Louise Erdrich — The Rakish Interview

Louise Erdrich is fighting sleep. This explains a lot.

It’s said that the threshold between sleeping and waking—the lucid yet lawless terrain of twilight—is a cracked door to enlightenment, a conduit to the divine. How apropos that, here in the grainy borderlands of consciousness, the Minneapolis novelist puts pen to paper and struggles (yes, struggles) to write. Writing becomes a talisman against sleep, as she strings one word after the next simply to stay awake.

Erdrich’s exhaustion is the well-earned reward of a life equally matched to the richness and complexity of her writing, and that’s the way she likes it. The demands of a writing life combined with motherhood—demands unveiled with rich clarity in her 1995 memoir, The Blue Jay’s Dance—are still fresh and concrete for Erdrich, who has a two-year-old and two adolescent daughters at home. As if to defy the constraints of traditional female domesticity, Erdrich writes prolifically, with 15 published books to date, including her latest novel, The Master Butchers Singing Club, in which she turns her attention to her German-American ancestry and in particular, her paternal grandfather’s experience of fighting in World War I on the German side, before immigrating to the United States and plying his trade as a butcher.

Erdrich, whose previous novels have rummaged the lore of her French-Ojibwa maternal heritage, primarily writes fiction. But she draws heavily from genealogical research, family legends, personal tragedy (she suffered the deaths of her son, and her husband, Michael Dorris), and the mythical landscape of her North Dakota childhood. She has published eight novels plus assorted poetry, nonfiction, and children’s books. She is a permanent fixture on bestseller lists and a favorite of critics and scholars, and her voice is celebrated as one of the most important in the annals of Native literature.

All of this is just not enough. Three years ago, Erdrich opened an independent bookstore, Birchbark Books, near her home in Kenwood. It is a gathering place for the Native American arts community and a repository for a hand-picked crop of books reflecting the convictions and idiosyncrasies of the owner: Native writers, local authors, small runs from independent presses, literary novels, and obscure volumes alongside classics in fiction, parenting, gardening, and spirituality. The entire southwest corner of the store is dedicated to what Erdrich describes as high-quality children’s books, the sorts of books you really want to read to your kids. Beside the parakeet cage is a tiny reading nook—The Hobbit Hole—tucked under the stairs and looking out at pretty red shelves topped with Native American Barbies and hand-crafted birdhouses.

This eclectic montage is scattered thoughtfully amongst other offerings. Displays of Native handcrafts—quilts, pottery, baskets, and paintings—punctuate tables and shelves, along with books and little glass cases of herbs, jewelry, and music. Erdrich refers to the bookstore as an extension of her home, and the warmly scuffed maple floorboards, birch-bark reading loft, and brightly upholstered chairs and rockers do create a comfy ambience. But for Erdrich’s true fans, the bookstore’s physical manifestation of her tangy sense of humor promises further delight. For example, a large, ornately carved wooden confessional towers against the eastern wall. Patrons are invited to sit and read, or just think, inside the confessional, where cleanliness is literally next to godliness. (Shelves on one side of the unit display Wash Away Your Sins body care products and handmade cedar soaps; shelves on the other side hold an array of lush hardcovers on spirituality.)

While Erdrich fends off sleep for the sake of another novel (her current work-in-progress begins in New Hampshire, where she lived for many years, and wends its way back to her homelands of Minnesota and North Dakota) and tours the nation to promote The Master Butchers Singing Club, new manager Brian Baxter (formerly of Baxter’s Books) runs shop at Birchbark and does his damnedest to manage Erdrich’s schedule as well. His first task may be to bring the shop into the black, since the hand-written FAQ propped near Birchbark’s cash register says the store currently operates at a deficit of three to five thousand dollars each month. But “We’re passionate about this place and what it stands for and we’ll hang in there until… either we make it or go broke,” the humble sheet of cardboard assures loyal customers. Profits, if and when they materialize, will go back to the Native community. Meanwhile, the bookstore is committed to providing a “grassroots outlet for Native gardeners, artists, a place for books—provoking, intelligent Native and non-Native literary books, noncorporate, out of the box, and cheerfully eccentric in a world dominated by monolithic interests.”

Not a simple mandate, but Erdrich enjoys life most when it’s “really complicated.” She thrives in the deepest and sometimes darkest interstices of human experience, personal and political borderlands where cultures collide, and where humor and tragedy, love and hate, success and failure, and life and death spill over the thresholds and become inextricably linked.

The Rake spoke with the overbooked Louise Erdrich about success, kids, writing, bookselling, and on a quiet Friday evening when her two-year-old daughter was too tired (or rather, too soundly asleep) to participate in the pow-wow Erdrich was otherwise committed to attend.

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