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Originally published Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Q&A: Author Ivan Doig on 'The Bartender's Tale' and a writer's life

Excerpts from a recent live, online discussion between author Ivan Doig ("This House of Sky," "The Whistling Season") and Seattle Times readers.

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig will discuss "The Bartender's Tale" at 7 p.m. Thursday at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com). Doig also will be interviewed Oct. 2 on "Well Read," the books and authors program on state public-access channel TVW. Details at www.tvw.org/shows/well-read.
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Author Ivan Doig is a Northwest favorite — he's been writing stories of the West since his breakout memoir, 1979's "This House of Sky." He has just published his 14th book, the novel "The Bartender's Tale."

Last week, Doig answered questions from Seattle Times readers in a live, online discussion. Here are some edited excerpts; for the complete record, go to www.seattletimes.com and type "Ivan Doig Chat" into the search box.

Q: Your latest book is "The Bartender's Tale." Tell us about that bartender, and anything else readers would like to know about the book.

A: The bartender, Tom Harry, has shown up in the background of three of my earlier books. I put him in the midst of the carousing scenes at Fort Peck with 10,000 dam workers celebrating Saturday night in "Bucking the Sun." Then, in the Medicine Lodge Saloon in the fictional town of Gros Ventre ... Thinking toward a next book, I did a what-if to myself as novelists always are doing and said, "What if this bachelor bartender and avowed foe of matrimony had a kid to raise?"

Q: Is journalism school a good place to get started as writer?

A: Journalism taught me to meet deadlines, which I now set for myself. I write a given number of words a day, currently about 400, and I do it five days a week when I'm working full strength on a book. Besides the invaluable deadline lesson ... I learned in J-school to have a good "lede" [or opening]. It was back then I learned that nobody's getting paid to read your stuff; you've gotta welcome them in the door.

Q: My favorite book is "This House of Sky," because the expressions people use in the book, the way they make decisions about their lives, and their strengths and weaknesses are portrayed so accurately ... Although I grew up in the Bitterroot, the characters rang absolutely true.

A: I work really hard at having people's everyday lingo provide a kind of "shimmer" behind the narrative prose of a book. I have collected turns of phrase in my pocket notebook in the coffee shop in Choteau and many other towns, eavesdropping in bars and post offices, wherever people gather and gab ... I have files of many kinds from folklore quarterlies.

I use the dictionary of American Regional English. Probably the most exotic source I've ever used was for my first novel, "The Sea Runners," in inventing how mid-19th-century Swedes escaping from Russian servitude in New Archangel would swear. The examples were in an obscure sociological journal published, I think, at the University of Texas, called "The Journal of Verbal Abuse."

Q: Age-wise, is it ever too late to become a writer?

A: No. It's never too old if you're game to write some every day, whether it's a journal or a memoir. The point is to make the material pile up into something meaningful.

Q: The bond between a father and son is at the heart of "The Bartender's Tale" — and at the heart of some of your previous books, notably "This House of Sky" and "The Whistling Season." Do you have any models in bringing this bond to life?

A: Any model I have is an amalgam of my imagination and my experience. My father was a widower, and so raised me by himself for some years, and in the course of that, much of the "bond" between Tom and Rusty in this book was suggested ... But imagination is primary in creating the relationships of my fictional characters, and a close second is the language itself.

I consider I'm not a writer of the American West but a writer of the American language, in all its orchestration and reach. So how people talk on the page, as that conversation comes out the end of my fingers, often helps determine the relationship.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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