In the last years of the 1960s, when this country was going through convulsive self-questioning, I was as usual out of step. It was getting clearer and clearer to me what I was in life. I was a relic.
And the son of another relic. And the grandson of yet a third relic.
This clearheadedness came over me in a most unexpected place: graduate school. I was at the University of Washington working toward a doctorate in history and noticed that I seemed to have come out of a time warp that I had left in Montana not all that many years before. In my Montana upbringing, I had worked in a lambing shed, picked rock from grainfields, driven a power buckrake in haying time and a D-8 Cat pulling a harrow during summer fallowing and a grain truck at harvest, herded sheep, trailed sheep, cussed sheep—even dug a well by hand and whitewashed a barn—and now I didn't seem to be finding other people who had done any of that.
Then during one of those winters of discontent in graduate school, my father and my grandmother—my mothers mother—came to Seattle to live with my wife, Carol, and me for the sake of my father's health, in our losing struggle against his emphysema. In almost all instances, I had done only enough of each of those Montana ranch jobs to convince me I did not want to do it every day the rest of my life. But here was a pair of persons who had gone on doing those tasks, and many more, until they simply could not any longer.
The sight of these two people of the past who had raised me—Bessie Ringer, ranch cook, diehard Montanan since her early twenties, when she stepped off a train in Three Forks with an infant daughter and a jobless husband; and Charlie Doig, ranch hand and rancher, born on a sagebrush homestead in the Big Belt Mountains south of Helena—the daily sight of these two in our Seattle living room, with a shopping center out the window below, made me very much aware of the relic-hood of the three of us. In the strictest dictionary definition: "an object whose original cultural environment has disappeared."
It has been twenty-two years now since I finally put a period to the 410th page of the manuscript built upon those musings. This reappearance of This House of Sky in new covers, bookdom's equivalent of knighthood, seems the natural occasion for telling the books own life story—an against-all-odds chronicle at least as chancy as the fate of any of us inhabiting its pages. My hands still sweat as I see the points at which the years of Sky carpentry could have failed. Most installments of the long work of getting Sky's words into print are clear enough from notes and letters and diary entries I made along the way, but genesis is never easy. What at last became This House of Sky seems not to have had a beginning, but beginnings.
One of these took place in the summer of 1968 when, as far as I knew, I was researching a magazine article. I was still in graduate school in Seattle, albeit with a couple of journalism jobs behind me and a continuing addiction to writing (even unto a new secret habit of poetry). My wife and I were visiting in my hometown of White Sulphur Springs, Montana, hanging around with my father and grandmother for a dutiful couple of weeks, and all I had in mind at the time was to do a semi-academic piece about Taylor Gordon, the singer from that little town who had enjoyed a heyday of concert and radio singing in New York in the 1920s—until the Depression hit and Taylor landed back in Montana herding sheep. When I called across town to Taylor Gordon to confirm that I could come over and tape-record an interview with him, Taylor told me no, no, no, he was hopelessly busy that day; but if I wanted to come by tomorrow, he'd see whether he could work me in.
That left an open day ahead, with me sitting around my fathers and grandmother's house, with a pert new tape recorder and reels of tape. The voices of This House of Sky began there. To humor me and my new gadget, my father began storytelling about his misadventures with horses and about killing a bear by the light of the Montana moon, and my grandmother in turn began by recalling an exasperation with Charlie Doig of a full forty years before, when she and my mother had planned a birthday party for him and he didn't show up because he'd been hospitalized by a bronc.
The next day Carol and I did manage to talk with Taylor Gordon, for an entire afternoon of rich anecdotage, but the article I wrote about him turned out to be more semi- than academic and still hasn't seen the light of scholarly day. So, out of that pair of July afternoons the unexpected gain proved to be that session with my father, which was the one and last chance to catch his voice and some of his storying onto tape. By autumn he no longer had the breath for such matters and was in the first of many hospitalizations between then and his death in early 1971.
Over the next few years I discovered that even with a doctorate on my wall I was hopelessly a writer rather than a professor—and that what I most wanted to write was something about my father and a way of life that seemed to be passing with him.
Voices kept helpfully arriving at my tape recorder during this time. My grandmother in particular would often meet one of my questions with "Well, I don't just know about that, you better go ask so-and-so." And I would. So-and-so once was bartender Pete McCabe of my fathers favorite saloon, the wondrous Stockman Bar; another time, twangy Clifford Shearer, who had worked on ranches with my father since they were both homestead kids. Three or four times a year, another voice of so-and-so into the tape recorder.
Then in mid-1971, a few months after my fathers passing, my own voice began chiming in. I started maintaining a journal in which I mulled what was then known in our household as "the Montana book." In that notebook I wrote whatever details of my family's Montana past that could be dug from mind. There's a notation on May 7th about the gutwagon that was used to bring ewes and their fresh-born lambs to the lambing shed on the ranches where my father was a hired hand and my grandmother cooked—certainly the first time I'd thought of that gloriously awful ranchword "gutwagon" in a dozen or more years. And another note, on my fathers manner of cussing: that rapid hyphenated style of Scottish exasperation that made goddamn-it-all-to-hell-anyway into a single, hundred-proof word. Haying crews and sheep shearers and gumboot irrigators presented themselves out of memory on the notebook pages. So did sheepherders and their moods, that delicate moment when you come to tend camp and find out whether you're going to have an abruptly resigned sheepherder and two thousand fleecy animals to deal with.
There were not a lot of these journal paragraphs—a couple of dozen during that year. But I had noticed that they would sidle in from memory readily enough when I could find time to coax them.
The next year, 1972, came a big bonus. Carol was granted a sabbatical from her community college professorship and we went to live in Britain for most of a year. I uncharacteristically, un-Calvinistically recessed all the magazine writing I had been doing as a full-time free lance and instead took the time to work on a play. I didn't get past an act or so, because it was set on a Montana ranch and I was baffled as to how to squeeze the Rocky Mountains, hayfields, and other necessary landscape into any theater I had ever seen. But I did notice something from working on that script, a surprise to my journalistic journeyman self: I seemed to be able to create dialogue. The Montanans I was tapping out onto paper a few blocks from London's Hyde Park were sounding pretty much as I thought they ought to sound.
In the great words of Gamble Rogers, life is what happens to us while we're making other plans, and the next time I looked up it suddenly was mid-January of 1974 and "the Montana book" hadn't gained an inch since London. I drew in a decisive breath and began putting in half my day-by-day writing time on the book, the other half consumed as usual by magazine free-lancing. Progress on the manuscript—it wasn't yet This House of Sky in title or any other semblance—was rather messy and underfed until the middle of April of 1974, when this diary note occurred:
Work began to shape up last Friday when I began telling stories from the taped interview with Dad in '68. Harshness of the 1919 winter, for instance. Listening to that tape ... made ideas flow.
I've told in the pages that eventuated in that manuscript the growing closeness with my grandmother, Bessie Ringer, during those years. In October of 1974, she died at the age of eighty-one, and in the aftermath of her death, as I tried to sort through life one more time, it became clear to me that what I'd been thinking of as a book about my father needed to be a book about her as well. Her voice added itself strongly now to what I was attempting.
Which stubbornly remained only an attempt for the next year or so, as I endlessly rewrote and fussed and started over, amid my other labors of trying to earn some semblance of a living as a free-lance writer. In mid-January of 1975, after I'd spent half a day reworking the opening sentence of the manuscript and thought I'd managed to improve it by maybe two words, comes this diary entry:
It would be magnificent to do the entire book with this slow care, writing it all as highly charged as poetry—but will I ever find the time?
And another diary note, this one from mid-July of 1975, seven full years after that afternoon of my father's storytelling in White Sulphur Springs:
I began to look back through the Montana book, and saw how poor some of it is. The raw material is good, and there can be more, but my writing so far doesn't click. Size of the job scares me, I suppose.
That was the low point in this record of how the book happened—that afternoon of desperate gut fear that it would not happen at all.
But the next morning I made myself pencil my way through the manuscript again, and the morning after that, and after enough of those grindstone mornings, I thought the words were perking up a bit. Then something did click and, as I believe happens with many of these clicks of life, I wasn't entirely aware of hearing it at the time. Late in 1975, after I'd again carpentered away at the book as much as I could but never enough, I decided that one way to simplify existence would be to stop dealing with a couple of dozen magazine editors per year, as I had been doing now for almost six years as a free lance. To a writer, coping continually with such an array of editors is a process I've heard best described as being nibbled to death by ducks. And so I thought I would get someone else to suffer the nibbling and handle the query letters and the nagging for late fees. I would get myself an agent.
Carol and I had a longtime friend whom we had kidded, over the years, about being preternaturally efficient. Doubtless it was one of Ann Nelson's July pronouncements that she'd already finished her Christmas shopping that made me think of her as the ideal antidote to dawdling editors. Better yet, she had been a magazine editor herself before stepping up in life by marrying our lawyer. Ann now had a small child and was about halfway through pregnancy on her second, so when I asked her to take on agenting for me she cheerfully said yes, anything to get her mind off all that motherhood. Her husband worked up a letterhead for us, and when the ink was dry, I had an agent and Ann had a client.
It proved somewhat baffling to magazine editors to hear from a literary agent in Seattle, or anywhere else west of Rockefeller Center, but they managed to be reasonably polite about it and Ann proved to be a gifted agent. She quickly had me writing, among other assignments, travel articles for the New York Times. With the magisterial editing I was receiving from the Times, those Sunday travel section pieces likely were my best work among the couple of hundred articles I'd done. But while travel writing can be an honest enough pastime, growing known as a travel writer made me a bit uneasy. You may recall the passage in The Education of Henry Adams where Adams ponders the roaming around Europe he had done as a young man while supposedly studying civil law at the University of Berlin. If his father asked Adams at the end of it all what he had made of himself for the time and money put into him, Adams figured the only possible answer would be: "Sir, I am a tourist."
Not wanting to spend my time as a kind of typewriting tourist—and also beginning to feel worn down by the magazine life, which as I got better and better at it seemed to pay worse and worse—I suggested to Ann that I would put in practically full time on the Montana manuscript until we had a hundred decent pages and, if she wanted to handle it, we'd send off that sample to book publishers. She said sure.
During that year, 1976, my work on the manuscript appeared to me to be going better. One diary entry: "Some of last week's work about the Stockman Bar ... has things in it I didn't know I could do." So, just after Thanksgiving, I had accumulated enough pages for the manuscript sample and Ann had run her finger down the rosters of major publishers in Literary Market Place and chosen the name of a senior editor from each. We did a cover letter, made multiple photocopies of the manuscript sample, and mailed it out into the world to six editors at a time.
Over the next few months, our first batches of submissions brought us back two standard rejection slips and a growing series of semibaffled, sometimes rather wistful letters from editors.
From Simon and Schuster: "Doig's experiences and his feel for the time and place are wonderful—here and there a line about a mountain or a remembered phrase quoted from his father would strike the perfect chord. But ... I don't think it would be a successful trade book in its present shape."
From St. Martin's Press: "You do write beautifully—and what marvelous recall you have for childhood perceptions. Unfortunately, much as I do like your work, I find that what you have here is not at all commercial."
From Holt, Rinehart and Winston: "Although Ivan Doig writes intelligently and well, I don't think his memoirs are going to add up to a publishable trade book."
And then, after the buts and unfortunatelys and althoughs, the lucky thirteenth letter:
"I have read Ivan Doig's manuscript sample and like it. It is an unusual kind of book, and I need a little more time to give you a final decision about whether we can publish it. I'll get back to you soon, but I wanted you to know it is under serious consideration."
Signed: "Carol Hill, Senior Editor, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich."
The date on that letter was the 24th of March, 1977. It had taken about four months, vastly less than I thought it would, and This House of Sky had lucked onto its perfect editor.
Ann Nelson at once did some dickering with Carol Hill—levered the advance up from $3,500 to a whopping $4,500—and we had a book contract.
All that remained, of course, was to write the last three-fourths of the book in the next six months.
I at least knew what was needed first: a summer in Montana, to revisit the scenes of the book and to talk with more of the people who had known my family. It became a summer enormous far beyond the calendar, those middle months of 1977, as complicated and astonishing a time as I can imagine. A kind of stopless ricochet through the past, to places and persons of twenty and thirty years before.
In White Sulphur Springs, the only place Carol and I could find to rent was a set of rooms in the old John Ringling family mansion. A castle of prosperity it had been to me when I was a schoolboy in White Sulphur and the Ringlings were still circus kings; now the two of us rattled around in the place with plumbers and painters and carpenters who were trying to cobble it back together as an apartment house.
In the village of Ringling still stood the shacky little house my grandmother and I shared when I was eleven and twelve years old. In the Tierney Basin still stood the log house built by my father's father on the homestead that first rooted the Doigs into Montana.
One evening I tried a long shot, a call from the phone booth in front of the hospital in White Sulphur Springs—I saw a lot of that phone booth that summer; it inevitably had in it either a tumbleweed or several empty Olympia beer cans—a phone call to the rancher who had inherited the ranch near Bozeman where my parents were herding sheep when my mother died, in the summer of 1945. Does that herding cabin back in the Bridger Mountains still exist? I asked.
"It does," answered Horace Morgan. "I'm going in there first thing in the morning to salt cattle. If you can get here, you can go in with me."
We got there.
I can pick out only two constancies in that mad whirl of a summer: Carol perpetually taking photos to back up my notecard descriptions of the places of the past and me perpetually going out of the apartment, tape recorder in hand and notebooks in pocket, like a door-to-door salesman. And the voices from the past began to form a summer chorus: Tony Hunolt, who had been choreboy at the great Dogie Ranch when my father and mother worked there and now, in the last year of his life, was swamping out the local grocery store; Harold Chadwick, garageman of Dupuyer from my high school years, with his memory of the Metis fugitive Toussaint Salois sitting by a campfire in a buffalo coat; Kathryn Donovan, my mother's eloquent teacher at the one-room Moss Agate school; these and fifteen or so others who ended up speaking in the book.
I know no way to adequately describe, or even account for, what happened next. Carol and I were back in Seattle by about the first of August, and on the ninth of December, the hundred-thousand-word manuscript of This House of Sky was finished.
During those blurred writing weeks my diary went into near-collapse—probably an accurate representation of my condition—but I do remember warning myself that my editor, Carol Hill, was never going to go for all the detail I had crammed into the manuscript and I had better set my mind to cut ten or fifteen thousand words after she got a look at it.
Away to New York went the 410 typed pages, and then, about six weeks later, on the 19th of January, 1978, as I was stepping onto the jogging track at my wife's college, Carol drove up to the gate, told me Carol Hill had phoned from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and I'd better scoot home and call her right back.
There is a diary entry of what happened next, and it begins:
Mark this day with a white stone.
Carol Hill in her first few sentences about the manuscript had said over the telephone to me: "Spectacular ... beautiful ... elegant ... wonderful" and "beautiful" again.
Then her best words of all, the ones I really needed to hear: "And we'll publish it this fall."
In the next couple of weeks, Carol Hill got back to me about the line editing she wanted done on the manuscript. She asked me to rewrite a total of three pages; to move all the material about sheep—specifically, the rhythmic sequence I have of counting a band of sheep—into one place; to reconsider one word; to cut two sentences at one spot and a short paragraph at another. And that was utterly all the editing she wanted done on a manuscript I had thought might need to be doctored by thousands of words.
So, This House of Sky's progress was going along like a dream. But in the publishing world, the governing god sometimes is not Morpheus but Murphy. What could go wrong did go wrong the night of March 31, when word reached me that there had been a wholesale upheaval at the publishing house, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The editor-in-chief had been dismissed and several other editors and top executives were said to be gone as well.
Apprehension doesn't come close to describing my mood the next morning as I dialed to see whether Carol Hill—and This House of Sky—had survived the purge. But her distinctive energy-charged voice came over the line as usual and said yes, she had survived, work was going along as ever at HBJ, Sky was progressing through the production process, and that I really shouldn't worry about any of this—because she was the new editor-in-chief.
There followed the period of nothing-to-do-but-wait, until the book's end-of-September publication date. But around noon on the sixth of September, I came back to the house after an errand to the drugstore and found a message on my phone machine from a friend who said he'd seen the review of This House of Sky in the latest issue of Time.
What review? I said to myself.
The review in Time, the machine repeated when I replayed the message.
By evening I had seen that review, and it was a writer's dream. No snide asides, no news magazine cutesiness; just long, miraculous patches of pure quotation from This House of Sky.
The next week, a review in the Los Angeles Times. Praise again, and their reviewer, the great bookman Robert Kirsch, called my father an American hero.
Four days later, the Chicago Tribune. Praise yet again, This House of Sky credited with "all the poetry and lyricism, all the 'blood being' of a mustang running on open range."
This was starting to be fun.
It got to be even more fun when Sky arrived at the bookstores and by the end of the year had sold 15,003 copies. The reviews continued to flabbergast me; of thirty-two reviewers of national stature, thirty praised the book.
By year's end I'd gone to work on my next book, Winter Brothers, and was back into a writing trance when the phone rang again one morning. The call was from Archie Satterfield, book review editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who had become an instant champion of Skywhen he read it in galley proofs and was eagerly following its progress. As usual he asked me how sales of the book were going, any more good reviews, etcetera. "Oh, and congratulations on your nomination."
"Nomination?" I say.
"Good grief, Doig," says Satterfield. "Don't you know This House of Sky has been nominated for the National Book Award?"
As it turned out, the mountains of Nepal were somehow judged to be more exotic than the mountains of Montana, and Peter Matthiessen's fine narrative of his trek across the Himalaya, The Snow Leopard, won the award. I think, now, that my sufficient award was that This House of Sky happened. More than 170,000 copies later, the book continues to ricochet along in its whats-gonna-happen-next fashion. Sky is used in college courses in autobiography, biography, history, and literature, has been anthologized to a fare-thee-well, been translated into German, read on National Public Radio, distributed in audiocassette by the thousands, and when the National Endowment for the Humanities funded a nationwide discussion program focusing on books about family, This House of Sky was the leadoff book. Whenever I've made bookstore appearances for any of the eight books I have written since Ann Nelson and Carol Hill and Carol Doig and I managed to retrieve my father and my grandmother and myself from relic-hood, people still queue up for Sky.
As when I was signing copies of one of my novels and a young woman looked past me to the stack of This House of Sky and half-whispered as if thinking out loud: "I've got to get one of those to give to my father."
Merely making conversation, I asked why—because her father was a rancher or a Montanan?
"No," she unforgettably said in a voice so choked it brought my own heart to the top of my throat. "Because I love him."
October 25, 1999