Interview with Louise ErdrichPosted by Goodreads on May 2, 2016
This month Erdrich releases her latest novel, LaRose. The story begins in the late summer of 1999, with anticipation of the Y2K Armageddon (remember that?) at full boil for residents of a small reservation town in North Dakota. But a tragic and dramatic accident turns that fear upside down—a man shoots his neighbors' young boy while deer hunting. In an effort to atone for the unforgivable, the hunter decides he will give his son, LaRose, to his grieving neighbors. The book chronicles these two families—who are intertwined both by friendship, family, and proximity—as they try to move on with their lives. Interwoven throughout the pages is an ancestral story line of the many LaRoses who have lived on this reservation—all of them endowed with mythic healing abilities and a connection to the spirit world.
The Round House and the Pulitzer Prize nominee The Plague of Doves. Debut author Claire Hoffman, who releases her own book, Greetings from Utopia Park, in June, spoke with Erdrich at her home in Minneapolis about grief, addiction, Y2K, and even Prince.
Goodreads: I love that this book starts in the months before Y2K—a great, strange, and forgotten moment in our recent history—
Louise Erdrich: Do you remember it?
GR: I do, especially with Prince dying.
LE: I'm here in Minneapolis, and my daughter—who was born in 2001, before 9/11—is now singing "Purple Rain." Everything has collapsed now.
GR: Speaking of Y2K, Prince was definitely somebody interested in judgment day coming. Was Y2K something that stayed with you? Or was it connected to an idea?
LE: Well, the book really is about disaster in some ways. On the first page you thought something would happen, but not what did happen. And this is the same thing that happened with Y2K: We thought something would happen, everyone was prepared, and then what happened was 9/11. And then what happened to the world is Iraq, and the reverberations continue in the most agonizing way throughout the Middle East and Europe. Y2K is a place that feels like a precipice to look back on the last 17 years and see how this all works out.
GR: I saw it as symbolic of something bigger for these two families. They are prepping for doom, and then they lose their child, Dusty. It is so heartbreaking because it's prepping for something big that can be prepared for versus something you could never have imagined. Would you say grief is central to this book?
LE: Well, I don't actually agree with that. If I try to reconstruct what my thinking was, because I don't really think about everything [laughs], I can remember that I tried to not make it about grief and instead make it about the way people live.
LE: I think we are always living in the wake of something. There's no one who goes through life without going through something that is at the very least extremely challenging. So how do we live? This is just life.
I was more surprised than I can say by starting the book out with a tragedy. To my friends, when I've signed the first few copies of the book, I keep saying, "Just get past page six," it gets better. It happens, and I couldn't stop it. I've written many, many starts to LaRose. Some of them have been as long as 50 pages, and that's just where it started. There was just no arguing about it.
GR: So what was it about LaRose or the LaRoses that made it your starting point?
LE: I wanted to write something with LaRose, I had the title—I always have the title. The rest of the book really collects the stories, the language, the characters, they collect around the title. So I knew I would write about LaRose. I had forgotten, though, that there was a LaRose far back in our family history. I really don't know anything about this LaRose, but I know the approximate dates when she lived. So I constructed a historical set of LaRoses, and then I worked out the traumas and the difficulties and everything until we came to this LaRose.
It's very difficult to write about people who are, I mean, pardon me, but not really fucked up. It's really hard to write about normal people who actually go about their lives doing their best, trying their hardest. So that was the most challenging part of this. We wouldn't be functioning as a society and a country if most people weren't pretty concerned with being decent and kind. Which is not to say that there aren't huge horrific disruptions of that. But our trend is to try to live in a society where we have a safe world for our kids. So that necessitates that most people try their best at something. That's always the struggle—where is the balance between the decency and brutality? And that's a struggle that is embodied in Romeo.
GR: Such an amazing character.
LE: He took over as a pleasure to write—in all of his awful self-pitying glory.
GR: Yet so much that was familiar! Speaking of Romeo, addiction is this insidious presence in this book, and particularly opiate addiction, which is in the news every day. It has impacted so many people in this country. What is your interest in this world?
LE: It is a big one. I have my extended family that works very hard in health—who are doctors, nurses, teachers, and they are working so hard on this. And of course I'm not only really interested in serious addiction—every writer is. I find that my addictions are petty. Thank God, my biggest addiction is to writing. But you know, I can't lose ten pounds. I'm addicted to fairly harmless things in life. But I understand it's very hard to break even the most insignificant habit. So how do you break something that is so powerful that it hits you on every level—physically, emotionally? How do you break through that? I wonder at people who do. I have people I'm close to who have broken those addictions, and they're very heroic in my book [laughs], I mean, to my way of thinking.
LaRose the crummy circumstances of real life for these characters collides with a sort of poetic level of belief. Is there something about these two realms coexisting—the experienced and the felt—that you were trying to say?
LE: I think that's the way life is. I think we experience the most ordinary circumstances and the heightened realm of experience when huge things happen to us. We also have to tend to what people are going to eat, where they are going to sleep, all of the small things. So I didn't think there was any message to convey. That's just the way I experience life. Don't we all have times, though, when our worlds feel mythic and now, the overused word, epic?
GR: There's something about the struggles you write about that is Raymond Carver-esque, and yet you lift these stories up in ways that are really unique and magical. Is that something unique to the Native American experience or is it universal?
LE: I don't think it is unique to any particular variety of a person's experience. I think it's an experience that is shared.
GR: Goodreads member Suzanne says, "I would love to hear you talk about the story all of your books tell together."
LE: Oh, about writing the one book? That all my books are pieces of the one book? You know, this was about six, eight years ago, when I had this sudden clap of thunder and I thought, "Oh, it's all one book"—that it, they all fit together. I had this idea that they did. But then, honestly, I thought of a whole new set of characters, and now I'm trying to connect them back in and I've lost my thread a little bit. Because these three new books really connect with one another more thoroughly. So maybe my theory on writing one book is failed somehow...I'm sorry there's nothing solid on that. I had thought I had it nailed, but it's falling apart.
GR: Goodreads member Joan says, "Your characters are so vivid to me. Do you live with them in your mind and daily activities while you are writing?"
LE: Yeah, I do. I'm lucky because I can wander around, and if I'm taking a walk, I usually take a notebook or a crumpled piece of paper and I just jot down something that someone would've said. It usually leads to another scene or another resolution. But on a subterranean level sometimes I feel that they are working on themselves. I'm not consciously working on them. They are developing themselves.
GR: Is there a book of yours that you would refer people to, to start with in your work?
Tracks, and I suppose I would start with Tracks. Or with The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. But now I don't know what I would start with. Maybe I'd start with The Antelope Wife. I don't know—it's a question I can't answer. It is my theory breaking down, right?
GR: How do you usually start your workday?
LE: I start with very strong coffee, and I dilute it as the day goes on. That is one of my harmless addictions. I write by hand. I write in notebooks, and then after I amass a lot of words on pages, I transcribe what I've got from the notebooks into a crotchety old laptop. I have to do something about this!
GR: Is there a novel that has inspired you recently?
LE: I am really influenced by small things all the time. Sometimes just the way a writer will turn a scene on its head will give me an idea. Sometimes I get so powerfully overloaded, and I think, "Oh, crap," I've got to write that way! It really takes time to recover. The last book that gave me that sense for days and that stood out in my life as a book that I would always return to was The Door by Magda Szabó.
GR: What about ten books that you would recommend to writers?
LE: Let me walk around and look at my books here...[Erdrich wanders around her bookshelves, enthusiastically examining and thinking about her favorites...here are 11 titles plus four favorite authors below...]
GR: What are you working on now?
LE: Well, I'm working on a number of different things. I can't decide which to do next. I have so many ideas—I don't know which to do next, so I'm actually floundering! So maybe it is a good thing I'm going on book tour.
Interview by Claire Hoffman for Goodreads. Claire is a magazine writer who lives in Los Angeles. She writes for national magazines, covering culture, religion, celebrity, business, and whatever else seems interesting. She was formerly a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone. Her first book, Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood, will be published by Harper in June 2016.
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