Louise Erdrich on mercy and vengeance, addictions, and the Twin Cities' bookshop renaissance


Louise Erdrich’s new novel, LaRose, opens with the accidental shooting of a young boy. In an old-fashioned form of making amends, the shooter, an Ojibwe man named Landreaux, offers his own son, five-year-old LaRose, to the bereft parents.

Synthesis: Paintings by Aza Erdrich

All My Relations Gallery

Against this backdrop of grief and upheaval set in 1999, Erdrich envelops the reader in a captivating story of a too-small North Dakota town where everyone has a loaded history and tensions are high. Ancestral and boarding school backstories are interspersed with narratives of adults struggling with self-destructive urges and of children navigating a world in which they have little control.

Though this is her 15th novel, and the third in a justice trilogy that includes The Plague of Doves and The Round House, Erdrich shows no signs of burnout; in fact, LaRose is already being hailed as one of her best books yet. Based in Minnesota, the award-winning and bestselling author also owns and operates Birchbark Books.

City Pages: You seem to be drawn to tragedy. Is that because that’s where the good storylines are or is it cathartic for you?

Louise Erdrich: I think these three books, it’s what had to be part of the books because they’re about acts of justice and usually what precedes a dramatic justice — unless it’s a civil suit — is a pretty dramatic tragedy. I don’t want to [write about tragedy]. I didn’t really plan to. But that’s what happened.

CP: Do you storyboard your ideas ahead of time or do you go where the narrative takes you?


LE: I do both. I let the narrative grab me and then I try to find where it’s going.

CP: As you mentioned, one of the themes of LaRose is retribution. Your characters don’t seem to feel as good when it happens as they think they’re going to feel. What is your experience with that?

LE: The idea of — this isn’t really personal, you just come to know it — the idea of getting even is… there’s more pleasure in the anticipation. It’s not something that really makes you feel right. It’s better to show some mercy.

CP: One of the storylines is about addiction to prescription medication. How did you put yourself in the mindset of Romeo, who was abusing those kinds of substances? How did you get to know what was going through his mind?

LE: You sort of extrapolate from your own — mine are more harmless — addictions. You just know what it’s like, at a certain point, if you’ve lived life, to lose control of your mind to some degree. It’s not like I’ve taken anything from direct experience, but as a writer you have to use every — maybe insignificant — experience you’ve had and really blow it up. You have to exaggerate it.

Thank God I’ve never had to really contend with an addiction. I don’t know how anyone gets free of addiction. I can’t even lose 10 pounds. [Laughs] I don’t know how people deal with addiction, honest to god. It’s one of the most vexing questions of our time because we seem, as a species, to need our addictions. Fortunately, mine are pretty ridiculous. Fortunately, some of them are even helpful. I’m addicted to writing. And coffee.

CP: After writing so many books, do you ever feel like you’re done with writing, that you’ve had your fill?

LE: Narrative is just my thing, my thing that gets me. I can’t get away from narrative. Everything turns into a story for me. I can’t get away from language, either. I’m always looking for the delight of getting into the real flow of writing narrative. If I can have it once in a while, that’s enough for me.

CP: Does it feel like work at other times?

LE: Oh, yes, it’s grueling. Nobody likes me when I’m copy-editing. People scatter.

CP: The '90s references in the book are great. Why did you decide to write the novel in that time period?

LE: Y2K, I think. We have a nostalgia for it, or at least I do, because it was a disaster that didn’t happen. We prepared for it. Everyone was on guard, stocked up, and thought of escape hatches, routes, plans. We didn’t know how much we’d computerized and what was going to happen. We were all ready for disaster, but it didn’t happen. Then 9/11 happened, and we weren’t ready for it. I don’t really touch on that, but that’s the obvious situation.

CP: Do any of your children write? Do you anticipate they’ll carry on your legacy?

LE: My daughter, Aza, she’s an artist. She does my book covers. She has a show right now at All My Relations Gallery. She’s taken the art side of the whole enterprise. My daughter Pallas does a lot of her art and writing on websites. She’s a tech person. Persia, my oldest, is an Ojibwe immersion teacher. She’s teaching kindergarteners their language. They’re teaching her, too. They’re fluent speakers. She started at Bdote [Learning Center in Minneapolis] and now she’s at Waadookodaading in Lac Courte Oreilles reservation.


CP: How do you explain Birchbark Books' longevity when it seems like other bookstores are going out of business?

LE: I think we’re actually experiencing a renaissance of little book stores. Oh, my gosh, you should have been there on Indie Day! It was just packed, and people were so excited. I think a lot of people like Kindles, but they aren’t enough, or maybe their Kindle died or they dropped it in the bathtub. I don’t know. People seem to like both. People seem to like bookstores a lot.

I think that the making of a book is like making a bicycle. You can make a lot of different types of books, but you can’t improve on a basic technology there. It’s pretty cool. A well-made book is the best technology for books. It’s not expensive. If you throw it in the river, you’re not going to lose a lot. You can carry it anywhere, give it away. I love them.


The Thread Live with Louise Erdrich, hosted by Kerri Miller

Fitzgerald Theater

7 p.m. Monday, May 9