Being the mother of five children has deepened her art, says the author of "Love Medicine" and the new "Tales of Burning Love"
“how is it that we all, constantly, apologize for that womanizing, weak-spirited, failed contractor, our husband?” gripes Eleanor to the other three ex-wives of Jack, an irresistible lout around whom Louise Erdrich spins her latest multi-voiced novel, “Tales of Burning Love.” Driving away from Jack’s funeral the wives are caught in a sudden squall that strands them under an overpass outside of Fargo, North Dakota. As the snow buries their car, the women stave off the bitter cold and fatal sleep by telling each other very different tales of Jack’s ever-changing financial and amorous arrangements.
Like many of her characters, Jack included, Erdrich is of mixed Native American descent; her mother is French Ojibwa, while her father, who according to family legend was born in a tornado, is German American. Erdrich’s parents worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as teachers on a nearby North Dakota reservation and she recalls that her father regularly recited memorized poetry — Frost and Byron — to her and her six siblings. Erdrich started her literary career as a poet, supporting herself by working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken and on road construction crews.
At 28, Erdrich published her first novel “Love Medicine” — which had been rejected by numerous publishing houses — when her husband, the author Michael Dorris, resubmitted it, posing as her literary agent. Despite a modest first print run, “Love Medicine” was a phenomenal word-of-mouth success, selling 400,000 copies in hardback and winning the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award.
She followed with three bestsellers: “The Beet Queen,” “Tracks,” and “The Bingo Palace,” as well as “The Crown of Columbus,” another bestseller she co-authored with her husband, Michael Dorris. This spring, Hyperion is releasing her first children’s book, “Grandmother’s Pigeon.” She and Dorris have five children, two of whom are adopted.
Edrich spoke with SALON at a plush midtown Manhattan hotel, where she was staying during her current book tour. At 41, Erdrich looks ten years younger, yet carries herself with the regal elegance of an elderly matriarch, speaking proprietarily of her characters, as if they were neighbors in the small town where she grew up.
With “Tales of Burning Love,” did you set out to create a whole new cast of characters?
Well, I thought they would be. I was kind of hoping I’d have an entire new cast, but they were indeed connected right into the beginning of “Love Medicine,” and that was a surprise for me.
Your characters really linger in the mind. Do you ever feel like your characters get away from you or do you, as Nabokov has said, feel that your characters are “galley slaves”?
They’re certainly not galley slaves. I cannot call them up at will. When I was younger I used to take it for granted that they would be there when I needed to write about them. That’s not true anymore. I’ve used up a lot of the emotional weight of my childhood experiences. I have to keep replenishing. I don’t know where it comes from, but whatever it is, I find I need a lot more solitude than I used to, that I have to make a conscious decision to be reclusive and barricade myself. I find I have to make certain commitments to writing that I used to take for granted.
Jack is a wonderfully flawed character. Was it fun writing about a scoundrel?
Yes. I identified with this person so thoroughly. I wanted in a way to make him a woman, and yet I wanted the women to have the center of the book. There’s a character, Lulu Lammertine, in an earlier book, who has the same sort of scoundrelly way with the opposite gender, but for this one I wanted the core of women.
The harsh landscape of the Great Plains has always played a prominent role in your work. Is it ingrained in your fictive sensibility?
It probably is. I don’t feel at home in the writing — I don’t know where I am setting down my feet or where the characters are — unless I have this visual backdrop for them.
Could you ever see yourself writing a novel set in New England and populated with Puritans?
I have a character who’s an Indian agent who starts off in New Hampshire. I’ve spent enough time in New England that I feel I can understand to some degree the landscape, but not the people. I don’t understand the people. I really love the day-to-day stuff, but I don’t know their moms, their connections. I don’t know where they’re coming from. I didn’t leave home until I was 18, so I really grew up with one set of people in a small town, still know those people, what’s happened to them. I keep in very close contact with them.
Your novels have a spoken, storytelling quality. Did you grow up having stories told to you?
My mother read, my father told them to me. Lots of stories. That’s the way they are. They’re always making stories out of things — “This happened today and he is connected to so and so.” It’s a small town thing. There are certain characters that come in and out of the stories that you know instantly — the town gossip, the town drunk. We know when those characters come in what the story’s going to be like.
Do you read your own work aloud as you are composing?
Not really. I write things out by hand, then I put it on the computer. I started out as a poet. I think slowly. I may write it several times by hand. I write all my changes by hand. I rarely read it out loud, although I do like to do readings and I do my own recordings.
With a household of children, especially small children, how do you create space to work?
They go to school now. That makes a big difference. I just work during school hours. I set limits. I don’t work while they’re around; I can’t do that now. When they were younger, I had an office set up for them with a small desk so they could do coloring while I wrote.
How has being a mother changed you as an artist?
I find myself emotionally engaged in ways I wouldn’t have been otherwise. I wouldn’t understand certain things that I’m starting to get now. In the book there’s a part where a child, a girl who is 12 , really has to figure out deception in order to cross over the threshold of becoming an adult. I wouldn’t have understood that kind of change if I didn’t have a daughter. It really takes the character consciously lying to grow her up. She becomes a woman when she does that. She loses her innocence and expressiveness. She takes on this woman’s mask. She learns how to mask her emotions. She really cries for the first time and she understands what she has to do. I think that’s definitely a mother’s perspective.
Some authors worry about what their parents will think of their work. Do you ever worry about your parents’ or children’s reactions to your novels?
I don’t worry about my daughters reading my work at all. I do worry about my father. I don’t worry about my mother, but my dad and I have this thing because there’s a lot of sexuality in my work. So with this book, I gave him the reading copy with paper clips. I censored it. It’s like ritual avoidance in traditional native cultures. He reported back that Mom was watching him so that he wouldn’t take out the paper clips. He went through it with no problems. He was still a little horrified about some scenes that weren’t clipped. There was a conversation about Jack’s masculine dimensions and his wives were uncertain about his size since they had all had different experiences. Dad said, “This should’ve been clipped.” It worked very well otherwise.
Toni Morrison talks about finding a writer who gives one “permission” to write, someone who breaks down the barriers and allows you the self-confidence to write. Did you have any “permission-giving” writers when you first started to write?
Morrison was one of mine. She spoke about being a mother, and she always spoke about it as a great boon to her as a writer. Previous to that I don’t think I’d read anything positive. There were few mothers writing, very few mothers who would talk about the benefits. Kay Boyle was one person for whom being a mother and a writer were passionately integral. Grace Paley, she’s very funny about it. She claims to have neglected her children, because it was the only way she could get things done.
Toni Morrison’s work always astounds me, that she’s able to be both a mother and also admit to the cruelties of the world. It’s a very hard thing for a mother to do because one almost protects the imagination against that kind of intrusion, protecting the children’s imagination. She’s so valiant, she doesn’t do that. Otherwise, imaginative inspirations were Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and then I’ve got contemporaries whom I admire: Amy Tan and Michael.
How do you feel about the new generation of Native American writers?
I think of Susan Power — she’s my favorite — and Sherman Alexie. I think what’s happening is that they’re establishing different tribal traditions and it’s exciting. Linda Hogan is a writer I particularly like, and Jim Welch, although he’s not new.
Morrison has stated that she dislikes being labeled a “black writer.” Do you feel pigeon-holed or limited by being called a “Native American” writer?
It’s an academic distinction. It’s made to attract people to courses where you can lump authors together. There’s a mixture of people and characters in native fiction. I’m mixed. There’s no other way I would have the artistic truth and veracity to write about all those characters. Labels make a good headline. I don’t dislike it, but I find it tedious.
On the other hand, do you feel pressure being one of the best known Native American writers in the country?
I really don’t feel pressure to write a certain way. That’s because I’m a very stubborn writer and I insist on writing whatever has to be written. The background of the characters doesn’t matter. I feel that if I started thinking about all the things that other people tell you to write about or do, I would’ve never written in the first place. I was in a small town and I was supposed to write nice little romantic stories that always ended up happy. Having not done that, nothing will bother me.
I’m so glad to talk about being a native writer because the other pressure I get is being talked about as a “commercial” writer versus a “literary” writer. The fact is, you write what you can write. I don’t have a lot of choice. I still write in the same way. I curl up in my chair and just write it like I’m writing a poem.