She's not ungracious about it, but it's obvious Louise Erdrich would rather not be sitting here, in her bookstore, answering questions. She's never—despite 20 years as a successful and prolific author—developed a taste for the self-promotion required to sell books. "Writing is a profession where you are alone most of the time," she says. "That's what I like."
Erdrich, the bestselling author of adult novels, three collections of poetry, her memoirs and four children's books—does speaking engagements and interviews sparingly. This reluctance is progress, of a sort, compared to how she felt about public appearances in the early days of her career. "I used to cry, it was very painful for me," she says. "After all, I started to write because I'm an introvert."
Her reticence is more than simple shyness: Erdrich, 51, is a fiercely private woman. The tragedies she's suffered (her adopted son Abel was killed in a car accident in 1991, and her estranged husband, the writer Michael Dorris, committed suicide six years later as charges were pending against him of molesting two of their daughters) have caused her to weave a protective cocoon around herself and her children.
Those days of pain seem far removed from her life now, a life that is joyful and comparatively serene. She attributes the change to the satisfactions of raising children and of running a bookstore. So while she still regards such things as a chore, she is comfortable enough with her own life now to agree to sit down for an interview in anticipation of the release of her latest book, The Painted Drum (HarperCollins, Sept.). At her request, we meet at BirchBark Books and Native Arts, the small store she owns in an affluent, primarily residential Minneapolis neighborhood. Despite the distractions inherent in conducting an interview in a busy bookstore on a hot summer's afternoon, Erdrich prefers to talk in this cozy spot, with two employees working within earshot, patrons coming and going, and a caged parakeet chirping overhead. She clearly regards this space as her home, and her employees as family.
The 800-square-foot store, which celebrated its fifth anniversary in June and posted a small profit ("a couple bucks") for the first time this year, reflects Erdrich's interests and personality, even her iconoclastic sense of humor. It is crammed with books by and about Native Americans, as well as Native art, crafts, foods and other products. "We have the highest percentage of dream catchers per square foot of any bookstore in the country," she says, laughing.
A large, ornately carved wooden confessional salvaged from a Roman Catholic church anchors the center wall. Signs inform patrons that the left side is devoted to Cleanliness and the right side to Godliness. The store's Web site says Erdrich has papered the confessional's interior (where the priest sat) with images of "every thought and emotion she experienced while kneeling in the confession booths of her childhood." The Web site also invites visitors to sit in the center section, hear confessions and "dispense random forgiveness."
Erdrich has come a long way from her hometown of Wahpeton, N.Dak. (current pop. 8,586), but her mixed Native American/German/Roman Catholic background clearly still resonates with her.
Erdrich's mother is French-Ojibwe, while her father is the son of German immigrants. Both parents taught at what was at the time the Wahpeton Indian School, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Erdrich's maternal grandfather was tribal chairman of the nearby Turtle Mountain Reservation, while her paternal grandfather was a butcher.
"Both sides of the family came from a strong storytelling tradition," she continues. "There was no end to sitting down, listening to people tell stories."
Erdrich left home at age 18 to attend Dartmouth as a member of its first co-educational class. After marrying Michael Dorris in 1981, she lived in New Hampshire for 15 years before moving to Minneapolis in the mid-'90s.
"I could never set any of my fiction in New Hampshire, even though I wrote like crazy when I lived there. I could not connect, even though I lived there such a long time. I desperately wanted to move back here. I missed my family," she recalls. She finally did put New Hampshire into her fiction for the first time, with the opening chapter of The Painted Drum.
Beginning with her first novel, Love Medicine, which was published in 1984, and continuing through The Painted Drum, Erdrich has drawn heavily from family history, lore and Native legends in weaving nonlinear, overlapping tales of three generations of interconnected families, primarily Native or mixed, living in and around Argus, a mythical reservation town located somewhere in the Red River Valley area straddling the North Dakota—Minnesota state line.
While her 11th novel, Four Souls, published last year, was a tale of the revenge exacted by a Native woman against the lumber baron who had despoiled her ancestral lands, The Painted Drum is a series of stories about forgiveness and healing, the characters connected to one another through a ceremonial drum made by a man in mourning for his daughter, who lost her life so that her adulterous mother could live.
A central theme of The Painted Drum is of mothers who fail their children while they satisfy their own emotional needs, yet find redemption because of the sacrifices made by their daughters.
When asked what inspired her to write a novel that describes such fraught relationships between mothers and daughters, Erdrich, who has four biological daughters ranging in age from 4 to 21, as well as a 29-year-old adopted daughter from whom she's been estranged for years, laughs and says, "It's not all from life. I do make things up."
As she elaborates, though, she hints at the real life inspiration behind her fiction. "As I see each of my daughters go through their development, I think they're the most wise, giving, often the most self-sacrificing, the most incredible girls. I just marvel. I wish the world was run according to the principles 9-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old girls have within them. It's just an age thing—their wisdom, their kindness, their thought for other people.
"I guess I wanted to write a book about the heroism of young girls." Erdrich continues, "Part of it is the chaos that sexuality brings into people's lives. Passion, passionate love, the passion creates the chaos. We see the heroism of these girls, but they also grow up, life becomes complex, people make mistakes and…" Her voice fades into silence. After a moment, she resumes speaking, talking about girls once again and the wonderful but crazy experience of raising daughters. The conversation veers back to more of Erdrich's favorite topics—her bookstore and her latest project, Birchbark Books Press, through which she has begun publishing books about Ojibwe language and culture.
"This is my natural trajectory," she says. "If I could have my fantasy come true, I'd be living in Minneapolis. I'm here. I'm doing what I want to do, what I have to do. I'm so happy. I love this. I love this bookstore."
A few minutes later, she says, "We're very proud to have survived." She is referring to the resilience of her bookstore. But she might just as well have been talking about herself.