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.

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.


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