How I Write

12.12.12

National Book Award Winner Louise Erdrich: How I Write

The author of The Round House, the newly crowned National Book Award fiction winner, talks about her new prize and the setting of her novel.

Congratulations on winning the National Book Award. How did the news that you had won it reach you, and what were your first thoughts?

This was the third time I was nominated for the award, but many writers have been nominated a few times without winning. I was nervous, popping Tums and straining to appear collected. I had no first thoughts because, to my surprise, when my book’s name was called I was mindlessly jumping up and down.

You’ve won awards in the past. How do awards affect one’s career?

I suppose if I lived in New York this would not seem so dreamlike. The actual award—a bronze sculpture of a scroll and a book (good for weight lifting) is on a shelf at the bookstore. Soon I’ll bring it to my hometown’s art gallery, the Red Door, for a visit, then up to the Turtle Mountains. It is sort of a traveling award. Otherwise, everything is the same. I am back in Minnesota and am again part of an intense family life. Last night I cooked a mediocre vegetable/peanut/rice dinner, helped my daughter with homework, and went to a meeting with my sister. I still have trouble sleeping and am thinking about the next book.

What draws you to setting several of your works in the Dakotas, among Native Americans?

I grew up in North Dakota around Dakota and Ojibwe people, and also small-town people in Wahpeton. Writers make few choices, really, about their material. We have to write about what comes naturally and what interests us—so I do. I also write about Germans in Minnesota and have set The Antelope Wife in Minneapolis. Nothing I force myself to write about ever turns out well, and so I’ve learned to wait for the voice, the incident, the image that reverberates.

You are one of the rare authors who own independent bookstores (Birchbark Books). What prompted you to do so and what have you learned from running it?

Here are the lessons: get a business plan. Get a book person as a partner. Have a philosophy. Specialize to some degree. Make sure the rent won’t kill your enterprise. Stay meticulously true to your own design principles—since mine are all about visual promiscuity it was easy. The place is composed of salvage wood and some distressed easy chairs. There is a confessional in the bookstore and the main table was made out of a sailboat by a friend. A handmade wooden canoe is suspended above it. The front door is the perfect shade of blue. Our online presence is strong. Our dogs recommend our books. We have a wonderful buyer who manages and created our website. Check out Nathan Pederson’s work.

Describe your morning routine.

I love to stay up late reading (am reading everybody I met this fall—Luis Alberto Urrea kick right now, Queen of America, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, The Devil’s Highway. Also reading Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and current mags—BRICK, Granta, The Believer. That is all to say I don’t like getting up early, but I do because of school—driving my daughter to school is a good thing about my day.

When I get back, either I walk/run our dog or go straight upstairs and sit down in the same chair I’ve had since 1981—just the right arm height for a board to lay across and then I can sit there and write. A friend upholsters this chair every fifth year, and it is currently covered in red mohair velvet. My cousin’s quilt drapes the back of the chair. I am sort of obsessive about having things around me from my family—these objects pop up in the books.

For those unfamiliar with your work (and after your award, there may not be too many of them left), which of your books do you recommend a reader start with and why?

Start with the current book. If you like it, read The Plague of Doves, then The Master Butchers Singing Club, because it is very different from the others. Actually, I don’t care where anybody starts at all.

For aspiring writers looking for fantastic prose, could you recommend three authors who other writers would do well to read and draw inspiration from?

Anton Chekov, Isak Dineson, Joseph Conrad, Angela Carter, my sister Heid Erdrich, H.P. Lovecraft, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, W.G. Sebald, Sherman Alexie.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

What a terrifying question, but OK … I’d bring back Columbus, Pizarro, Coronado, Andrew Jackson, Hitler, Pol Pot, and an assortment of contemporary dictators and megalomaniacs. I would throw them all together in a prison cell for a week with one jug of water and two pizzas made with basil and fresh mozzarella. After the week was up all would be brought before Simone de Beauvoir, who would decide what to do with them.

Do you have any superstitions?

I rarely step on sidewalk cracks. I don’t wear a watch. I touch my favorite tree before going on long trips. I say I love you as often as I can (to form a protective shield in fantasy). I write first drafts by hand. Never do I open an umbrella inside the house. I don’t predict wins or losses. I used to stand on a certain piece of rug if my brothers and husband were watching football and their team got in trouble—but now the luck went out of that rug. If a circle is involved, I try to go clockwise. If a line is involved, I try to go zigzag. I never toast with water.

What is your favorite snack?

Buttered popcorn and a ripe pear.

What phrase do you overuse?

“Please take out the garbage.”

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Take notes.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

I don’t want a tombstone. I’d like a conifer. I’d like a white pine to grip its roots around my heart.