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The Writing Life

“It has always been important for Native people to prove who we are because the minute we allow someone else to define us, our land is taken … so the issue is always new.”

—Louise Erdrich, ’79

More than 30 years have passed since Louise Erdrich, MA ’79, received the acceptance letter she still keeps, inviting her to join the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. “Thrilling,” she says, remembering the welcome news, which included notice of a teaching assistantship and stipend. Erdrich soon left her job with North Dakota’s Poets in the Schools program, which involved traveling around North Dakota and “staying a week in grade schools, high schools, the penitentiary, wherever I was called upon to spread poetry.” She tied her foam-rubber mattress and her writing table to the top of her car and drove to Baltimore for the two-year program.

Since earning her MA, Erdrich has written 13 novels, including the National Book Critics Circle Award winner Love Medicine; The Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse, a National Book Award finalist; and The Plague of Doves, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has also written a memoir, children’s stories, and several volumes of short stories and poetry.

Erdrich’s latest novel, The Round House, published by Harper-Collins in October, takes place in 1988 on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota (the site of many of her novels), where 14-year-old Joe tries to solve the mystery of who brutally assaulted his mother and why. Early on, Joe explains that “being an Indian is in some ways a tangle of red tape,” a familiar theme in Erdrich’s stories. It’s the untangling of identity, land rights, and relationships that leads to the mystery’s climax. “Because the federal government is bound by nation-to-nation treaties, Native people are not so much an ethnic group as a people defined first by our own culture and family, second by legality,” explains Erdrich, an enrolled Turtle Mountain Chippewa. “It has always been important for Native people to prove who we are because the minute we allow someone else to define us, our land is taken … so the issue is always new.”

Although Erdrich’s earlier fiction is marked by multiple narrators, The Round House stands out for what Erdrich calls “its one transparent voice,” which results in “a more headlong and direct form of storytelling.” She speculates that her earlier novels might be characterized as more poetic. “I began, of course, as a poet,” she says. “In fact, perhaps I miss that.”

It was in the Writing Seminars, Erdrich says, that she found her voice as a novelist. She jokes that she was drawn to “the dark side,” aka fiction, a shift inspired by Hopkins professor Edmund White, whose work deeply affected her. “I had never before written the truth of my own anger and joy into fiction, and he showed me that could be done,” she explains. “He gave me courage.”

Erdrich also remembers the support of other students and of mentors like John Barth who “set the tone for the seminars—intellectually acute, lighthearted, generous, bold,” and John Irwin, in whose class she “kept copious notes because half the words he used I had to look up, and the other half were outrageously interesting.”

In 2001, Erdrich opened Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis, the city she calls home. In addition to books, the shop carries Native art and jewelry and sponsors readings by authors, including Erdrich. “I started the bookstore partly because I was coming off a book tour and tired of talking about my book [and] wanted to talk about other writers’ books,” she says. Bookstores, she believes, “are not so much businesses as community services.

“Amy Goodman calls them intellectual watering holes. We need them now more than ever in this corporatized, increasingly spectral world.”

While you might run into Erdrich on a visit to Birchbark Books, entrepreneurship has not cut into her writing time. Her writing process is fairly static and decidedly old school. “I take my notebooks with me everywhere and write my work out by hand before transferring it into my computer,” she says.

Her advice for aspiring writers?

“Always listen to criticism, try not to take it personally, and try to let your work exist outside yourself. That way your work can get better and your sensitivities will be protected. Beyond that, persist.”