Sherman Alexie is well-known as a great Native American writer. But let us please drop the labels and break it down to one essential truth: Sherman Alexie is a great writer. Period.
While his stark works focus mainly on life on the Spokane Indian reservation, they tap into universal themes of poverty and oppression, love and loss, and hope and hopelessness (often simultaneously), to which anyone regardless of race can relate — all the while laced with Alexie’s sharp wit and clever pop-culture references. He has the rare ability to compel you to laugh with his characters while you cry for them.
Alexie’s writings — poems, short stories, novels — have won him the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the American Book Award and many more, while his collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was the basis for the 1998 feature film Smoke Signals, a Sundance darling.
The 47-year-old writer talked to the Miami Herald in advance of his appearance at the Miami Book Fair International on Tuesday.
Q: The first thing that strikes people about your writing is how real it reads, like you’re simply recounting facts. Did that voice flow out of you easily when you first started writing?
A: Yeah, it’s still pretty much the same sort of voice. Also, I’ve never really been all that interested in ornate writing or reading ornate literature so I think that simplicity was always appealing to me as a reader and then as a writer. Give me Hemingway and Dickinson over Whitman and Faulkner.
Q: You’ve said that your work was an autobiography not of details but of the soul. But weren’t most of the details true?
A: Well, yeah, a thing can be true, but then when you change everything around it, it changes identity. My dog got shot — that’s a real event. But once you change everything around it, that also becomes just another form of fiction. Without the connecting tissue, any fact is still fiction.
Q: You’ve talked about how you were hailed by The New York Times as “one of the major lyric voices of our time” while you were still sleeping in a U.S. Army surplus bed in the basement of your family’s house. How long did that epic divide last?
A: Oh. Until about 10 years in, I think.
Q: Did it remain as strange as it seemed from the start?
A: It became more humorous. It became a way of staying sane — sane and modest as well. With the kind of career I have, it’d be pretty easy to become a total a------. I’ve seen it! [laughs] I’m a really good writer, but that doesn’t make me a really good human being. Those are often mutually exclusive abilities.
Q: When you read that New York Times review, did it make you feel fraudulent at first?
A: Uh, it certainly made it feel very premature. I was like, “Really!?!? I don’t know about that!” How about maybe or potentially will become one of the major lyric voices of our time? It didn’t feel fraudulent — it just felt like it couldn’t be true, which is different.
Q: Did it frighten you?
A: That’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid.
Q: Were other reviews that followed just as glowing?
A: You know, I’ve probably had 60 percent glowing during my career. That’s a good percentage. You don’t want universal [positive reviews] — I’ve also been hammered, which is good.
Q: How did the first negative review make you feel?
A: Oh, you want to crawl into a corner and die. But once I got out of the corner and realized I hadn’t died, I felt hungry. So I had some crackers. The thing that has really helped with all of that is having a competitive sports background, being a jock. Because you’re always gonna run into somebody who’s better. You’re always gonna get your ass kicked by somebody. You’re eventually going to lose, and every once in awhile, you’re going to lose big. So then you get up and play the next game.
Q: Have you stopped feeling the pressure you felt after that first review or does that still drive you today?
A: [Laughs] You know, when I talk to aspiring writers, and they talk about this and that, they’re really quite unaware. I mean, it’s intense. I mean, you want your book reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. You want your book covered. But then you have to read it. I get my job reviews in front of millions of people. So no, the pressure never changes.
Q: The Washington Post wrote that your works are “healing ancient wounds.” Do you get tired of the implication that you’re the literary savior of Native Americans?
A: I refuse to accept that anybody thinks of me that way. [Long pause] I am the most famous Indian writer around that’s probably ever been. And with that comes a lot of cultural and racial — real and imagined — ideas, expectations and pressures.
Q: Your writing is peppered with tales of “drunk Indians,” and at times you’ve been criticized for that. How did you avoid becoming one yourself?
A: Well, I am one. I’ve been sober for 20 years. So I didn’t avoid it. You know, that’s one of the things when people talk about alcoholism in my work that they will conveniently omit: I am a recovering alcoholic. So when I write about it, I’m writing about myself and my own demons. My father died of alcoholism 10 years ago, so I’m writing a very, very personal story. And that said, when I go into any crowd and ask people who are alcoholic or who are closely related to an alcoholic to raise their hand, it’s three-quarters of everybody. Addiction is a human problem. I’m just writing about the Indian version of it. Hemingway wrote about the white-guy version of it.
Q: Your film Smoke Signals was well-received. Do you have any other film work coming up?
A: No, that’s a different world now. It’s impossible to get a movie made, because the sources of money for an independent filmmaker don’t exist anymore. Hollywood stopped making independent-minded films. They pushed it out into the margins. And then it pushed us brown independents even farther out into the margins. Try to make a movie? I’m on Pluto.
Q: Maybe you could throw some car chases in there or something.
A: I’ve tried. The cars keep breaking down [laughs]. In the Indian world, every car chase turns into a footrace.