In her epic new novel, Louise Erdrich digs into an incredible family history
Once more, the National Book Award-winning author finds the magic in the ordinary. This time, it's pretty personal, too.
"I'm just hanging out in the stairwell of my attic," Louise Erdrich laughs down the phone line from her home in Minnesota, after being asked if she needs to sign off and do whatever it is that the world demands of Very Important Authors on any given Tuesday. "So I'm fine to talk, don't worry."
At 65, her nearly four-decade career is littered with bestsellers and starry accolades, including a National Book Award for 2012's The Round House. But the novelist, poet, and activist still speaks like someone who simply loves a good conversation, especially about a great book. (Which local fans of Minneapolis' Birchbark Books & Native Arts, which she owns and operates, may already be lucky enough to know on their own.)
In a far-ranging conversation about the her upcoming 16th novel, The Night Watchman (out Tuesday) she discusses how the story — spurred by an incident of writers block and a particularly bad flu — came to be, "the trance of self-doubt," and how she still finds ordinary magic in storytelling.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your new book is inspired by your Chippewa grandfather, who was a night watchman in 1950s North Dakota, and by the letters he wrote. What moved you to finally turn his story into fiction?
LOUISE ERDRICH: That's an interesting question, and I haven't really answered it for myself. Perhaps it took years for my brain to organize itself around the two things, which were my grandfather's phenomenal letters, and the history of [Native] termination. And for me to realize that he was graphing a historical moment of time that has been largely ignored or forgotten in this country that I wanted to revise. I wanted to go back and make the drama pertinent, and I think somehow this was the right time.
Thomas is the man of the title, but it feels like the book is just as much about 19-year-old, Pixie, who works at the local jewel-bearing plant but is determined to have a bigger life.
One of my daughters agrees with you! She actually made an alternate cover just called Pixie. And I really had to put Pixie in there. She showed up as soon as I wrote the first few pages about Thomas — the next chapter just started like, boom. The line popped up: "She did things perfectly when enraged." Her anger directed her into this cold efficiency, and I liked that about her.
I think that characters are both from outside the writer and from within the writer, so it’s as if the writer has been developing some sort of interior voice unknown, a subterranean voice that begins to speak to them. And these characters are very willful and powerful — willful in such a way that you find yourself writing a line that encapsulates this part of them.
There's another quote in Watchman where a character says, "They always try to solve Indians. They solve us by getting rid of us." Obviously the rhetoric around Native lives, or at least the lip service, has improved dramatically. But do you feel like the intent has truly evolved since your grandfather's time?
You know, the conversation about cultural appropriation and how to talk about land acknowledgment and all sorts of important things, there are great advances in that, but the problems are still so painful. The rate of Native incarceration is actually even higher per capita than [for] any other group in the United States. The anguish of missing and murdered indigenous women, this is happening at all times.
That's what's so frustrating: We can see some progress in the conversation, but the intractable issues that people, not only on reservations but in so many rural areas of America face, those prejudices are alive and even more virulent. They really are.
I think in doing this long body of work that I’ve been working on, it’s something that has to be grappled with, an acknowledgment of history. It’s true that the policies that start with dispossession do not stop there — they continue on with attempting to use white sugar, white flour, dried potato, dried eggs, canned pork for the rations that were to be delivered by treaty, and that food being handed down has led to a legacy of an incredibly high rate of diabetes and heart disease.
People who at the turn of the last century were living into their 90s, incredibly strong people who had survived the ravages of disease after disease after plague, now being forced to subsist on a diet that shortens people’s lives enormously.
There's a lot of discussion in the book world right now about who has the right to tell certain stories. Where do you fall on all that?
Ah, how to parse this out! Because of course I think about this stuff a lot, but I never come to any sensible conclusions [laughs]. I do think it's important to have the lived experience in some ways, it's important to have the family connections, the ancestral connections. Or it is for me, at least. But it's also important, I think, to take it book by book in each situation.
I can understand why people who’ve lived an experience aren’t happy with it, and this happens a lot with Native literature, Native film. I mean it’s ubiquitous, it’s always happened.
I question myself too, and I feel like I really try to dig down. I’m not a great historical researcher, but I’ve learned to try. My books have gotten more and more embedded in experience and research.
Your work sometimes leans into the supernatural but stops short of full-on magical realism. Is there a line that you draw?
Well, anything that seems unusual is really based on similar circumstances that I've either known of or knew someone [who did]. It's all within the realm of what I feel is possible.
Sometimes things that are very dramatic happen, and they seem strange or magical when people tell them, but I’ve heard incredibly startling things that people have seen from judges, [leaders], people who have all the rational trappings of our culture. Strange things have happened to them, and strange things have happened to me, so that’s where it comes from.
I don't think that everything can be explained at all; I don't know that scientists think it can. Because science is basically, when you get down to the details, magical. And I don't know why we receive and send signals that are beyond our ability to know.
Your last book, Future Home of the Living God, felt maybe less supernatural than straight-up dystopian, more like the work of, say, Margaret Atwood or Naomi Alderman. Was that an intentional swerve for you? It also seemed like the ending might be open to a sequel.
I utterly enjoyed writing that book! But I didn’t really see it as dystopian. I saw it as an opportunity to write about the female body and the changes that are happening to our climate, and what that would mean for us as women.
I do read science fiction, and it’s what I really started with as a young reader — not as a child but as a teenager. It really spoke to me, and it still does. And the end was left somewhat ambiguous because I thought I might want to keep going.
You've been so prolific for more than four decades. Do you ever think about slowing down, or are you more the type to be like, "I'll die with a pen in my hand"?
I'll probably just fade away somehow [laughs]. No, I don't know!
It’s very strange to me, because I had just had my first baby when my first book [Love Medicine] was published, and then my next baby when the next book was published in 1985, and I don’t know how I wrote the second one or the first one and had the babies.
Honestly, the I Ching says success is as dangerous as failure, and I think that’s true because my life on the outside has been this series of "Oh! This book, this book, this book," but on the inside, it’s a flight from recognition every time.
Except this is how I live, I block everything about recognition so that I can just go back to the work without terror of trying to best a book, you know? I don’t want to make a better book every time, I’m not like that.
I sort of like the John le Carré attitude, where he's 88 and he says, "Well, it still is a pleasure to me, so I'll keep doing it." There’s nothing that makes me as happy as having those moments we just talked about, of having a new character announced, a new voice coming to me, and I hope it keeps happening.
But you can’t count on that. You can’t count on your brain, you can’t count on anything, so I’ll just have to hope for the best but deal with whatever happens. That sounds a little bleak [laughs]. But I love writing so I'll keep doing it, as long as I have books and characters.
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