Louise Erdrich: "LaRose"
Louise Erdrich’s new novel, LaRose, opens with the accidental shooting of a young boy. In an old-fashioned form of making amends, the shooter, an Ojibwe man named Landreaux, offers his own son, five-year-old LaRose, to the bereft parents.
Against this backdrop of grief and upheaval set in 1999, Erdrich envelops the reader in a captivating story of a too-small
Dakota town where everyone has a loaded history and tensions are
high. Ancestral and boarding school backstories are interspersed with
narratives of adults struggling with self-destructive urges and of children
navigating a world in which they have little control.
Though this is her 15th novel, and the third in a justice trilogy that includes The Plague of Doves and The Round House, Erdrich shows no signs of burnout; in fact, LaRose is already being hailed as one of her best books yet. Based in
the award-winning and bestselling author also owns and operates Birchbark Books.
You seem to be drawn to tragedy. Is that because that’s where the good storylines are or is it cathartic for you?
Louise Erdrich: I think these three books, it’s what had to be part of the books because they’re about acts of justice and usually what precedes a dramatic justice — unless it’s a civil suit — is a pretty dramatic tragedy. I don’t want to [write about tragedy]. I didn’t really plan to. But that’s what happened.
Do you storyboard your ideas ahead of time or do you go where the narrative takes you?
I do both. I let the narrative grab me and then I try to find where it’s going.
As you mentioned, one of the themes of LaRose is retribution. Your characters don’t seem to feel as good when it happens as they think they’re going to feel. What is your experience with that?
The idea of — this isn’t really personal, you just come to know it — the idea of getting even is… there’s more pleasure in the anticipation. It’s not something that really makes you feel right. It’s better to show some mercy.
One of the storylines is about addiction to prescription medication. How did you put yourself in the mindset of Romeo, who was abusing those kinds of substances? How did you get to know what was going through his mind?
You sort of extrapolate from your own — mine are more harmless — addictions. You just know what it’s like, at a certain point, if you’ve lived life, to lose control of your mind to some degree. It’s not like I’ve taken anything from direct experience, but as a writer you have to use every — maybe insignificant — experience you’ve had and really blow it up. You have to exaggerate it.
Thank God I’ve never had to really contend with an addiction. I don’t know how anyone gets free of addiction. I can’t even lose 10 pounds. [Laughs] I don’t know how people deal with addiction, honest to god. It’s one of the most vexing questions of our time because we seem, as a species, to need our addictions. Fortunately, mine are pretty ridiculous. Fortunately, some of them are even helpful. I’m addicted to writing. And coffee.
After writing so many books, do you ever feel like you’re done with writing, that you’ve had your fill?
Narrative is just my thing, my thing that gets me. I can’t get away from narrative. Everything turns into a story for me. I can’t get away from language, either. I’m always looking for the delight of getting into the real flow of writing narrative. If I can have it once in a while, that’s enough for me.
Does it feel like work at other times?
Oh, yes, it’s grueling. Nobody likes me when I’m copy-editing. People scatter.
The '90s references in the book are great. Why did you decide to write the novel in that time period?
Y2K, I think. We have a nostalgia for it, or at least I do, because it was a disaster that didn’t happen. We prepared for it. Everyone was on guard, stocked up, and thought of escape hatches, routes, plans. We didn’t know how much we’d computerized and what was going to happen. We were all ready for disaster, but it didn’t happen. Then 9/11 happened, and we weren’t ready for it. I don’t really touch on that, but that’s the obvious situation.
Do any of your children write? Do you anticipate they’ll carry on your legacy?
My daughter, Aza, she’s an artist. She does my book covers. She has a show right now at All My Relations Gallery. She’s taken the art side of the whole enterprise. My daughter Pallas does a lot of her art and writing on websites. She’s a tech person.
my oldest, is an Ojibwe immersion teacher. She’s teaching kindergarteners their
language. They’re teaching her, too. They’re fluent speakers. She started at
in Learning Center Minneapolis] and now she’s at
Waadookodaading in Lac Courte Oreilles reservation.
How do you explain Birchbark Books' longevity when it seems like other bookstores are going out of business?
I think we’re actually experiencing a renaissance of little book stores. Oh, my gosh, you should have been there on Indie Day! It was just packed, and people were so excited. I think a lot of people like Kindles, but they aren’t enough, or maybe their Kindle died or they dropped it in the bathtub. I don’t know. People seem to like both. People seem to like bookstores a lot.
I think that the making of a book is like making a bicycle. You can make a lot of different types of books, but you can’t improve on a basic technology there. It’s pretty cool. A well-made book is the best technology for books. It’s not expensive. If you throw it in the river, you’re not going to lose a lot. You can carry it anywhere, give it away. I love them.
Originally published on City Pages in May 2016.
Max Porter: "Grief is the Thing With Feathers"
Max Porter’s debut “Grief Is The Thing With Feathers”, newly released by Graywolf Press, is a beautiful, beguiling story of a Ted Hughes scholar and his young sons whose lives are shattered after a senseless death. Enter Crow, a menacing, inquisitive, avian intruder that helps the family process the loss and cajoles the remaining members onward. The feather-light book, a hybrid of poetry and prose, is weighty with wordplay, literary references, and universal truths about love and grief. A gripping narrative with a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm and relentless momentum, you’ll be tempted to devour it cover-to-cover in one sitting.
Porter, who is also the editor of Granta Books, spoke to us from
London, where he
lives with his wife and children.
I understand your father died when you were six years old. Tell me about that and how it influenced your book.
Max Porter: My mum and dad were separated and they both married again. We used to go up to see my dad at weekends. We went up on a Friday night and he died that night. I always have been really preoccupied with how to tell that story from the children’s point of view, but also especially when there’s two siblings like me and my brother and they’re very close.
How does the experience of loss change over time?
I was very fortunate because I had a really nice step-dad and I had step-siblings. We were very loved. But because the architecture of the family had changed, my brother and I were thrown together. We were a unit, partly because we spent a lot of time together, but partly because we were the leftovers of a relationship that no longer existed.
There was a time in my life when I really, really missed my dad and thought a lot about my dad and was quite sad about my dad. And my brother at that time was quite hard about it, like “Get over it.” Now that we’re older, it’s my brother who’s more sentimental and nostalgic for a dad whereas I’m a bit more emotionally robust about it now.
In your book, it’s the mother that dies. Why did you switch the roles?
Because I wanted to write fiction. If I wrote about a dead dad, it would be too close, and I didn’t want to write memoir. I needed a certain distance from myself. So I made this man up from scratch, almost to play with him, like I wanted to make a model and then hurt it.
In a way, they’re all me: the boys are me, the crow is me, the dad is me. But I needed a character different enough from me that I wouldn’t be thinking all the time, “Oh, how would I feel if my wife died?” I think that’s not such a constructive thing for writing.
And also, totally honestly, there are people still alive—my dad’s family—that don’t necessarily know the whole story and I didn’t feel it was my story to tell.
How did your father die?
No one really knows. Basically, he was very unhealthy. He’d been ill for a long time and then he’d had a car crash. He probably died of a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism or something. He was not a healthy man.
Crow’s speech is very different from the rest of the characters in the book. How did you channel that voice?
I had fun. I’m a big fan of writing which veers into nonsense poetry. I knew if he was going to be an appropriate person to speak to this trauma and to help these children, then language would have to be redesigned for him. It wouldn’t be appropriate for him to speak in normal prose. Also, because he’s a figment, in some respects, of the dad’s imagination, and he’s a creation of the dad’s literary obsessions, he would have to be highly literary, almost like the ghost of a library came alive.
The whole book is patterned around these movements between sentimentality and toilet humor or fables and something much more like an essay. And the same with the bird: the crow should move between being totally wild and unpleasant and violent—if that’s what’s needed of him at that time—to being quite tender and quite friendly.
In a way, that speaks to me to how we should all be with one another when things like this occur: not to deny the nastiness in order to allow kindness to flow. Human nature is both things. Life is very, very sad and life is very, very funny and those two things are always in conversation with each other and that’s what crow’s there to say.
In your experience, do we recover from grief or is it something that ebbs and flows our entire lives?
I think the latter. Don’t you?
Yeah, I think so. Grief seems to arise at strange moments. It’s never when you expect it.
Yeah, I think we should accept that. And in some ways, embrace it. One of my leaping-off points for this book was that grief can be quite ecstatic. That if you work hard at it, if you think carefully about the people you’ve lost and the people who aren’t here, then you can enrich your experience and make it more like a celebratory thing. I think the idea that you get over it, that there’s a neat, linear path from pain to fixedness, or normality, I think that’s really gross. I don’t trust that.
I think the fact of human beings having great pain and great anguish and great inconsistency is part of being a human being; it’s what makes us remarkable. That was one of the things I wanted the book to suggest: that the movement forward should be organic, sideways, things should pollute one another, that remembering things is as important as forgetting things, that making jokes is as important as paying one’s respects.
Almost every review of the book immediately mentions the way you combine prose and poetry. Was that difficult to “sell” to publishers? Sometimes they’re resistant to genre-bending forms.
That’s why I’m excited to be with Graywolf in the States, because that’s what they do so well. They’re totally fearless about it. They don’t even see it as a problem, they see it as an opportunity. They see it as their modus operandi to find the work that does interesting things with form. There’s a million publishers out there that publish good novels but there’s not many, as you say, that would have the vision of how to package and sell a book like this.
Publishers tend to underestimate readers, particularly corporate publishers who are very concerned with genre and with imitating previous successes, doing one thing like another because that worked. I think they underestimate the fact that readers are complex human beings. They might like crime novels but they might also like romance. Just because you like sci-fi doesn’t mean you don’t also like high literary poetry. If you crush a lot of those things together in the same book, you’re just saying, “Readers are weird. Books are weird. Go for it.”
You’re the editor of Granta Books. What do you look for when you’re reading submissions?
That’s a hard question. We’re quite a literary house. We don’t have such strict commercial imperatives, like we don’t have to publish a certain number of books per year. We don’t have to have huge commercial successes. So I look for good writing. In a way, it’s that easy. Beyond that, I look for something a bit different with storytelling. Basically, I guess I just want to fall in love when I’m reading.
Originally published on City Pages in June 2016.
Paul Murray: "The Mark and the Void"
When you think of novel fodder, financial collapse probably doesn’t come to mind. For Irish author Paul Murray, however, financial collapse is the creative and comical gold from which he crafted his third novel, "The Mark and the Void". The satirical story follows a Frenchman, Claude, an analyst for the Bank of Torobundo in
Enter Paul, an iniquitous writer who wants to shadow Claude as research for his
forthcoming novel…or so he says. Plot twists rife with greed and intrigue ensue.
Murray, whose 2010 novel "Skippy Dies" received substantial critical acclaim, spoke to Crave from a café in his hometown of
How did you get into writing?
My dad is an academic and our house was full of books. That’s how I spent my childhood: reading. Writing seemed like a natural progression.
What sorts of books made an impression on you growing up?
Anything involving other worlds, like Irish mythology and folklore. "The Chronicles of Narnia", "The Phantom Tollbooth". Anything fantastical and funny.
Your previous novel, "Skippy Dies", was so well-received. Was that a source of pressure when you began to write The Mark and the Void? Or did it give you confidence?
I’d already been through that cycle of self-interrogation the first time around. My first book, "An Evening of Long Goodbyes", came out in 2003, and it didn’t sell very much but it got good critical responses. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. If a book does well, you get the confidence boost, but on the other hand, you say, “That was my
The next time I’m going to fuck up and everyone will be disappointed and I’ll
have squandered my chance.”
After the first book came out, I felt like I had the wind behind me to write something long and difficult, which ended up being "Skippy Dies", and that did well. A lot of people read that book and I didn’t want to disappoint them. It’s something you have to get past. You can’t worry too much about what people are going to make of your book for good or for ill because you’ll never write anything. You’ll be completely paralyzed. You try and take the good and forget about the sad faces of the people who are expecting "Skippy Dies II".
How are writers perceived in
Is it different than in other parts of the world?
On the one hand,
has this famous literary culture. We have four or five Nobel Prize-winning
authors. Literature is one of the only things we’ve been really good at as a
nation. We’ve drawn a lot of pride from it. The country still likes to perceive
itself as a literary place. I feel like there’s a historical weight attached to
literature. It’s a fairly conservative, right-wing place. If things aren’t
making money, they’re of no matter. I think that’s liberating in a way; it’s
good for writers to be marginal.
How do you define success if it’s not monetary? What do you measure it by?
Success is a weird concept. David Foster Wallace, in that film that’s come out about his interview with David Lipsky ["The End of the Tour"], talks about how he aligned himself with these underground artists, people who never made much money. That kind of success was never on the map for him, so it came as a shock when his book was this mainstream success and he had to reconfigure his ideas of how the world worked.
Similarly, for me, I didn’t have "Infinite Jest" levels of success, but I didn’t expect "Skippy Dies" to do what it did. It’s confusing; a part of you wants to hold onto that and repeat that. It’s really exciting to have people read your book; not many writers get to experience that. At the same time, I want to write the books that I want to write, so it’s a constant battle to prioritize and work at what’s important to you. It’s easy to say, “Money’s not important to me,” because thus far, I’ve been able to pay the rent. If I can keep writing and pay the rent, that’s fantastic.
What about banking was of interest to you as the focal point for "The Mark and the Void"?
Banking was of interest because
was really demolished by the financial crisis. I think it was the biggest loss
of wealth of any sovereign nation in peace time. The bottom dropped out and
everybody was very afraid and very ashamed. It was a tremendously
disorientating and upsetting time. I felt so angry about what the banks had
done and angry about what we as people had colluded with. I felt like to write
anything else would be to continue to ignore it. It really was like the
elephant in the room. The more I read about it, the more interested I was. The
façade of respectability and sobriety and boringness—it’s baffling. It’s a
crazy world of nominally talented people taking massive risks with people’s
What kinds of research did you do to understand the industry?
I really just read books about
banking. What happened in Ireland
in the last 15 years is a compressed version of what happened in the West in
the last 30 or 40 years. Ireland
went from this agrarian backwater to, suddenly, an economic powerhouse, and
then, just as traumatically, to a destitute state. America
is kind of the model that Ireland
adopted and that’s where the cues are still coming from. One of the key books
for me was "Debt" by David Graeber. He’s sort of the brains of Occupy Wall Street.
His book is really interesting. It’s a cultural history of debt.
is faced with doing—just like Greece
is doing as well—is ordinary people are paying off back debt. We’ve taken on
this weight, not just of debt but of guilt, of responsibility, for the way the
banks have acted.
Do you think novels can induce cultural change? Do they have that much power?
No, probably not. Not at a macro level. At the same time, we’re pushed towards thinking in a certain way without even knowing that we’re being pushed. I think that people have become much more money-oriented, individualistic, involved in themselves, and more lonely. I think the world is a harder place for everybody to be alive. It’s harder to make your way, to feed your kids, to put your kids through school, to be sick. We’re more isolated, locked in our little screens. That isolation hurts people. It makes it harder to get from one end of the day to the next.
I think what novels can do is remind people of other ways of seeing the world. The world doesn’t have to be this cold, ruthless, lonely place where you’re in this battle with everybody else to make it to the top. Novels are good at putting you in other people’s shoes. Like Iris Murdoch, the Irish writer says, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” And that’s what novels help you to do: realize that everybody’s experience is as deep and profound as yours.
Yet writing is a solitary activity. How do you balance that with social needs?
There’s this great Camus quote that I can’t quite remember about how the monastic element of writing is contrary to the spirit. It’s strange spending the day not talking to anyone. That said,
is quite a small city. You’re never too far away from your friends. If you’re
having a bad day and you really need to talk to someone, you can do that quite
On the one hand, it’s hard to be alone every day, but on the other hand it’s a privilege, and it’s also—I’ve got several hands in action there—it’s an amazing thing to be able to go into yourself and work out what you’re thinking about and what you like and don’t like about the world. We’re pushed through life at an increasingly rapid pace so it’s rewarding to have these flow experiences. Writing’s not like that all the time because you have bad days where you can’t get anything down and you’re bashing your head against the wall. That’s when you feel alone. But I think what you realize after a while is if you have a bad day, the next day will be better. You have to trust that you’ll get back into it.
In an interview for The Millions, you said, “The novelist is the one person you can trust to be lying.” Who do you think is more trustworthy: writers or bankers?
[Laughs] We live in this mathematical, calm world where every person—economist, scientist, politician, whatever—is saying to you, “I’ve got some kind of formula which shows x plus y equals blah and I’ve got the magic answer that shows you how to live your life.” And they’re always wrong. Everything has a flaw. Everything is incomplete. That’s human experience: living in uncertainty and with doubt. It seems like artists are the last ones standing, telling people that very important message that nobody knows what’s going to happen and anybody that tells you what’s going to happen is not telling you the truth.
On the one hand, novelists are famously bad with money. I wouldn’t necessarily go to a novelist for financial advice. But at the same time, I wouldn’t necessarily go to a banker, either.
Originally published on Crave Online in November 2015.