It can be a little boring sometimes when writers talk about their methods, but I found Erdrich’s pretty fascinating in the conversation she had with the Paris Review. I love that she writes by hand, sitting in an armchair; I can totally see myself writing that way. And how she says that when she’s writing a novel, it casts an aura around her, so that everything else she does ends up falling in line and giving her inspiration. She mentions something in the interview about her time at Dartmouth, and it made me think of Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, which I read a few months ago. Sotomayor had a similar experience when she began at Yale. It’s one of the things that—like with all forms of privilege—those who had the advantage would never realize others were missing.
Were you a good literature student?
I worked hard to catch up with people. I didn’t know any of the writers other Dartmouth freshmen had read. I knew the Old Testament, of course, and read indiscriminately from the local library—Leon Uris and James Michener and Ayn Rand and Herman Wouk—but nobody at Dartmouth was reading Marjorie Morningstar. They were reading Joyce. Who was that? I did have some Shakespeare, because in Wahpeton we’d bought a wonderful record player with green stamps, and my father brought home recordings of the plays—the tragedies, of course.
I was very young when I started reading, and the Old Testament sucked me in. I was at the age of magical thinking and believed sticks could change to serpents, a voice might speak from a burning bush, angels wrestled with people. After I went to school and started catechism I realized that religion was about rules. I remember staring at a neighbor’s bridal-wreath bush. It bloomed every year but was voiceless. No angels, no parting of the Red River. It all seemed so dull once I realized that nothing spectacular was going to happen.
I’ve come to love the traditional Ojibwe ceremonies, and some rituals, but I hate religious rules. They are usually about controlling women. On Sundays when other people go to wood-and-stone churches, I like to take my daughters into the woods. Or at least work in the garden and be outside. Any god we have is out there. I’d hate to be certain that there was nothing. When it comes to God, I cherish doubt.
I never thought much of the Old Testament myself, but I thought the New Testament was so beautiful and comforting, and I’d feel very different about religion if it were actually like that on the large scale. It’s not, though; she’s right, it’s about rules and controlling women. I love what she says about going outside.