the lower royalties that come from usually more cheaply priced e-books are a nasty wage cut.
So is the growing online-generated trend of libraries to provide multiple customers with e-books, instead of actual books the library formerly would have purchased from the publisher, providing the more healthy royalties to writers, whose average income nationwide notoriously is statistically below the poverty line.
Readers' groups could help both writers and bookstores by resolving to buy hardback books for their discussions even a time or two a year; it would only cost each participant about as much as going out for lunch, and surely some book that an author has put two or three years of his or her life into qualifies as a keeper.
Q: What makes you catch your breath, makes you think, when you read fiction, nonfiction, newspapers?
A: In my own reading and, yes, book-buying (if anyone is curious, it runs about a thousand dollars a year in this book-reading household, and we consider every bit of it well-spent), I'll simply speak as a novelist to say what has to hold me is "the fictional substance ... the sounds that come off the page," as the critic Richard Poirer rightly put it.
Right from the first words, this can be a matter of voice - "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three ... "("Lady Sings the Blues," by Billie Holiday), or sheer storytelling - "The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead ..." ("Shogun," by James Clavell) or gutsy inventiveness - "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen ..." ("1984," by George Orwell).
And let's not forget humor: in "Sweet Thunder" I devilishly have Morrie run on his otherwise sober editorial page a limerick from an Irish miner, one of the many impromptu anthems of Butte:
"My sweetheart's a mule in the mine,
I drive her with only one line.
On the ore car I sit,
While tobacco I spit,
All over my sweetheart's behind."