Interview with Louise Erdrich

"A Writer's Beginnings" by Louise Erdrich originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of Smithsonian magazine. Here, Erdrich speaks about notable weather, Wal-Mart and writing.

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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.


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