I got to see the fabulous Louise Erdrich at AWP San Antonio back on March 6. Remember March 6?
She was promoting her 15th novel, The Night Watchman. It’s inspired by her grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, who, with an eight-grade education, waged against the federal government’s plan to “terminate” Native American lands with the finest penmanship you ever did she (this was when someone glancing at a handwritten letter would you size you up based on the control and flourish of your characters). Louise’s exquisitely detailed prose will cause many a love affair with these characters, mostly all living in reservations in North Dakota or Minnesota.
Which leads me to the best piece of writing advice I’ve encountered in awhile. Louise knows she can “catapult the character forward” when she spots a line that authentically, effortlessly grasps who they are. She knew who Patrice Paranteau was when she lighted on this description:
She did things perfectly well when enraged.
I’ve since tried writing descriptors of characters with simple, insightful, unpretentious statements like this. It’s a great exercise in getting to know your characters. With enough rough shots, you get it right eventually, and you’ll certainly know when you do 🙂
About halfway through this achingly beautiful, genuine, urgent novel, and I wanted to share some random ass pictures from one chapter. First, Louise’s enumeration of dishes is an enviable skill, as well as a cause for salivation. Second, the constant twining of tragedy and humor is something that stays with you forever.