Louise Erdrich Interview

The Master Butchers Singing ClubLouise Erdrich is not only the award-winning author of Love Medicine, The Master Butchers Singing Club , and other wonderful novels, but she also has a second career that endears her to us: She owns an independent bookstore, The Birchbark, in Minnesota.

Book Passage: In the dedication of your book, The Master Butchers Singing Club, you say your father sang to you. Is this where you got the idea for a singing club? Did he belong to a singing club?

Erdrich: My Grandfather did. It is his picture that is on the cover of the book. In Germany he belonged to a singing guild and when he left for the United States on board a ship his singing group came down and sang him away. My father had a good voice, not as strong as my grandfathers, but he loved to sing and would sing to us in the car. He sang German songs, many of them are in the book, but he also sang other songs like "Big Rock Candy Mountain". In a small town, music and singing is a way for people to express emotion without danger. It is communal; there is no self-revelation. In North Dakota clubs are very important.

B.P.: At the end of the book Step-and-a-Half gives the epilogue. She says, "Not a single note is ever lost and no song is original." I thought that was a beautiful way of tying together the "cords" of the story.

Erdrich: I got to the end of the book and almost had a vision of all the songs that have ever been released in the world and that they're still out there. In the Ojibwe way of life songs will come back to us. We don't invent songs, they discover us. They define us and resonate in us. We're not the authors of these songs.

B.P.: In a wonderful way you elicit the sense of smell throughout the book, especially in the butcher shop. Is this an important part of your childhood memories or do you use it here just to set the stage?

Erdrich: These are very compelling childhood memories and I loved diving back into that world while writing the book. This is a very physical story because it taps into those earliest memories of spending time in my grandparents’ store which was a butcher store but also a general store. For a kid it was this amazing place to be. Fresh bread was delivered, big barrels of pepper and there was always the drama of the slaughter. I was not protected from that.

B.P.: Your story spans WWI and WWII. Fidelis' character is built out of the remnants of war left in his soul. The night he goes to see Delfine at her house and she tells him she is the daughter of a murderer, he goes through a transition. "There was no need for him to be quiet to survive." Could you explain what happens at this moment?

Erdrich: He can experience the inconsistencies of a real existence.

B.P.: The love that exists between Delfine and Fidelis remains somewhat mysterious. How much of this has to do with Eva? Why is Delfine’s love so uncertain?

Erdrich: Her love, which seems portentous, has in the end more to do with comfort. That's true in many very passionate relationships. She is reassured.

B.P.: The idea of motherhood, who is who's mother . . . what makes a mother . . . exchangeable mothers . . . responsibilities of the mother . . . longing for the mother . . . It is such a dominate theme. Where does this come from?

Erdrich: Probably from my own role as a mother and from my constant self-questioning. I never have it entirely right, except for the part of unconditional love. I am always thinking I could be a better mother.

B.P.: Cyprian and Clarissa. Explain the circumstances that brought these two shockingly together?

Erdrich: Anger and necessity.

B.P.: At one point Delfine settles in to a kind of contentment that she associates with "a vague sense of failure" "to be discontented had always seemed a much richer thing." Is this a statement about what we find out at the end of the story, about where she comes from? Is she destined to be discontented? Is it not only richer but safer?

Erdrich: I think so. Contentment is hard to maintain, especially for caretaker people who get gratification out of handling crises.

B.P.: Roy and Step-and-a-Half. What a revelation! Was it hard for you to wait until the end of the story to reveal this truth?

Erdrich: No, because I didn't know how it would turn out either. I didn't know the ending.

B.P.: The killing and burning of the dogs after Eva dies. What did this represent?

Erdrich: I don't know what anything in the book represents until years later!

B.P.: When Delphine goes back to the butcher shop after Eva dies she says, "it was the kind of life you didn't know at the time you were living it was a happy life." Is this what you feel is true in all of our lives?

Erdrich: I do. I have this poignance about ordinary.