“I’m Not Going to be Happy Until Every Human Being on the Planet has Read Something I’ve WrittenOctober 28th, 2007
by Litsa Dremousis
Two years ago I interviewed Sherman Alexie for the second time. The interview was going to be a centerpiece of a theme issue for a magazine that I had written for a number of times before. The editors decided to scrap said theme and the interview hung in limbo for nine months before the managing editor killed it.
I’ve interviewed dozens of individuals from Wanda Sykes to Ron Jeremy and Alexie remains among my favorites, both because his art impacts my life and because he is boundlessly intelligent. He sends my mom the sweetest thank you notes when she sends him baklava, plus, he is the only person who’s ever had the balls to write her and say, “Could you please send more?”
Alexie’s new book, the autobiographical young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, was just nominated for a National Book Award. What follows is the introduction to and an excerpt from the interview that never ran.
“The most terrifying things in the world are lung cancer, jumping spiders of Borneo, and nostalgia,” Sherman Alexie reads from his forthcoming novel, Fire with Fire. Several hundred students and lit denizens, an unsurprising number of whom sport fleece hats and all-weather brogues, pack the capacious room in the University of Washington’s student union building. Alexie and fellow behemothic author Jonathan Franzen appear tonight in conjunction with New Yorker’s College Tour. The crowd listens with rapt ardor as both men present their work, but Alexie’s quips generate the most laughter. “No one ever looks at me and thinks of Hemingway or Faulkner, but you guys have to deal with that shit,” he says to Franzen on the topic of progenitors. When a grad student practically supplicates before Alexie, the latter responds, “I’m actually a careerist-minded shithead.”
If Alexie seems unconflicted about his success, perhaps it is because his life has been one of improbability. The thirty-nine year old writer has published seventeen books, including the best-selling short story collections, Ten Little Indians and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and the widely praised novel, Indian Killer. He scripted the award-winning film, Smoke Signals (based on a story from Lone Ranger and Tonto) and wrote and directed the indie curio, The Business of Fancydancing. However, Alexie was born hyrdrocephalic (with water on the brain) and bested doctors’ predictions when he survived surgery at six months old. Complications resulted in frequent seizures that plagued his childhood, and yet he began reading voraciously when he was three. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Alexie lived with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, but opted for the better education the nearby white high school could provide. He planned to become a physician when he enrolled at Washington State University, but leapt to writing when he repeatedly fainted in pre-med courses.
Alexie and I meet on a rainy afternoon at his offices in Seattle’s Central District neighborhood. Though he and his assistant relocated to the space a few months ago, boxes remain stacked in the hall. The rooms are neat, but not meticulously so, and Alexie apologizes for not having made coffee. In marked contrast to earlier publicity stills, he a vision of sartorial splendor, his mulberry shirt offsetting his jet-black hair. He has books, screenplays, and a television pilot in various stages of development–at one point we take a break so he can rewrite a scene over the phone–but his vigor his palpable. When I express empathy regarding a looming deadline, he laughs and says, “Don’t feel bad for me. I’m getting paid an obscene amount of money.” Just like Hemingway and Faulkner.
Litsa Dremousis for ____: You said in a recent interview that you’re in love with your iPod. What have you been listening to recently?
Sherman Alexie: I’ve been listening to Wolf Parade and also to Bettye Swann, who’s sort of a forgotten soul singer from the Sixties. I’m just in love with her. So I’m writing a short story about a Bettye Swann-esque character who disappears and makes her big comeback.
LD: Is she still alive?
SA: I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I’ve been resisting the temptation to Google her. And I found her because I downloaded a Donny Hathaway/Roberta Flack song. I have this dream, that you follow these paths and land up having the exact same obsession as someone else and then you marry them. [Laughs.]
LD: That’s as good as litmus test as any. Have your kids gotten into it, too?
SA: No, they’re not into the iPod, but they love music. They have guitars and drums. They like rock. They like what I listen to, so when I’m in the car with my iPod, they’re always, “Turn it up!” And they have strong opinions. My youngest, who’s four, loves John Prine. He can sing “Sam Stone” completely, which is hilarious, because he’s singing about a heroin-addicted Vietnam vet who dies of an O.D. My four year old is in the back of the car singing, “Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon.” So I’ve already corrupted my kids.
LD: I read that you’re working on a book for young adults.
SA: It’s actually two young adult novels and a picture book. I’ve been approached a number of times to write for young adults or kids because my books do really well in high schools, especially The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which is taught in hundreds of high schools. That book has some real power for young people, but its subject matter and the way it approaches it are not young adult. There’s a fine line between “adult” and “young adult” and that book crosses it. It’s actually been banned in different school districts. I knew I would write a young adult book as soon as some story appealed to me, and you know, everything connects. I’m working on a family memoir about my grandfather and father, mostly. But there’s some autobiographical stuff in it, too, and it got me thinking about the first year I left the reservation to attend the white school. I was remembering that and I thought, “That was an amazing year.” Rez kid goes to white school. So I wrote forty pages and sold that, and then the idea for the second novel, and then a picture book to be named later.
LD: With the picture book, are you illustrating it?
SA: Oh, no.
LD: I ask because you co-wrote four of the songs for Smoke Signals. I like that you don’t limit yourself or view your own work in a certain paradigm. You’ve said before that if you’re guilty of anything, it’s of being hungry.
SA: Yeah. Picture books are all about painting and I’m really primitive. I can play one and a half chords on a guitar and do less than that drawing. But in terms of trying stuff, I mean, I love so much stuff. Why not be ambitious? I know my editors and my agents would love me to focus, but that’s just not who I am.
LD: In an essay for Zoetrope, you described yourself as an “arrogant bastard”. I assume it was in jest, but as long as you have the work to back it up, I don’t see what’s wrong with saying, “This is what I want to do.”
SA: It’s all fake, too, the idea of not being ambitious.
LD: It’s completely disingenuous. “Oh, I don’t care if anyone reads this.” Then why the fuck are you doing it?
SA: I’m not going to be happy until every human being on the planet has read something I’ve written. So that means I’m never going to be happy. [Laughs.]
LD: On the other hand, you’re never going to be bored.
SA: Right. I like to engage in the world and I like to be paid attention to. [Laughs.] So I’m going to go where the audience is.
LD: You’ve done stand-up comedy. How did you decide to give that a shot?
SA: When I did readings, I was funny. And I got funnier and I became more interested in being funny onstage than anything else. Because you know, I don’t even go to literary readings anymore because they’re so damned boring. It’s the same thing over and over.
LD: At the New Yorker reading at the University of Washington, I thought it was great when you said they booked you because you live in Seattle and they didn’t have to get you a hotel room, and that you wouldn’t raid the mini-bar like Jonathan Franzen would.
SA: [Laughs.] Yeah. I’m a storyteller. And I work all the ways in which I can do that. We’re competing with so much. We’re competing with iPods. How the hell am I going to have a chance against an iPod? So it all blends together. The idea of a book, and that sort of muted, serious scholar, that’s the contemporary version of a storyteller. I’m more interested in the age-old traditional idea of a storyteller.
LD: Which is more elemental.
SA: Yes. Sitting around the fire. I treat it that way all the time. I’m sitting around a fire. I don’t want to bore anybody. If they go away pissed off, I’m happy. If they go away happy, I’m happy. I challenged some notion of whatever the event is supposed to be.
LD: You’ve said that Smoke Signals made a great title for a film. The upcoming novel is Fire with Fire. It seems like they echo each other. Is that intentional?
SA: That’s on purpose. It’s a completely capitalistic move. When we end up selling the manuscript, I know we’ll send it off with The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which has sold gazillions of copies, and the Smoke Signals DVD. We’ll say, “This is a continuation of this massive success, so give me lots of money.” [Laughs.] It’s definitely a sequel in all senses of the term.
LD: With Smoke Signals, you said that a story that had been important and integral in your life was now owned by Miramax. With your film The Business of Fancydancing, you own the rights. You’ve pointed out that even with the indiest of indie films, someone else ends up owning the artist’s story. And that you’re one of the few exceptions.
SA: It rarely happens, but I can’t do it any other way. The scary thing is that if I want even a little more money than we had for Fancydancing, if I want $500,000, I still won’t own what I do, so there are always these huge compromises. And part of it is whiny, because it ends up that I merely have to work the way 99% of the world works. I have a boss, you know, and that kills me.
LD: You’ll work your ass off, but you want to do it on your own schedule.
SA: “Whenever I feel like working!” [Laughs.] It ends up feeling like a typical life, with a hierarchy of power. I am not even remotely interested in that. I’m only interested in being the all-powerful Fidel Castro of my universe.
LD: You’ve remarked that you have more creative power as a novelist than any director, because if you don’t like a paragraph, it’s gone.
SA: There are directors who do more than others. There are all sorts of levels of creative power over a project, but anyone who’s ever worked on a film knows that there’s no way of assigning credit. Directors know that and they’re just being assholes. [Laughs.]
LD: The good ones know that.
SA: But they don’t say it. Even when I think of people who are the most incredibly collaborative in their everyday working environment, when they get interviewed, they don’t talk about it that way. It’s “my my my.”
LD: Wasn’t your Fancydancing D.P. [director of photography] a Rhodes Scholar?
SA: Our P.A. [production assistant] had a Fullbright.
LD: You’ve said you tried to keep the set as egalitarian as possible.
SA: Yeah. In the end I have veto, but you listen to everybody. On the first day, the P.A. suggested something and I used it.
LD: Going back to the same New Yorker reading, you told the audience that there’s nothing more stomach-churning than the day before the New York Times comes out with your book review, and that the more visibility you have, you have to focus on tuning out other people’s opinions of your work. But the flip-side seems to be that if you’re trying to to obtain funding for the next project, you’re a proven entity and name.
SA: I don’t have that in the movie world. I wish I did. I can get a meeting with anyone. But that still doesn’t translate into getting anything made. So I’m in this sort of in-between world there. I suppose if I focused more, it would probably happen. But I’m not nearly as dedicated to movies as I am to books. If I could pick and choose who I worked with in that town, that would make me happier than hell, because there are so many amazing, talented, generous people, but none of them have any power. [Laughs.] So you end up working for intelligent, decent idiots. And I wouldn’t make movies with me either because I’m going to make artsy-fartsy movies about Indians. [Laughs.]
LD: With so many simultaneous projects, are there times it seems overwhelming?
SA: Oh, yeah. I say yes too much. My commie liberal bastard political sense gets in the way. I say yes to too many fundraisers and political events, to too many good causes.
LD: That’s why I was amused when you described yourself as an “arrogant bastard”. I understood what you meant about the artistic ego, but it’s really about the work with you. It’s not about the size of the trailer or things like that.
SA: Oh, I don’t care about that stuff.
LD: At the New Yorker reading, you said that 3:00 in the afternoon on 9/11 was the end of “identity politics” for you.
LD: An essay you wrote for the Seattle alt-weekly, The Stranger, ties in with that. You said that you don’t want racial profiling. But then you asked, had there been racial profiling, would the nineteen hijackers–
SA: –have gotten through?
LD: Right. You approached a moral gray area with honesty. It’s a hard question and you can’t answer it conclusively.
LD: When you say you no longer engage in identity politics, how are you defining identity politics?
SA: Measuring anything by race. I mean, I firmly believe in differences between races. Culturally, genetically, I know that’s true. But far too many people use it as a weapon. So I put down the weapon. Regardless of how I feel about who I am and the way in which I know being Indian directly affects everything I do, the way in which I can see Jonathan Franzen, who I’m sure would argue this, is a white male in every respect possible. But who cares? I am weird and strange and difficult in ways that go way beyond the ethnicity of my parents. It’s true of everybody. You realize that racial identity, cultural identity, that stuff is, in the end, really shallow. And when you’re in that shallow pool, all you’re going to be dealing with is shallow emotions.
LD: It seems like it would become reductive after awhile, too.
SA: And dehumanizing. I think, in the end–and liberals and brown people get mad at me because I end up echoing conservative thought–but in the end, I think identifying yourself separately that way automatically diminishes you, prevents you from gaining any power.
LD: There are only a handful of Native Americans in any field who are really well known, so you sort of get stuck carrying the mantle. Chris Rock has said that when he does something, it’s, “Oh, African-American comedian.” And like you were saying about yourself, he takes heat from all sides. But like he says, when Jim Carrey does something, he’s just Jim Carrey.
LD: It seems like it would be frustrating if everyone is projecting their expectations onto you. You can’t possibly carry the mantle for everyone.
SA: No. I never have. That’s the point. I tried for awhile and it killed me. I’ve never belonged to anything or believed in anyone’s expectations of me, other than a general idea of “work your ass off”. I mean, I went to a white high school. I was captain of the basketball team, I started the drama club, I was president of the Future Farmers of America. I was already diverse, I was already into everything. So the identity is just a way of limiting yourself, of focusing on yourself. You know, go to any restaurant on a college campus, look around and people are going to be sitting by color. And I’m not interested. But pretty quickly, it’s apparent to anyone I’m with that my Indian-ness is the least diverse thing about me. And when you talk about Indian identity, we’re so frigging assimilated. Casinos have exponentially accelerated that process. I mean, there’s no difference, and any Indian who cries about their Indian pain and how it prevents them from doing this or that is full of shit. My wife’s dad used to say to her that in her lifetime, there was going to come a point when being Indian was an absolute plus. That it was always going to make you interesting. In a crowded, capitalistic world, I am an instant difference.
LD: It’s a point of entry and it’s a way for people to engage you.
SA: Also, I have much less baggage than everybody else.
LD: How so?
SA: I realized I spent so much time worrying about everyone’s expectations of me as an Indian, that I had no expectations of myself. I didn’t expect to be this or be that. So I came into the literary world new. And I think that’s what appealed to everybody. You know, now I’m jaded and predictable, but at the beginning I was new. [Laughs.] But now, it’s not even. The Indian thing, in terms of the literary world, it’s pretty much disappeared.
LD: I think the best gift any parent can give a kid is to feel that there are no limits and not to restrict yourself. And that’s probably how you’re raising your kids.
SA: Exactly. They know they’re Indian, but that’s, the word that popped into my head is “trivial”. And I’m sure all sorts of people will get after my ass, but it is trivial. You know, the primary ingredient of my oldest son’s identity is the fact he was on a heart-lung machine for two weeks, which has affected him in physical and emotional ways. So you want to talk about his tribe? His primary identity, the primary influence in his life, was his time on that machine. Everything else has been an adjustment to that. So, his Indian-ness? That’s way down the line of who he is. He’s a crazy book-worm, like his dad, you know?
LD: Was it myoencephalitis you had as a child?
SA: Hydrocephalies. And I look back, and that’s my primary identity, a hydrocephalic. So we belong to many tribes at the same time. And when you try to limit that, it turns you into an asshole. I mean, September 11th changed things, but there was also my son’s birthday party during that same time. I looked around the room and there were, like, seven countries represented. There was a lesbian couple, a gay couple, their kids, white people who have adopted Chinese babies, white Americans who have adopted Chinese babies, white Americans who have adopted Russian babies, senior citizens, twenty-two year olds, and a Jesuit priest. And you look around and you think, “This is who they are.” They look around the rooms they’re in, their circle of friends, their parents’ circle of friends, and their group of friends are endless. And if all they see around themselves are an endless of variety of people, then of course, that’s going to make them realize that they can be endless. I’m going to cripple them in all sorts of ways, I know, but at least that will be one way in which I won’t. [Laughs.] They won’t look back and say, “Dad didn’t think I was a good Indian.”
LD: Let’s talk about “The Sin Eaters” [a short story from The Toughest Indian in the World]. I happened to be re-reading it during September 11th. In the course of the past four and a half years, that story seems to resonate even more.
SA: All I ever hear from that story is, “What the hell does this mean?” It freaks people out. It kind of freaks me out. And I put it in that book on purpose because it has nothing to do with the tone of that book. It’s a genocide, holocaust, science fiction, fantasy, futurist, weird thing.
LD: Did you intend it to be allegorical?
SA: Most definitely. And it’s filled with allusions to a dozen other books about genocide and a dozen other science fiction novels. In a lot of ways it was an exercise and it ended up being powerful, so I put it in the book. I was sort of messing around and then it grew. But people don’t talk to me about that story much. I don’t think they know what to do with it.
LD: At the New Yorker reading, you pointed out that it’s only you and Louise Erdrich writing fiction about Indians. And you talked about not having read books that have Indian protagonists in them when you were a kid. There are kids coming up now who have that because of you, who wouldn’t have otherwise had it. And again, not to put you on the pedestal and not to make you the spokesperson, but just as a person–
SA: –well, don’t make me the spokesperson, but you can put me on a pedestal. [Laughs.]
LD: [Laughs.] But just on a human level, is that gratifying?
SA: Oh, of course.
LD: If anything happens to you and Louise Erdrich, there will be a void. [Laughs.]
SA: I’m quite aware of the influence I have. What I would hope is that they’re paying attention to the fact that other Indians are saying, “You know, you don’t have to be just Indian.” I hope it gives them a sense that they’re not alone. They’re not alone.