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A Conversation with Sherman Alexie

Published on Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Blue Mesa Review: Can you talk about the first moment you connected with some sort of literature?

Sherman Alexie: The Snowy Day, the picture book by Ezra Jack Keats, which talked about an urban black kid wandering alone in a snowy city. Number one, it was him being a brown-skinned kid, which, back then, there was very little brown-skinned kids’ literature. And also the way he wandered alone, lonely, and okay with the loneliness—that was me. I really saw myself in the book. And it didn’t happen again for years. I mean, I always loved reading, but I felt outside of the books, like an eyewitness rather than a participant. So it didn’t happen again until I read in college Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back, which was an anthology of contemporary Native poetry, and I had that moment again. And by connecting to Native literature, it taught me how to connect to non-Native literature in a new way.

BMR: Did you find particular writers who were telling stories like the ones you wanted to tell?

SA: Adrian C. Louis, James Welch… You know, the ones who really appealed to me were the realists, the Native realists. I had and have little interest in the corn-pollen school of Native literature.

BMR: Can you describe that?

SA: Oh, you know, all that nature shit. I refuse to accept the nature shit from college professors.

BMR: What did those writers offer that connected you to them?

SA: The narrative of our actual lives. What it actually means to be an Indian in the 20th and 21st centuries. The stuff that actually happens. There was no romance with the past, no romance with the present, and no romance with the future. It was exactly like everybody else’s literature. [It was the idea t]hat we can write The Grapes of Wrath with Indians.

BMR: Why and when did you begin writing?

SA: I wrote through high school and college and all that, with essays and some creative stuff, but it wasn’t until I took a poetry class at Wazzu [Washington State University, Alexie’s alma mater] with Alex Kuo—that did it, and it was him. His love of literature and liberal politics and poetry of all kinds really did it. He was a father figure, and everybody wants to please their daddy.

BMR: You’re well known for both your prose and your poetry. How do you approach writing and revising prose and poetry differently?

SA: You know, people ask that question all the time, and I can’t even really tell you. It’s reflexive. I think part of it is I learned to write by reading Natives, and pretty much every single Native writer is multi-genre, so I didn’t even know being multi-genre was weird. I wrote, and I modeled myself after them, and they were multi-genre. I just start writing and things appear. I think I most often think in poems. Collecting images, or lines, or particular rhymes that are interesting to me. Sometimes I’ll just have two words, a rhyme, an interesting rhyme occurring to me, and I’ll start thinking about how to connect them.

BMR: So do you think particular subjects lend themselves to poetry or prose, or just sort of whatever’s there?

SA: Rage is good for poetry. And quiet, hermit-like contemplation is good for novels. The study of details, of minute details, is great for poetry. In books it’s boring. I don’t give a shit about trees in a novel. But I care about trees in a poem.

BMR: Both your prose and your poetry seem to make use of humor in the service of storytelling, and while there seems to be a place for humor in fiction, there’s less humor to be found in contemporary poetry. Why do you think that is?

SA: It’s actually punished in poetry. People make the mistake of thinking humor is not serious. Peter Ustinov, the actor, once said, “Humor is just a funny way of being serious.” I think with a lot of funny poets, the poems are entertaining, but they don’t get towards the serious stuff.

BMR: Do you think that’s an issue?

SA: Then it’s stand-up comedy, and it’s like the most basic, like Carrot Top stand-up comedy versus Patton Oswalt. It’s like Sinbad versus Louis C.K. When you rely on, “black people are like this, white people are like that”—I mean, the great stand-up comedy is poetry. It relies on unexpected narrative turns and the caesura. In poetry, it’s the caesura. In stand-up comedy, it’s called timing.

BMR: The beat before you hit the punch line.

SA: Slam.

BMR: Are there particular poets now who you think are Louis C.K.’s brand of poets?

SA: I think David Kirby gets there. I think C.K. Williams gets there. There’s a poet named Suzanne Buffam, I think she gets there. Zachary Schomburg, I think he gets there. But there’s a couple I don’t think get there. I love their poems, like Dean Young and Tony Hoagland. I think they’re very funny, but they don’t often really get bloody. They’re like language poets who make sense.

BMR: Okay, I’m going to go back in time a bit here. I keep on my workboard in my office a cutout of a letter to the editor that you sent to Harper’s in 2005. As someone who has grown up in the Southwest, I’ve never really felt connected to the literary conversations that go on in New York or whatever. You have a letter to the editor, very short, in which you gently mock what you call an “East Coast-East Coast literary rap war” between Ben Marcus and Jonathan Franzen. I wonder if you can expand on what you’re saying or implying in the letter, what prompted you to write it, and whether you think this literary rap war is still going on now.

SA: Well, you know, Ben Marcus is whining about not selling more books. He’s whining. There’s nothing more unattractive than a white guy whining.

BMR: An experimental white guy.

SA: Yeah, an experimental white guy with all these fucking advanced degrees, whining, you know, like he should be selling books like John Grisham. When the point of experimental literature is not to sell books like John Grisham. So he has this bestseller ambition—which is crass, you know, as crass as any crass mystery writer—with this really beautiful desire to recreate literature. And the contradiction just made him a whiner.

BMR: So do you still see that going on now?

SA: Yeah, I mean all these awesome writers complaining and alternating between reveling in their obscurity and denigrating popular writers as if actually connecting with human beings is a bad thing.

BMR: That seems a strange line to walk there.

SA: Yeah, and they’re lying. We write—people write, people become artists—because we’re desperate for attention. And to deny that, you’re just lying. That’s not what you’re telling your therapist. White guys hate being reminded they’re white guys. Ben Marcus has an amazing career, and he’s an amazing writer. So shut the fuck up and enjoy it.

BMR: I recently read and reviewed a great anthology called Walking the Clouds, edited by Grace Dillon, and I was excited to see when I read it that you’re in there, along with Gerald Vizenor and Leslie Marmon Silko.

SA: Walking the Clouds, I’ve never—I just fell out of my chair! A walk in the clouds or a fall to the floor.

BMR: Wow, I’ve never had that effect before.

SA: Let me look that one up while I’m at my computer here.

BMR: You’re in there, along with a bunch of great authors, and the subtitle is An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction.

SA: Walking the Clouds. Oh, wow, I’m in there? I’ve never heard of this one. What story of mine is in there?

BMR: It’s from Flight.

SA: An excerpt. Wow, I don’t even know this one. I’m going to order it.

BMR: So I was wondering if you read genre fiction while you were growing up, and if you still do?

SA: I read a lot of genre fiction. Funny thing is I don’t read a whole lot of science fiction.

BMR: You still read it now?

SA: Oh yeah, I read more than anything murder mysteries. Murder mysteries and poetry. And true crime. True crime—oh, God. I am vitally interested in the worst of us.

BMR: What’s a good one you’ve read recently?

SA: I reread Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi because of the Manson associate who might get paroled. He wasn’t part of the massacre, but he did kill a couple of other Manson associates, and that got me thinking about the Manson family again. I’m always fascinated by liberal fundamentalism and that’s a case of liberal fundamentalism gone extreme. Becoming so hippie that you end up being right-wing monsters.

BMR: What do you think of genre books in general?

SA: You know, I don’t care. A good book is a good book.

BMR: There’s definitely a divide between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” Do you think genre fiction can teach anything to literary fiction?

SA: Oh yeah, plot! If you actually tell a story? It seems that genre fiction gets punished for actually telling a story. And it can be clumsy. I can enjoy a very clumsy, not well-written book because it could have an interesting story. Like some of the more middling mystery writers. You know, there’s this one, James Rollins, who writes these sort of giant, epic fantasies. Sentence to sentence, he’s a terrible writer, but his stories are so amazing and so imaginative that you forgive the eighteen clichés a page. He writes thousand-page novels, about one every week and a half. I mean, I also envy his work ethic. Why punish that? Why be an asshole? Why not admit to being entertained? Because the thing is, all these literary writers who look down their noses at genre fiction, they’re watching Transformers… and they’re eating Big Macs. You know why people eat at McDonald’s? Because it’s fucking good.

BMR: Well, and that goes back to the same thing about looking down on genre fiction while at the same time crying about not selling books.

SA: Yeah, the overall hypocrisy of this. You know, I’m a much better writer than 99% of mystery writers, but I’m also a better writer than 99% of literary writers, so who cares. It comes from the same desire. And there are genre writers who are just plain great writers, who get celebrated by everybody, but there’s always still that element of condescension. Like Elmore Leonard. The celebration of Elmore Leonard always feels so creepy to me. I mean, he’s an incredible writer, but literary writers end up sounding like—oh, it’s just gross.

BMR: Like they can only say good things to a degree.

SA: It’s like they let the black guy into Augusta National.

BMR: “See, see how welcoming we are.”

SA: Yeah, it’s fake liberalism. You know, one thing I get really tired of in the literary world is the fake liberalism. When you read the favorite books of a white writer, and every single fucking writer is white. And you realize that this person didn’t even realize what they had just done. And you think, wow, they’ve never read Ralph Ellison, Louise Erdrich. They’ve never read the truly incredible genius brown-skinned writer. And brown writers are always accused of being so provincial. White people don’t recognize how provincial they are because they’re ordinarily perceived as the norm. You know, Ben Marcus would never think of himself as the norm, but he is.

BMR: So who are some authors you think are criminally under-read or underappreciated?

SA: Wow, that’s a good one. Ben Fountain, David Means. Used to be Gillian Flynn before Gone Girl. Those three. Gillian Flynn is a great example of a great writer being recognized to the level she should be.

BMR: I know you’re a big music lover—what’s dominating your iPod right now?

SA: Oh, you know, I can actually do a scientific study of myself. Let me get my iPad out and look at my most played. I’m pretty sure I know what it is, but I want to be surprised. Top 25 Most Played… The top 17 are all Neko Case and Jamey Johnson. Then a local band called Visqueen has a couple spots. And then two Elvis Costello and The Attractions songs. And then The Kinks’ “Come Dancing.” I have the musical taste of a white guy with a goatee and an unfinished Ph.D.

BMR: Well, that’s all my questions. Thanks again for talking with Blue Mesa Review.

SA: Thank you. You guys keep publishing all that great stuff. And do it more regularly, you procrastinating assholes.

BMR: I know. It’s hard with all the budgets being cut and all that.

SA: You know, the one great thing about the Internet is the way literary magazines can have a more constant presence. It’s cheap. And nobody reads, either, so it doesn’t really matter.