Listen: Louise Erdrich on writing: 'Getting older makes you cut to the chase'

MPR’s Kerri Miller talks with Minnesota author Louise Erdrich about her novel “LaRose” at a Fitzgerald Theater event.

Erdrich's fifteenth novel opens with a brutal tragedy: A man shoots and kills his best friend's five-year-old son in a hunting accident. The law holds no one at fault, but the man and his wife can't escape the weight of the death. They do the only thing that seems right to them: They give their own son, LaRose, to the bereaved couple: "Our son will be your son now."


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[MUSIC PLAYING] STEVEN JOHN: Welcome to MPR News Presents. I'm Steven John. Today, you'll hear the broadcast of a Thread Live event featuring National Book Award winning author Louise Erdrich. Erdrich joined MPR News host Kerri Miller for a conversation about her newest novel LaRose.

While Erdrich has been a frequent guest on Kerri's radio program, this event, held May 9, marked the first time the two were together at the Fitzgerald Theater to speak in front of a live audience. The conversation started off with an exploration of restraint in writing. LaRose has a number of highly emotional scenes, but Erdrich said she worked hard to make sure they were powerful without appearing overdone.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I had been trying to get at this book in all sorts of different ways. And I knew it had to be-- something about it had to incorporate justice because I said, this next book is somehow going to be about it. But then, this started almost writing itself. And I thought, I don't want to go into the-- I'm just going to tell the story. I'm not going to use very-- if I can-- I went through and tried to cut out all the adjectives. I went--


LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah, I went through and just tried to cut out any extraneous emotion because the events themselves were more than enough. And I needed that, so thanks for noticing. Thank you.

KERRI MILLER: Is that unusual to go through, and--

LOUISE ERDRICH: I got Stella napkin, but this is--

KERRI MILLER: If you want a beer--

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah, this is water.

KERRI MILLER: --you could bring one. Is that unusual to go through the language like that and pair out the adjectives and the emotionalism?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I wish I'd done it all along.


LOUISE ERDRICH: I look back, and I always want to revise my books. And I want to take out the fancy language. Some people like it. And then, they say, I love the way you put this, but I don't. I go back and think, oh, God, I was trying so hard to be poetic.

KERRI MILLER: Isn't that the show-offy stuff that we like?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I don't know.

KERRI MILLER: We want that as readers.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I think it's-- I don't know. I also think it's-- I think as you, I'll say-- getting older makes you cut to the chase. You just want to cut to the chase in every way and to get it written and not to obscure anything. I just want the-- I want things plain-- to be plain and simple in the books. It never turns out that way, but you could tell I made a stab at it.

KERRI MILLER: It sounded like you started to say with maturity.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, that would presume that I am mature, but--


KERRI MILLER: Comes the confidence, right, to be able to do that?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, that would be a good way of putting it. I don't know.

KERRI MILLER: Is it true?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, I think I have more confidence in some aspects. I feel like the writing will rescue me at some point. Right now, I'm going on a tour. I'm casting about. I don't know what comes next. And here, this is already written. So I can't get that-- it's like getting a fix from your writing.

I mean, it's harmless-- physically harmless. Maybe it's not emotionally or mentally harmless, but it's something that I really-- it's a thrill when you feel like-- writing that volleyball game was-- I felt great for about three days.

KERRI MILLER: And then, what happened? Then, you were back to--

LOUISE ERDRICH: I just needed the next scene.

KERRI MILLER: --the next scene, right? Right. But that idea that you can come back to plainness and not be worried that it's going to be interpreted as too simple as not worthy of the skill and the talent that you have, you don't worry about that, it sounds like.

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, I worry about overwriting something. Yeah.


LOUISE ERDRICH: It's my tendency to overdo everything. Ask my daughters. They're in the audience going, yeah, yeah. That's how I am. So when I can pare it down, I feel that I've gotten closer to the bone. I've got more of the story. I really love the narrative. I don't want to-- and I'm a narrative-- everybody actually is.

We all need narrative in our lives. It's like something we're born with. We need the stories from the very beginning, it seems. And as I've grown matured, we'll say, I feel that I need stories even more. And I need-- sometimes they're the same stories retold. But I love to have narrative around me. I love to be surrounded with it.

KERRI MILLER: Do the stories change-- those same stories that you've needed all along that the family has told?

LOUISE ERDRICH: They're always. Every day, their stories, they're different. There are some stories in here that I think are-- they're non-western stories, so we're really accustomed to, if we're educated in Western culture, to a somewhat Western set of narratives.

KERRI MILLER: And what does that mean?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, we have the romantic story, Pride and Prejudice. We have the story of the doubtful lovers who eventually become reconciled. We have the story of the vengeful somebody walks into town or the stranger walks into town story, and then sets into motion a narrative that can feel our way toward the ending of that.

But in the book, there's a couple of stories that are based on a less-- they're based on some more traditional stories that really obsessed me for a long time. And I read them in very different venues. And I thought, this story is really interesting to me. I don't really get it. It doesn't fit sort of a Freudian narrative. It doesn't fit all the things that have come down to us in Western culture, so I put, that's why people get chased by a rolling head.

KERRI MILLER: Are you intrigued? Can we talk about the opening scene?


KERRI MILLER: Did from the beginning this is where the book would start?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Not at all. Well, no, I felt it as I wrote it because, as I said, at the end of the book, my mother mentioned to me something like this story. I feel like there have been enough reviews and things out there that we can tell what the beginning is.




LOUISE ERDRICH: All right. So there is a tragic accident. A man kills his best friend's son. And in return, having gone through enormous soul-searching and anguish over this, the man and his wife decide to give their child for adoption. Now, this is another-- to the bereaved parents, the women are sisters. They're best friends.

So there again, when I wrote that, I'd heard it from my mom that something like this happened. I'd heard stories of this sort really all my life. I've heard-- and I've been used to this ease of adoption. My grandmother was an adopted. She just brought children into her home and raised them.

And it was not-- it was an agreement between two families. So I was not surprised by the narrative going this way. But then, one of my daughters read it and said, this is-- other people are going to think this is an unusual narrative.

KERRI MILLER: Oh my gosh, exactly. When you were just now saying-- and this seemed very natural, I was thinking. This seems so exotic and painful to me. I could not even imagine this-- giving your child to another family for whose death you were responsible for, but giving that child to them. That seemed somewhat, what, believable. It happened. Is that what you're saying?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I'm saying it happened. And so in many and in different ways since the beginning of what is recorded native history on this continent, there was such vast losses among Native people-- I mean, 9 out of every 10 people. Imagine that just in your neighborhood, that many people suddenly died of disease, of warfare, of everything that happened.

And so the remnants of tribal nations banded together and adopted each other, adopted one another. I mean, so adoption comes to us out of this vast catastrophe, but it continued on. And the boundaries of Native families have continued to be more fluid, And I would say fluent. The language of who belongs to what family is not quite as rigid.

This-- on another-- maybe we can get to that later, but it's something that really confounded social service agencies. It made for a huge raft of adoptions of Native kids out of their tribal settings into non-native homes.

And this was not really rectified until 1978 with the Indian Child Welfare Act, but that is still playing out as something that is restorative justice for Native people. I mean, you've probably heard it takes four generations for even one person to bring a whole life in a family back into being. And that's this boy.

This boy LaRose who is given to the family is the fourth generation. So he's the person who really brings the whole-- who really is like the communion between these two families. I mean, he brings something back to them. And it's painfully won, but he's the person who has the psychological resilience.

KERRI MILLER: I don't want our listeners to think once the child is given to the bereaved family, that all is well between the families.

LOUISE ERDRICH: That's what intrigued me. That's what I was excited about writing. After I wrote this, I thought, oh, I've written a short story. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. What happens between these families because there's differing expectations, a traditional act in a contemporary setting. And there's very traditional families who would-- I can really imagine them doing this.

But what if the other family doesn't have the same sort of traditional structure? What if they don't have the same ease and fluidity in their family boundaries? And so how do these two families work this out? And so that's what fascinated me. And working out each characters and the friendship between the two men, is that going to be restored? Or is there going to be something darker that plays out? The friendship or the disunion between the two sisters--

KERRI MILLER: Half-sisters.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Half-sisters. What happens with that? And then, to bring things really close to my heart, it was the children, the young people, the teenagers, the volleyball players who got to have a lot of the narrative.

KERRI MILLER: I mean, the interesting thing about the half-sisters and the child going from one home to the other, the bereaved family, the bereaved mother, it's clear from the beginning that as much as she wants to embrace and heal with this boy, she is nowhere near ready to say-- to acknowledge what an act of charity and love that is.

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, she's not. She's not because it says in the beginning, she is a harmless inoffensive woman who now wants blood everlasting.


LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah. But what this does, I mean, she holds him in her lap. And as he falls asleep, he steams away to the crater of her heart. He's this boy. So she-- it's very hard. It's very disconnected. How does she experience this but have this loss?

KERRI MILLER: It's such a burden on the boy. How did you think about that?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, I wondered if I should-- I wonder what he would do. It was as though I'd really created someone-- well, we were talking to my daughter who is a kindergarten teacher. She's an Ojibwe immersion kindergarten teacher.

And she has introduced me to these kids that have such a phenomenal responsibility, a sense of responsibility, sense of sweetness. They're kids. They mess up all the time. They're throwing their limbs everywhere and grabbing everything.

But they also-- I was so struck by how-- and I was struck this way as a mother too at my daughter's sense of how important it was to do things in a right way and to try to do the right thing for people. And that's how he is. That's how LaRose is, so it's he's not anyone I haven't met before.



KERRI MILLER: I mean, what I-- I kept thinking, were you trying to infuse him with a certain amount of extraordinariness but pull back on this idea that he's a once in a lifetime kind of child? Do you know what I'm asking?


KERRI MILLER: Could have been any child? Or did this work because he was extraordinary?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah, it works because he's the kind of kid who-- his mother tries at one point to take them back.


LOUISE ERDRICH: She just cannot bear this. And that's probably what I would-- this isn't working. I have to have my-- I'm not-- they're not exchanging time. It's not working. And he says, I can't. I got their family on my hands, mom. I got them on my hands. And that's something I can imagine a child saying.


LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah, I definitely can. Yeah.

KERRI MILLER: So is he-- you guys are going, no, I can't imagine it. So who is he?

LOUISE ERDRICH: So he is-- there's-- it starts with the original LaRose. And we go through the generations of LaRose. And he's the one in which so many of the traumas have been worked out. And he's the one that when he's born, they don't really want to name him this name because it seems too-- with it seems to come a certain amount of gravity.

KERRI MILLER: Weight, right?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah. There seems to be some gravity associated with it. But they feel like he came into the world bearing that name. And that's what they named him. And he's a regular kid. He plays with action figures. He goofs off. He's bored a lot with both of his families. And he indulges people a little bit. But he's trying to make things all right. At heart, that's the kind of person he is.

KERRI MILLER: So I suggested a minute ago that you were careful to bring that normality into his character, that you didn't want to make him too special and then unbelievable. Did you-- I'd like to know how you thought about that as you developed--

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, I didn't think he would-- I thought he would drop everything. But I just didn't-- he just didn't.

KERRI MILLER: What do you mean you thought he would drop it?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, I really thought like some of the audience, I was like, oh, no. I mean, there's plenty of kids who would just go, get me out of here. No! And he does that at first, but he's doing it almost like privately.


LOUISE ERDRICH: He shields other people from his pain. And there's also kids like that. So he is unusual, but he's also normal.

KERRI MILLER: He's not normal. You want him to be normal.

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, I think he's--

KERRI MILLER: Because he has to be normal to be believable.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Because he's also-- well, OK, so he does have also this dimension. You're right. There's a dimension where he has an experience of his ancestors, so there is a dimension to his spirituality that is-- I can't explain it, but then I hear people experience things that I can't explain either. So I let him experience these things.

KERRI MILLER: I mean, would you say, what we're talking about right now is example of what you started out saying, which is there are these Western narratives. And we understand them. And then, there are these narratives that aren't Western. And maybe this is a part of that. Maybe that's why I have trouble understanding this. Does that make sense?

LOUISE ERDRICH: It does make sense, but it hadn't really occurred to me because I think this character really is-- he's he is really marked out as special. And he's treated that way from the beginning. But he's not beyond the realm of possible at all. It didn't seem to me. And maybe that's why-- the whole book doesn't seem beyond the realm, but then sometimes you're looking at me like, come on.

KERRI MILLER: I'm thinking, what if the book was beyond the realm of possible? It'd still be a great story.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, OK, well, then, we'll just leave it at that.

KERRI MILLER: No, but that's not how you meant it.

LOUISE ERDRICH: But I don't know if we-- I don't know if for a narrative we need to parse out, could this really happen?

KERRI MILLER: No, I don't mean it like that.


KERRI MILLER: I don't mean, could all these events happen the way they happened? I mean something-- I want to believe in this. Can I believe in this?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I think you can. I think you can believe in all of it. I mean, I don't-- I try not to write anything that does not-- I cannot explain. Just at the edge of rationale with a forced rationality.

KERRI MILLER: Tell me what you mean.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, there's somebody who believes that they are flying in the book. They believe they are flying. But we all have dreams of flying. Most of us have dreams, I think, once in your life of flying. It's a very powerful feeling.


LOUISE ERDRICH: And when-- and there are some people who actually believe that they can dissociate from their bodies or have in a moment of incredible crisis dissociated from their bodies and flown. And there are also narratives. This is historical narratives written by non-biased Westerners. And they're not able to explain certain things about how Indigenous people operate under extremity. And those things always fascinated me.

For instance, George Nelson who has worked for a fur trading company. And he wrote, I don't know how to explain this. And he's not the only one who wrote this almost this exact same thing. But when the old people are at the extremity of hunger, and they don't know what to do, and nobody is getting any game, and everybody is hungry, one person will lie down. And the other people will drum.

That person will go out will say they leave. And he says, I don't believe that. But they'll come back and say, well, here's where you go to get the game. I saw it. And that person will go and get whatever game the person described. So how could that happen? My idea is that our world is so-- we are attuned to things that Indigenous people never would have considered possible.

And likewise, Indigenous people who lived that close to the edge in nature in the world in which they have to really depend on every sense and every bit of information open themselves in a way that's perhaps unimaginable have a different sort of rationality to the way they can operate in the world. It's something that is-- it pains me that that's so-- it's being lost so quickly.

KERRI MILLER: And it's being lost, why?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, it doesn't fit into this format that we live in. We don't depend. We depend very much on getting through traffic, on getting through the internet, on knowing where to go at all times when we're in great crowds of people.

But put us alone in a wilderness, and we wouldn't know how people managed to live or how some people still do. There's a dwindling number of people who still operate on those very, very ancient principles. But something that I would say, yes, there's a rationality to it. And for me, that's how I connect with it.

KERRI MILLER: You called this the edge of-- did you say forced rationality?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I'm forcing some of my rationality into this.


LOUISE ERDRICH: Right? But because I otherwise would believe it utterly because I can't explain things that have happened to people who I think are perfectly rational people. And they've come back and told me things that happened to them. And I think, these things don't happen to me, but they do happen to people.

KERRI MILLER: You couldn't write these kinds of stories without having to force some of that rationality on the mystery.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Right. I have to think there is some explanation because I also respect that there's readers who will think-- I mean, if you're not opening this book to think, I want to read a fantasy today, then I feel like I have some sort of responsibility to keep you in this reality and in your reality too.

KERRI MILLER: But you give us just enough. I don't think it's fantasy. I think--

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, I'm saying this is not a book of fantasy. But if you were opening it up and you were expecting it, then I could write anything. But this is a book of reality. This is about reality.

KERRI MILLER: And mystery.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yes. It's about the mystery of how-- but this is what writers always say. If I wrote about the things that really happened, nobody would believe it.


KERRI MILLER: How well do you understand the mystery?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, this is why I keep writing because I don't get it.


STEVEN JOHN: You're listening to a Thread Live conversation between NPR News host Kerri Miller and novelist Louise Erdrich. The two sat down May 9 to talk about Erdrich's latest book LaRose. The second part is coming up in a moment.

- Programming on Minnesota Public Radio is supported by the Fitzgerald Theater, bringing the radio experience to the stage, with programs like A Prairie Home Companion, Films at the Fitz, and Talking Volumes. More information online at

CATHY WURZER: Wednesday on Morning Edition, a look at why the high school graduation rate for Native Americans in Minnesota is much lower than other groups. I'm Cathy Wurzer. That story and all the latest news on tomorrow's Morning Edition here on MPR News.

STEVEN JOHN: This is MPR News Presents today. A Minnesota Public Radio Thread Live conversation between Minnesota Public Radio news host Kerri Miller and novelist Louise Erdrich. Her new book is entitled LaRose.

KERRI MILLER: So we've talked about the parents, but we haven't talked about what happens with the children in these families where LaRose is going back and forth. This is such a wonderful novel about girls and friendship. Boys and friendship too, but girls and-- I feel like that's something I don't read enough of adult novels.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I do too. I do too. I really loved writing. Every time-- there's two sisters, Snow and Josette. And every time they would come in to the book or if I was lost in the book, I would just write Snow and Josette. And then, they would do something. I love writing them. There's a part of me that never got to really be in the books until I wrote these girls.

KERRI MILLER: Oh, really?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Oh, yeah. They have the same sort of-- they have this some of the things that I had. They want to buy their mother a bottle of perfume-- a dime store perfume fixation. Like a drugstore perfume, I mean. So they go in looking for the perfect fragrance for their mother. And it's in this-- it has to be Wind Song or Amouroud. Somebody's going, oh! I mean, I remember buying Evening in Paris and thinking, oh.

KERRI MILLER: I know. I did the same for my mother.


KERRI MILLER: And it rang so true.


KERRI MILLER: Right. But the thing is they're competitive. They're not mean girls at all. And you know what I mean. They're in high school, but they're not mean girls.

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, they're not mean.

KERRI MILLER: They're competitive and loving and mature and childish and just the right way.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Maggie is the girl and the family with the loss. And she is bad. She's a bad girl. And I love that. I love-- she's a very bad girl.



KERRI MILLER: I don't think she was that bad.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I just loved her. Well, she does things that actually-- I was surprised by her too.

KERRI MILLER: She does conniving things.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah, she manipulates people.


LOUISE ERDRICH: But she also has-- she also is really sweetened up when she falls into their family-- these sisters. She has sisters now. And they bring her in. Because of those boundaries, they bring her in. And she gets to be part of this girls team. And it is-- she literally does get on the volleyball team.

KERRI MILLER: So all leading to the wonderful volleyball scene.

LOUISE ERDRICH: All leading-- it all leads to the volleyball.

KERRI MILLER: Everybody can't wait to get to that, I'm sure, when they can read it. You mentioned a few minutes ago that the stories that your mother and your dad have told you have inspired a lot of your writing. And you said something that I wanted to ask you about.

"I've internalized my father to such a degree that sometimes he has only to start a few sentences, and my mind races off-- same with my mother." Are those stories the ones that you grew up hearing in your childhood? But at some point in your life, you hear them differently. And that is the Genesis for a story that you're going to write. I mean, what happens?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I think our family does have this habit of making things that happen into stories. And it's one of the great pleasures of being in our family. And it comes from my parents. They have great senses of humor. And you're right, yes, it's like that where I've heard these stories before. But all of a sudden, they click with other things that have happened to me or I can see them. And also, my father is my main literary influence. He's 90 now.


LOUISE ERDRICH: He has memorized reams of poetry. And he was a school teacher. They're both school teachers. And he's written me just volumes of letters that have long, long stories and quotes and funny things that happened.

And he made everything into a story. And he wrote it down. And so that was-- and I exchanged letters with him. And that's the kind of letters that you don't write them as often in an email. Or when you get one of those emails, you go, oh my God, it's a lot.

KERRI MILLER: Despairingly.


KERRI MILLER: How am I going to read this novel length? You're right. There's something different about an email like that than there is a handwritten letter.

LOUISE ERDRICH: It's so different.


LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, why is that? So sometimes do you sit down and write a letter once in a while?

KERRI MILLER: Hardly ever, sometimes.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Or even a card?


LOUISE ERDRICH: OK, so you write cards. But those are more emotional responses.

KERRI MILLER: That's right. That's exactly right.

LOUISE ERDRICH: A letter used to be written-- and I have kept them all. They were written for entertainment as well as information. And they always had to start off-- well, I should just say right now, this is the cover of the book. And my daughter Aza, who is in the audience, designed it.

And she took the letters of the name and the title and my name from my grandfather, Patrick Gourneau's letters. He had a beautiful boarding school-- Indian boarding school taught script, government boarding school. He's taught very beautiful script, Palmer script usually. And she designed this cover. So thank you--

KERRI MILLER: It is beautiful.

LOUISE ERDRICH: --wherever you are. And so he would always start his letters by saying, I am-- he would set the scene because he workef-- he was tribal chair during the mid '50s, one of the most dangerous difficult times in recent American-Indian history. He was there in the '50s fighting a policy called termination.

And he would set the scene. It's 3:00 AM. He was a watchman in the jewel bearing plant, which was-- it's 3:00 AM. I can only hear the wind through this window. Here I am. And halfway down the page, he would say, and it's taken me so long to reply to your letter of last week.

And I'm sorry because I know that so many things must have happened during that time. And now, I'll tell you all of the things that happened with us. And it would go on for five or six pages. And there's a volume like this of those letters. And there's volumes like this of my father's letters to me in college, which were great treasures.

KERRI MILLER: Are you the only one that he wrote letters like that?

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, no, he wrote letters to everybody.

KERRI MILLER: Oh my gosh.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Everybody has letters and letters and letters.

KERRI MILLER: But isn't it interesting that you would receive a letter, even today like that, even if-- let's say it wasn't from your father, but it was from someone you cherished.


KERRI MILLER: And you would think, unlike with an email that goes on and on, a letter like that, you would think, I feel special that this person took this time to write this down.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yes. Yes. I rarely do receive a letter from my family and parents and friends. But when I do--

KERRI MILLER: Or daughters?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Thanks, Kerri. We agreed on that.


LOUISE ERDRICH: But no, it is-- we all lament that being a lost literary form.

KERRI MILLER: So when we've had conversations before, you've talked about these deliciously mysterious notebooks that you have.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Oh, deliciously mysterious?

KERRI MILLER: Well, to me.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Thank you. These are the notebooks I write from.

KERRI MILLER: Because they're fragments of ideas, right, jotted down? Where are they?

LOUISE ERDRICH: They're all over the place-- under the bed, in the closet.



KERRI MILLER: There really are stacks of your notebooks with ideas under your bed?

LOUISE ERDRICH: They're every place. They really add up after a while.

KERRI MILLER: And when you're in search of an idea-- I mean, is it this specific?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Oh my God, that's such a great idea. I've been casting around for-- I go back to the notebooks. Thank you for reminding me.

KERRI MILLER: But do you?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, I forget. They're like these big compost piles of words and ideas.

KERRI MILLER: There's always something in there. I'm sure-- I mean, this was in there, was it?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah, it was-- I have little Post-its now like, use-- look back at this area of the notebook.

KERRI MILLER: And do you?


KERRI MILLER: What would this have been in there as?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Mom said somebody adopted a child-- somebody gave their child to-- it would have said that one sentence. So then-- but there are all sorts of things. I mean, a lot of it is research and lots of-- I was telling you about the readings.

And these long letters were also written by-- I mean, through historic volumes of fur trader correspondence. They're really interesting. I have lots of volumes of correspondence between priests trying to get money from their dioceses for their parish in missions. All kinds of-- you find these volumes of correspondence or whatever, and you take notes. And that's what it is.

KERRI MILLER: What will happen to those notebooks, do you think?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I'm not dead yet. I'm still alive.


LOUISE ERDRICH: It reminds me of one of these moments at our bookstore where one of my daughters is selling books. And someone comes in. And they go, oh, Louise Erdrich. Those are her books. Isn't she dead?


KERRI MILLER: Come on, did that really-- really?

LOUISE ERDRICH: You can ask. Yes.

KERRI MILLER: And then you appeared.

LOUISE ERDRICH: All kinds of things happen. The bookstore has a--

KERRI MILLER: What does happen in the bookstore?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Oh, God, it's so interesting.

KERRI MILLER: When I've been in there, nobody's asking if you're dead.

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, but people ask for-- I think I was in the other day when someone called up and said, I have this. They brought in an heirloom that might have been native-esque and said, can you estimate how much this is worth?


What's that show? Pawn Stars? It's like--


LOUISE ERDRICH: And this was just a normal thing, a normal sort of thing.

KERRI MILLER: Were you there?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I was signing books in the back. And I heard the person who was asked very, very sweetly and kindly say, no, she really did not have that sort of capacity. She couldn't estimate it. It was very nice. Here's a book you might like that--

KERRI MILLER: Because it's a bookstore.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah, this is a bookstore. But people come in-- you know what's interesting too is a lot of people come into the bookstore-- and we've all noticed this-- when they are bereaved.


LOUISE ERDRICH: Yeah. And we have a lot of sympathy cards because of that. But it's because-- but it's really quite it's moving in a way because people think maybe there's something I haven't tried. Maybe there is a native way to deal with this overwhelming emotion that I'm feeling. It really is-- it's moving to me that people would then say, I need to go there.

KERRI MILLER: And what would you give someone who is looking for something like that?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, there's these cards.

KERRI MILLER: Oh, the sympathy cards. What about a book? There's also books. There's also books.

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, we have--

KERRI MILLER: That was a set up if I ever saw one, wasn't it?

LOUISE ERDRICH: We have-- that's why we have a very deep spirituality section.

KERRI MILLER: Do you ever walk over to the Louise Erdrich section?

LOUISE ERDRICH: I really avoid it.

KERRI MILLER: And pull out a book off the shelf and randomly open it and say, what? Does it happen?

LOUISE ERDRICH: No, as I said, if I read a book that I've written, I want so badly to go back and fix it. And I got to do that with the Antelope Wife. It's Antelope Woman now. She's grown out of being a sort of appendage to the antelope.


LOUISE ERDRICH: She's an antelope woman, so it's coming. It's republished with another cover by Aza-- great cover. And it's a complete retelling of-- I really went back to the old Antelope Wife. It was just eating away at me. It was such a-- I let go of it too fast. It was-- I needed to go back. And it set in Minneapolis in St. Paul.

And I needed to go back there. And I totally rewrote it. And you can really buy it now, but it's got the old title, so it's not right. But it's rare, I think, that someone actually does rewrite an entire book except for the first 30-- it was the first 30 pages were good. I could see that. But the rest of it was wrong. It was so-- it was just bothering me. That's why I never-- I would go back and rewrite them all.


LOUISE ERDRICH: That would-- yeah, that would--

KERRI MILLER: From when to when? Not all of them.

LOUISE ERDRICH: I probably would.


LOUISE ERDRICH: I know. It would be just awful. I really would never get anything else done.

KERRI MILLER: No. Did anyone want you to rewrite the Antelope Wife--


KERRI MILLER: --or you did this--

LOUISE ERDRICH: They didn't want me.

KERRI MILLER: I mean, when you told your editor, this is my project now--

LOUISE ERDRICH: She was really-- how do I get out of this?


LOUISE ERDRICH: No. Yeah, she did. But they did, and she went with it. She's a wonderful editor. Her name is Terry Karten. And I'm very-- I have one of those relationships that you read about in letters between editors and writers. She's absolutely-- she said yes, and they republished it.

KERRI MILLER: And she said, if Louise wants this, Louise gets this.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Not exactly, but right.

KERRI MILLER: When you said you let go of it too fast, how does that happen?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Well, it always happens. I feel like if the book doesn't really get pulled away somehow, then I'm never going to let it go.

KERRI MILLER: Who pulls it away?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Usually, it's the-- I've made a contract with the publisher. And they're saying, where is it now? And that's helpful to me. It's probably-- it's like having rules. And I don't have that many rules. And that's a rule that I have to think about honoring a contract.

KERRI MILLER: Do you feel like that with a lot of the books that-- or have you learned to manage the idea that you don't want to get to the point where you're letting it go too soon? So now, you know how to not have that happen.

LOUISE ERDRICH: Now, I have more time, I give more-- I put more time into the contract. We know about-- I know roughly how long it will take.


LOUISE ERDRICH: I've been at it, so that I know-- some of the books, I've already halfway written, so I know it's not going to take me that long. Or some of them, I have a very strong idea of how they will turn out and where I will go with them. So then, I can go into them with a lot more assurance.

KERRI MILLER: Is it a relief when you come to the next book, and this idea is so strong that it gives you this momentum?



LOUISE ERDRICH: It's wonderful. And I didn't feel that with this book, but I felt that with The Round House because I had set it up as a-- because it was on-- because it was such a-- well, jurisdiction, a boring topic. I thought, well, I have to really-- jurisdiction on reservations is very complex. So I thought, I'm going to make this a very simple arc of narrative, so it was fantastic.

I knew the ending. It broke me up, but I knew where it had to go and wrote toward it. And it was amazing. I'd never had an experience like that. And parts of this, I felt that same really generative pull of narrative that got me to the next level of narrative. And I felt that at the end of this book. Well, I just wish everybody read it, so we could talk about it because I was so excited.

KERRI MILLER: You were so excited because?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Because when I got to the last-- it goes, it starts around Y2K, which I think is one of those disasters that we-- it's a comforting disaster because it never really happened.


LOUISE ERDRICH: And then, we really got--


LOUISE ERDRICH: Then, we had terrible things happened in our country. And so it starts then. And then, it goes back into history. And it comes forward again a few years later. It's 2003 in the book. It's the same people in 2003, so there's halves of relatively contemporary writing, which I loved getting to. And once I got there, it just spun itself out. It was such a pleasure. I was in volleyball land.

KERRI MILLER: Right. Louise, thank you very, very much for being here.

STEVEN JOHN: You've been listening to a Minnesota Public Radio Thread Live event with novelist Louise Erdrich and MPR News host Kerri Miller at the Fitzgerald Theater in Downtown St. Paul. There are still tickets available for the season finale event on June 10 with science writer Mary Roach. She's the author of books such as Gulp, Spook, and Packing for Mars. You can find more information about that event and many other features about books, including the Thread Podcast on

This is MPR News Presents. Tomorrow at this hour, a talk given at the University of St. Thomas by Russia expert Nick Hayes. And a reminder, if you tuned in late or want to recommend it to a friend, you can hear Louise Erdrich and Kerri Miller in conversation again tonight at 9:00 on the radio or anytime online, Thanks for tuning in NPR News Presents.


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