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Amazon Asks: National Book Award Winner Louise Erdrich

Sara Nelson talks with the beloved author about the important books in her life, about her current author crush, her most memorable author moment, and more.

How much do readers love Louise Erdrich's The Round House? The prolific author’s 14th novel -- which, like most of her earlier books, observes contemporary Native American life -- was our No. 1 pick of 2012, and then won the coveted National Book Award for Fiction.

"Powerful," many reviewers called it, and so it is -- but the story of a brutal racial attack is also ultimately redemptive, written as it is in Erdrich's masterful, magical prose and focused with such love on the adolescent boy at its center.

Warm and friendly and in a very good mood a few days after her wins, Erdrich talked to us about writing, reading, and a couple of weird artifacts she cherishes.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

It's a story that asks the question: Will a 13 year old boy kill to save his mother?

What's on your nightstand?

When I'm writing, I only read for the book, so now one of the joys has been reading for pleasure. I just read Jaimy Gordon's The Lord of Misrule. I read all the fiction finalists [for the National Book Awards: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, A Hologram for the King, This is How You Lose Her, Yellow Birds], and I've been reading Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, Dinaw Mengestu's How to Read the Air and Michael Ondaatje's Cat's Table.

What is the most important book you never read?

There are so many but one would be Ulysses. I've never been able to forge all the way through it. It's one of those that I've got on a shelf and it stares at me. It says, "You're going to pick me up." Maybe someday.

Is there a book that changed your life?

There are actually three:

  • The Bible. As for so many writers, its language informed my earliest speech, writing, thoughts.
  • Second was Animal Farm; I thought it was about pigs. I knew about pigs because my grandparents had a butcher shop. Then it got me.
  • The third book is my father. He's a book. He's the most intelligent, literary, funny and tender human being I know. He's the main reason I became a writer. He wouldn't say he was a writer, but he is. He writes still, has volumes of his letter. He has written memoirs because he wants to. Poetry, reams of poetry. He has constantly written. He's 87 and still lives with my mother.
  • What's your most memorable author moment?

    First moment was when I found out that I won a magazine award from Chicago magazine. What I'd written was a story that became the opening of Love Medicine. I was broke and Studs Turkel and Kay Boyle and one other writer made the decision -- it was 1983. It paid $5,000. It was huge. It was astonishing.

    What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

    I'd like to make everyone I love immortal. I don't think they'd even want it, but I'd want it.

    What's your most prized/treasured possession?

    It's a Thunderbird egg, like the one Cappy gave to Joe [in The Round House]. I got it from an old person.

    Who's your current author crush?

    Junot Diaz. I thought I'd discovered him, but I guess not.

    What's the last dream you remember?

    When I'm writing I don't dream. But I had a dream last night. It was so exciting. It was about one of my brothers. He was riding a 12-foot-high horse, and he had glowing saffron robes flying out behind him. It reminded me of one of my favorite images: walking through Christo's gates in Central Park in 2005. I remember the snow, the bare branches.

    What's your favorite method of procrastination?

    I have my daughters -- 28, 27, 23 and 11 -- so I always have things to do. I have one to bring to school and get things prepared so I don't go straight to my work in the morning anyway. But I'm not a procrastinator. What happens after you write for 30 years, you form an addiction to being someone else, or living in someone else's world. And having the silent intensity of communication with a character in another situation is truly addictive. I don't have to force myself to get there. I need to get there.

    What's the best piece of fan mail you ever got?

    I had written a story called Saint Marie, and this reader wrote to me and called it "a nauseating phantasm of convent life." I loved that. I thought, "I have really struck a nerve." I was very angry when I wrote the story; I was angry at Catholicism, the coverups in Catholic life, the priesthood, and I knew from that letter that the reader felt my anger. I used to have a confessional in the book store; I bought it when a church was being torn down. People used to go in there and confess, but then we put up a little sign that says "Our insurance doesn't cover damnation." Now we prefer to think of it as a forgiveness booth.

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