The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Louise Erdrich

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In National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich’s gripping new novel LaRose, a shocking and tragic act ends a child’s life in the first few pages of the book. What happens next is a story about how guilt, justice, and atonement ricochet through the lives of two families as well as their close-knit community. When Landreaux Iron, while hunting, accidentally kills the son of a friend and neighbor, he and his wife Emmaline make the agonizing decision to give their own son LaRose to the grieving family to raise—an act of reparation drawn from traditional Native precedent. As both families cope with the loss of one boy and the fragile peace brought by LaRose himself—who becomes a shared son—this arrangement both deepens and frays the ties among the wide cast of characters, whether they are of Native, white, or mixed heritage. As is so often the case in Erdrich’s work, in LaRose the past is not past. Here the history of both people and land resurface within the story to compel a new understanding about how human justice works: the balance it seeks, the toll it takes.

When we met in a dim, cool Chinese café in midtown Chicago on a recent hot afternoon, Louise Erdrich, tall and elegant in a black silk sweater and patterned scarf, spoke quietly and clearly about how this novel—her fifteenth—came as a surprise to her. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

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The Rumpus: It’s maybe strange to begin with a question about a book’s cover, when I loved the story so much and can’t wait to talk to you about it, but I have to ask because the image here is so beautiful and striking and I understand it has a personal connection to you?

Louise Erdrich: Yes, it does. My daughter Aza, who is also a visual artist, did the cover for the book. She digitized my Indian-boarding-school-taught grandfather’s handwriting, and she made the cover.

Rumpus: So this is his actual handwriting.

Erdrich: Yes. And it really was this wonderful… you know, you get these moments sometimes to work with your daughters, and it makes everything so meaningful. Also, my daughter Pallas worked with me on the manuscript. She read different versions of the manuscript, and I would keep showing them to her, and she would give me readings on them—and she really helped me shape the ending.

Rumpus: I love that.

Erdrich: It’s really incredible, that I got to work with them.

Rumpus: And I understand “LaRose” is a name from your ancestors. You have a LaRose in your history.

Erdrich: Yes. We do. We have a LaRose, and I don’t exactly know what great-aunt or great-uncle, but they’re also in the 1897 Turtle Mountain Census. They are Gourneaus—that’s my mother’s maiden name.

Rumpus: When you imagined the long tradition of LaRoses in the novel, it’s a lineage of women—but then the central character, at the heart of the story, is a young boy named LaRose. I’m curious about why you chose to have him be a boy.

Erdrich: I don’t know. I must have talked to Pallas about that at some point, too. I think it was really organic to the book that he be a boy, and that his ancestors be women. Their resilience has been put into him, over the generations. And I wanted to show his background, his ancestors. And that he’s in touch with them.

Rumpus: So much of his ancestor’s work, the original LaRose—whose story is interwoven throughout the novel—is teaching, it seems.

Erdrich: Yes. It’s very much about teaching, this book. My parents, both of them, were school teachers. My father much longer than my mother—he taught sixth grade all through my childhood, and then he became a substitute teacher at the local high school. He could teach anything. He was called the Super Sub. Everyone from Wahpeton, of a certain era, remembers him.

Rumpus: Did you ever have him as a teacher in school?

Erdrich: No, this was after I graduated. But my parents taught us all the time. My mother taught us everything she knew—and there’s parts of that in the book.

Rumpus: I’ve read that LaRose is the last in a trilogy, consisting of The Plague of Doves, then The Round House, and ending with this new novel.

Erdrich: Yes.

Rumpus: Did you conceive of these stories originally as a trilogy?

Erdrich: No, I didn’t. But I knew I was working on the subject of justice when I wrote the first book, and then I realized I had to write about jurisdictional issues for the second book… and then I understood that I had to continue this theme. So the books are thematically linked—there’s no order to them, and very few of the characters are connected. But they are thematically about justice. And this last book is about a traditional act of reparation.

Rumpus: In each of the books there is a single act of violence that seems to ricochet backward and forward in time.

Erdrich: Yes.

Rumpus: There are immediate repercussions for the characters from this violence, but it also causes them to need to go back, in history, to understand the context. The community, in each of these novels, but especially in LaRose, is so important.

Erdrich: You’re right, the community is… this book’s story would not be possible in a community that wasn’t very close, didn’t have a long history together. One of the things that’s surprised me, about LaRose, is that this act of reparation does surprise people. I grew up hearing about such a thing, and then my mother told me more about a specific incident. This was an idea that wasn’t out of the ordinary. I mean, it was extraordinary, but it wasn’t shocking. And that is the way most Native people do regard it, because they’re from a place where families, and relationships, and a kind of reciprocity between people does go back for many, many generations. And that’s the kind of couple of families we have here [in LaRose]. But, as in the first sentence, they are bisected by invisible boundaries. They do have different histories, they do have different expectations, so that when Landreaux and Emmaline give their son they’re not thinking that they will never see him again. They’re saying, our son will be your son now, but they really are more invested in thinking… we’ll share him. And they realize this as time goes on, that that was their expectation. Whereas Nola really desperately needs him to heal her.

Rumpus: She needs the physicality of him on her body, even.

Erdrich: Yes. “His breath steams to the crater of her heart.” He’s healing her with his presence. So she needs him around at all times. But Peter is the one who begins to understand, through his compassion for LaRose, what this is costing LaRose. So he understands how this sharing has to work out because he begins to identify how difficult this is for the child himself. You know, Peter’s one of my favorite characters because it’s very hard for me to write a character with human decency of that nature. I mean, he’s not that perfect at all but he has this decency about him.

Rumpus: You get the sense that he is going to be able to survive this accident in a way that Nola might not be able to.

Erdrich: No, she’s very close to not surviving.

Rumpus: When we’re talking about this act of reparation that’s not unthinkable, within this community, it occurs to me that Hollis is a son who has been given from one family to another.

Erdrich: Right! So you see from the beginning, there’s Hollis the son of Romeo, who was given to Peter and Emmaline to raise. And you have Romeo, who goes about stealing gas right in front of Peter, unapologetically—

Rumpus: I love that, when he’s siphoning gas right in front of him—

Erdrich: And they’re just looking at each other. “Well, my work here is done.” I loved writing Romeo. He has no real moral… he doesn’t think twice about things like that. He’s the kind of guy who puts a dollar in the coffee donation cup, and then takes out all of the change, and makes money that way. Constantly looking for an angle.

Rumpus: The way you write Romeo’s character makes me think how funny your writing so often is. Even in a novel like this one, centered around a tragic accident of a child’s death. I mean, there are scenes and moments in here where I laughed out loud.

Erdrich: Really?

Rumpus: Sure. Well, you have that Greek chorus of the old women in the nursing home, and their incredibly bawdy stories. And then Josette and Snow, these two amazing teenage girls, who are hilarious and are probably two of my favorite characters in the novel.

Erdrich: I did a lot of a consulting with Pallas on those two. They are basically in the same age range she was in 2000 [when the novel is set] so I would go back to her, and she just has this meticulous memory of, say, what would be on the Subway menu at the time. And I would have no clue. I would put down something about a sandwich with the dressing I would have now, and she would say “Oh no, that dressing didn’t come out until 2004.” So she has immediate recall of all the minutiae of the time, just the way a teenager would.

Rumpus: That’s so great. I think one of the reasons I loved your portrayal of Josette and Snow is… well, so I have a teenage daughter. And you know how the conventional take on teenage girls in our culture can be so shitty.

Erdrich: I know, I know it!

Rumpus: There are these stereotypes of girls having constant drama with each other, constant “boy craziness” etc. Which is so opposed to what I see daily with my daughter and her friends, who are so engaged and strong and varied in their interests—and that’s what I felt really came through with Josette and Snow.

Erdrich: Well, thank you! That’s how I feel about my daughters. I mean, you’ve got to go through the hormonal craziness, and that happens, but also… they’re just being human. I’m so glad you say that.

Rumpus: It meant a lot to me. You have that great scene where the girls are really arguing with each other, practically fighting, but then twenty seconds later they are united in comforting their dad and boasting about how great the dinner is that they are going to make him.

Erdrich: They have a contentious relationship once in a while of course. And they pick on their brothers. But they’re just not mean people.

Rumpus: They have good hearts. And what they do for the other family’s troubled daughter Maggie… they save her. Through volleyball, through giving her good advice.

Erdrich: Yes. I really dislike how the “mean girl” stereotype is the go-to depiction of teenage girls. It really is. And the “hero girl”… there’s not enough of her, somehow. You know, the only hero girl I can think of right now is, is… the one from Mockingjay?

Rumpus: Oh, right. Katniss.

Erdrich: And she’s a hero, but she’s a killing all these people. She’s a violent hero. And Josette and Snow are funny, nurturing girls who are dealing with an enormous tragedy, they’re doing the best they can, trying to deal with loss… So I just wanted to write about them, because that’s how I experience girls, young women. Young women also have this enormous resilient joy in their being, and that I think is something to celebrate. And they are also sexual beings. And nobody can handle that.

Rumpus: Right. Our culture loses its shit around girls and their sexuality.

Erdrich: Loses its shit. You’re totally sexualized, but don’t let’s talk about having sex.

Rumpus: Let’s sell a lot of stuff based on your sexuality, but not talk to you about it.

Erdrich: Let’s sell all the stuff, but not let you have appropriately private or safe or consensual sex… like, let’s not have that happen, ever.

Rumpus: The back and forth between Josette and Snow, when they start riffing on safe sex practices to educate Maggie… I mean, how did you come up with those? “Above or beneath, he’s gotta wear a sheath” and how does it go, “if he’s spouting crude…”

Erdrich: [Laughing] “He’s gotta cap his dude.” Well. Okay, so, I will have to cite my daughter Pallas. She is kind of a go-to consultant for a lot of her girlfriends. Also, I never got a chance when I was a teenage girl to even remotely approach this with my friends. But she really was, so I knew it was possible.

Rumpus: For real talk, real advice, between teenage girls. That scene seems more of the teaching we were speaking about in this novel. Teaching that comes within a women’s community.

Erdrich: It is. It’s about teaching Maggie. And—well, the book’s published now—but I think, I should have gone further with that. They didn’t teach her about female pleasure, how to insist that sex isn’t just about the man… but then, it could have gotten too PC. [Laughs]

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Rumpus: One difference I noticed with LaRose, in comparison to the others in the trilogy, is the form of the narration. It’s not told by a character within the story. There’s no “I,” or choral version of narrators, that you have in the other novels. Why did you make that decision? And how to you come to choose point of view when you’re writing a novel?

Erdrich: Well, this novel snuck up on me. Because I had started writing an entirely different book, using the same characters as in The Round House. So I was using Clemence, and referring back to her past. And I had that going for a while, I tried one thing after the next, and nothing was clicking. So, I suddenly found myself writing this [LaRose] and I thought, No, I’m not going to write a novel where a child dies on the second page. What am I doing? But I could not stop writing it. I didn’t want to at first, but I had to go on and write the rest of it. And I wanted to write how these families lived out this next act. Because once I wrote this, I remembered what my mother told me.

Rumpus: The story of the real life child given away.

Erdrich: Yes. Interestingly, she followed up. She happened to meet the woman—it was a girl who had been given to the family to raise. I asked her about it, a couple of weeks ago. She said, yes, she had talked to her. The woman said, I really was glad. Because I was really cherished in that family, they really loved me, and there was only one other child in the family. And she just had a whole different sort of life. But she appreciated that it kept this balance in the community.

Rumpus: I love that, the idea that one person can keep the balance in a community.

Erdrich: So people who have never experienced this kind of closeness in a small community think of it as: you’d be giving your child away to strangers. And that you’d never see the child again. But the community, as you pointed out, is another member of the cast of characters.

Rumpus: They’re not strangers.

Erdrich: No. And they’re never going to be strangers.

Rumpus: It’s hard for people not to be related, in a place this small.

Erdrich: It is hard for them not to be related! Really truly hard. There’s an element, when you think of it that way [if you were to never see the child again] where it becomes a shocking idea, but it’s not shocking if it’s something that, as I said, is keeping a sense of balance.

Rumpus:When you talk about in that way, this act of reparation as keeping a sense of balance in the community, it almost sounds like a function of nature. A primeval act, maybe.

Erdrich: Well, I don’t know that it would be primeval. I think it’s very human. I would say it’s a very civilized way to live. And it’s a way that transcends our legal system as we think of it right now. So this is pretty much what would be thought of as a traditional act of justice. It’s akin to the sort of justice that would be done in the old days.

Rumpus: In this trilogy, you write about the good and the bad versions of this kind of justice. In A Plague of Doves that hanging, which is abhorrent and wrong, is described by a character as “rough justice.” But it was an immediate rush to judgment, and then execution, that was perpetrated on the wrong people. But in LaRose, the act of justice is moral, it’s right.

Erdrich: Yes. It’s something that doesn’t happen now because we’re litigious. We’re not supposed to even apologize if we hit someone in an accident.

Rumpus: Even if it’s our fault.

Erdrich: Of course not. You would not apologize, because that’s an admission of guilt, and you’d be afraid you’d be sued. So even if people have that instinct toward kindness or justice, it’s stymied by our system. I mean, of course in other ways our system does work, but in this way, when someone could respond with an act of human kindness, that is usually impossible. This brings to mind another story, a very traditional story that I read about, where a man was responsible for killing the husband of a family—so that then he takes the position of this provider in the family. So there’s other sorts of restoration that take place.

Rumpus: So when you were writing LaRose did you ever think of having a first person narrator, one of these characters telling the story?

Erdrich: No. I couldn’t have done it any other way. And also, for some reason with these characters, I felt as close to them as if I’d been writing in the first person. I’d also been writing in Joe’s voice [from The Round House] for so long… it was hard to get him out of my system. Yeah, I missed him.

Rumpus: So to switch to another “I”—

Erdrich: Right. I don’t who I would have chosen.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about the other LaRose in this novel. The title can refer not just to the young boy LaRose, but to all these women in his ancestry named LaRose, including the original one, whose story is an important thread in the narrative. Did you conceive of that at the same time? Was that always as important to you, to tell her story as well as this young boy’s?

Erdrich: Well, it was. And I kept going back, as a back story, and constructing pieces of it. Then I took it all out, and I realized it was a short story. So it’s published as a short story as well, and it’s called “The Flower.” So I thought all along, it’s the back story, I’m going to take it all out… but then I thought, no, I want to keep it in, because I want the reader to be able to connect this LaRose back through the generations of LaRoses.

Rumpus: And there are similarities between their two stories, the first woman LaRose and this young boy.

Erdrich: Yes, I think there are, too.

Rumpus: I loved that back story. One of the lines that struck me in one of her parts has to do with language. You write:

Her children learned how to read and write in English and spoke English and Ojibwe. She corrected their grammar in both languages. In English there was a word for every object. In Ojibwe, there was a word for every action. English had more shades of personal emotion, but Ojibwe had more shades of family relationships.

It strikes me that the young boy LaRose—in one sense, he’s an object, he gets literally moved back and forth between the two families’ houses. But also, he’s got this in-between status in their families, he’s a link. There’s almost no word for what his relationship becomes to them. Or maybe there is, and I just don’t know it because I only speak English.

Erdrich: There might be a word in Ojibwe… You know, that’s a really interesting question. I’ll ask my other daughter. I have all these consultant daughters!

Rumpus: The presence of language is so important in this book, as in so much of your work. How much do you think about language, the different languages that characters know and speak, when you write about them?

Erdrich: I have an obsession, I suppose, with trying to get the language right.

Rumpus: In one scene with Josette and Snow, one of the girls says thank you to the other, but she chooses to speak in Ojibwe—

Erdrich: She says miigwech, right.

Rumpus: It makes it a more serious moment. So it’s as if the language characters speak or think in helps to shape their story.

Erdrich: Well, I really enjoy writing about this. My very limited study of the language—I’m more of a neophyte, someone who can appreciate and observe the language rather than a fluent speaker. My daughter is fluent, though. But I do like observing these things about the language, and that if someone breaks into Ojibwe it means something.

Rumpus: Something more than the actual content of what is spoken.

Erdrich: It does, yes. Especially with the characters of those girls—they are very limited speakers in Ojibwe, as I would be. They’re not native speakers.

Rumpus: One of my favorite books of yours is The Blue Jay’s Dance. And as a mother-writer, that book has been really important to me. You’ve written and spoken a lot about being a mother as well as a writer, and we’ve been talking about it today a lot too. I wonder what motherhood brings to writing, for you?

Erdrich: I think we’re at a really interesting place in literature. And probably in our cultural life, too. So we’ve had maybe thirty or forty years of reliable birth control in this country, right? And that has changed everything. For me, everything. I would not be a writer if I hadn’t had birth control. I just wouldn’t. And so, I’m always thanking Planned Parenthood.

Rumpus: We could all dedicate some novels to Planned Parenthood, I bet.

Erdrich: I think I’ll just say it wherever I go. So there’s this generation of women writers my age and younger, so fifties and sixties—as Isak Dinesen said, now you can have your power. Because you’re not completely invested in your children at this point. It’s like I felt when I was in my 20s. Except now I’m sixty-one… sixty-two, pretty soon. It’s a really interesting age. Now we have women of your age, and coming up, and all these fantastic writers, who have managed to have their children but continue with their art, their work. I think women are doing the most interesting writing right now, the most interesting art. I see everything through this lens, of women finally taking their place in the world. Their true place. And it’s very, very exciting to me. I love connecting with younger women writers and just seeing how they know—they say, it’s possible, and I’m going to do it. Because there were very few… In The Blue Jay’s Dance, I was looking for role models, and that was very hard to find. I could finally see Toni Morrison. But some of my favorites: Flannery O’Connor, Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf…

Rumpus: No children.

Erdrich: Now we see women who have such enormous range in her work. I’m thinking of Anne Enright, because I just read with her.

Rumpus: I just have a few more questions, and one has to do with your beautiful independent bookstore, Birchbark Books. When I came to Minneapolis for AWP last year, I left the conference hotel first thing when I arrived and took a cab out to the store. It’s a wonderful place, full of so many good books—I tried and failed to hold myself back—and such a great staff. How do the roles of being a bookstore owner and being a writer play out for you?

Erdrich: Well, I don’t run the day-to-day bookstore. There’s a manager, and as you saw, we have a wonderful staff, they are such great people. I do put an enormous amount of energy into the store, and so do my daughters. They’ll pick up hours whenever anything is going on. They’ve been packing and shipping LaRoses.

Rumpus: So it’s a true family business.

Erdrich: My nephew sweeps the floors! Absolutely. My daughters help me at book signings. It really is a family business.

Rumpus: And do you like being on both sides of the book business?

Erdrich: Yeah, I like selling books. That is a joy of mine. I like being in there and being able to talk to someone about literature. Being able to say, I think you should really read The Blue Flower, or, here’s someone that I think you should read. To say, this is a weird title—Old Filth—but it’s so good.

Rumpus: Jane Gardam is awesome. This leads into what I was going to ask. What have you been reading recently? Do you want to hand-sell us anything?

Erdrich: Oh, I want to hand-sell you The Door by Magda Szabo. And I loved Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. And Anne Enright’s The Green Road. Also I’m reading this great book by a guy named Frans Bengtsson, it’s called The Long Ships. And I still love War Dances, Sherman Alexie’s book. Oh God, there’s just some moments in there that I will never forget.

Rumpus: So now that you’ve finished LaRose and the trilogy as well, what’s next for you? Do you have another project?

Erdrich: I’ve been casting about. I try out all these books on my daughters.

Rumpus: You do? Do you tell them what you’re thinking about writing?

Erdrich: Pallas just read one possibility but I don’t know if it’s going to fly. I’ve written about 400 pages of a book I might have to cast aside. But I feel sure I’ll find something, because this one came upon me and it surprised me. And I’m also surprised that anyone likes it. I didn’t know if it would be a book that people would keep reading, since it starts with the death of a child. The first few times I signed copies for people, I wrote, “if you make it past page six it gets easier.” As in, please keep reading.


Emily Gray Tedrowe is a Chicago-based writer whose second novel, Blue Stars, was recently published by St. Martin’s Press. More from this author →