DURING long walks on their New Hampshire farm, Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris together come up with the characters and story lines of the novels they write. The two met in the early '70s at Dartmouth College, where Dorris was a young professor in the Native American Studies Department and Erdrich was a student. Erdrich graduated, left, and returned as a visiting writer, and then ``...suddenly we just fell in love'' and married. They have six children.
Now they collaborate on all their writing, although each book appears as the work of its ``primary'' author.
In a telephone interview, the two share their thoughts on the difficult choices involved in writing about the American Indian condition.
In ``Love Medicine'' there is a sentence that reads: ``Power travels in the bloodlines, handed out before birth.'' What is your responsibility to the heritage that empowers you?
Erdrich: That's a question we are always wrestling with. Right now we're working on a manuscript that is about very grave problems on American Indian reservations, but also about grave social problems in the world at large. [Sometimes] we're working on fiction and involved in storytelling because it's a good story and it's something that has to be told, and another time we feel compelled to work on something that deals with a cause. When you feel a compulsion you go with it. But I can't say that I have any statement that makes absolute and ultimate sense of personal or artistic responsibility.
Dorris: We write editorials sometimes. We write nonfiction articles. In those cases it's pretty straightforward about being political. But it's difficult to be self-consciously political in fiction and still have it be good fiction.
The characters are rooted in a social context, but if you program them to be [political], unless you're much more skillful than we, it appears artificial and polemic and thoroughly unconvincing.
``Tracks,'' for instance, is not a story of ``good Indians'' and ``bad non-Indians.'' It's a very complicated story of people within a community who are trying to figure out what's going on in a time of great change. Each person has his or her own perspective and destiny in that context.
In ``Yellow Raft'' the problem that Rayona [one of the characters] encounters is that she's the wrong color on an Indian reservation, although culturally and linguistically she fits in. [Half Indian, half black] she finds that there's a good deal of discrimination against her there that she has to overcome the same as she did in the city.
Who knows what traditional values are? There's a lot of talk about them. You recognize them when they hit you and when you experience them. Our characters float in and out of that realization like regular people do.
Is it legitimate to say that there is a native American voice, that it had been lost, and is now refound in writers like yourselves?
Erdrich: Native Americans haven't lost their voices. It's just that there's a curve in interest in native Americans and sometimes there's more interest, sometimes there's less.
People have been carrying on oral traditions in their own tribes and writing as long as people have been writing in the country. There's not a blanket ``native American'' voice. There are voices from different tribes.
Dorris: Exactly. ``Native American'' is a misnomer. There are traditions of expressions, humor, and mythology for each of the couple hundred tribes that are viable today. The traditions out of which we might write about the Indian experience would [probably not] be the same as those that Leslie Silko or others might write about, because they come from a different region of the country, they have a different contact experience.
There are things in common, of course, about living on a reservation and about dealing with federal Indian policy, but the way people see the world is very discrete from one tribe to another, and that distinction is preserved in the literature.
It's hard to say what is a native American perspective. But you can, I think, get closer to something like a Chippewa perspective or a Pueblo or Lakota perspective that combines the particular ingredients of a history and a contemporary reality in a way different than any other ethnic group in the United States might.
What about other contemporary authors who write about native Americans but aren't Indians themselves? Jim Harrison, for example, in his book ``Dalva.''
Erdrich: I reviewed that book. I thought the diaries were very moving, and the retelling of Lakota history. I know he has emotional ties to everything he was writing about. I could tell that he was really internalizing a lot.
Dorris: I think the impact of your question is whether or not somebody who is not him or herself steeped in tribal tradition can write about Indians and have it be part of native American literature.
It all goes back to what your initial definition is. Is it ``anything written by an Indian''? Is ``The Beet Queen'' native American Literature even though it is not primarily about Indians? Is ``Dalva'' native American literature because it's about Indians though not by an Indian?
To say that nobody except an Indian can write about Indians, I think, is a mistake. But it's an equal mistake to think that anything written by an Indian about Indians is authoritative.
A real distinction has to be drawn between fiction and nonfiction, because nonfiction can be judged by fact and fiction has to be judged by impact. There's a book called ``Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian.''
When I was growing up, it was the most popular book on the reservation. Everybody loved that book. On reservations all over the country everybody loved it because they said, ``At last somebody's really got Indian humor down.'' But the author is not an Indian.
Let's talk about your collaboration. I've heard that it even includes ``negotiating'' parts in and out of each other's books. Is that true? How do you work?
Dorris: Before either of us starts writing we talk out the beginning of a story - the shape of the characters, some of the idiosyncrasies, and so forth. Then whoever is going to be the primary author of the piece will sit down in isolation, confront the blank page, and create some words that get passed back. The other partner goes over them, makes comments about word changes and even about where the plot will go after this section - what's missing, or what possibilities are suggested by it. And then it goes back to the person who wrote it. Lately we've taken almost all [each other's] suggestions, I think.
The negotiations are friendly, then?
Dorris: What we're doing right now with ``The Broken Cord,'' for instance, is reading it aloud and talking about any word that strikes either of us as problematic or ... not right. Eventually, in all the books, we agree upon all the words.
To the point of saying, ``So and so wouldn't do such a thing - it's out of character''?
Dorris: Especially things like that.
Erdrich: Sure, that's very important. Sometimes the other person can tell better than the person who originally wrote down the words. We both are involved with the characters and have an idea of who they are, how they talk, what they'd say, what they'd know.
Dorris: We know the characters. We set them into situations and watch them react, consonant to who they are. It does take both of us. Because we have a much wider knowledge of them than what appears in the book. We have talked about them in lots of situations that don't appear, and that gives us a three-dimensional impression. You can hear something that sounds wrong almost better than you can hear something that sounds right.
Relationships between your characters get rather complicated. I'd think you would need genealogical charts to keep them all straight - who's related to whom. Especially since ``Tracks,'' the first book chronologically in Louise Erdrich's series, appeared after the other two.
Erdrich: We have them in our heads. We have the relationships worked out.
Dorris: And they've evolved, too. We started with one core set of characters and then the family expanded. In a review somebody very astutely said that characters in our books were met the way people in real life are met.
That is, you meet them and then you start knowing who their family is and what their background is. That is an impression we have about the characters as well, although, in fact, ``Tracks'' was the first book worked on. We didn't realize that it was related to the other books at the time.
Are you ever surprised by how your characters evolve? For instance, when Pauline becomes Leopolda in ``Tracks.'' Was that planned?
Erdrich: That evolved.
Dorris: That has happened in each of the books. It happened with Dot Adair in ``The Beet Queen.'' We get to a certain point toward the end of a manuscript and we're trying to figure out who characters are. We think of how old they are and what their personality traits are.
Suddenly it occurs to us that they are a match to somebody in another book. Then we go back and check to see whether it really works and whether they really do seem like a younger or older version of the same person. And are amazed, delighted.
Do the stories you tell come from stories you were once told?
Dorris: No. They're really made up. One would hope that they tap into a spirit of storytelling and an approach to the world that has a resonance, but we dream up the characters and the particular incidents on long walks. Although we get a lot of letters from people who say, ``Where did you hear this, because it is exactly what happened in my family,'' but that's just coincidence.
There's a part in ``Love Medicine'' where the character Albertine returns from college to the reservation. Would you care to comment about that passage in the book?
Erdrich: When I think of it I think of what it's like to go home, to go back onto the reservation where my mother was from. I think what it's like to get back on the plains.
There's a place on the drive across the country where one comes out of the hills of Minnesota onto a perfectly level, flat plain and you can just see on and on and on. And you keep going and you get up into the hills again.
It's a drive that we've made many, many times, and there's always a feeling of real happiness in returning. I think that's what she feels as she's driving her Mustang back home.
But home is also a difficult place to return to. It's difficult because once you're enmeshed in your family you're vulnerable again and you're part of a network of people you've loved and subject to all of the happiness and disaster that happens when people love each other very much.