Interview with Sherman Alexie (Publishers Weekly)
By Claiborne Smith
Book of the Day: Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie
PW Daily for Booksellers
Published July 8, 2003
Sherman Alexie's new collection of stories, Ten Little Indians (Grove), has been garnering stellar reviews (PW called it "fluent, exuberant, and supremely confident"). PW Daily's Claiborne Smith
talked with the author, poet-screenwriter-director-novelist Alexie, before he embarked on his 27-city book tour.
PWD: People don't read your books for the romanticized take on Indian life. What do you say when Indians tell you you should be promoting Indian culture?
SA: Well, depending on my mood, either "f**k off" or "Please f**k off." Well, I usually tell this story... A few years ago, at my oldest son's birthday party, we were sitting there opening presents and I looked around the room and I realized there were 2 gay couples, 2 lesbian couples, 7 countries, 12 states, senior citizens--all hues and shades--and I thought, "Well, this is my life," and my art wasn't representing that. My urban, diverse life wasn't reflecting that. And certainly my politics were not reflecting that. I think my politics are just catching up with my life.
PWD: And what do you say to white people who ask you if you hate white people?
SA: Especially after Indian Killer that happened. There was that review in Time that said I was "septic with [his] own unappeasable anger." I had it printed on a shirt, and I play basketball in it. Yeah, people assume all sorts of things about me. I'm still a literary writer, but I have a semi-pop image and that has a lot to do with being Indian. There's all sorts of perceptions about me being angry. I can't imagine being really famous, but with the fame I do have, every gesture gets magnified, so anything I say, any impromptu comment, has a lot of power. It may not be what I necessarily believe. Everything is exaggerated. In the end, let them think what they want. I follow whim. Some of the whims become permanent.
PWD: A lot of your characters wrestle with tribalism in one way or another--what will happen to them if they abandon the tribe, how the white world makes assumptions about them. Is tribalism always a bad thing?
SA: In this book, in the spirit of this book, most of the stories were finished and most of them begun before and then immediately following September 11, so the worst part of tribalism was everywhere then. As a person, I've been turning away from it more and more.
PWD: Is it fair to say that if you're turning away from it, your characters do, too?
SA: Yeah. It's the emotional space I'm in, so it's the place where my characters are. I'm not a big reacher. I'm not a nomadic writer.
PWD: You memorize your stories before you perform them at book readings. Why is that?
SA: Well, part of it is that I grew up in debate and I was also in the drama club, so part of it was from a performance background. But once I saw people reading in college whose work I loved the hell out of, and their readings would be so boring and I just thought, "They're not performing their work with the same passion they wrote it with."
PWD: Who are your fans?
SA: College educated white women.
PWD: Any insight as to why?
SA: They're the most curious, progressive and forgiving group of people in the country so I think it's natural that that crowd would go to a bookstore to listen to a brown boy talk.
PWD: Are there any questions you get asked routinely at your readings?
SA: The combination of the artist ones--"What's your writing pattern? Do you use computer or pen? Who's your favorite writer?"--and then the Indian questions--"How do you feel about casinos?" And then you get the interesting questions, when someone asks about this paragraph or that story. But I don't get angry or bored. I realize it's my job to turn the questions into something revealing and interesting. You know, if someone asks about what time of day I write, I might launch into my insomnia and low-grade mental energy.
PWD: You're not content with having just literary fiction readers as your audience, are you?
SA: Well, no. When people invite me to places I haven't been, I go, but I also seek them out--lawyers and businesspeople and the Elk's Club, to extend my work into all arenas. Part of it is sales, being a Willy Loman, but it's also about being proactive. Writers have a lot to compete with and I'm not content to wait for people to find me.