Photo by Jason Asenap

Sherman Alexie to Writers: 'Follow Every Whim. Chase It.'

Jason Asenap

There’s little that can be said about Sherman Alexie that hasn’t been said already.  The man whose books would be banned, has acquired numerous awards, written several books that span across multiple genres: short story, poetry, the novel, not counting his forays into the screenplay format and film.  I interviewed Sherman at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where he spent a week teaching in the MFA creative writing program.  I tried to ask him questions that he hadn’t already been asked.  Also, I slipped in a question from my mom, a huge fan, who wanted to know where he got the idea for a unique scene in Smoke Signals.  Fun fact, Sherman does not carry a smart phone and in fact carries what appears to be an early-2000s clamshell phone.  He carries an Ipad for his mobile internet needs.  He prefers to disappear and very few people have his phone number.  Says Sherman, “Everyone else’s phone makes them more gettable, my phone makes me less gettable.”

Jason Asenap: What do you envision for the IAIA MFA program?

Sherman Alexie: Number one, I want to create an environment where we help create, promote and publish, amazing Native American writers, and non-natives.  When I started writing, when my career started as an undergrad, when I started writing books, there where like 30 native American writers publishing with big houses. It was amazing.  It’s funny the way things have worked out. I always thought of myself as a different generation than Joy (Harjo) and Simon (Ortiz) and Leslie (Silko), but the way it’s worked out, I’m like the last member of that generation.

You were on that last wave of the Native American literary renaissance.

I was the ass end of that Native American literary renaissance (laughter)…and nothing has happened! No Native writer has taken the country by storm, the last time it happened was Susan Power in 1996 with the Grass Dancer.  People are still writing but nobody's career has taken off.  When Jon (Davis, head of the IAIA MFA program) asked me to do this, when Jon brought the idea to me my immediate thought was books. So really, the goal is for this to be the kind of professional environment where we get new Native American writers published. I’m not here to hold hands, I’m not here to pat people on the back for being writers.  I’m here to get your asses published. I am here for success. I mean how often do Indians say that?  I’m here to kick your ass and get your books published.

When I first saw you in Norman, OK, in 1993, you were reading your short fiction, from Lone Ranger and Tonto, in that little room, Gittinger Hall...

How old were you then, 12?

I was like 19. I can’t even remember—but I remember thinking "Holy shit, this guy’s awesome!" What would you tell that version of yourself back then? 

Oh man, oh shit that’s a good question.

How old were you then when you read from that book?

Twenty-seven?  I mean, I’m 48 now.  What would I have said, that’s a great question. Exercise more on the road.  I would tell “him” that loneliness gets worse when you’re being lazy. It’s one of the new things I’m talking about—it’s weird, the strange dynamic of being a Native, about tribe and community and yet when you’re an artist, any artist of any group, but as a Native artist, the relentless traveling alone is so potentially destructive.

Because of boredom?

Loneliness!  We’ve all had that feeling of being the only Indian in the room. Develop better strategies for dealing with the loneliness. I would tell him to eat better, exercise more—'cause [not doing those things] just made it worse. I didn’t drink, so I would say don’t drink, but I’ve been sober for years. Eat better and exercise more on the road. In fact, I say that to myself now. All Indians should hear that.

Which one of these three is your favorite format: Poems, short stories, or novels?

Poems, not even close. Because I see the world in poems. To see a poet, that perfect combination of beautiful words and a beautiful voice coming together like that, that’s the greatest thing in the world. A fiction writer never gets close to that, no matter how good the fiction writer is, no matter how good the non fiction writer is, poetry does both at the same time, it’s on the page and it’s allowed.  Poems are primal. Poems are like breathing and fiction and non-fiction feels like something you put on.  Non-fiction and fiction feels like a shirt you put on and poetry feels like it’s in your DNA.

You've lived in Seattle for over 20 years—what about that city inspires you creatively or otherwise?

It’s a combination of stuff, number one, it’s probably the most liberal big city in the country and I’m a commie bastard, so I’m comfortable there with my politics.  In my job I have to go everywhere and I have to fight a lot, so home base ends up being safe, I don’t have to fight at home. It’s a castle.  There’s still racial stuff there, it’s white liberals and it’s a really white place so there’s still shit that goes on, but it’s a safe place. It’s also a city that celebrates writers. I once sat down and mapped it out—this was like five years ago—there were 32 used and new books stores within a 20 minute drive of me in Seattle.  It’s a book culture like no other city.  It celebrates writers.  There is a reading in Seattle about 360 days a year. Coffee, liberals, and book lovers, and actually a lot of Indians. So many tribes, so many tribes.

What is your creative process?

It’s random and chaotic. I try not to have rituals—like, last week I wrote a poem. I  had to go to Home Depot, one of our outdoor lamps on our house went out. The whole thing busted so I had to go buy a new entire lamp system.  Not just the bulb but the whole lamp went bad so I had to research where to find it to match exactly, the other lamp that’s outside, so we don’t—you know, no matter how long I’ve not lived on the rez, the subconscious ability to rez my house up with mismatched outdoor lamps is strong in me. (laughter) So I researched where it was and I found it at Home Depot in Bellevue which is 15 miles away. So I drove there and I went in and I couldn’t find it.  So I went back out and told my wife I couldn’t find it and she said, “Are you sure?” and she looked it up and she said “No, you have the wrong serial number.” So then I had to go back in. My OCD, I hate reentering a place I just left. It’s weird. If I go to the grocery store, and even if I’m walking out of the grocery store and realize, “Shit, I forgot the milk!”  Even If I’m pushing the cart to the car, I can’t turn around. I can’t go back into the store.

So what do you do?

I drive to the next store! (laughter)

Does it have to do with the people seeing you coming back?

Yeah! I’m just embarrassed.  Like they care right?  Logically it makes no sense. So I had to go back into Home Depot or my wife would be pissed at me, but also I knew that lamp was nowhere else in the city cause I did all the research. So I decided the only thing I could do was to relax and create space in between the visits. What I was going to do was play video games on my ipad, but I started to play my Marvel Superheroes game and then all of a sudden a poetic line occurred to me. I’m uncomfortable in Home Depot stores, home stores, Lowe’s or whatever, because I don’t know how to fix shit. So the line, the poetic line came to me, I don’t know how to fix things because my dad didn’t know how to fix things, and he didn’t know how to fix things cause his dad died when he was six. Just sitting in front of Home Depot. So for an hour I worked on a poem.  So the process is: follow every whim, that’s my process. Wherever I am, I follow every whim.

Wherever those idea bubbles to the surface…

Follow it, chase it, chase the whim.

Who are five writers we must read right now and why?

The Martian by Andy Weir because it’s just an exciting adventure and it’s going to be a movie starring Matt Damon in a few months.  It’s an awesome book about an astronaut who gets left on Mars. 

That's one. Who else?

You know what? I haven’t seen Joy (Harjo) live in so many years. She’s one of the primary reasons why I write but then you have this relationship with literature where you read widely and you forget. I realized last night as she was reading I haven’t reread her in years and I was feeling shitty about it and guilty and then I was like no wait! This is is a challenge to go back. Lines of her from the past came back to me.  Joy Harjo because her power remains undiminished. Read She Had Some Horses. “The Woman hanging from the thirteenth floor window”. You need to read my friend Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins. His book is amazing it’s gorgeous, a love story, multi-generational multi-continent love story, it’s awesome. It’s one of the most epic love stories written in recent memory. You need to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a book about race relations.  A young black man trying to make his way in mid twentieth century United States and I think Native Americans would really benefit from reading that.  In our era the most invisible people are Native Americans.  We have so little cultural value, so little presence, that I think Invisible Man is really talking to Native Americans now. We are the invisible men and women, Natives.

And last but not least...

You can always benefit from reading Emily Dickinson. Indians can benefit from reading Emily Dickinson.

How's that?

You want to hear the most Indian line of poetry that’s ever been written? “Because I could not stop for death / Death kindly stopped for me.” And that’s Emily. I think her combination of mysticism and humor and she focuses so much on animals and animals talking, and animal lives, and the meaning of animals, and nature, I think Indians would dig it. Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems.

So now I’m going to get to a question from my mom. Where did you get the idea for the girl to drive the car in reverse gear in the film Smoke Signals?

There was an old man on my rez one summer, all he ever did was drive his car from the house to the trading post to grocery shop. That’s all he ever did but one summer, the only gear that worked was reverse. So for about two weeks all he did was drive it in reverse til it broke down completely. So it’s just based on an old Indian dude on my rez.

And finally, my friend Jon Sims posed the question, “If you can have any Indian superpower what would it be”?

Ah!  That’s so good!  Oh!  You know what!  I wish I could really talk to animals. I wish I could understand what animals say. I wish I could have always understood what my dogs were saying. I wish I could talk to dogs, like have conversations with dogs.

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