Interview with Louise Erdrich

Erdrich speaks about notable weather, Wal-Mart and writing

smithsonian.com

You mention Wahpeton as a place of extreme weather—floods, tornadoes, blizzards. Were there any particularly memorable moments?

Lots of them. Let’s see. The first I remember was watching the clouds just boil up over the horizon and getting everybody down to the basement in the house I lived in. On the Wahpeton Indian School campus at the time there was also a big potato cellar that was supposed to be the refuge for everybody. However, after a heavy rain, the whole refuge caved in, so we were just very happy no one was in that potato cellar. I remember the park being flooded and wading to my swimming lessons through knee-high, waist-high water even. Blizzards, I think, were my favorite because we would get off from school and I remember walking—having a drift be so high I could walk—from the drift onto the garage roof.

What are some of your sensory memories of your hometown? The sounds and smells?

The meadowlark—there is a poignancy about going back there and not hearing the meadowlarks anymore because of the lack of habitat. There are very few meadowlarks in that part of North Dakota, but I used to hear them right in the middle of town. I don’t hear meadowlarks anymore. It’s the most wonderful sound. Mourning doves in late afternoon, early evening…the lazy heat that would come down at dusk and, of course, the huge clouds of mosquitoes that would accompany that in the summer. For me, my childhood is mixed up with the sound of snow. Snow makes different kinds of sound. You go out, and it is very cold, and your boots squeak in the snow and you notice the type of snow that has fallen because of the sound your feet make.

How is development—I know Wal-Mart is coming in—changing the town?

I think it’s been a slow change. There’ve been business owners who’ve tried so hard to stick it out on the main street of town and those are the people I really admire. They care so much about Wahpeton. It’s tough to watch the main street go under. Wal-Mart means the end of a small town’s Main Street culture. That to me is very sad. I just remember such a thriving little set of shops and business and restaurants. That hurts to see. I hate to bash Wal-Mart but the idea that there is going to be one there just discourages me so much. I feel like it’s the end of Main Street.

You write that your family has been an integral part of the transformation of Wahpeton. How was it growing up rooted to a place? Did it give you a strong sense of identity?

Oh, absolutely. I think that’s why I became a writer. I left, I was educated elsewhere, but part of me never has left. And I am glad to be close enough now that I can still consider it my home. Wahpeton is also close to the Sisseton Reservation and my mother’s people, 300 miles north, that’s the Turtle Mountains. Part of what ties me there is my sister, Angela, who is an Indian health service doctor and so is her husband. And my brother, Ralph, is the director of nursing. And I have another sister in Wahpeton who works at the Circle of Nations school. I have a lot of family there and I am very proud that my family has worked so hard for Native health.

Home can be such a source of strength, but some people sneer at the idea of staying close to home. Not me, I still live at home.

I don’t know where it is coming from. I think it is part of our “get out of town” culture. In Europe and in many Native communities it is perfectly normal to stay home as long as you can and stay close to your parents, if you are fortunate to have wonderful parents, and I am. And my girls are in and out of the house now, they are college-age, and sometimes they are home for extended periods and it is a very good time for us.

Have your hometown memories inspired your writing?

I think my dad, especially, has always kept me laughing. We just have a lot of stories. He is a very good storyteller and I think that, before I ever even learned how to write, I would hear the sense of narrative through my dad.

Some people have preconceived notions of a small town. How was it growing up in a small town?

Well, the good part was the real freedom and safety I had. Except for the stupid things I would do, I was fairly safe. I could go anywhere in town. I had my own transportation even as a kid. I could walk or ride my bike. I didn’t have to rely on grown-ups as much as kids do now. I suppose the downside was that the intellectual opportunities are limited as you get older and you naturally hunger for the whole sense of cultural diversity in the world. When I left, I didn’t really know a lot about religious or cultural differences in people. And when I left and went to Dartmouth I was pretty astounded. I had to get a whole new read on people. It took me a long time to catch up with that.

So you sold popcorn at the theater and worked at the local diner? Were you a good waitress? Did you have any other interesting jobs?

Well I was a good waitress but I also became resentful. Sometimes I was the kind of waitress that would glare at you if you dropped a fork for the third time. I wasn’t always a great waitress. I got pretty impatient. I worked the graveyard shift at the local 24-hour restaurant. I worked in several restaurants in town. I was also a lifeguard. I came back from college and worked construction. I just worked at all sorts of jobs around Wahpeton.

Your parents were both teachers. How did that influence your childhood? Was it a really creative time?

My dad would make up stories and he mimeograph them for the kids to punctuate or read. One of my favorites of his lesson plans was this fantastic story about the Great Pencil Shortage. He also made a wonderful timeline that stretched all the way around the room that he kept adding to and we kept adding to. And he had a scroll that every student he ever had signed. In fact, Leonard Peltier signed that scroll.

You had a really active childhood—swimming, tennis, fishing, softball. But you also mention spending a lot of time at the library. What did you read when you were a kid?

I read Jack London. I loved Jack London’s White Fang. That was my first experience of, you know, real books. I remember reading “To Build a Fire,” the short story. He was the greatest. Jack London, George Orwell—I loved Animal Farm. And you know these were books I read as a little kid. I didn’t really understand quite what I was reading in some of them.

Did you write as a kid?

I kept diaries and both my father and mother encouraged me to write. I would write anything. With poetry, I tried things that rhymed mostly.

You mentioned that at one time you left Wahpeton? Why?

Well, my mother found me a place to go. She saw something about Dartmouth College and sent away for literature and found out that they were starting a Native American program and that they were also admitting women. So I entered Dartmouth the year they admitted women. I applied from out in Wahpeton, North Dakota. But I had never really left the Midwest before for an extended period. I had been to Tennessee once—that was my major trip. So I got on a plane and went out to New Hampshire and it was just extraordinary.

Is there anything you savor now about being near home?

Practically everything. I appreciated it as a kid but as a young adult I found I wanted to be in the big world as most people do. I wanted to travel and see what life was like elsewhere. I live in Minneapolis so I certainly haven’t gone back to live in Wahpeton, but I like being close and I love being near the Plains. I really need sky, horizon, and the Great Plains.

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