Nearly six years ago, when her writer husband killed himself, Louise Erdrich, the famous Native American author, was at the center of a rather public tragedy, the messily painful, unspeakably sad stuff novelists like to write about but never imagine that they will be the ones of which it is written. Until, of course, like F. Scott and Zelda, like Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, they find that drama -- and trauma -- weave through their literary lives.
Erdrich, 49, never cared much for the public gaze, and yet, in part, it feeds her passion, in that it enables her to make a living doing what she most loves to do. Write. She cares even less for that gaze now, after finding herself in the white heat of the spotlight after husband Michael Dorris's death. But there is a new novel, a novel that she would like others to read. And so, the award-winning author has left behind her toddler daughter in Minneapolis, setting out on tour to promote "The Master Butchers Singing Club," a novel exploring the German side of her heritage. She sits in the Hotel George on E Street, a little pale and sniffly from a cold, patiently fielding questions about a subject that she says still elicits feelings of pain and panic.
"I do this because I'm a realist," says Erdrich, who describes herself as "a mixed blood enrolled in the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe." "I know that it's important. In an ideal world, I probably would never, ever have given an interview or gone out. But that's part of how books are published now."
And part of the way books are published now is that the author is the celebrity, the personal and the page sometimes seeming indistinguishable. Every now and then, as is the case with Erdrich, the personal eclipses what is happening on the page.
There is something that happens after great personal tragedy, a hunkering down, a withdrawing inward, a viewing of the world through weary, wary eyes. You don't get over it so much as you get through it, perhaps, so that if you're lucky, you can get back out there, in a newly reconstituted shape that looks like the you that used to be. Except, of course, that it isn't.
"It was," Erdrich says of her husband's suicide, parceling out her words with studied care, "a time of enormous trauma."
Hers was a storybook romance, or at least, it appeared to be, until reality intruded. She'd met Michael Dorris at Dartmouth College, where she was a student in cowboy boots and he was a professor of Native American studies and a single father of three adopted kids. They met again after she graduated, fell in love, married, had three more children. They started writing books, his and hers, hers and his, collaborating to the point that they couldn't tell where her words began and his ended. Literary acclaim and commercial success were theirs. She had her poems and novels, among them "Love Medicine" and "The Beet Queen," and he had his, including "A Yellow Raft on Blue Water" and the best-selling memoir "The Broken Cord," about his struggles to raise an adopted son, Abel, who had fetal alcohol syndrome. (Abel Dorris died in a car accident at 23, shortly before "The Broken Cord" was made into a TV movie starring Jimmy Smits.)
And then, in April 1997, Dorris, the man who encouraged her to write, and the man whom she encouraged to write, committed suicide. He drove himself to a New Hampshire motel, checked in, and downed a cocktail of sleeping pills and vodka, tying a plastic bag over his head to seal the deal.
His death was a shock -- to everyone, perhaps, except Erdrich and a handful of Dorris's closest friends. As it turned out, literature's golden couple had been separated for at least a year, and Dorris was under investigation for alleged sexual abuse of their daughters. In the flurry of investigative and speculative press accounts that followed, neither Dorris nor his wife fared particularly well.
He was depicted as a troubled and volatile man, a possible alcoholic who'd beaten his adopted children, and who'd fabricated much of his glossy, self-confident facade, perhaps even fabricating his Native American heritage. And she was painted the Gorgon of the literary world, a woman who'd scorned her husband and perhaps conspired to take his daughters from him. They were estranged from their two surviving adopted children, Sava and Madeline, and had filed extortion charges against Sava when he allegedly threatened their lives.
The truth is out there, and as Erdrich sees it, it really isn't any of our business. Back then, all she wanted was to be left alone, to take care of her daughters, to shepherd them the best she could through the saddest moment of their lives. She talked to reporters who showed up at her door, but she didn't want to. Now she has mastered the art of giving an interview without giving much of herself. She is gracious. She is pleasant. She is generous of her time. But there is a line to be drawn, invisible but unmistakable. She will not discuss details of Michael's death, or of the allegations against him (the court records have been sealed). But she will say this, keeping a watchful eye on her about-to-turn-14 daughter, Asa, who sits across from her, reading a book and munching on a veggie lunch:
"The great loss was to us and our family. It's painful and will always be painful. . . . We become more capable of reliving and understanding what happened. It changes every time one of the girls goes through a major change. . . . So it's not something that one deals with and puts in the past, and leaves behind. It goes on and on, affecting life."
Through it all, she continued to write, producing "Tales of Burning Love," "The Antelope Wife" and the young-adult novel "The Birchbark House," books that, like the rest of her work, explore the endurance of love and the complexities of ancestry and identity, of the magical and the mystical. And with her daughters she opened an independent bookstore, also titled the Birchbark House, a store filled with Native American literature, recycled birch bark and an old Catholic confessional. Her professional life continued to flourish, and along with it, her personal life. Two years ago she gave birth to another daughter. (She is involved with, but not married to, the child's father, a Native American political activist and "spiritual consultant" who lives in Canada.)
"I felt like God called my bluff," she says, laughing. "I thought I'd see what would happen. And I was thrilled and appalled to find out I was pregnant. I was 47 when I had her."
Now her life is both quiet and privileged. A babysitter cares for Erdrich's toddler while she writes.
She works in a circular fashion, patching together bits and pieces of her novels, snippets of thoughts and images, conversations and dreams, as if piecing together a quilt.
"When you're in a very receptive state of mind, you really feel like there are voices talking to you," she says. "That's a wonderful feeling, but it doesn't happen often. . . . You actually feel like you're hearing words form and voices form in your head. It's a curious thing. I used to think it was mystical. Now I don't."
When creativity eludes Erdrich on a project, she puts it away for a while and starts on something else. She won't write if it feels tedious, but trusts that the muse will return in due time. Years ago, for instance, she started writing about the characters in "The Master Butchers Singing Club," returning to the fictional South Dakota town of Argus from her previous novels, but this time around venturing away from the reservation to explore the lives of the Germans and other European Americans who sought their fortunes in the scrappy plains.
In this latest work immigrants walk with heavy, workboot-shod feet and concern themselves with quotidian tasks like slaying hogs and finding the perfect slice of machine-made American-bread. They are touched, too, by elements of the mystical.
As she lays dying, the German-born Eva describes the vision she had while taking her first, and only plane ride.
"There is plan, eine grosse Idee, bigger than the whole damn rules. . . . Bigger than the candles in church, bigger than confessionals, bigger than the Sacred Host. . . . If I die, don't take this too hard . . . death is only part of bigger things than we can imagine. Our brains are just starting the greatness. . . ."
At the center of the story is the butcher Fidelis, who like Erdrich's German grandfather sings like an angel and kills with precision; and the mysterious Delphine, who like her grandmother makes a living in vaudeville, serving as a human table, balancing a man and a stack of chairs on her prodigious abs.
"That's the image I have a lot about women," Erdrich says, laughing ruefully. "They're sort of invisibly beneath things, gut clenched, feet planted, supporting all these men."
For now, at least, she lives in a world surrounded by the feminine. Her two adopted children, Sava and Madeline, are grown and living on their own. Once strained and seemingly irrevocably broken, their relationship is now, according to Erdrich, "very cordial and friendly. I love them and that's how it's going to be," an odd statement, perhaps, but one that hints at her formidable will. Her oldest daughter, Persia, is 19 and in college. Daughters Pallas, 17, and Asa live at home with her and the baby.
"I think women either go along with things, in a nice way, as I was taught to do, and make people happy and try to be the all-forgiving goddess, or you break out of it and you are yourself, with every failing and every strength. You can't expose your strengths without exposing your failings as well."
Asa finishes her lunch, grabs her book and stands up, ready to head back to her hotel room. She holds out her arms to her mother, and the two embrace. Erdrich pats her back, smiles a smile that is at once tender and wistful.
Is she happy?
"I would say that I am as happy as I can be. Which is not to say it's what everyone's idea of happiness can be."