Interviews

Louise Erdrich, The Art of Fiction No. 208

Interviewed by Lisa Halliday

Only one passenger train per day makes the Empire Builder journey from Chicago to Seattle, and when it stops in Fargo, North Dakota, at 3:35 in the morning, one senses how, as Louise Erdrich has written, the “earth and sky touch everywhere and nowhere, like sex between two strangers.” Erdrich lives in Minneapolis, but we met in the Fargo Econo Lodge parking lot. From there, with Erdrich’s eight-year-old daughter, Kiizh, we drove five hours up to the Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservation, on the Manitoba border. Every August, when tick season has subsided, Erdrich and her sister Heid spend a week in a former monastery here to attend the Little Shell Powwow and to conduct a writing workshop at the Turtle Mountain Community College. One afternoon, participants took turns reciting poetry under a basswood tree beside the single-room house where Erdrich’s mother grew up. Another day, they ate homemade enchiladas and sang “Desperado” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” accompanied by a fellow workshopper on the guitar. In class, the writing is personal, the criticism charitable. It helps that Erdrich does the exercises, too—reading out the results in her mellifluous, often mischievous voice. In tidy fulfillment of an assignment entitled “very short fiction,” she wrote, “You went out for the afternoon and came back with your dress on inside out.”

Karen Louise Erdrich, born June 7, 1954, in Little Falls, Minnesota, was the first of seven children raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota, by a German American father and a mother who is half French, half Ojibwe—Ojibwe, also known as Chippewa, being one of six Native American tribes comprised by the Anishinaabe (“Original People”). Both of Erdrich’s parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. For many years, her grandfather Patrick Gourneau was the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribal chair.

Erdrich was in the first coed class to attend Dartmouth, where she studied English and met her eventual husband, Michael Dorris, another writer and the founder of the college’s new Native American Studies program. Shortly after receiving an M.F.A. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins, Erdrich wrote “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” a story about the hypothermia death of June Kashpaw, an Ojibwe divorcée whose funeral summons relatives home to a fictional North Dakota Indian reservation. “Fishermen” won the Nelson Algren short-fiction prize and became the first chapter of Love Medicine, Erdrich’s debut novel and winner of a 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. Since then, she has written twelve more novels (including The Crown of Columbus, coauthored by Dorris), three books of poetry, three books of nonfiction, dozens of short stories, and five ­children’s books. Four of these books she illustrated herself. With Dorris, who was also her first literary agent, she raised three adopted and three biological children before the couple separated in 1995; two years later, Dorris committed suicide.

Erdrich returned to Dartmouth in June of 2009 to receive an honorary doctorate of letters and deliver the main commencement address; the same year, her novel The Plague of Doves, which centers on the lynching of four Indians wrongly accused of murdering a white family (and which Philip Roth has called “her dazzling masterpiece”), was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. After invariably classifying Erdrich as a Native American ­writer, many reviewers proceed to compare her work to that of William Faulkner or Gabriel García Márquez: Faulkner for her tangled family trees, her ventriloquist skill, and her expansive use of a fictional province no less fully imagined than Yoknapatawpha County; García Márquez for her flirtations with magical realism. But so strange are Erdrich’s narrative rhythms, and so bonded is her language to its subject matter, that it seems just as ­accurate to call hers a genre of one.

When the workshop was over, Erdrich drove us back to Fargo for ­walleye cakes at the Hotel Donaldson, and then to visit her parents, who still live in the modest house in Wahpeton where Erdrich grew up. The next day, while Erdrich attended a wedding in Flandreau, South Dakota, her sister took me the remaining two hundred miles to Minneapolis, where, three days later, Erdrich and I reconvened at her bookstore and Native American arts shop, Birchbark Books. Here, Erdrich’s eldest daughter, Persia, decides which children’s books to stock. Taped to most of the shelves are detailed recommendations handwritten by Erdrich herself. An upside-down canoe hangs from the ceiling, suspended between a birch-bark reading loft and a Roman Catholic confessional decorated with sweetgrass rosaries. We linger at the store, but not until we make the long walk to Erdrich’s house do we finally sit down on the back porch and turn the tape recorder on.

Erdrich was wearing her driving clothes: jeans, sandals, and an untucked button-down shirt. A Belgian shepherd named Maki dozed at our feet, and Erdrich’s youngest daughter came out a couple of times—once to ask whether we wanted Play-Doh ice-cream cones, later to report that a Mr. Sparky was on the phone. Then a neighboring buzz saw started up, and we moved inside: up to a small attic room pleasantly cluttered with photo­graphs, artifacts, and many more Catholic and Ojibwe totems, including moccasins, shells, bells, dice, bitterroot, a bone breastplate, an abalone shell for burning sage, a turtle stool, a Huichol mask with a scorpion across its mouth and a double-headed eagle on its brow, and a small army of Virgin statuettes. Crowded into a bookshelf beside a worn armchair in the center of the room are the hardbound spiral notebooks in which, in a deeply slanted longhand, Erdrich still writes most of her books—sitting in the chair with a wooden board laid across its arms as a desk.

 

INTERVIEWER

In The Beet Queen, Dot Adare’s first-grade teacher puts Dot into the “naughty box.” Was there a naughty box in your own childhood?

LOUISE ERDRICH

Do I have to talk about this? It is a primal wound. Yes, I was put into the naughty box.

INTERVIEWER

What had you done?

ERDRICH

Nothing. I was a model child. It was the teacher’s mistake I am sure. The box was drawn on the blackboard and the names of misbehaving children were written in it. As I adored my teacher, Miss Smith, I was destroyed to see my name appear. This was just the first of the many humiliations of my youth that I’ve tried to revenge through my writing. I have never fully exorcised shames that struck me to the heart as a child except through written violence, shadowy caricature, and dark jokes.

INTERVIEWER

Was your teacher anything like the one in your story “Sister Godzilla”?

ERDRICH

No, but I had Franciscan Sisters for teachers later. Some were celestial, ­others were disturbed. My sixth-grade teacher, Sister Dominica, hit home runs at recess and I loved her, but there was no exact Sister Godzilla. As for Miss Smith, I still have her photograph. She had cat’s-eye glasses, a blond bouffant do, and wore a chiffon scarf tied at the tip of her chin. I’d been reading for a while before Miss Smith, but I’d never thought about how there’s a presence inside of words. The Ojibwe say that each word has a spirit. Miss Smith drew eyelashes on the o’s in look, and irises in the middle of the o’s, and suddenly look contained the act of looking. I had a flash of pure joy.

INTERVIEWER

Is it true your father paid you a nickel for every story you wrote as a child?

ERDRICH

Yes, he did, and he’s sick of hearing about it. It’s also true that, about a year ago, he gave me a roll of antique nickels and said, I owe you.

INTERVIEWER

What were the stories about?

ERDRICH

Lonely girls with hidden talents. At a family white-elephant sale we auctioned off one of my early stories for eight bucks—someone else got it. I’ve been trying to buy it back.

My father is my biggest literary influence. Recently I’ve been looking through his letters. He was in the National Guard when I was a child and whenever he left, he would write to me. He wrote letters to me all through college, and we still correspond. His letters, and my mother’s, are one of my life’s treasures.

INTERVIEWER

What are they about?

ERDRICH

Mushroom hunting. Roman Stoics. American Indian Movement politics. Longfellow. Stamp collecting. Apples. He and my mother have an orchard. He used to talk about how close together meadowlarks sit on fence posts—every seventh fence post. Now, of course, they are rare. When I went off to college, he wrote about the family, but in highly inflated terms, so that whatever my sisters and brothers were doing seemed outrageously funny or tragic. If my mother bought something it would be a cumbersome, dramatic addition to the household, but of course unnecessary. If the dog got into the neighbor’s garbage it would be a saga of canine effort and exertion—and if the police caught the dog it would be a case of grand injustice.

INTERVIEWER

How did your parents meet?

ERDRICH

My mother is Turtle Mountain Chippewa, and she lived on her home reservation. My father taught there. He had just been discharged from the Air Force. He went to school on the GI Bill and got his teaching credentials. He is adventurous—he worked his way through Alaska at age seventeen and paid for his living expenses by winning at the poker table. He saved the money he made as a cook’s flunky and helped out his parents. After he got his credentials, I guess he thought it would be interesting to work on a reservation. He assumed there would actually be mountains in the Turtle Mountains, so he brought his skis. In fact, on the way there, he looked north and saw cloud formations on the horizon and thought they were mountains. But when he arrived he found that the Turtle Mountains are low hills—no skiing. He met my grandfather before he met my mother.

INTERVIEWER

Your mother’s father.

ERDRICH

Patrick Gourneau. Aunishinaubay was his Ojibwe name. He had an eighth-grade education, but he was a fascinating storyteller, wrote in exquisite script, and was the tribal chairman during the treacherous fifties termination era (when the U.S. Congress decided to abrogate all Indian treaties and declare Indian Nations nonexistent). My grandfather was a persuasive man who made friends with people at every level of influence. In order to fight against our tribe’s termination, he went to newspapers and politicians and urged them to advocate for our tribe in Washington. He also supported his family through the Depression as a truck farmer. My father, himself a great talker, got to know Pat Gourneau as another interesting person who loved to converse. Then he saw Pat’s daughter Rita and apparently she knocked his socks off. My mother has always been the reserved beauty to his smitten schoolteacher. I was born when she was nineteen and I’ve always loved having a young mother—she is often mistaken for my sister.

INTERVIEWER

Did she speak Ojibwemowin when you were growing up?

ERDRICH

My grandfather spoke the Red Lake dialect of the language as his family had originated there, but he also spoke and wrote an exquisite English. My mother learned words here and there, but you have to be immersed in a language as a child to pick it up.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

ERDRICH

We are wired to have a period of language opportunity. It is harder to learn languages after the age of eight or ten. In addition, Ojibwe is one of the most difficult languages to learn because its verbs take on an unusual ­array of forms. There’s no masculine or feminine designation to the nouns, but instead they’re qualified as animate or inanimate. The verb form changes ­according to its status as animate or inanimate as well as in regard to ­human relationships. The verbs go on and on. Often when I’m trying to speak Ojibwe my brain freezes. But my daughter is learning to speak it, and that has given me new resolve. Of course, English is a very powerful language, a colonizer’s language and a gift to a writer. English has destroyed and sucked up the languages of other cultures—its cruelty is its vitality. Ojibwe is taught in colleges, increasingly in immersion programs, but when my grandfather went to government boarding school he wasn’t allowed to speak Ojibwe. Nor were Indian students in Catholic boarding schools, where my mother went, as so many of our family were Catholic.

INTERVIEWER

Were you raised to be devout?

ERDRICH

Every Catholic is raised to be devout and love the Gospels, but I was spoiled by the Old Testament. I was very young when I started reading, and the Old Testament sucked me in. I was at the age of magical thinking and believed sticks could change to serpents, a voice might speak from a burning bush, angels wrestled with people. After I went to school and started catechism I realized that religion was about rules. I remember staring at a neighbor’s bridal-wreath bush. It bloomed every year but was voiceless. No angels, no parting of the Red River. It all seemed so dull once I realized that nothing spectacular was going to happen.

I’ve come to love the traditional Ojibwe ceremonies, and some rituals, but I hate religious rules. They are usually about controlling women. On Sundays when other people go to wood-and-stone churches, I like to take my daughters into the woods. Or at least work in the garden and be outside. Any god we have is out there. I’d hate to be certain that there was nothing. When it comes to God, I cherish doubt.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like to leave Wahpeton for Dartmouth?

ERDRICH

My father, rightly, picked out a paragraph in The Plague of Doves as a somewhat autobiographical piece of the book. Evelina leaves for college and at their part­ing her parents give her a love-filled stare that is devastating and sustaining. It
is an emotion they’ve never before been able to express without great awkwardness and pain. Now that she’s leaving, that love beams out in an intense form.

As the eldest child, I often felt that I belonged more to my parents’ generation than to my own. In the beginning of the book, Evelina is always scheming to watch television. My parents didn’t let us watch much television. Dad had us cover our eyes when the commercials came on. He didn’t want us to nurse any unnecessary desires and succumb to capitalism. Shakespeare’s history plays and The Three Stooges were major influences.

INTERVIEWER

What was Dartmouth like?

ERDRICH

For one thing, the ratio of men to women was nine to one. And I was quite shy, so meeting people was painful. I’d be at a party and because I was so quiet, someone would say, You’re stoned, aren’t you, Karen? (My name was Karen then.) But I was only rarely stoned, just shy.

Recently I read a book by Charles Eastman, one of the first Native American physicians in Dakota, about going to Dartmouth. He described exactly how I felt: like I was being torn away. And yet, I wanted to go, I wanted to get away. Sinclair Lewis knew about the crazed feeling that you get when people think you’re a pleasant person. You get all this praise for your good behavior but inside you’re seething. I was fairly dutiful, and I felt that way. I’ve always loved that line from Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”: “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” In Wahpeton I was a graveyard-shift waitress who wanted to destroy my customers.

At Dartmouth, I was awkward and suspicious. I was in the first year of the Native American program. I felt comfortable with Chippewas and ­people from the Turtle Mountains, and I felt comfortable with Dakotas ­because Wahpeton is part of the Dakota reservation and I knew many Dakota people. It took me a while to get to know people from other tribes. People assume there is just one sort of Native experience. No. Do the Irish immediately feel comfortable with the Chinese? I was intimidated by the mighty Mohawks; it took me a long time to get to know my serene and beautiful Navajo roommate. Certainly I didn’t understand the non-Indians, the people who came from East Coast backgrounds. Until then, I had met three African American people in my entire life. I had never met an East Indian person, a Jew, a Baptist, a Muslim. I hadn’t left Wahpeton so I only knew a peculiar Wahpeton mixture of people, all smashed and molded into a similar shape by small-town life. I don’t have a thick skin, and I especially didn’t then. I obsessed over everything people said, ran it over forever in my mind. I still do that, but it’s better now.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you decide to change your name to Louise?

ERDRICH

There were so many Karens when I was born. It was the 1954 name of the year. I think there was a Mouseketeer named Karen. I was happier when I was called Louise. My grandfather was named Louis. I thought it had a good, lucky sort of writerliness to it. There were lots of Louises who were artists and writers: Louise Bogan, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Glück. The only Karen ­writer I knew and liked was Karen Blixen and she changed her name, so I did too.

INTERVIEWER

Were you a good literature student?

ERDRICH

I worked hard to catch up with people. I didn’t know any of the writers other Dartmouth freshmen had read. I knew the Old Testament, of course, and read indiscriminately from the local library—Leon Uris and James Michener and Ayn Rand and Herman Wouk—but nobody at Dartmouth was reading Marjorie Morningstar. They were reading Joyce. Who was that? I did have some Shakespeare, because in Wahpeton we’d bought a wonderful record player with green stamps, and my father brought home recordings of the plays—the tragedies, of course. And I liked James Welch, the Blackfeet writer. But otherwise, it was the Dune trilogy and Isaac Asimov and The Prophet.

Before coming to Dartmouth, I won a scholarship to an American Legion summer camp and was trapped with the John Birch Society. So I had a strange, brief flirtation with the right. I voted for Richard Nixon. But then Nixon was a hero to a lot of Native people. Despite everything else, he was one of the first presidents to understand anything about American Indians. He effectively ended the policy of termination and set our Nations on the course of self-determination. That had a galvanizing effect in Indian country. So I voted for Nixon and my boyfriend wanted to kill me and I didn’t know why. Why was this so important? Nixon was even running against a South Dakota boy, George McGovern. But McGovern had no understanding of treaty rights, and I also thought I was voting in accordance with my father, because he kept saying George this, George that, what a demagogue. Then about a year ago, I said, Dad, I thought we were both against George in that election. And he said, I was talking about George Wallace.

INTERVIEWER

How does your father feel about your books?

ERDRICH

He gave me those nickels, remember? It didn’t occur to me that my books would be widely read at all, and that enabled me to write anything I wanted to. And even once I realized that they were being read, I still wrote as if I were writing in secret. That’s how one has to write anyway—in secret. At a certain point, you have to not please your parents, although for me that’s painful because I’m close to my parents and of course I want them to be happy.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing Love Medicine?

ERDRICH

I went back to North Dakota after college and became a visiting poet in a program called Poets in the Schools. It was a marvelous gig. I went all around the state in my Chevy Nova, teaching, until I contracted hepatitis at the old Rudolf Hotel in Valley City. What did I expect for eight dollars a night? I was in my smoking, brooding phase, and I was mostly writing poetry. In time, the poems became more storylike—prose, really—then the stories began to connect. Before the hepatitis I also drank, much more than I do now, so I spent a lot of time in bars and had a number of crazy conversations that went into Love Medicine. I also used to go to tent revivals up in the Turtle Mountains—that experience eventually became part of The Plague of Doves.

INTERVIEWER

A tent revival?

ERDRICH

Where the revivalists pitch a tent and you sit under it and listen to preachers who try to convert you—bring you to Jesus right in the tent. It’s like a traveling church. I went to hear that biblical language. Maybe I thought at last I’d witness a miracle. I used to listen to Jimmy Swaggart and Jack Van Impe, who are televangelists. I don’t listen to TV preachers anymore because they lost their music and became political, but I used to love it. The formality of Mass was gone—it was just you and some crazy, powerful version of God. As a child, I couldn’t get up in the middle of Holy Mass and shout, Come down on me! Come Spirit, Spirit! The closest version was a charismatic Catholic group I joined called the God Squad—I was still a teenager then—mainly I’d heard you could go on retreats and make out.

I started writing Love Medicine after I realized that narrative was ­invading the poetry. In the beginning, I was trying to write a spare kind of poetry, like James Wright or Robert Creeley, I suppose, but it was terrible. Then I started writing poems with inner rhymes but as they became more complex they turned into narrative. I started telling stories in the poems. But the ­poems I could write jumping up from my desk or lying on the bed. Anywhere. At last, I had this epiphany. I wanted to write prose, and I ­understood that my real problem with writing was not that I couldn’t do it mentally. I couldn’t do it physically. I could not sit still. Literally, could not sit still. So I had to solve that. I used some long scarves to tie myself into my chair. I tied myself in with a pack of cigarettes on one side and coffee on the other, and when I instinctively bolted upright after a few minutes, I’d say, Oh, shit. I’m tied down. I’ve got to keep writing.

INTERVIEWER

Where were you when you wrote Love Medicine?

ERDRICH

I had come back to Fargo again and was living downtown. I worked in a little office space with a great arched window on the top floor. It was seventy bucks a month. It was heaven to have my own quiet, beautiful office with a great window and green linoleum floors and a little desk and a view that carried to the outskirts of Fargo. The apartment I lived in over Frederick’s Flowers belonged to my brother and had no windows, only a central air shaft that was gloomy and gray. That apartment also got into the book. It was a peculiar apartment—you couldn’t stay in it all day or you’d go nuts. It cost fifty dollars a month, so all I had to pay every month was one hundred and twenty bucks in rent. I had a bicycle. I ate at the Dutch Maid café. I was living well.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do for money?

ERDRICH

My best job was working for a man named Joe Richardson who had a small-press outfit called Plains Distribution. He managed to get funding for a ­fancy traveling RV stuffed with small-press books. We distributed work by writers like Ted Kooser, Linda Hasselstrom, Mark Vinz, Tom McGrath. In the middle of all of this I found myself at the trial of Leonard Peltier. It was all taking place right near the sinister apartment I lived in. I was surprised to see neighbors from Wahpeton and a lot of other ­people I’d grown up with. They were passionate about the American Indian Movement. They got me into the courtroom every day. After listening to all that was said, I was astounded when Peltier was convicted. There was simply no evidence that convicted him. He was convicted out of fear. We know how that goes.

At last, I ran out of money. I applied to the Yaddo and MacDowell ­writers’ residencies. I got some time there, and I was able to finish “Scales.” Then I thought I’d better write a real novel. So I left everything else and wrote a book called Tracks. I started it at Johns Hopkins, where I received a teaching stipend. I got a lot of encouragement there from John Barth, a genius, a superb teacher, and Edmund White, whom I adored—a man of tender intelligence, and a daring writer. I also got to study with Richard Howard. What luck. He would set one of my poems aside and say, “This one we’ll ­allow to leech away into the sands of discourse.” So some of my poems leeched away into the sands of discourse. Then Richard looked at other ­poems and responded from his sublime knowledge, but he always spoke with a natural sort of kindness. I also met C. Michael Curtis at Johns Hopkins, but he wouldn’t have remembered me. Later, he was the first person who accepted a story of mine—“Saint Marie”—into a glossy magazine. That was a huge moment for me. I still have his acceptance letter. I stared at it for hours and days. After the story was published I got two letters. One from an outraged priest who said I’d written nauseating phantasms of convent life. The other was from Philip Roth. He sent me a letter out of the blue just to say that he liked the story. I stared at his letter for a long time as well. I think I was too shy to answer it, but I wrote the rest of the book.

INTERVIEWER

What happened with Tracks?

ERDRICH

It continued to be rejected. It was rejected all over the place. And thank God for that—it was the kind of first novel where the writer tries to take a high tone while loads of mysterious things happen, and there was way too much Faulkner in there. People would find themselves suddenly in cornfields with desperate, aching anguish over the weight of history. I kept it though, the way people keep a car on blocks out in the yard—for spare parts.

INTERVIEWER

The Tracks I’ve read is a short book.

ERDRICH

That’s because all of the spare parts got used in other vehicles. And of course I rewrote Tracks entirely by 1989, but before that I had withdrawn it from consideration by publishers and started again on Love Medicine.

INTERVIEWER

One of the characters in Love Medicine says, “You know Lulu Lamartine if you know life is made up of three kinds of people—those who live it, those afraid to, those in between. My mother is the first.” Which category is yours?

ERDRICH

I suppose I’ve always wanted to be the first, but really I’m the last. By writing I can live in ways that I could not survive. I’ve only had children with two fathers. Lulu’s had children by what, eight? People sometimes ask me, Did you really have these experiences? I laugh, Are you crazy? I’d be dead. I’d be dead fifty times. I don’t write directly from my own experience so much as an emotional understanding of it.

I suppose one develops a number of personas and hides them away, then they pop up during writing. The exertion of control comes later. I take great pleasure in writing when I get a real voice going and I’m able to follow the voice and the character. It’s like being in a trance state. Once that had happened a few times, I knew I needed to write for the rest of my life. I began to crave the trance state. I would be able to return to the story anytime, and it would play out in front of me, almost effortlessly. Not many of my stories work out that way. Most of my work is simple persistence. I’ve had some stories for twenty years. I keep adding to them word by word.

But if the trance happens, even though it’s been wonderful, I’m suspicious. It’s like an ecstatic love affair or fling that makes you think, It can’t be this good, it can’t be! And it never is. I always need to go back and ­reconfigure parts of the voice. So the control is working with the piece after it’s written, finding the end. The title’s always there, the beginning’s always there, sometimes I have to wait for the middle, and then I always write way past the end and wind up cutting off two pages.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you do that?

ERDRICH

When I can’t end a story, I usually find that I’ve actually written past the ending. The trick of course is to go back and decide where the last line hits.

INTERVIEWER

How do you keep all your characters straight?

ERDRICH

I used to try to keep them straight in my head, but I didn’t really care if they got messed up. It didn’t mean a lot to me if I got them wrong. I’d like to say it was out of some sense of aesthetics, or adherence to some tradition, but really I just didn’t care. I wanted to get on with the story. If it weren’t for Trent Duffy, the best copy editor in New York, everything would be inconsistent and I still wouldn’t be worried about it. And, you know, there still are inconsistencies.

INTERVIEWER

But they’re not deliberate?

ERDRICH

You mean are they there so that English and Native American literature scholars have something to work on? No.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you decide to add family trees to your books?

ERDRICH

I resisted for a long time, but then at readings people began to come up and show me their painfully drawn out family trees, so finally I was overcome by guilt. Delightfully, my dear Trent had kept track of the relationships. Now people come up to me and say how grateful they are that they don’t have to write out the family trees themselves. It never seemed particularly important to me. In the Turtle Mountains, everybody is related because there are only so many families. Nobody sits down and picks apart their ancestry. Unless you want to date somebody.

INTERVIEWER

How do your books come into being? Where do they start?

ERDRICH

I have little pieces of writing that sit around collecting dust, or whatever they’re collecting. They are drawn to other bits of narrative like iron filings. I hate looking for something to write about. I try to have several things going before I end a book. Sometimes I don’t have something immediately and I suffer for it.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

ERDRICH

I feel certain that I’m never going to write again. I’m positive that it’s over. The world seems boring. I can’t enjoy anything. My family knows I’m moping. I’m not nice to live around, and I’m not a stellar cook. Nothing seems right. The worst times are ending a book tour and not having a book to return to. It’s sheer emptiness.

But I guess that’s an essential part of this entire process: You feel your mortality and there’s nowhere to go. I walk more, which is good. Then I start rummaging around, thinking, It’s all over, so what’s there to lose? I go to our bookstore, and others, used bookstores, I talk to the booksellers and look around. I go back to things I didn’t finish, but then, if I didn’t finish it in the first place, it probably isn’t really worth going back to. I go to a historical society and leaf through things. I’ll take a drive in the car. Eventually something turns up. That’s where I am now. I haven’t really engaged with the next book in the same way that I engaged with Shadow Tag. I suppose I could go back to my eternal science-fiction novel, though it is a failure.

INTERVIEWER

Then why do you go back to it?

ERDRICH

It’s irresistible, especially when I’m in free fall. Maybe in a decade I’ll have finished it.

INTERVIEWER

Is it set in North Dakota?

ERDRICH

Yes. The North Dakota of the future!

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever feel like you’re writing one long novel?

ERDRICH

All of the books will be connected somehow—by history and blood and by something I have no control over, which is the writing itself. The writing is going to connect where it wants to, and I will have to try and follow along.

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that you have control over the cover designs of your books? Writers aren’t always afforded that privilege.

ERDRICH

That’s because the most clichéd Native images used to be suggested for the cover design, so I fought to have some say. On a foreign copy of Tracks there was a pair of massive breasts with an amulet hanging between them. Often, a Southwestern landscape appears. Or an Indian princess or two. A publisher once sent me a design for Master Butchers Singing Club that was all huge loops of phallic sausages. They were of every shape and all different textures, colors, sizes. I showed it to my daughter and we looked at it in stunned ­silence, then we said, Yes! This is a great cover! I have twenty copies left of that edition, and I’m going to keep them. Sometimes I’ll show one to a man and ask what he thinks of it. He’ll put it in his lap and look at it for a while and the strangest look will cross his face. He’ll look sideways at the women in the room, and he’ll point and say, I think I see myself in that one.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise already-published work?

ERDRICH

At every opportunity. Usually, I add chapters that I have written too late to include in the original. Or I try to improve the Ojibwe language used in the book. As I learn more or I consult my teachers, I learn how much I don’t know. Ojibwe is something I’ll be a lifelong failure at—it is my windmill. I’ve changed Love Medicine quite a lot, and I wanted to revise The Blue Jay’s Dance. For one thing I wanted to take out the recipes. Don’t try the lemon-meringue pie, it doesn’t work. I’ve received letters. I can’t wait to change Four Souls. There are some big mistakes in that.

INTERVIEWER

Like what?

ERDRICH

I’m not saying; it is absurd and filthy—and this is a family publication. But I also feel the ending is too self-consciously poetic, maybe sentimental. I wouldn’t end it that way now. I am engaged these days in rewriting The Antelope Wife substantially—I always had a feeling it began well and got hijacked.

INTERVIEWER

Many of the books are hijacked by a child in trouble.

ERDRICH

When I had to go on my first book tour—those are the lowest points in my life, the times just before a book tour, when I have to leave my children—I was sitting on a plane next to a psychiatrist. I said to her, “I’ve just written this book and it has another abandoned child in it. Another loveless person abandons another child in the beginning. What is it about abandonment?” This psychiatrist, who had a deep, scratchy voice, said, “My dear, we are all abandoned.”

Abandonment is in all the books: the terror of having a bad mother or being a bad mother, or just a neglectful mother; letting your child run around in a T-shirt longer than her shorts.

INTERVIEWER

Every summer you drive several hours north to visit the Turtle Mountains, sometimes also Lake of the Woods. Why?

ERDRICH

Actually, I do this all year. These places are home for me. And I like to travel. Driving takes hold of the left brain and then the right brain is freed—that’s what some writer friends and I have theorized. But I can’t always stop when I get an idea. It depends on the road—North Dakota, no traffic. When I’m driving on a very empty stretch of road I do write with one hand. It’s hardly legible, but still, you don’t want to have to stop every time.

Of course, if you have a child along, then you do have to stop. By having children, I’ve both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. I hate to ­pigeonhole myself as a writer, but being a female and a mother and a Native American are important aspects of my work, and even more than being mixed blood or Native, it’s difficult to be a mother and a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Because of the demands on your time?

ERDRICH

No, and it’s not because of hormones or pregnancies. It’s because you’re ­always fighting sentiment. You’re fighting sentimentality all of the time ­because being a mother alerts you in such a primal way. You are alerted to any danger to your child, and by extension you become afraid of anybody getting hurt. This becomes the most powerful thing to you; it’s instinctual. Either you end up writing about terrible things happening to children—as if you could ward them off simply by writing about them—or you tie things up in easily opened packages, or you pull your punches as a writer. All deadfalls to watch for.

Having children also makes it difficult to get out of the house. With a child you certainly can’t be a Bruce Chatwin or a Hemingway, living the adventurer-writer life. No running with the bulls at Pamplona. If you value your relationships with your children, you can’t write about them. You have to make up other, less convincing children. There is also one’s inclination to be charming instead of presenting a grittier truth about the world. But then, having children has also made me this particular writer. Without my children, I’d have written with less fervor; I wouldn’t understand life in the same way. I’d write fewer comic scenes, which are the most challenging. I’d probably have become obsessively self-absorbed, or slacked off. Maybe I’d have become an alcoholic. Many of the writers I love most were alcoholics. I’ve made my choice, I sometimes think: Wonderful children instead of hard liquor.

INTERVIEWER

Were you ever in danger of becoming a drunk?

ERDRICH

Likely, but for the gift of the Rudolf Hotel. I got hepatitis. That saved me.

INTERVIEWER

On your journeys do you visit with members of the reservation and hear their stories?

ERDRICH

You’d think so. That would make sense. But I never hear stories that go into my work, although place description might. Just germs of stories, and most of those I hear from my father. I’ve internalized my father to such a degree that sometimes he has only to start a few sentences and my mind races off. Same with my mother. She once told me a story about a boy secretly playing a violin and it was only a few sentences, but it became “Shamengwa.” Bits of narrative always cling to a title, like magnetism. I love titles. I have lists of titles that I haven’t gotten to. Tales of Burning Love and Shadow Tag were there for the longest time.

The closest thing to a complete story that went into my work was a bank robbery. My dad’s great on bank robberies. He was telling me a story about a woman taken hostage during a holdup. She was being used as a hostage shield, and a deputy shot her in the hip. She became “Naked Woman Playing Chopin.”

INTERVIEWER

Some people refer to your writing as magical realism. Is that another pigeonhole?

ERDRICH

I have six brothers and sisters, and nearly all of them work with Ojibwe or Dakota or other Native people. My youngest brother, youngest ­sister, and brother-in-law have worked with the Indian Health Service for a ­total of more than forty years. My second-oldest brother works in northern Minnesota sorting out the environmental issues for all of the Ojibwe Nations throughout the entire Midwest. Their experiences make magical realism ­seem ­ho-hum. It’s too bad I can’t use their experiences because ­everyone would know who they are, but believe me, my writing comes from ordinary life.

INTERVIEWER

A man nursing a baby in The Antelope Wife?

ERDRICH

What’s strange about that? There are several documented cases of male lactation. It’s sometimes uncomfortable for me to read that scene in front of mixed audiences. Men get upset. But I think it’s a great idea. It would solve about half of the world’s problems.

INTERVIEWER

A violin washing ashore in an empty canoe in The Plague of Doves?

ERDRICH

It made the story.

INTERVIEWER

When you’re writing and a character or situation starts to approach the ­supernatural, do you think twice about writing it?

ERDRICH

I’m not aware of the supernatural in the same way, so I can’t tell when it starts to approach. Maybe it goes back to childhood, still spoiled by the Old Testament. Maybe it’s Catholic after all, this conviction that there are ­miracles and things like violins appearing in a canoe. To me that was possible. I love it when a story begins to write itself, and that particular story did. The piece in The Plague of Doves where the men are taking on a surreal journey—there’s nothing magical in the least about it. “Town Fever” is based on a historical trip that ended up in Wahpeton. There is now a stone that commemorates their near starvation. It fascinated me that they began right down at the river here in what became Minneapolis, where I go every week or so. With their ox-pulled sleighs, they traveled what is now Interstate 94. So I knew the exact route they took, and my description was based on reality. Daniel Johnston, who wrote the account, recorded that the party had bowel troubles and so took “a remedy.” Then it only remained for me to look up what remedy there was at the time, and it was laudanum. They were high on opium the whole time. Then I read The Pursuit of Oblivion and became interested in what it is like to be high all the time. And last week you saw me reading Methland. You must think I’m obsessed with drugs.

INTERVIEWER

Do you discuss your books with other writers?

ERDRICH

I talked to Gail Caldwell quite a bit about Shadow Tag and Last Report. She describes this wonderful state when there’s “fire in the room.” When there’s a fire burning in the room, and it’s illuminated and warm, you can’t stop reading. With Shadow Tag, she told me when the fire was in the room. And she was kind when the fire went out, which a number of times it did.

INTERVIEWER

At what point do you show a manuscript to your editor?

ERDRICH

Terry Karten has been my editor since The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. I have no rule about when to show her something; I trust her, and often we talk about books I’m thinking about before I do show the work to her. She is ruthlessly honest, has superb instincts, and is a true book person. There are probably very few relationships like this left in the publishing world. I have also worked with Jane Beirn all of my writing life—another person of the highest caliber. I don’t know what I would do without her.

INTERVIEWER

What do you do when you can’t make something work?

ERDRICH

I walk—I usually have a little pen and some note cards with me. But one day I didn’t and I was halfway around the lake when the words started to appear, the end of Shadow Tag. The words rained into my mind. I looked up and saw my sister Heid’s car on the road around the lake, and I ran over to her, flagged down her car, and said, “Give me a pencil and paper! Quick, quick, quick! Please.” I still have the piece of paper that she gave me taped into my notebook.

INTERVIEWER

If not with a title, how did you begin working on what you’re working on now?

ERDRICH

That began with digging shoots and saplings out of the foundation of my parents’ house. I was quite aware that this was the beginning of something. Driving from Wahpeton to Minneapolis, I started writing it in my head and I had to pull over and start writing. I pulled over because I had my youngest child in the car.

I figured I was all washed-up when I learned I was going to have another baby at forty-six. I thought, Oh, the hell with it. I’m never going to get out of this. But before she was born, I had all of this pent-up desperation and I wrote The Master Butchers Singing Club. I’d always wanted to write that book. I wrote the first part of the book by hand, but because I was pregnant I started writing my first draft on the computer. My baby was getting bigger and bigger, and my arms were stretching farther and farther to reach over her to the keyboard.

INTERVIEWER

Were you concerned that the quality of your writing would suffer?

ERDRICH

It’s a touchstone for me to have everything written down by hand.

INTERVIEWER

Do you transfer your writing to the computer yourself?

ERDRICH

I don’t let anybody touch my writing.

INTERVIEWER

And do you revise at that point?

ERDRICH

I revise as I type, and I write a lot by hand on the printouts so they feel ­repossessed. I have always kept notebooks—I have an obsessive devotion to them—and I go back to them over and over. They are my compost pile of ideas. Any scrap goes in, and after a number of years I’ll get a handful of earth. I am working right now out of a notebook I used when I wrote The Blue Jay’s Dance.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote in that book about moments in which suicide was appealing.

ERDRICH

Postpartum depression, but I beat that thought down. Certainly after Michael’s death it became clear that I wouldn’t kill myself to save my life. At that point I realized that the main thing a parent has to do is stay alive. It doesn’t matter how rotten you are, or if you fail. A failed parent is better than a dead parent. A failed parent at least gives you someone to rail against. A former army psychiatrist said something that struck me. He said that there are people who will kill themselves no matter what, and there are people who won’t do it no matter what. There are people who can go through an endless level of psychological pain, and still they will not kill themselves. I want to be that last person.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote The Crown of Columbus with your husband, Michael. How was that different from the experience of writing your other books?

ERDRICH

I’ve not spoken much about what it was like to work with Michael, partly because I feel that there’s something unfair about it. He can’t tell his side of the story. I have everything that we once had together. It touches me that he left me as his literary executor. I think he trusted that I would be good to his words, and I have tried to do that. So it’s difficult to set the record straight because it would be my view, the way I see it. Still, he controlled our narrative when he was living. I am weary of all of the old leftover assumptions, and what else, really, do people have to go on?

I would have loved for Michael to have had his own life as a writer and not covet my life as a writer. But he couldn’t help himself. So in agreeing to write The Crown of Columbus I really made a deal, at least in my thoughts, that if we wrote this one book together, then we could openly work ­separately—as we always did in truth, of course. I wanted to make him happy, you know. He was the kind of person whom people want to make happy. People did this all the time, they tried to make him happy, but there was a deep impossibility within him and he couldn’t really be happy. Or he couldn’t be happy alone. So I’d had the idea for The Crown of Columbus; I’d done the research and I said, This is the project. We can do it together because you can write your part and I can write mine and both of our names will be on the cover.

I haven’t ever read the published book. I’ve never watched the movie of The Broken Cord either. There are just certain things that I’ve never been able to get close to again. I haven’t been able to revisit most of the year 1997. I hoped that The Crown of Columbus would be what Michael needed in ­order to say, Now it is enough, we truly collaborated. Instead, it became the beginning of what he wanted for every book. When he told me he ­wanted both of our names on every book now, something in me—the writer, I guess—couldn’t bear it any longer and that was the beginning of the long ending. We’re talking only of our writing relationship, as distinct from the tangle of our family.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think he wanted and needed so badly to see himself as a writer?

ERDRICH

Perhaps because I loved writing so much and he loved me. Perhaps because he was a very good writer. Or perhaps—I don’t say this in a negative or judgmental way, because this is the case with writers whether they admit it or not—Michael also adored everything that went with the identity. He adored meeting other writers, adored being part of a literary world. He would ­answer everyone who wrote to him, beautiful letters, every single person. I don’t take much pleasure in being “the writer.” That’s what my bookstore is for. So that people can visit a version of the writer, and incidentally, visit a real bookstore. I can’t talk to people, so—

INTERVIEWER

You can’t talk to people?

ERDRICH

Still socially awkward. Once I was in a bookstore in New York and a very short man reached up and patted me on the top of my head and said, “I think you’re a good little writer.” So I patted him on the head and said, “Thank you. You’re a good little reader.” Then I thought, I can’t take this anymore. It’s just what I tried to get away from in Wahpeton, being a good little anything.

INTERVIEWER

How did the relationship with Michael break down?

ERDRICH

There were signs from the beginning, but I ignored them or even exhaustedly encouraged them. He took over as the agent for Love Medicine. After it won an award and The Beet Queen was published, we went to New York for an interview with The New York Times. I was walking out the door to meet the interviewer, and I noticed that he was dressed up, too. So I asked him where he was going. He said, “I’m going to be in the interview.” And I said, “No, they asked me.” And he said, “What do you mean—I can’t come?” So it was both of us from then on. As long as he was content with being in on the interview and saying what he needed to say, I wasn’t that unhappy. Actually, I was tired. Love Medicine and Jacklight were published in 1984, and I had a baby. The Beet Queen was published in 1985, and I bore my second daughter in that year. What kind of woman can do that? A tired woman who lets her husband do the talking because she has the two best things—the babies and the writing. Yet at some point the talking infected the writing. I looked into the mirror and I saw Michael. I began to write again in secret and put together a novel that I didn’t show him.

INTERVIEWER

Was he a good agent?

ERDRICH

He was a terrific agent. He had the energy for it, and the excitement about the book world. He was a very good and generous editor, too. Not to mention a teacher.

INTERVIEWER

A journalist once asked you what advice you would give someone trying to write a novel. You said, “Don’t take the project too seriously.” Is that what you would say today?

ERDRICH

I think I meant that grand ideas kill first efforts. Begin with something in your range. Then write it as a secret. I’d be paralyzed if I thought I had to write a great novel, and no matter how good I think a book is on one day, I know now that a time will come when I will look upon it as a failure. The gratification has to come from the effort itself. I try not to look back. I approach the work as though, in truth, I’m nothing and the words are everything. Then I write to save my life. If you are a writer, that will be true. Writing has saved my life.

INTERVIEWER

How?

ERDRICH

I needed a way to go at life. I needed meaning. I might have chosen something more self-destructive had I not found writing.

INTERVIEWER

Do your daughters help you when you write your books for children?

ERDRICH

They are great editors—they read and react. When my older daughters were little, I used to tell them the story of a little girl marooned alone on an ­island; everyone else had died. My daughters wanted that story over and over, so finally I wrote it down and showed it to a friend who said, This is the anti–“Little House on the Prairie”! Of course, “Little House on the Prairie” is foundational literature. Everyone refers to it. But the series has an appalling view of how the American settlers went into an empty world: There was no one there, so Pa set out his claim. The Indians are always slinking off and Ma’s holding her nose. But I do love the parts about making sausage.

I thought I would write about the other side, the people who were in that “empty” space, the people who were forced ahead of the settlers and what happened to them. The path taken by these people in the Birchbark books roughly mirrors the path the Ojibwe side of my family took crossing from Madeline Island, over what is now Minnesota, up to Lake of the Woods and over to the Turtle Mountains. So far in the series, I’ve reached Lake of the Woods.

INTERVIEWER

How is writing novels for children different from writing them for adults?

ERDRICH

One of the jobs I had in the old days was writing for children’s textbooks. I followed a mathematical formula to choose big words and little words in combination to make each sentence. A maddening challenge for a young writer. Writing for children now, I pare back description, stick to action, humor, trouble, triumph. Of course there also has to be death, but not too much. I have to watch that. I can’t become Cormac McCarthy for the middle reader.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever fall into the wonderful writing trance when you’re working on nonfiction?

ERDRICH

Nonfiction is always a grind for me. A great deal of research goes into the fiction, but when the research is for nonfiction all the pleasure is dulled. And no, I never fall into a trance.

INTERVIEWER

Are you still writing poetry?

ERDRICH

I stopped thinking like a poet back when I started writing narrative poems. Occasionally I get some poetry, and I’ll write poetry for as long as I can. But it is as though I’ve been temporarily excused by the novel, and it wants me back. So I usually put whatever poetry I would have written into the novel. I only keep a few of my poems as poems.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

ERDRICH

It usually turns out that the poem was connected to the prose in a subterranean way. If I am writing a novel, it casts an aura around me and I get ideas for it, descriptions, words, phrases, at all times. I’m always jotting in notebooks I keep with me. That delight of immersion in a book is as good as a trance. For a while, the book is so powerful that I can follow the thread even through my chaotic daily existence, with children at all hours, school, dinner, long calls to my daughters, my ever-demanding house, barking dogs, and the bookstore. 

INTERVIEWER

You said before that your bookstore is a way you have of meeting with other people. Is the business still working?

ERDRICH

Birchbark Books is still here! In fact, doing well. But I’m not a business person. At first I looked at the bookstore as a work of art that would survive on its own artfulness. Now I get that it’s a business, but it is also much more. Any good business is about its people. Marvelous people work at Birchbark Books. That’s why it’s still alive. Walking into a huge bookstore feels a bit like walking into Amazon.com. But walking into a small bookstore, you immediately feel the presence of the mind that has chosen the books on the shelves. You communicate intellectually with the buyer. Then, if you’re lucky, you meet another great reader in person—our manager, Susan White, ready with ideas for you. People need bookstores and need other readers. We need the intimate communication with others who love books. We don’t really think we do, because of the ease that the Internet has introduced, but we still need the physical world more than we know. Little bookstores are community services, not profitable business enterprises. Books are just too inexpensive online and there are too many of them, so a physical bookstore has to offer something different. Perhaps little bookstores will attain nonprofit status. Maybe one fine day the government will subsidize them, so they can thrive as nonprofit entities. Some very clever bookstore, probably not us, is going to manage to do that and become the paradigm for the rest.

INTERVIEWER

What do you do to differentiate your store?

ERDRICH

We attract writers, especially Native writers, and we host literary events, which means, again, the bookstore is more than a business—it is an arts organization. We support a number of Native artists: basket makers and jewelers and painters. We sell medicines grown by a Dakota family: sage, sweetgrass, bear root. My sister Heid and I launched an affiliated nonprofit press that will publish in the Ojibwe and Dakota languages. With a small bookstore, you get to encourage your eccentricities. It’s quite a wonderful thing, this bookstore. I thought it would be a project for my daughters and me, some work we could do together, and that has happened. Each daughter has worked in the store.

There’s something very wrong in our country—and not just in the book business. We now see what barely fettered capitalism looks like. We are killing the small and the intimate. We all feel it and we don’t know quite why everything is beginning to look the same. The central cores of large cities can still sustain interesting places. But all across our country we are intent on developing chain after chain with no character and employees who work for barely livable wages. We are losing our individuality. Killing the soul of our landscape. Yet we’re supposed to be the most individualistic of countries. I feel the sadness of it every time I go through cities like Fargo and Minneapolis and walk the wonderful old Main Streets and then go out to the edges and wander through acres of concrete boxes. Our country is starting to look like Legoland.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find any shortage of good books being published these days?

ERDRICH

Writing is better than ever. As for the book as an object, it’s like bread. It is such a perfectly evolved piece of technology that it will be hard to top. A hardcover book is a beautiful and durable piece of work. The paperback—so low-tech and high-tech at the same time—is also a great piece of technology because you don’t mind passing it along. It is inexpensive. Even if you drop it in the bathtub, you haven’t really lost much. You can leave a paperback somewhere and buy a used one for the price of a loaf of bread. You can’t pass on an electronic reader, you can’t page back in the same way, you can’t write in it; you’ve lost the tactile sense of being able to fold it over, rip it up, feel its weight. I also like that you can throw books across the room, as people have done with mine. Plus, you don’t need a power source. The whole absence of touching and feeling a book would be a loss, though I think there are a number of readers who really only want the text, so they’ll adopt electronic books. Ultimately it’s just another form of publishing, so I’m not against it. I don’t feel that sense of alarm and threat that some writers seem to feel about e-books.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing a lonely life for you?

ERDRICH

Strangely, I think it is. I am surrounded by an abundance of family and friends, and yet I am alone with the writing. And that is perfect.