posted Apr 21, 2009
The first time I saw Sherman Alexie speak I was 21 years old. He was 27, and his collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, had recently been published; it was one of his first readings in New York City, in a small bookstore crowded with several dozen people. I was going to lots of readings then, most of them so boring that staying home and sticking a pen in my eye would’ve been more fun. Then I went to his reading…and he didn’t read. He recited one of his stories. I was smitten.
Now he’s 42 years old and at the top of his game. His first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, tells the story of Arnold Spirit Jr., a boy who leaves his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an all-white school. It won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature; his adult novel, Flight, was also published in 2007, and is a masterful time-traveling feat; his poetry collection, Face, published this month by Hanging Loose Press, is a staggering collection of both formal poetry and poems that defy formalism. This interview took place in College Station, Texas, before he spoke to a crowd of nearly a thousand. On stage, Alexie is a magnetic performer; when alone, he’s warm, funny, unpretentious, and unassuming. We spoke about poetry, grief, fear, Stephen Colbert…and tacos.
Face is your first full-length collection of poetry in nine years. You’ve said that you had a poetry dry spell for a year or two—what caused it?
I had complete writer’s block for almost two years, from 1999 through 2000 or so. It was from writing for Hollywood—I got so used to hearing producers’ notes in my head that they started interfering with everything. I didn’t write anything—I thought I was done.
And in the last few months you said you’ve written over sixty poems—what do you think causes your more prolific periods?
I think part of it this time was getting away from the YA world—the freedom of not having to think about what would or wouldn’t be appropriate for a teenage audience. Or rather, what their parents and the adults around them would think was appropriate. The freedom of removing myself from that world resulted in this big explosion of writing.
Face contains both formal poems and poems that play with form—sonnets interspersed with prose poetry, footnotes on a villanelle, a q&a in the middle of a poem, etc.—how did that evolve?
Well, I’ve always sort of done that, just never so overtly before. But part of it is that I think the poems sort of replicate my personality. I’m not a writer of lyric poetry or difficult poetry, so I’m very interested in accessibility. So I think the forms I use are about accessibility.
The collection was originally titled Thrash. Why did you change it to Face?
Because when people would pronounce it and talk about the book in interviews they’d always call it Trash. And when my poetry editor emailed me once, even he typed Trash by mistake. So I thought, okay, I’m changing it. Although now whenever I get interviewed or talk about it people are calling it Fate instead of Face. And someone pointed out yesterday that if you look at the cover—I knew this was going to be a little bit of an issue, but I just let it go because the cover is so beautiful—someone pointed out that if you look at the title a certain way it looks like it says Taco.
Which would be a great title for a collection of poems! You should write a taco poem.
I’m going to now, actually! I have to.
I love this phrase in the poem “Vilify”: “Funny grief” being the best answer to the question “What is Native American poetry?” I’m Jewish, and “funny grief” is such a part of Jewish culture, too—do you think that’s how mainstream WASPy American culture deals with death and grief also?
I don’t think so. I think that one of the problems with the United States is that people can’t deal with contrasting emotions, with having two emotions at the same time. Mixing conflicting emotions like that is not a part of mainstream culture. And when it is mainstream, by and large it is Jewish culture. Because when you think about stand-up comedy and situation comedies and movies, you’re talking Jewish people. In terms of the creation of comedy in the United States, the origin of comedy in the U.S. is Jewish. So even for those of us who are non-Jewish—funny grief is a Jewish concept still, even though it’s also Native American.
It’s not innate to Indian culture as well?
[Laughs] I don’t know…was Crazy Horse a funny guy? I wouldn’t bet on it. I don’t ever recall anyone talking about whether Geronimo was great around the campfire.
Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how teenagers experience grief differently than adults do—I lost my mom when I was young, and my father when I was older, and the grief was so different each time. You’ve written about your sister’s death when you were a teenager, and your father’s death when you were much older. Do you think teens handle grief differently than adults do?
Yeah. I remember when I was a kid how adults were trying to control my grief, trying to tell me how I was supposed to feel or how I was supposed to behave….that there was a proper way to mourn…and I was interested in improperly mourning.
How did you improperly mourn?
Overt display of emotion I guess. In the Indian world there’s a lot of humor, but…maybe the humor can get in the way, because sometimes there’s not the out-and-out-absolute-weeping-from-the-center-of-the-world crying. That’s what I was doing. I couldn’t stop for weeks.
And when you were older?
Oh, man. When I got the news my father died I actually collapsed. That’s the first time I fell or fainted when I heard news of somebody’s death. I cried hard. I’m not over it. Not even remotely. So I guess…I healed as a kid. But now…I mean last night at a reading I gave, a kid asked me that question: “How are you dealing with your dad’s death?” I said, “Obviously not very well!” My sister died so long ago…29 years ago. It almost feels like an entirely different person who lost her. And I didn’t know her that well—she was quite a bit older than me, she was out of the house, she was married…so she’s a series of impressions at this point. I don’t even know how accurate they are. She’s almost become mythology.
Reviewers are always describing you as a “fearless writer.” What are you afraid of?
[Laughs] They’re always putting that in, aren’t they? It’s funny, because am I more fearless than any other given writer? I don’t think so. I mean there are plenty of rowdy people. What am I afraid of? Heights, large bodies of water—I don’t know how to swim—flying, and parties.
You’re afraid of parties?
Yeah. Strangers. Groups of strangers.
But you’re such a good performer in front of a crowd.
Because I’m in control. At a party, I don’t know people’s motivations. It’s my introverted nature I guess. At a party I start acting.
What are you afraid of as a writer?
Nothing. [Laughs] Maybe I am fearless! There’s nothing off-limits. I mean, the whole process itself can be terrifying—every time you sit down to write it’s scary. But in terms of what I will or will not write about, nothing is terrifying.
What about in terms of your career?
I suppose in some sense I used to be afraid my career was temporary. But it’s been sixteen years—I think I’m here to stay. I’ve had ups and downs and there are going to be other downs, but I’m not afraid of those. It doesn’t affect my movement forward.
Your next young adult novel, Radioactive Love Song, was originally scheduled to be published this spring, but it’s been delayed. What’s happening with it?
We’ve tabled it because I’m working on the sequel to True Diary immediately. We decided to hold off on that because nobody wants something else—everybody wants the story of Arnold’s sophomore year!
Were you struggling with Radioactive Love Song?
Yes, I think I was struggling with it because the narrator kept sounding like Arnold Spirit Jr.—it was Arnold Spirit Jr. on a road trip. It’s the same sort of comedy…it just sounded like him. Partly I’m revising it to get away from the first person narration. I think that’s it.
Are you doing it in third person instead?
No, it’s going to be somebody else narrating.
It’ll be the first iPod-narrated novel.
How are you going to do that?
I don’t know yet. I don’t know yet. It’s like HAL from 2001.
How much do you have written in the iPod’s voice?
Not much. I might abandon the idea. It might not work. It’s sort of a distant omniscient idea. Just think of it as god. iPod rhymes with god.
Do you like going back to True Diary?
Oh yeah. I think I’ve spent enough time away from Arnold where I’m excited to see him again. A part of it is with True Diary, I love the response to it—when True Diary was published, it felt like the start of a career again. And it’s nice to revisit him in new ways. Arnold kept talking to me. He wouldn’t let me write the other book, he wouldn’t let me finish it. He kept getting in the way of the other book.
What happens during Arnold’s sophomore year?
It’s a romance with Penelope…a will-they-or-won’t-they romance.
How down and dirty are they going to get?
[Laughs] I don’t know—that’s the whole point of the book! Why am I going to tell you that?
I want to know what pages to dog-ear.
Well, you remember that whole high school back-and-forth-back-and-forth-back-and-forth…
Is it going to be like Twilight, where they don’t kiss till page 280?
[Laughs] No, I think my version is sort of…not like that. Mine is a very realistic portrait of a teenage couple. It involves no vampires. It’s two lefty kids in a little town…it’s what happens when liberals get together.
So is Arnold really in love with Penelope, or does he just want to have sex with her?
He doesn’t know. Both. The realism of it is that it’s both things at the same time.
How much do you have written? Do they have a pub date?
About 100 pages. The pub date will probably be next spring.
You wrote Flight during the same time that you were writing True Diary. Did you think about that as YA at all too?
No—it’s funny that people would even think so.
But I would’ve loved that book when I was fifteen.
But you were probably a crazy-ass fifteen-year-old. It wasn’t the kids I was worried about, it wouldn’t get past the teachers, the gatekeepers. There’s genital mutilation in that book! No, I never thought of it as YA. It’s way too violent. It’s funny, people don’t even remember how violent it is. You know people will say that to me, “Why isn’t that a YA?” I’ll start listing everything that happens and they say, “Wait a second. That never would’ve made it past the school board.”
Well, True Diary didn’t—
True Diary didn’t make it past the school board in a couple places! But it’s so funny—the amazing thing is, it’s certain communities, because tomorrow I’m reading from it in the George Bush Library here. I want to get a photograph of me reading at the George Bush Library and send it to that school and say, “At least a Republican president doesn’t mind.”
Are you going to read the masturbation part?
I might! No…I’ll respect the library. But nobody even masturbates in the book! It’s a metaphor! That’s the thing…if someone had actually masturbated I could understand, but nobody masturbates. Nobody actually touches any sexual organ in my book.
But you’re going to rectify that in the sequel.
I might, I might.
Your next adult novel, Fire with Fire, recently sold to Little, Brown and is slated to be published in the Fall of 2010. What stage is it at now?
It was sold with about half of it done. It’s going to be about 600 pages. It’s a mystery…I’m trying to write the great big American Native American novel. It’s huge…it’s apocalyptic, about everything. I’m trying to write the book about everything in the Indian world. It’s big. I’m trying to make a huge statement. Indian writers, we write small. Small worlds, because we grew up tribal. As soon as you see an Indian writer writing big, you know they’re not Indian. So here’s my chance to prove that an Indian can write big. Extend the vision. I’m trying to be epic. It’s about Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor from Smoke Signals on another road trip to solve a murder mystery. It starts on the rez and it ends up in Seattle. It’s incredibly violent.
You once said “Art is a young person’s game,” and you should give it up by the time you’re forty. How do you feel about that now?
I’m obviously doomed.
So you changed your mind about that?
One could argue I still keep writing the same shit.
Really? Do you think that’s true?
In some regard, yeah.
Don’t you think you’re doing it better?
Equally as bad and equally as good.
If sales of all your books were equal, what would you choose to keep writing? Poetry?
If I could make a living just writing poems, if I could sell hundreds of thousands of copies of my poetry books, I would be a poet.
You’d never write fiction at all?
I doubt it. I doubt it.
But maybe if poetry books sold hundreds of thousands of copies then you’d long to write fiction. You’d say, “If I could just sell some fiction I’d be so happy…”
Oh god, no, no, no! If I could just write poems I would. It’s how I think, how I look at the world. Everything else is a struggle, is a fight. No, god. That would be so great, making this living writing poems. In fact, I saw that the big lottery, the megamillions, is $212 million, and I thought if I won that, I’d just be a poet.
But doesn’t it make you happy, writing fiction?
Oh yeah, but there’s happy, and then there’s just who I am. I mean, poetry is the thing I love to do most, and writing fiction is my job. It’s a great job, I love my job, but it’s a job. Writing poetry’s not a job, it doesn’t feel that way at all.
You were on the Colbert Report in October—one of the only guests who’s ever been able to make Stephen Colbert speechless. What was it like being on the show?
It was great, but it’s funny because Indians are so invisible and because my career has gotten so big that I think people…they don’t forget that I’m Indian, but it becomes very secondary to the success. When I was on Colbert I had a double consciousness or triple consciousness about it…I was in the moment but then I was also thinking that this is really revolutionary for Indians…a rez boy holding his own verbally with one of the best in the business. It was big. I was proud that I also have that artistic ability. It was fun. He was a great guy. He came into the green room afterwards and congratulated me, which was very decent of him.
So…are Arnold and Penelope going to do it in the sequel or not?
[Laughs] That’s the whole story! I’m not going to tell you that!
I’m not going to buy the book if they don’t do it.
I’m still not telling you!
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