Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Interview: Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is the author of sixteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir. Her previous novel, LaRose, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The Round House won the National Book Award for Fiction. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in Minnesota.

Your novel Future Home of the Living God is a journal your protagonist Cedar Hawk Songmaker writes to her unborn child. She writes it as she braves a totalitarian theocracy that orders pregnant women to be incarcerated while a reversal of evolution wreaks havoc. She says that writing the journal serves as therapy. Was writing the novel a form of therapy for you?

Writers do not like to characterize their writing as self-therapy. It is supposed to be grander somehow, right? Art is supposed to drive you crazy, not cure the crazy. When I write, I am usually trying to solve a problem. However, because I’ve set the problem for myself and intensely enjoy solving these sorts of problems, there is a way in which I find comfort in the writing. Maybe that’s therapy, maybe self-punishment, maybe a treacherous route to joy.

You originally drafted Future Home of the Living God in 2002. What led you to return to Cedar’s story fourteen years later?

2001-2002 was apocalyptic. The election in 2000 was cataclysmic, because Al Gore was our last real chance for leadership in acting to save our climate. Then of course 9/11 and the gathering of transparently false intelligence in order to invade Iraq. Oh, and I’d also just had my youngest daughter at forty-six. So I was sickened and furious when George W. Bush signed the global gag rule, which condemned women around the world to bear children whether or not they were physically capable. I started the book then because I couldn’t deal with the world in any other way. I finished it this year for the same reason.

What were some major changes you made to the manuscript when you revised it in 2016? How much of it remained the same?

The manuscript has changed in huge ways. I cut several hundred pages of Cedar’s musings on Catholic dogma. It was due to the intercession of Saint Severina, the patron saint of editing, whose hair grew twelve feet every night and had to be cut each morning before she said her prayers.

You’ve said that the physical book is an incomparable and enduring form of technology. Is that why you have Cedar physically write in the notebook rather than use a tablet or another portable digital writing device?

That wasn’t at all the reason, but it would make sense if I’d thought that out. I write by hand before transferring my manuscripts to the computer. Cedar doesn’t have reliable electricity and has to hide her journal in an air vent when confined to the hospital. I think having physical copies of writings or images that you love is important. I have noticed that much vanishes when you entrust a device that will soon be upgraded.

Let’s talk about Cedar. She’s Ojibwe-born, but was adopted and raised by white parents. Her voice carries us through the book. Did her voice come to you the same way the voice of your protagonist Joe Coutts in The Round House came to you? Joe, also Ojibwe, carries us through that novel while he investigates the mystery surrounding the violent attack that takes place on the North Dakota reservation where he lives.

Cedar has ideas about the world that collapse very quickly, but she keeps replacing her ideas with new constructs that collapse again, until she commits a murder. Then she is on some level destroyed. This is akin to Joe’s experience in The Round House. I prepare for the book in every way—research, draft after draft, increasingly desperate notes. Then at last a character starts talking—that’s probably how most writers find their characters. I also wanted to write about the mixture of identities common to Native people. Common to all of us. We are all mixtures of some sort or another—usually one heritage predominates, but that isn’t at all predictable.

Early in the novel, Cedar writes a line that really stuck with me: “This is how the world ends, I think, everything crazy yet people doing normal things.” It’s such a welcome variation on the usual bleak tropes in dystopian fiction.

I wanted to write this as a time very like the days we are experiencing now. We are in an eerie time. We know that climate chaos is happening and that things are going to disintegrate in unknown ways. We know that some of this is too late to stop. We know that there will be millions of upended lives, climate refugees, political weirdness, and that this has already started. We try to guess how this will affect us personally, our families, and our children. We don’t know. The massive scale of change beggars predictions for any set of people. If we aren’t in the path of war or drought or hurricanes, we forget for many golden hours that the world is changing. Then we remember. And we look around and think, when is it coming?

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to stop climate change from getting worse. Of course. The other point is that there is a time when you know things are tipping, elsewhere, then suddenly, as for Cedar, you are trapped in a tipped-over world.

What I find remarkable about Cedar is her unshakable spirituality. Even though the atrocities committed against her and the other pregnant women are done in the name of hijacked religion, her spirituality sustains her in the midst of a dystopian setting.

Cedar starts out as a pompous pseudo on so many levels. But she is more tenacious than I thought she would be. She actually becomes stronger in her passion to embrace and find solace in the unseen. She surprised me, too.

Speaking of your dystopian setting, where does the all-seeing, robotic figure named Mother come from? She was one of the creepiest features of the Church of the New Constitution, the name of the new American government in Future Home.

Oh, she’s Karen Pence.

You’ve written speculative fiction before. Your novel The Antelope Wife won the World Fantasy Award in 1999. Tell us what it was like to win that award.

I was utterly thrilled! One of my enduring regrets is not making it to the awards ceremony. My life was just too nuts right then. But I cherish the award itself—a bust of H. P. Lovecraft by Gahan Wilson. It is in my will that this treasure should go to my brother-in-law John Burke, who is my science fiction guru.

In your Facebook post on August 18, you list Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, and P.D. James’s The Children of Men as rich sources of strangeness and nightmare scenarios for women. How did you first encounter these books?

Science fiction and fantasy was the first work that invited me into an intellectual zone way outside my small North Dakota hometown. I devoured huge piles of books—I can’t remember many titles from that time except Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy. The coherence of his universe is still imprinted on me. I also love Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and more recently, The Buried Giant, a meditative fantasy. My daughter gave me the first two visionary and emotionally resonant books in N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. I like work that blurs genres. George Saunders, Brian Evenson. My sister handed me Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, a phenomenal new voice. I am also a devout Karen Russell fan.

Further in the Facebook post you write: “writing speculative fiction felt like writing a form of truth.” What’s the truth you found in genre?

There is always good technical groundwork and an emotional veracity to good speculative fiction, which is why The Handmaid’s Tale works so beautifully. There is the feeling that it gives you something to work with in the present. It is the reason so many people are reading Margaret Atwood and George Orwell now.

One of the great things about science fiction is the freedom to envision futures that we want. While pregnant women are being incarcerated, Cedar’s Ojibwe stepfather, Eddy, is leading the Ojibwe in reclaiming land sequestered by white settler colonialism. It reminds me of the history of resistance to settler expansion through Indigenous sovereignty that historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes about in her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

Well, it is a fantasy, and probably the opposite would happen. But I couldn’t bear to write that.

In your interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Faces of America, you talked about how crucial it is for Native nations to hold on to land. I couldn’t help but think that your premise of an evangelical government sequestering pregnant women is analogous to Native nations losing their land to the US government’s systemic white settler colonialism.

Indigenous people in the Americas are descended of relatives who survived the dystopia of genocide. To us, dystopia is recent history. (For many, it is the present.) My parents collected all the knowledge they could about our ancestors, so I know where my Ojibwe relatives were and roughly what happened to them. Every Native person knows that nine of every ten of their ancestors died of European diseases. We are descended of that one person in ten who had natural immunity and then somehow survived the various government policies that first meant to eradicate and then assimilate all Native people. We are all Hail Mary shots that went through the hoop. Still, existence for most Native people in this country is an unrelenting struggle. What saves us is a magnificent sense of humor and a thoroughgoing respect for beauty. And also kindness. That’s number one for Native people. (In spite of thousands of little wars on Facebook.)

Are there any future projects you can tell us about?

I am writing about the Red River Valley, where I grew up and where the major portion of extraordinarily rich farmland was taken over by industrial sugar beet production. Hoeing sugar beets was my first job. Sugar has a cruel history; it is a cruel substance. At this point, people always say something like, but Grandma’s lemon bars! Yes, the story is complicated by addiction, greed, and the American illness of sentimentality.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.