Big Think Interview With Sherman Alexie
Born in 1966 on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA, Sherman Alexie is a novelist, short story writer, poet, and winner of the 2007 National Book Award in Young People's Literature for "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." His other works include "The Business of Fancydancing," "I Would Steal Horses," and "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," a story from which was adapted into the motion picture "Smoke Signals." His novel "War Dances," the story of an author who must care for his dying alcoholic father, was released in October 2009 by Grove/Atlantic Press.
Sherman Alexie: My name is Sherman Alexie and I’m the bantamweight champion of the world. No, I’m a writer, poet, short story writer, novelist, screenwriter.\r\n
Question: How has it felt becoming a literary community “insider”?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: You young bastard, I’m doing okay. It is a strange dilemma because in some sense, you know, I was very native, very native identified, and I still am, but that’s almost become secondary. I’ve sort of joined the tribe of highly established literary writers. So, you know, I’m with the Jonathan Franzens of the world. You know, I know him a little bit, but that’s sort of my peer group now, rather than just sort of, you know, Indian world, literary world, I’m now in, you know, this sort of make-believe world of writers who supposedly hang out a lot, although none of us ever do. So I’m in a faux community of writers, highly successful, literary writers now.\r\n
Question: Has success changed your work?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Oh, it’s all, I mean, I haven’t changed anything I’ve written based on all that stuff. So the perceptions of me may have changed, or my career, but I’m still writing the same stuff, it’s still pretty much about Spokane Indian males, you know, stumbling through life. So I think it’s because of the combination of skills I have, you know, I work in multi-genres, you know, I do stand-up comedy, I help make movies, I think all of that has contributed to it. I’m not just a novelist or not just a short story writer. So I think in this highly technological world with many diverse and diffuse influences, I think I’m able to hit a lot of aces.\r\n
Question: When you’re a writer, is doing anything besides writing selling out?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Nobody who’s ever been poor would ever use the phrase “selling out.” You know, my influences in the multi-genre artists come from my Indian writing ancestors, the previous generation. When you’re talking James Welch, Simon Ortiz, Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, Leslie Silko, Linda Hogan, Adrian C. Louis, all of these writers were multi-genre. They all wrote poetry and novels and short stories and non-fiction and dabbled in songwriting and filmmaking and documentary making. So my original influences were Native American, multi-genre artists.\r\n
Now, these days, the younger Native writers are not multi-genre, so it’s very interesting. I’m not sure what’s happening, why that has changed, but I grew up as a kid writer. Nobody ever told me I was supposed to be one thing, so just because I happened to become successful in a number of those genres, it wasn’t because I was pursuing them economically, it was because I saw the artistic possibilities in all of it. And I was taught those when I was a, you know, 19-year-old undergraduate.\r\n
Question: Why haven’t you joined academia?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Yeah, I think I’m the least educated Indian writer out there. I’ve taught at the University of Washington, so, but I’m not a good teacher, so I think that probably disqualifies me. Yeah, I’m not in academia at all, in terms of a full-time career. I think it’s interesting, because I think, when you look at Native American literature, you’re going to find that it doesn’t really reflect the diversity of the ways in which the writers actually lived their lives. Nobody’s ever written, for instance, an academic farce, a Native American teacher at college farce, which is a time-honored and wonderful genre. You know, David Lodge made a whole career out of it, writing academic farces and, you know, every writer you can name has written it, but we haven’t done it. You know, where’s that novel about that Indian architect or that Indian lawyer. There’s a distinct lack of white-collar Native American literature, despite the fact that most of its most visible practitioners are white-collar themselves. So I think there’s an effort, somewhat of an insecurity to prove your Indian-ness by focusing almost entirely on a reservation-based identity.\r\n
Question: What’s the connection between your writing and your stand-up comedy?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Well, I think it’s old-fashioned actually. You know, I think people think it’s something new, but the idea of being a storyteller, you know, for most of our existence was not related to books, it was about the ability to stand up in front of the fire and, you know, earn your supper. So I think it’s just something old and inspired in me, but I never really was the funny guy growing up. If you’d ask my siblings, they’d tell you I was the depressed guy in the basement, but they’re the funny ones. But it just, I got on stage and started talking and people laughed. At the beginning, I didn’t even necessarily know what was happening, but as the years have gone on, I realized that humor is pretty amazing in its ability to transcend differences, politically, ethnically, racially, geographically, economically. There’s something about it that really opens people up spiritually, I think, and they listen. They pay attention. And it’s also a great way to offend people.\r\n
I don’t know, we’ve all been to literary readings, you know, where we got theater, but so bored by the person up in front of us reading their work so dispassionately that it nearly turns us off their books. You know, there are writers who I’ve heard do their work that I can only hear their voice when I’m reading their books and it’s so disinterested in their own stuff and I just never wanted to do that. I wanted to make the mistake the other way, you know, I’m pleased when somebody’s offended, you know, by my large stage presence, because there’s still people who show up who get offended. I get up there and give a show and I’m improvising and, you know, talking about current events and what happened yesterday or what happened an hour ago, what happened five minutes before I walked into the place, you know, and giving people a glimpse of how my, you know, crazy mind works. And then they’ll come up after me and say, “Well, I’m really disappointed you didn’t read the story,” and you look at them and think, “Well, you can read the story, you know, what happened tonight will only happen once! You know, you were here for a one-time thing!” So I guess people are trapped in their perception of what a literary artist is supposed to be.\r\n
Question: Do you find narrative or poetry harder?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: You know, I write poems naturally. I’m writing them all the time. I think it’s more of a reflex talent than fiction is for me. Seems like I have to work harder to write fiction. That said, poems are much more demanding, you have fewer words, you can make fewer mistakes. You know, if you write a ten-line poem, you really can’t make any mistakes. If you do, the poem is terrible. But when you write a novel, you have all that space to mess up in and people are more forgiving. So I think poetry audiences are far more demanding than fiction audiences are.\r\n
Question: What do you consider your best work?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Well, you know, writers generally come in two groups, those who love what they do and those who can’t stand what they do. I’m in the second group. I have a really difficult time looking back. Yeah, so I figure out of the thousands of pages I’ve published, there’s probably about 100 great pages. I think I worked on probably about a 2 percent greatness rate. So there’s probably 10 poems, 2 stories that are great and the rest of it is from anywhere from pretty good to, you know, total crap.\r\n
Question: Does the print book have a future?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: You know, the book is not played out. The idea of what a book can be is not played out in its form as it is, with paper and covers. And there are things that can be that digital will never touch, and that’s one of the things I wanted to do with this, and comparing it to a cassette tape, the old-fashioned way of making a mix tape, which, you know, I love burning CD’s, too, but there is something far more passionate and hands-on and hard work about making a mix tape on a cassette. It’s too easy to revise with a CD. And today’s technology makes it too easy to change immediately. You can cover your mistakes quicker. I think it allows you to have the sheen of perfection around yourself and with an old-fashioned book or an old-fashioned cassette tape, you can actually see all the flaws and imperfections and the bad choices. And I think there’s something we lose with technology when you talk about bad choices.\r\n
Question: Why do you consider e-books elitist?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Well, they cost $300, number one. I don’t think anything that costs $300 can be called egalitarian. You know, how much of the world can afford a $300 reading device? 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent, it automatically qualifies for, you know, economically elite status.\r\n
But what’s really going on here, the reading public doesn’t really know about, and all they’re concerned about and all they’re defending is their reading convenience, which I completely understand. Whether it’s because of physical disabilities or because of personal preference, or just the newness of it, why they love a digital book. But they don’t understand the economic, corporate pressures going on in the publishing world. And what’s going to happen, and this is going to happen on the Internet, too. We like to pretend that the Internet is free, you know, we like to pretend it’s an open source culture, but as culture changes, as old corporate models of distributing information are changing, you know, I don’t know why people assume that corporations aren’t going to take over this medium as well, because they can.\r\n
And so what’s happening in the book world, the digital books, is that these e-book companies, you know, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, others that are rising, they just don’t seek to publish books, they’re going to end up seeking the books to be chosen to be published. So this economic model, the way it’s set up now, is going to favor a certain kind of book and publishers and being economically motivated companies are only going to be publishing those kinds of books. And the divide between pop culture, pop writing, and literary writing is just going to increase and increase and increase and it’s going to make it harder and harder and harder for first-time writers to get published in any form whatsoever where they’ll get attention.\r\n
Question: Does the Web help or hurt the connection between artist and audience?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Who can find you? Who’s going to find anybody? Nobody’s really risen out of the Internet to become a major voice. They always end up getting a book published and then the book makes them a major voice, but nobody has. I mean, I’m trying to think, you know, I’m not Internet averse at all, I’m doing this. I mean, I love the Internet. But the fact is, is that it’s a giant, giant, unfiltered library which has its strengths and beauty, but it’s impossible to find people.\r\n
And, you know, what we end up doing anyway is I go to about five sites. You know, and I think most people probably do the same thing, you create this little small town inside the Internet and we end up in all these little, tiny separate communities. Joan Jett, an interview with Joan Jett, she said about the music industry, she said the thing that’s missing now is anticipation. She said that nobody gets in a big line outside of Tower Records any more waiting for that new Stones album to drop. And nobody stands in line outside a record store waiting to buy the tickets for The Who concert. There’s a real lack of community, you know, in the Internet experience when it comes to art. And you can’t tell me and it’s not true, that communicating strictly through the Internet forms community in the way that being together does. You’re missing all but one sense. You don’t smell people, you don’t really hear them, you don’t see them, and we’re animals, we’re creatures of senses, and the Internet deprives you of many of those.\r\n
And so I know there’s new art coming based on this technology and some if it’s happening and it’s exciting and interesting, but there’s nothing wrong with the old art. And I always worry and you see it with certain Internet folks, the way in which they’re completely willing to jettison their past in the pursuit of something new, and that’s what I’m worried about.\r\n
Question: What does it mean to be a “method author”?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Well, in order to write about the emotional state of a character, I have to get as close as possible to being in that emotional state. So I have to get that sad, I have to get that happy, that crazed, that bizarre, that obsessed. You know, whatever one of my characters are going through, I have to find my way into it. You know, it’s just the way I do it.\r\n
Question: Can you give an example from your latest book?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Well, there’s a story in this book [“War Dances”] called the “Ballad of Paul Nonetheless,” where he becomes so obsessed with pop music and so obsessed with his iPod, that he, you know, every thought he has becomes directly related to a song. So I went that far into it. I tried to talk only in song lyrics. You know, whenever anybody was talking to me, I drove my friends and family mad, because whenever they would talk to me, you know, I would say, “Well, that reminds me of this, you know, Rolling Stones song,” or whenever anybody said something accidentally that was a lyric or a title of a song, I would then sing the song. So it was crazy. But it got me seeing the way it was completely alienating my friends and family, really got me to a place where I could write that story about this really genial guy who’s actually very much an anti-hero.\r\n
Question: How did you know you had a drinking problem?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Oh, a case of beer a day. You know, I could drink a fifth of tequila a day. You know, it becomes a drinking problem when it affects your relationships with people, when it affects your job or your school, your grade point average. You know, affects your, it’s a drinking problem when you’re sitting on your couch at home drinking the case of beer all by yourself, and then you pass out and grab the fifth of tequila when you wake up. So pretty obvious what my problem was.\r\n
Question: Does alcohol primarily help or hurt writers?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Well, I wrote “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and “The Business of Fancy Dancing” while drunk and drinking. So there’s certainly a lot to be said for my desperate years, my alcoholic years, my active alcoholic years is being the source of some pretty good work, for being the source of the two books that established and made my career. But the thing is, it’s unsustainable. You know, if you are using substances to fuel your creativity, you’re going to have a very, very short artistic life. You’re going to be a sprinter and by and large, I wanted to become a marathon runner. And I can only run the marathon if I’m sober.\r\n
You kill your brain. You kill your brain. You know, please try to find me, the successful drug user. You know, try to find me, the high-functioning alcoholic, you know, career person, and you could probably find in their work when they were drinking, when they weren’t. I bet you could look at the downfall of some amazing writers who wrote one or two great books and then just fell apart, I’m pretty sure that’s related to alcohol consumption. So, it’s unsustainable, you know, it’s sort of like the environment, you can only pour so much pollutants into it before the temperature changes dramatically. So I think drug and alcohol abuse is like the greenhouse affect for writers.\r\n
Question: As a Native American writer, do you feel special pressure to address alcoholism?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Well, I mean, I’m an alcoholic, that’s what, you know, my family is filled with alcoholics. My tribe is filled with alcoholics. The whole race is filled with alcoholics. For those Indians who try to pretend it’s a stereotype, they’re in deep, deep denial. It’s an every day part of my life and as a writer, I use that to write about it. You know, partly for fictional purposes, and narrative purposes, but partly with the social hope that by writing about it, maybe it’ll help people get sober, and it has. I’ve heard from them. You know, the social function of art is very important to me. It’s not just for art’s sake. I have very specific ideas in mind about what it can do. I’ve seen it happen. So it is writing about alcohol that helps me stay sober. And I think reading about alcoholism helps other people stay sober.\r\n
Question: Have your kids affected your writing?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: I try to meet deadlines. I have, you know, more dependents, so it’s a very, very basic triangle needs. That bottom, you know, part of the triangle. But, well, they’re always surprising me. The kids are always surprising me with their insights into the world and of course because they’re my children, I pay more attention to what they’re saying than pretty much everybody else on the planet. I care more what my kids say on a daily basis than, you know, the smartest people on the planet. You know? And so I listen and their insights are really surprising and the way in which how unfiltered they are and their obsessions and passions, they don’t apologize for any of that. So I learn a lot from them, you know, it’s also aggravating and irritating and exhausting, the sacrifices you make and, you know, sometimes it feels like my whole life is a to-do list. But, you know, I think their passion for life really has re-inspired me.\r\n
Question: Do you want your children to read your work?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: No. I don’t, I mean, they’re autonomous. I certainly, if they want to read my stuff and talk about it later, that’ll be great. But until then, it was so funny though, I was profiled on the Lehrer News Hour recently and I was watching the rough cut of it and my son came down, my eight year old, and he was watching it on the TV with me and it was a five-minute piece about poetry and I read a couple poems and I read one very emotional one about my father’s death. And it was over and my son looked at me, he’s eight years old, he looked at me and he goes, “Dad, you’re pretty good!” So that was a great moment.\r\n
Question: Whom would you most like to meet?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: It’s funny, this popped into my head, so I’ll go with it, Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball in 1919 for allegedly fixing the World Series. Country boy, ended up being a great baseball player, one of the greatest of all time, I’d like to talk to him about that World Series, about the mysteries of human nature. Because, you know, you’re looking at the stats, I’m pretty sure he didn’t participate in the fix, but he knew about it, so I’d like to have a discussion of morality with Shoeless Joe Jackson.\r\n
Question: Who are your literary heroes?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Well, there are just certain poems and novels and stories that resonate forever and ever. You know, poems I always return to, Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for Death, that kindly stopped for me.” You know, Theodore Roethke: “I know a woman,” you know, “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, when small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them.” James Wright: “Suddenly I realized that if I stepped outside my body, I would break into blossom.” And then, you know, the end of “Grapes of Wrath,” when Rose of Sharon breastfeeds, you know, her child has died, but she breastfeeds the starving man, that moment? So it’s always individual works. Even in life, I don’t have heroes. I believe in heroic ideas, because the creators of all those ideas are very human. And if you make heroes out of people, you will invariably be disappointed.\r\n
Question: Was there a particular work that moved you as a child?\r\n
Sherman Alexie: Oh, Ezra Jack Keats, “A Snowy Day,” the book. You know, the idea of multicultural literature is very new and so as a little Indian boy growing up on the reservation, there was nobody like me in the books, so you always had to extrapolate. But when I picked up A Snowy Day with that inner-city black kid, that child, walking through the, you know, snow covered, pretty quiet and lonely city, oh, I mean, when he was making snow angels and, you know, when he was getting in snowball fights and when he got home to his mother and it was cold and she put him in a hot bathtub and put him to sleep, the loneliness and the love in that book, oh, just gorgeous. So that picture resonates with me still.
A conversation with the award-winning author and chronicler of the Native American experience.
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