A Conversation with Sherman Alexie
by Jen Crispin

Those of you who have been hanging around Bookslut for a while may remember that in the very first issue, I wrote a piece on a crush I developed after seeing Sherman Alexie give a poetry reading. You must understand, that my only experience with poetry readings before this was of college students in coffee shops, reading over-earnest poetry about platonic crushes and their relationship with god. So when Alexie got up and started performing what sounded more like stand-up comedy, you can be sure that it made an impression.

Of course, it made an even bigger impression when a few months later, I received an email from Sherman Alexie himself, thanking me for my piece on him. I wrote back to him, and he consented to an interview by email. At first I thought this would be ideal. No expensive phone calls, no finding some sort of recording device, no transcribing from scratchy tapes. However, now that I have done an interview over email, I would not recommend them. After an initial flurry of emails, Alexie became busy with writing and had less attention to devote to the interview, I became busy with school and sent questions less often, and the whole thing fell apart. It developed more into a profile than into an interview with long quotes from the interviewed. This is an interview four months in the making, and I now wish I just would have found the recording equipment and spent a few hours on the phone.

All that said, Alexie has a splendidly dry sense of humor, that made the early emails all the more fun to read, especially when he proclaimed "I've never been interviewed by an openly slutty book slut, just the closeted book sluts. I'm a book slut, too." That one I read to all of my friends, who just looked at me with furrowed brows and asked who this "Alex person" was again. Remind me to invite them all over to watch Smoke Signals with me when I finally get the DVD. He is currently working on a screenplay adaption of The Toughest Indian in the World a new book of short stories called Ten Little Indians.

When did you first start writing?

I first started writing in January of 1988 in a Creative Writing Poetry class at Washington State University with Alex Kuo, the professor who is one of my best friends.

You mentioned when you were here at the poetry fest that you had recently endured a poetry dry spell that had lasted two years. How did that affect you? Did you try to force yourself to write during that time?

I had a dry spell based on my horrible experiences in trying to write movies for major studios. I started to hear the executives voices when I wrote anything, even poems. I quit writing. But what got me back to poetry was formalism. With a set structure, I was able to fill in the blanks. It almost felt like manual labor, the formalism, and I was able to see in blueprint the whole poem, and that made it so much easier to write each line, or lay each brick. so to speak.

What's the best/worst part about reading tours?

The best part about reading tours is room service breakfast. The worst part is flying because I'm afraid of flying.

Have you ever been randomly recognized on the street?

In Seattle, maybe the only city in the world where writers are celebrities, I get recognized every time I leave the house. On a busy day, if I'm in a very public place like a shopping mall, I'll get recognized five or six times. Outside of Seattle, I get recognized not for being a writer, but for being profiled on 60 Minutes or the only national television shows I've been on. In Dallas, a waiter said to me, "Hey, aren't you that famous Indian?"

So have you met any psychotic weirdo fans, or are they mostly pleasant?

I've had two stalkers, New Age weirdos: one thought I turned into a bird and followed her, another was convinced I was her ex-husband.

It has been said that you identify with Kurt Cobain, yet he seemed to self-destruct under the pressures of success and fame and you seem to have blossomed with it. What do you think is the important difference that allows you to take it all in stride?

Cobain was a practicing addict; I'm a sober addict. If I was still drinking, I'd be in serious trouble. My sobriety saves me.

If someone had never read one of your books or poems or seen one of your movies, where would you recommend that they start?

I'll probably always be remembered for writing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. That book is taught in hundreds of high schools and colleges and has sold more copies than all of my other books combined.

What is a perfect day for you?

I wake up, have breakfast with my five year old and put him on the bus to school. I go work out for an hour with Keith, my trainer. He beats the crap out of me for an hour, I take a long, long shower, then I go get coffee and read the newspaper and a book. Then I go to the office, read emails, meet with my co-worker Christy about this writing business, then I write for a few hours before I go home to have dinner with my wife and sons, play for an hour or two, maybe watch a basketball game on TV, put the kids to bed, have an hour or so with my wife before I head back to the office to write for a few more hours.

How many books do you own?

I own approximately 5,000 books.

Wow. That must have taken some serious collecting! Do they own an entire room in your house to themselves?

I store my book in special boxes in a climate-controlled storage place.

In the end of a book I read recently, one of the main characters is leaving civilization as we know it behind her forever, and decides to take only three books with her. Which three books would you take?

Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Leslie Silko's Ceremony.

What was the most helpful advice you ever got in a writing class or workshop?

Best piece of writing advice: "Read as many books as possible."

 

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