“Do you love Sherman Alexie?” a woman asked me as we walked up the stairs to the will-call table at Town Hall in Seattle. We were both there to hear the author and poet read from his latest book.
The 60-something lady with a shapeless dress and loose grey curls was smiling down expectantly from her perch two steps above. Her question was perplexing, given that Alexie, a Spokane Indian, has been criticized for his harsh realism, for his depictions of Indians, including members of his own family, as alcoholics, and most recently, for his indictment of Kindle and other digital reading devices. His subjects have included an Indian serial killer, skid row alcoholics, and a gay-bashing son of a senator.
As well, he is very hard to get hold of. Since he is one of WSU’s most widely-recognized author alums, and since he had recently won the National Book Award for his first effort at juvenile literature, I had been trying for months to interview him for a profile for this magazine.
A movie writer and producer and highly prolific creator of both prose and poetry who has had several poems and stories in the New Yorker magazine, Alexie’s star is on the rise. Oh, and he has a pretty big fan base, especially in Seattle.
About 800 people there paid the $5 fee to attend Alexie’s debut reading on the War Dances book tour this fall. A reading at the Elliott Bay Book Company had sold out two weeks earlier, so another 40-some readers and fans had lined up outside in hopes of finding an empty seat. At the repurposed Christian Scientist church, they crammed into pews and placed themselves in Alexie’s thrall for a few hours. They savored his famous extemporaneous humor, his colorful language, and the fact that this was anything but a languorous book reading.
I had started my effort to reach Alexie after he won the National Book Award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. With more than 30 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, the story of a boy from the Spokane Indian Reservation who chooses to enroll in the all-white school in the neighboring farm town is a version of Alexie’s own story.
I contacted Alexie’s publicist, Christy Cox, in hopes of interviewing him. I also sent a personal note to his University of Washington e-mail (he’s a writer in residence there, and was teaching a class at the time). I sent another e-mail dropping the name of a friend of his, a well-known writer from Spokane, hoping that would help me at least catch him in person. “Good luck. Sherman’s busy,” Jess Walter told me. “Your best shot would be to bribe him with front row seats to a Cougar basketball game in Seattle.”
At that time Alexie was working on his next book, Cox told me. I could talk with him for 15 minutes on the phone and I could use one of his publicity stills. My hopes of a feature piece with a full-page portrait fell apart. How could anyone do anything meaningful over the phone?
With all this in mind, I looked back at that lady on the Town Hall steps. “I like his writing,” I said, doubting this would suffice. But she seemed satisfied. So was most of the crowd, which lapped up his performance. “He’s a rock star,” said one guy.
“He’s not,” I thought. “Rock stars are easier to interview.”
Cox is the person in Alexie’s life whose job it is to say “No,” he recently told The New York Times. I know she does much more for him, but that’s what she kept telling me. Most of our contact was a dozen e-mails telling me he was busy. She wasn’t entirely discouraging, but made it clear I wouldn’t get much time. By last fall, Cox had handed Alexie’s interview schedule over to his publisher, Grove Press. The publicist there also said Alexie was busy, but I might be able to get him on the phone.
For the first part of the fall Alexie was migrating up and down the West Coast like a snow goose who couldn’t remember whether it was winter or spring. Then he headed inland to promote his book in Colorado, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix, and then deeper into the country, to Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. By the end of this year, he would have visited at least 20 states and one Canadian province.
A phone call could work, but the best way to see Alexie in action (and to get the most time of anyone who was reporting on him) was to track him. So with a list of his public appearances and radio interviews in hand, I started a four-month effort to follow him on tour. Tapping into his radio interviews, and LA Times and New York Times newspaper pieces, I had a framework. Then I sought him out in person. I started in Bellingham at a September fundraiser where he was appearing with David James Duncan, the writer from Montana. And I caught him again in Seattle in October.
Alexie looks nothing like he used to. His long hair is cropped short and he carries an air of Brooks Brothers about him in his black-rimmed glasses and dark tailored suit and tie. He even has a pocket handkerchief.
Of course, the last time I had seen him was nearly a decade ago during a poetry bout at Washington State University. Alexie was in drag—dressed like a French courtesan—powdered wig and all. As the surprise guest, he decided to come in disguise, procuring the costume from a Hollywood friend.
Now, though the look had changed, Alexie hadn’t. The Bellingham event was a fundraiser for protecting streams and salmon. “Sherman is the trickster,” the MC warned the audience. “Yeah, Indian guy doing a salmon thing,” Alexie cracked. “Grand Coulee Dam took our salmon away decades ago. You guys are a little late to the funeral.”
True to form, each of Alexie’s appearances was different. In Seattle he built on the theme of his poem “Ode to Mix Tapes” by inviting musician Sean Nelson to provide interludes of ‘70s and ‘80s ballads like “Sara Smile,” “Overkill,” and “They Don’t Know” between readings. The two played on the notion that the whole evening was a sort of ‘80s-style “mix tape” of words and music that Alexie had contrived for the audience. I was in luck, I thought. I knew Nelson, the lead singer from the band Harvey Danger, from college. Maybe I had an in to meeting Alexie.
Maybe not. After the show Nelson told me that even he hadn’t had much time with the author lately. “Good luck,” he said.
Once I started trailing Alexie, I found that interviews and articles dating back to 1998, his own web site’s biography, and characters in his books, all offer detailed pieces of his story. He regularly plumbs his own life for material. The lead character Arnold Spirit Junior in the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has everything in common with a young Alexie—right down to being called “Junior,” growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, and being born hydrocephalic.
“I had too much water,” he said once of the condition also known as water on the brain. “I had a series of obstructions, dams in my head.” When Alexie was an infant, doctors put in a shunt to drain the liquid. “It was a high-tech fish ladder,” said Alexie.
Later, the doctors removed the shunt, a rare procedure. Alexie wonders if he wasn’t something of an Indian guinea pig. “Let’s see what happens,” he quoted the doctors removing the shunt. “Oh, he became a poet.”
Because of his health issues, the young Alexie spent weeks away from the reservation, and a lot of time in hospitals and clinics among college graduates. “I learned how to migrate off that reservation early on,” he said. He also learned to read and entertain himself with the mystery and conspiracy books his father had at home.
Like his “Part-Time Indian” character “Junior,” Alexie decided to leave the Indian high school in Wellp
init to attend school with white farm kids in Reardan, more than 20 miles from his home. He believed he had to switch schools to get an education that would prepare him for college. His parents agreed to the move, though many in the community criticized him for it. He was the only Indian kid at the school.
At one event, Alexie called his mom, a social worker, on the phone. “I’m on stage in Bellingham, Washington,” he told her. “There are like 1,000 people here. Can you say hello to them?” he turned the phone to the microphone. A little voice says, “Hello.” Laughter. “I was calling you to thank you and dad for making me,” he says into the phone before turning it back to the microphone for her response: “You sound like you’re high.” The crowd erupts, again.
Even though he succeeded in leaving the reservation for high school, Alexie had trouble getting further out alone. He enrolled at Gonzaga University on scholarship, but dropped out after two years. He tried college again with WSU, starting in pre-med, but he failed to stomach the anatomy courses. All that time, he struggled with alcohol addiction, the same disease that haunted his father and others in his family.
The turning point, according to a story Alexie has told repeatedly over the years, was in a WSU seminar taught by professor and writer Alex Kuo. He read a piece by Adrian C. Louis, a poet from the Payute tribe. The words “Oh Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind” resonated. From that moment, Alexie knew he would be a writer.
At several of the Washington events, he tapped into his personal life. He talked about the first time he saw his wife Diane—on campus at Whitworth College in Spokane—and being immediately turned on… “Oh, the sunlight through her purple skirt,” he murmured.
At another reading, he described their first date at Luigi’s restaurant in Spokane. “I told her, ‘You know, I’m going to be famous,’” he said. “She laughed her ass off.”
They were married in 1994, and are raising their two boys in the south end of Seattle.
At WSU Alexie reached for every writer whose name passed his teachers’ lips. “In conference, I would mention somebody,” says Kuo. “By the next week he would have read everything by that person.” Writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, and James Welch, all offered a body of Native American literature to inspire a young writer.
While still a student, Alexie won the 1991 Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship. He followed that in 1992 with a National Endowment of the Arts Poetry Fellowship. When he was just a year out of college, two books of his poems had been published. “I had a number of talented students at the time Sherman was there,” says Kuo. “Of all of them, Sherman had the drive. He went for it.”
Standing in front of his crowd in Seattle last fall, Alexie acknowledged how far he is from his first book and his first reading at Elliott Bay Bookstore, which took place in the business’s basement. Only eight people showed, but at the time that was enough, he said. “And now,” he said scanning the 800 faces, “Wow.”
Things are different for artists now, he told the crowd. “I don’t know if writers are going to be able to build a career the way I have.” Alexie made it look easy, but it can’t have been. Besides dealing with the insomnia and headaches that come with being hydrocephalic, besides dealing with alcoholism, besides suffering through family tragedies, he was a target for jealousy. Some of his teachers and fellow writers suggested his early success had more to do with being Native American than having talent, says Kuo.
On top of that, he carried the burden of being seen as the representative voice of a group or culture. And he was criticized by Native Americans, even people he knew from his childhood, for his representations of his family, and his community.
On the other hand, Alexie has voluntarily been a voice for Indians, judging and commenting on Caucasian representations of Indian culture. When he suspected a memoir about growing up Navajo by an author named Nasdijj was actually fiction by a Caucasian, he contacted the publishers with his concerns. He was right. Later when the fraud was revealed, he wrote an essay for Time magazine suggesting that the writer had taken some of his tone and ideas from Alexie’s own story. He explained how inappropriate and damaging it can be when a writer poses as something he isn’t and presents an experience that his readers will use to form their understanding of a people.
He also stepped forward to address Ian Frazier’s book The Rez, about the author’s experiences with Oglala Sioux. While the book presumes to be about the Oglala Sioux, it’s really about how Frazier believes the Indians to be, Alexie wrote in the Los Angeles Times. At other times Alexie has asked that Indian writers be allowed to tell their own stories first and establish their voices, before other (famous Caucasian writers with publishers and book deals) go in to interpret the Native American experience.
In addition, Alexie has been asked to comment on a range of issues and images, including casinos, fishing rights, and the New Age appropriation of Native American religion and ceremony.
Alexie is not one to shy from a fight. One of his latest crusades is against Kindle—and all digital technology that aims to replace books, newspapers, and magazines. “You see a cool device,” he told one audience. “I see the Grand Coulee Dam and the end of wild salmon for my people,” providing the metaphor for an end of print literature for our culture. As an Indian, he knows about addiction, he said. “We are becoming a digitally-addicted culture.” He admits the irony of an Indian (from a culture with an oral storytelling tradition) defending another culture’s print tradition. But he also notes that the custom of storytellers meeting with an audience —much like he has done on his book tour—will end with the demise of bookstores.
From the beginning, Alexie’s stories have been his own—based on himself, his friends and family, the reservation where he grew up. “I don’t write memoir, it’s not what I’m doing,” he said on the radio this fall. But a real life event can inspire a better fiction. In War Dances, the title story weaves together his experience of his father dying of complications from alcoholism, and his narrator’s health concerns and feelings of being a parent. The piece centers on his search inside a hospital for another Indian who might have a real Indian blanket he could borrow keep his father warm.
In November, Alexie’s publicist writes to say he’s no longer scheduling Alexie’s interviews. I’m sent back to Cox. A few weeks later I get a crushing e-mail that Alexie is no longer scheduling interviews at all, he’s had a grueling tour and is closing his calendar. I understand. Since his debut reading in Seattle, Alexie has traversed the country multiple times—given readings, spoken at fundraisers, appeared on the Colbert Report, and signed thousands of books.
Still, in early December I schedule my trip to Spokane for a final look at this elusive author. He’s reading at Auntie’s Bookstore with a friend, Edgar Award-winning writer Jess Walter. Again, this event is packed—quite different from the Alexie reading I attended there in 1998 with only about 40 people in the audience. In addition to maybe 200 in folding chairs, about 30 people stand in the back of the third-floor space. The two writers, who both came from struggling families, who both came of age in the Spokane area, and who share a love of writing and of basketball, riff off each other in front of their friends and families. They joke about reading their books on tape. “It’s funny, they don’t let you improvise,” says Alexie. “That’s weird since it’s your own damn words.”
The gamble of trekking to Spokane pays off. I finally get to talk with Alexie, though it is a brief conversation after waiting in line with more than a hundred others wanting to have their books signed. I place a book in front of him and confess that I’ve been following him on his tour—hitting his venues in Washington. He smiled. “Are you stalking me?” Walter, who I know from when I lived in Spokane, is signing books next to him. “I’m stalking you and him, too,” I say, nodding toward Jess. They both grin. “It’s a sad thing when two writers have to share a stalker,” says Walter. They both crack up.
Alexie’s Spokane appearance is by far the most revealing. “I’m home,” he says. “I had lunch today with my family.” His mom, nephews, nieces, and cousins were in the audience. “It’s a great privilege and honor to have family show up at every reading and hear stories about themselves,” he says. “It’s a rare thing.”
“This distance between where I came from and where I am now—you have this double or triple consciousness about it,” says Alexie. “It’s unreal.”
“I miss my dad all the time,” he says, explaining that he cut his long hair when his father died and that according to custom, when he stops grieving, he may grow it out again. “I have such a weird life. I wish he were here for it.”
I never got that 15 minutes with Sherman Alexie on the phone, but I ended up with much more, more than The New York Times, more than the public radio stations. I got to see Sherman all across the state—joking with his fellow writers and friends David James Duncan and Jess Walter, and at home in Spokane with his family around him. I even met him in the bookstore where as a kid he bought his Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia. I saw him through the eyes of his fans, through his teachers, through his family.
It’s in Spokane that it becomes clear that Seattle was a necessary move, just like leaving Wellpinit and the reservation to attend high school in Reardan, leaving Reardan to find his way to college in Spokane and Pullman, and leaving Eastern Washington to make his way in Seattle. Some people think of Alexie as being from Seattle now, since he moved there 15 years ago. He doesn’t like that.
“What’s more Spokane,” he asks, “than a Spokane Indian?”
On the Web
In His Own Literary World, a Native Son Without Borders :: New York Times, Oct. 20, 2009
Author Sherman Alexie receives Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award :: Article in Spring 2004 issue of Washington State Magazine
Sherman Alexie: “It’s all good.” :: Article in Spring 2003 issue of Washington State Magazine.