Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Author Birthday: Louise Erdrich

From today's Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of novelist Louise Erdrich (books by this author), born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her mother was French-Ojibwe, and her father was German; she and her six brothers and sisters were raised in a close, loving family. Instead of watching TV—they didn't own one—the children were encouraged to write and to memorize poems.

She went off to Dartmouth in 1972, the same year the university started admitting women and the first year of its new Native American Studies program. The program's director was Michael Dorris. Years after she graduated, Erdrich was invited back to Dartmouth to read some of her poetry, and she became re-acquainted with Dorris, and they ended up getting married.

She started off as a poet. Her first book was Jacklight (1984), a book of poems based on the thesis she wrote for her master's degree in 1979. She said, "I began to tell stories in the poems and then realized that there was not enough room." So she moved on to fiction. She published her first short story, "The Red Convertible," in 1981, and "Scales" in 1982. Later that year, Dorris convinced her to enter a new fiction writing contest, so in the space of two weeks she wrote "The World's Greatest Fisherman," and she won the $5,000 prize. Two years later, she published Love Medicine (1984),a novel made up of 14 interrelated stories.

Love Medicine is populated with characters who live in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, or its nearby reservation. There is Marie Lazarre, who starts out life convinced she wants to be a nun—"I was that girl who thought the black hem of her garment would help me rise. Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing—that was me." And her rival Lulu Lamartine—"Lulu Lamartine was usually controlled as a cat, and got her way through coaxing, cajoling, rubbing against your leg. An old woman who remained infuriatingly pretty, she bent others to her will before they knew what was happening." And Nector Kashpaw, the man who loved Lulu but married Marie anyway: "Here is what I do not understand: how instantly the course of your life can be changed. I only know that I went up the convent hill intending to sell geese and came down the hill with the geese still on my arm. Beside me walked a young girl with a mouth on her like a flophouse, although she was innocent. She grudged me to hold her hand. And yet I would not drop the hand and let her walk alone. Her taste was bitter. I craved the difference after all those years of easy sweetness." After Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich wrote many novels set in the same fictional universe, and Marie, Lulu, and Nector all reappeared, along with others connected to them. Her novels include Tracks (1988), The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), The Plague of Doves (2008), and Shadow Tag (2010).

She said, "We have a lot of books in our house. They are our primary decorative motif—books in piles on the coffee table, framed book covers, books sorted into stacks on every available surface, and of course books on shelves along most walls. Besides the visible books, there are the boxes waiting in the wings, the basement books, the garage books, the storage locker books. They are a sort of insulation, soundproofing some walls. They function as furniture, they prop up sagging fixtures and disguised by quilts function as tables. The quantities and types of books are fluid, arriving like hysterical cousins in overnight shipping envelopes only to languish near the overflowing mail bench. Advance Reading Copies collect at beside, to be dutifully examined—to ignore them and read Henry James or Barbara Pym instead becomes a guilty pleasure. I can't imagine home without an overflow of books. The point of books is to have way too many but to always feel you never have enough, or the right one at the right moment, but then sometimes to find you'd longed to fall asleep reading The Aspern Papers, and there it is."

She said, "By having children, I've both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. [...] 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."

*photo credit


  1. Lovely. I've just started re-reading The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse for an IRL book club. Wonderful.

  2. Thank you, JoAnn. I hope to reread "Love Medicine" this summer.

  3. Oh, such a great post! Thanks for giving me more of a glimpse into one of my favorite authors!

  4. Amy - Another Erdrich novel I want to read... good to know you're enjoying it the second time around.

    Gavin - And I hope to read it for the first time :-)

    Melissa - Glad you like this. I love learning more about authors I'm reading.

  5. Mr. BFR just started Shadow Tag, can't wait to have some great conversations with him as he reads and when he's finished.

    I had no idea that Erdrich and I started college the same year.

  6. A fellow PhD student is working on Erdrich. That's her blog: http://livesinliminalspaces.wordpress.com/

  7. emeire - Thanks so much for this link. I'll go take a look. After enjoying many of Erdrich's short stories, I recently read her latest novel. Now I want to go back and read everything!

    Beth F - I wonder what he'll think of it... that could be a pretty interesting dicsussion.


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