LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
In her new novel "Shadow Tag," writer Louise Erdrich turns a diary into a deadly device to bring about the final collapse of a marriage. As is often the case in Erdrich's books, her main characters are Native American. But in this novel, their ancestry is mostly a backdrop for a shattering family drama that leaves no one unscathed.
NPR's Lynn Neary has more.
LYNN NEARY: The story of Irene America and her husband Gil is a tough one. Married with three children, their lives are tied together domestically and professionally. Irene is a scholar who can't seem to finish her thesis. Her husband Gil is a Native American artist famous for his portraits of his wife. Gil's volatile temper keeps the children in a constant state of fearful watchfulness, wondering if and when the family will fall apart.
As Louise Erdrich tells it, "Shadow Tag" is a book she had to write.
Ms. LOUISE ERDRICH (Author, "Shadow Tag"): I found myself writing about this without really wanting to. It was an insistent book. And there were times where I really dreaded going up to keep going on it, but it was as though I couldn't stop.
NEARY: Though Erdrich says the book is not based on her own life, there are echoes of her life in it. During the 1980s, Erdrich and writer Michael Dorris were a literary golden couple. Dorris, who was also part Native American, was her mentor and then her literary partner. Together they helped put Native American literature on the map.
They were also the parents of six children - three adopted, three biological. The couple's public image began to fall apart when one of their adopted sons accused them of child abuse. Then in 1996, Dorris was accused of sexually abusing at least one of his daughters. Just before he was expected to be formally charged, Dorris committed suicide. Erdrich says as she wrote "Shadow Tag," she knew comparisons to her life were inevitable.
Ms. ERDRICH: I thought about it all through the book. That's why it's constructed in a way that I felt as though I moved it farther and farther from my personal reality. By the end of the book, I didn't feel that it was, it had a bearing on it.
NEARY: I guess whatever anybody writes, really, has something drawn from their own personal experience. You know, it reflects something that you have some knowledge of.
Ms. ERDRICH: I think people who write - store up their emotions and use their emotional experiences almost as a sort of currency from one book to the next. But, you know, I've had so many experiences by now that I have a lot to draw on. I'm 55, and what happened in my marriage happened quite some time ago. And I think if I was going to write about it directly I would have done so right afterward.
NEARY: The central device in the book, a fake diary, is drawn from Erdrich's life. As the book begins, Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary. So, she starts a new one, in which she writes the truth. She fills the one that Gil reads with untruths and half-truths that instill him with doubts about her fidelity. Erdrich says when she was in college someone read her diary and that is when she first had the idea of planting a false diary. Erdrich, who has kept diaries all her life, says she thinks of them as sacred.
Ms. ERDRICH: I think one keeps a diary after a time imagining that nobody would ever violate it. It seems unthinkable. So that when it happens, it's a great breach of trust.
NEARY: In this passage, read by Erdrich, Irene first realizes that her husband has invaded her privacy.
Ms. ERDRICH: (Reading) Gil turned back to stony. How is your black bear project coming? Well, it's not black bears, daddy. Oh, it's not? What is it? Wolves. Irene's fork paused over a crescent of Bosc pear. She put her fork down beside her plate. Wolves, black bears. She'd made the same mistake in her diary and written it down. She sat there staring at her plate for so long that Gil looked at her. She was breathing quickly. Are you all right? I don't feel well, said Irene.
NEARY: As Irene manipulates Gil's emotions with her false diary, the tension in the household begins to spin out of control. When the end comes, it is both surprising and shocking. Erdrich says she thinks of the book as a psychological thriller.
Ms. ERDRICH: I was, I suppose you'd say, addicted to the writing of this book, so I wanted it to be a kind of addictive book in which the reader needed to know immediately what happened to the persons in it, in which they became fascinated with the people and wanted to know how this was all going to turn out. I think from the first page you wonder how can this possibly turn out. What's going to happen to these people? How are the children going to make it? Will they make it?
NEARY: And so you wanted it to be something of a page turner then.
Ms. ERDRICH: Exactly. I always want the books to be page turners. I love having stories where people want to know the endings. That's the kind of book I like reading. Maybe I'm not a very intellectual reader at all. I like stories.
NEARY: "Shadow Tag," says Erdrich, has no message. It's simply a story that she felt compelled to write. And if it weren't for Erdrich's gift for storytelling, this tale of a marriage gone wrong might be hard to take.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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