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How a Historian Turned Novelist and Wrote a Book about World War II: An Interview with Ivan Doig

In his epic new novel, The Eleventh Man, celebrated Seattle writer-historian Ivan Doig tackles the huge maelstrom of World War II.  The book follows the wartime odyssey of Ben Reinking, one of thousands of Montanans who enlisted in the military after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. 

Ben wants to fly, but the Army pulls him from pilot training and assigns him to a military public relations unit, the Threshold Press War Project (“Tepee Weepy”), to churn out stories on the fortunes of his fellow football players from the undefeated “Supreme Team” of Treasure State University.  As he collects news material from combat zones and distant outposts, Ben romances a married female pilot, Cass Standish, while her husband slogs through the jungles in the South Pacific.

Doig recounts Ben’s war experience with a novelist’s eye for telling details and a historian’s revealing research on little-known units and events such as the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP’s), conscientious objector camps, and Coast Guard patrols of the Pacific coast, to the invasion of Guam, the brutal fighting in New Guinea, the Alaskan front, and the German aerial assault of Antwerp.

The novel was inspired by the actual wartime loss of the players on a legendary Montana State College football team.  Doig spent three years researching and writing The Eleventh Man with the assistance of his wife Carol.  The novel has been praised for its compassion, humanity and generous spirit.  From Kirkus Reviews: “Doig, as always, brings American history alive in a rousing narrative that doesn’t airbrush the past; questions of loyalty, courage and conscience, he shows, were just as complicated during World War II as they are today.”

Doig, a historian by training, has a doctorate in western history from the University of Washington.  He wrote his dissertation on pioneer Seattle attorney and judge John J. McGilvra (1827-1903), who was appointed US Attorney for Washington Territory by Pres. Abraham Lincoln.

Before graduate school, Doig served in the United States Air Force and also worked as a journalist and freelance writer.  Doig has written three acclaimed works of nonfiction notably his evocative Montana memoir, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, and Winter Brothers, a unique account of the life of early settler and ethnologist James G. Swan who lived on the Washington coast with the Makah and Haida tribes.

His eight previous novels include the acclaimed Montana trilogy: English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride with Me, Mariah Montana.  Each of his novels is enriched by impeccable research from digging in dusty libraries and archives to collecting oral histories and folklore.  Biographer Elizabeth Simpson wrote in Earthlight, Wordfire: The Work of Ivan Doig: “Historical detail adds layer upon layer the texture of Doig’s work and provides the fabric of the daily lives of his characters.”
Doig’s honors include a Lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association.
Doig recently discussed The Eleventh Man and the art of blending of history and fiction from his Seattle home.

Robin Lindley:  Was your main character, Army reporter Ben Reinking, based on a real soldier?

Ivan Doig:   No.  Ben is my own fictional creation, as my characters always are.  No prototype there. 

Lindley:  Ben wants to fly but he’s assigned to write stories for the Threshold Press War Project.  Was there a TPWP unit during World War II?

Doig:   There was not a unit like TPWP or “Tepee Weepy.”  I made that up as well, although the Office of War Information was a big operation that did a lot of domestic propaganda.  I’ve been aware of it through the years knowing, from my journalism background, about Elmer Davis the fine journalist who became the head of [OWI].   I’ve noticed that Gordon Parks, the famous black photographer, and Jane Jacobs, and quite a list of people worked for them. Tepee Weepy is an invention of my own for plot purposes.  It’s somewhat an exaggeration of so-called military public information, which is something of an oxymoron. 

Lindley:  You were a pre-school boy during World War II, but did your childhood bear on the novel?

Doig:   I was aware of the war, especially in the aftermath.  When I was a kid growing up in Montana, I was aware of how many people had been in the war.  Two of my mother’s brothers were in the war.  One was on a destroyer in the South Pacific for much of the war, and the other one was in the Montana National Guard and was called up early on, and he spent much of the war in Australia in a unit that was sent to New Guinea in the terrible fighting there.  
I was always aware within the family and in the ranch crews that my dad would hire in the bars of White Sulfur Springs, there were a lot of people who had been in the war.  That stuck with me. 
When I was working on the book about my mother’s life, Heart Earth, I got to researching this.  That book is set in late 1944 and early1945.  I came across the list in the little weekly newspaper.  The county was Meagher (pronounced “Mar”), named after an Irish Civil War general who became the governor of Montana Territory.  Meagher County in the 1940 census had a population of 2237, and 273 people served in the war.  It was a high percentage, and higher than the national percentage by quite a lot. 
Montana in both World Wars took an inordinate proportion of the death toll.  That came in part from ranch guys who knew how to use a weapon [and] to do chores, so they were looked on as good, ready-made soldiers, and often put into harm’s way promptly.  So that did bear on me as a kid.

Lindley:  Ben is a reporter, a collector of stories.  How did your work as a journalist bear on the book?

Doig:   My work as a journalist comes out most dramatically in the use of Teletype.  The teletypes are almost a character of their own [with] their own dialog, a sort of bullet-like way that things are expressed and boiled down. 
When I started in the newspaper business in 1963, teletypes were still in use, and one of the echoes of those days are the teletype bells going off constantly after the Kennedy assassination as those news details broke across that long weekend.

Lindley:  Football is prominent in the novel.  Did you play football in Montana?

Doig:   Yes, I did play football.  I was the 150-pound fullback on my high school team. 

Lindley:  That’s a small fullback.

Doig:   Yes.  A small fullback for a small team.  I was the biggest man in the backfield.  I had enough high-school football to hint at what Ben and the TSU team might have done. 

Lindley:  Did you draw on your military experience in the Air Force in the book?

Doig:   I certainly did, particularly the active duty during the Cuban missile crisis.  I think some of the book’s inflections of life in uniform are drawn from my own watching and waiting.  B-52 bombers regularly roared off from our Texas airbase.  We all knew we were within range of those Russian missiles in Cuba.  During my six years of reserve duty, I did put in some time in public information.

Lindley:  Were you on “high alert” during the Cuban missile crisis?

Doig:   Yes.  It was high alert on the worst day of the Cuban missile crisis, October 27, 1962, the day a U2 plane was shot down over Cuba and another U2 plane strayed deep into Russia, and the US Navy was depth-charging Soviet submarines in the Caribbean, and Russian troops in Cuba were maneuvering tactical nuclear missiles toward Guantanamo.   All this is going on, and I’m at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio writing home to my folks in Montana.  I report our sergeants are telling us, “We are now in condition three.  Defcon three.”  Condition four is normal, condition three is a serious threat, condition two is war, and condition one was every man for himself.   (I think that was apocryphal myself.)   The Kennedy Administration was not going to back down easily, and fingers were on triggers on the American side.  In retrospect, I was inescapably right to recognize this was a life and death situation for all of us.

Lindley:  Did the war in Iraq and Afghanistan affect your decision to write the book?

Doig:   No.  I was drawn to the story originally because of a football team being lost in the war, and it was the impulse to tell the story.

Lindley:  And that was based on the Montana State College team?

Doig:   Yes.  A librarian friend, Dave Walter, at the Montana Historical Society helped me on so much of my research.  He was an absolute fount of Montana history, and he tipped me on this Montana State team, and gave me a file.  There was fact and lore in the file, but the basic story was that the team goes into combat and they all end up lost. 
Dave was also my source on the conscientious objector part of the book.  He researched the Montana conscientious camps and interviewed the CO’s.  They were called civilian public service camps.  They [CO’s] worked in national parks primarily as trail builders and maintenance men. A minority were fire fighters.

Lindley:  Was the starting eleven of the Montana State football team killed?

Doig:   It’s not clear whether it was the starters of one year or starters of a couple of years combined.  The National Guard was called up in 1940.  It’s possible some were called up then and didn’t get to start with the others of 1941, then went on into the war.  There’s some records missing, mostly at the college end.  I frankly did not go too far into this because I didn’t want my fiction touching that close to the actual guys.

Lindley:  Did you follow any of the stories of the actual team members in creating your characters?

Doig:   No, I decided not to do that.  I simply wanted my own characters in chosen parts of the war, and have the plot develop from there.  Out of that came episodes like the Coast Guardsman [on the Washington coast] with a dog.  Twenty-five years ago or more, a guy told me he had done that.  So, serendipity: that had been tucked away in my memory, and I went to the Coast Guard Museum of the Northwest on our waterfront.  They have a good research library, and Carol and I pulled out all the material I needed on patrolling the coast.   The primary thing they did was watch for Japanese submarines or Japanese coming ashore for water.

Lindley:  Was there evidence that Japanese came ashore?

Doig:   There were submarines off the coast.  One surfaced and shelled a beach in Oregon, and some shipping was sunk.  They [Coast Guardsmen] were also on watch for invasion.   It turned out to be not at all likely, but Pearl Harbor got everyone’s attention. 

Lindley:  I appreciate the little known details you bring in such as lives of the conscientious objectors, the WASP’s--the women pilots, the National Guard in New Guinea, and other obscure aspects of the war. 

Doig:   I got to researching on the Marines for the character of “Animal” Angelides and there’s a terrific book on With the Old Breed by a Marine.  There’s the story in there about the invasion of Peleliu, one of the bloodiest invasions, and a total waste.  No strategic value.  Like the battle on Biak [New Guinea]. 
I researched the Montana National Guard through the newsletter of the 41st Division Association, which had a diligent editor.  Up through the seventies, he got reminiscences of guys who had been in on various actions during the war like Biak, the Philippines, and New Guinea.

Lindley:  The story of the women pilots is very compelling, and I don’t think many people now are aware of their role in the war.  What sparked you interest in the WASPs?

Doig:   In my research in Montana, I learned about the Lend-Lease Program to the Soviet Union, and somewhere in there the WASPs contribution to that was mentioned.  They were based in Great Falls, and that gave me a chance to include a hotshot woman fighter pilot. 

Lindley:  And their job was to ferry planes around the US to airbases where they were needed?

Doig:   Yes.  Actually, women were not allowed to fly beyond the US, so they flew from factories to northern tier bases in the US. 

Lindley:  Seattle Times book critic Mary Ann Gwinn called The Eleventh Man a war novel with an anti-war heart.  Do you agree?

Doig:   I suppose it is.  I didn’t intend it so deliberately, but war novels, if they have any kind of a heart, it has to be an anti-war heart.  Otherwise, they’re simply glorifications of gore and slaughter.

Lindley:  Your book captures the misery of prolonged war and a sense of war weariness as it dragged on.

Doig:   Yes, it just grinds on and on.  The depressing thing is that Iraq has ground on longer than that war.