Presenter of the National Book Awards

2012 National Book Award Winner,
Fiction

Louise Erdrich

The Round House, by Louise ErdrichThe Round House

Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

Louise Erdrich, credit Paul Emmel

Interview by Mary Beth Keane

Mary Beth Keane: Congratulations on being named a Fiction Finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. I know this must be a busy time for you, so many thanks in advance for doing this. How’d you learn you’d been named a Finalist and what was your first response?

Louise Erdrich: I am on a book tour and was just leaving Nashville, where I'd been at Ann Patchett's wonderful Parnassus Books. Jane Beirn, my publicist at HarperCollins, called me. I have worked with Jane since Love Medicine in 1984, so I know every nuance of her phone voice. I immediately knew this was something really, really good. The first call I made was to my parents. It was early in the morning but I knew they'd be awake.

MBK: Where did you begin The Round House? What was the seed idea?

LE: The immense difficulty of prosecuting crimes of sexual violence on reservations has haunted me for many years, but I didn't know how to tell the story. I wanted to write it as a suspense novel. How else to include jurisdictional complexity? I didn't want to bore myself. When my main character, Joe, started talking, I knew I had been waiting for him. A writer's gift. Even now I miss writing in his voice and miss working on this book.

MBK: Did the story end up where you thought it would when you began?

LE: Halfway through the book I wrote the last paragraph, put my face in my hands, started to cry.

MBK: The Round House is your fourteenth novel, and a bit of a departure from your previous novels in that it's written from a single character's point of view. In what ways was the process of writing this novel different from writing your previous novels?

LE: Joe pulled me through the book—I could not have written it any other way. I loved being a 13-year-old boy. I grew up with brothers and had some of the freedom Joe has—a bike and a pack of friends.

MBK: How much consideration do you give to audience when you write?

LE: My characters have my attention—trying to find them, understand them, think like them, feel what they would feel, behave on the page as they would. And then there is the language—listening for what is unburdened by sentiment, trying to write something fearless. I usually write the books like secrets, as though nobody will read them.

MBK: What, in your opinion, is the fiction writer’s greatest responsibility when writing a novel or short story?

LE: A writer is responsible for writing the truth. That's an easy thing to say in this country.

MBK: Have any previous National Book Award Winners or Finalists been an influence on your work?

LE: Flannery O'Connor, J.F. Powers, William Faulkner, Andrea Barrett, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Eudora Welty, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Toni Morrison, E. Annie Proulx, and many others. I've just been reading Jaimy Gordon, Nicole Krauss, Dave Eggers, and of course the other nominees. They've written wonderful books—I'm in a tough crowd. 

Mary Beth Keane is the author of The Walking People (2009) and the forthcoming novel, Fever, about the life of Typhoid Mary. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. She lives in Pearl River, New York with her husband and their two sons.

Photo credit: Paul Emmel