"I approach the work as though, in truth, I'm nothing and the words are everything. Then I write to save my life." — Louise Erdrich in The Paris Review
Louise Erdrich—a name she chose as a young adult rather than Karen Erdrich, her given name, because it sounded more writerly—grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the oldest of seven children. Her parents—her mother is of French and Ojibwa heritage; her father is German American—taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school located on a nearby reservation. Their long marriage has been "a gift to everyone around them," she told The New York Times. Erdrich's parents always encouraged her to write: her father paid her a nickel for each of her earliest stories, and her mother created homemade book covers for these works. "At an early age I felt myself to be a published writer earning substantial royalties," joked Erdrich.
Erdrich's parents met when her mother was 19 and her father came to the reservation to teach. "He worked his way through Alaska at age 17 and paid for his living expenses by winning at the poker table," she told the The Paris Review. "After he got his credentials, I guess he thought it would be interesting to work on a reservation." He met his future father-in-law first, before he met Erdrich's mother. Erdrich's grandfather Pat "was a fascinating storyteller, wrote in exquisite script, and was the tribal chairman during the treacherous fifties termination era (when the U.S. Congress decided to abrogate all Indian treaties and declare Indian Nations nonexistent)," said Erdrich. He "was a persuasive man who made friends with people at every level of influence. In order to fight against our tribe's termination, he went to newspapers and politicians and urged them to advocate for our tribe in Washington.... My father, himself a great talker, got to know Pat Gourneau as another interesting person who loved to converse. Then he saw Pat's daughter Rita and apparently she knocked his socks off."
In 1972, Erdrich was among the first women admitted to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where she met writer and future husband Michael Dorris. After graduation, Erdrich taught poetry and writing through the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and balanced her writing life with a variety of jobs: in construction, as a lifeguard, as a waitress, and as a weigher of commercial trucks. She attended the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University and worked on various collaborations with Dorris until the couple separated. Two years later, Dorris committed suicide; Erdrich subsequently revealed that he had suffered from depression during their marriage. Dorris had three adopted children that Erdrich also adopted; they then had three biological children. Their oldest child was killed in a car accident.
Erdrich's ouvre spans 15 novels as well as volumes of poetry, children's books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. She is the recipient of, among other awards, the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, and a Guggenheim fellowship. Her debut novel, Love Medicine, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. While she was writing her 14th novel, The Round House (Harper, 2012), she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, but it was caught early and successfully treated, and the experience helped spark one of the most productive periods of her writing career. "I suddenly had a good excuse to get out of just about anything anyone asked of me," Erdrich told BookPage. Many of her memories from that time are "of laughing very hard, reading funny notes, eating wonderful food that my daughters prepared and holding their hands. The sharpness of the emotion I felt may have helped me in understanding the characters [in The Round House]" (BookPage).
Today, Erdrich lives with her second husband in Minneapolis, where she and her daughters own and operate the independent bookstore Birchbark Books. According to the bookstore's website, visitors can find a canoe hanging from the ceiling, a confessional rescued from a bar that they call a "forgiveness booth" where "Louise is collaging the interior with images of her sins," and various staff-owned dogs, some of whom blog on the site. "She is like a kid reading on her stomach on the floor, claiming that now she has no backaches," blogs Erdrich's dog, Maki (or Ma-ingan, Ojibwe for "wolf"). "At least when Louise is writing a book she will consent to long walks, otherwise there is nothing to recommend living with her."