Sherman Alexie in conversation with Williams Cole
Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington and is the author of eight books of poetry (published by Brooklyn’s Hanging Loose Press) and several novels and collections of short fiction. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the award-winning film Smoke Signals (Miramax) and recently directed a feature film, The Business of Fancydancing. Among his many awards are a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was also named by Granta Magazine as one of the 20 best American novelists under 40 and by The New Yorker as one of the 20 writers for the 21st Century. He is a three-time world heavyweight poetry slam champion.
Alexie lives with his wife and two children in Seattle, Washington. Williams Cole, a Contributing Editor for the Rail, spoke to him via telephone in November.
Williams Cole (Rail): Do you think New Yorkers in general know much about Native Americans, as compared to those living in the US West?
Sherman Alexie: I don’t know what New Yorkers know about Indians. I know that people think I’m Puerto Rican in New York (laughs). I know we disappear in New York. I mean, many other places… you go out to Mississippi, for example, and Indians have real political power. Or you go into certain states where Indians are the majority and we’re the ones who send representatives to Congress. Tom Daschle is in Congress because of Indians. The big political issue in a place like New York is our invisibility. If you want to start talking about what would be good in New York, I’d say it’s that Indians would start having a presence, especially because in such a liberal area that would really benefit us. If we had more of a presence it would probably help all the other Indians nationwide. So I guess the first issue is to make sure that Indians are a visible and active part of the culture there. But that might be impossible. No one’s an active, visible culture there. Everyone is so blended. I mean, I get spoken to in a hundred different languages in Manhattan because I’m seen as something different… but I know what something I am.
Rail: But New York is a media capital in the country. Why do you think that network news and other major media don’t seem by and large to cover Native American issues?
Alexie: When they do, they always cover the 97 Lakota Sioux living in a shack on Pine Ridge reservation. That story comes up about every two years, they do poor Lakotas or, you know, they do the wise grandfather segment. They are only vaguely covering the fact that this astronaut currently going up is 1/8th Chickasaw. The first astronaut with American Indian heritage is going up. I don’t know how connected he is with that tribe. They are certainly playing him now as I would if I was part of that tribe, I’d say "yeah, I grew up with him!" But it’s those issues, the idea of 21st century Indians as lawyers and doctors and engineers and architects— you know, I live in a white collar Indian world now. And you don’t see any representation of white collar Indians in any kind of media— journalism or movies or books or magazines. It’s just simply not a part of the discussion. Even Indian-created art and media is about the same images, the elders, the spiritual visions; it’s never really about the ordinary ways in which we live our lives.
Rail: Why do you think that is?
Alexie: Well, money is made by appealing to the largest audience possible, and when you appeal to a large audience you appeal to the lowest common denominator, the easiest images, the non-challenging images, the expected images. The wise Indian image is a proven commodity, a valuable commodity. And it’s also flattering and self-flattering. Especially in movies, commercials too. I always sort of laugh when people talk about the "environmental Indians." You ever been to a res? There’s a whole lot of tin cans on the road.
Rail: How much room do you think there is in the commercial publishing world for Indian writers in general?
Alexie: They have room for about seven of us (laughs). There is not a whole lot of room, but I guess there’s not a whole lot of room for anyone. But someone like Tony Hillerman, who writes good mysteries but works with expected images, has sold many books. Any one of his books has probably sold more copies than all of us other Indian writers put together.
Rail: So there’s usually one commercially chosen writer that is also marketed heavily?
Alexie: Yes, also because he’s easy to market. Tony Hillerman’s books don’t really question any assumptions about Indians, they work within those assumptions. And so, are they enjoyable? Sure. But they sell well because they don’t question anything. And the more questions a piece of art contains, the less likely it is to sell well. And that’s going to happen, that’s natural. But the sad part is that this process excludes people from the very communities that are underrepresented. So it always ends up that Tony Hillerman ends up representing all of us. It’s not his fault. It’s that the media is not interested in the alternatives.
Rail: I read a quote of yours that said you want to write books that challenge and offend rather than works that are solely entertainment. I can relate to that. But how can you survive commercially and still maintain this goal?
Alexie: I’m always going to sell 50-75,000 copies of my books, which gives me a great living. But I’m certainly never going to be Stephen King or John Grisham or even Philip Roth. I’m never going to have that kind of career. I’m always going to only exist as a very successful literary writer. And I don’t think there’s ever going to be that kind of commercial breakthrough for me. Number one, this is because I’m writing about Indians and most of the reading audience is white. And, number two, because I write politically.
Rail: Do you feel, then, that you’ve max’d in terms of commercial literary success? That you’ve gone as far as you can as someone who writes politically?
Alexie: I hope I haven’t max’d in terms of sales. I would love to sell more books and I would love to reach a wider audience. I’m not truly going to be happy until every single human being on the planet reads something I’ve written.
Rail: How about if a big publisher said that they were going to quadruple the publicity budget for your books because they were convinced it would be a success…
Alexie: I’ve had those offers and I’ve turned them down.
Rail: Why, because they came with strings attached?
Alexie: Well, there were no obvious strings attached but… (laughs). For me, it was always a question of people figuring that I have a chance at that huge breakthrough, that I could have a Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s best-selling book, that this could happen for me. But, you know, in all the effort to push that, what if it didn’t happen? Then I become the guy who failed. So, I’ve always been very careful with the size of my advances and the size of my publicity budget. So have my press and my literary agent been as well. We’ve always been very realistic about my place in the literary world. We’re always prepared for a book to break out, but it doesn’t mean we are counting on it. And we don’t assume it. So I guess I go through this career with realistic assumptions. And if something great and unexpected happens, we’re prepared to deal with it but we’re not creating entire plans for it.
Rail: So in the literary world most of the reading population, one can assume, is middle to upper middle class whites, and then on the other side you have the super-commercial reading public…
Alexie: Well, the reading literary public are white, middle-class and upper-class college-educated women. That’s who my readers are. I mean, I do a reading at a bookstore and 70% of the crowd will be white women. So, that makes me happy.
Alexie: I mean, I prefer the company of women. And all my agents, managers, accountants… everyone that works around me are women. So, my entire support structure is made up of women. That’s fine with me. But, so, in the end to break out I would have to start appealing to more men (laughs). And I certainly don’t want to do that.
Rail: Do you do readings at reservations around the country?
Alexie: I’ve been everywhere. From rich white schools in Manhattan to poor schools on reservations. I figure the only way to get myself into certain audiences is to go myself and so I try to diversify my audiences. If they’re not coming to me I’m going to try to get to them.
Rail: I want to ask you how you ended up hooking up with Bob Hershon and Hanging Loose Press, a small Brooklyn-based press (Editor’s Note: see the Autumn 2002 Rail for a profile of Hershon).
Alexie: Yeah, how did I end up with a Jewish editor in Brooklyn! In my first poetry class in college one of my first assignments was to research literary magazines and submit poems. The teacher was not only interested in the artistic process but also the process of becoming a writer so he was teaching us that you could write your whole life but if you want to start getting an audience there’s a whole other process you have to know about and deal with. So, it was very utilitarian as well. I still don’t know why the Washington State University library had the complete Hanging Loose— every issue of the magazine back to the first one that was, coincidentally, published in October of 1966, the year I was born, when it was still really hanging loose and came in an envelope, loose leaf. And I read it through— back then it was about 60 issues. And I loved it. It’s funny because they had published one other Indian writer, Wilma McDaniel; most of her work actually has to do with her Dust Bowl Okie roots more than it does her Cherokee roots.
But most of Hanging Loose’s work is naturally northeast-based and a lot of it, probably half of it, is New York City-based. Which all makes sense. But the work just appealed to me. It had a kind of conversational, humorous poems that seemed to be the kind of stuff I was writing. Without even knowing who Frank O’Hara was at that point, I ended up writing like Frank O’Hara (laughs). And once I saw the magazine and saw Bob Hershon’s work and the editor’s work too which really appealed to me. But especially Bob’s which is just hilarious. I’d really been trying to find a way to reconcile my humor with poetry. You know, you’re not supposed to write funny poems. It’s like illegal. I think it’s banned in forty-three states, the funny poem. So, I felt really at home there, just reading the magazine. And once I started sending in poems, and they accepted me, because I was writing stuff they liked. And, of course it mattered that I was an Indian kid from Washington state, and that they were four guys from the northeast, but there was some place in the middle where we found a lot to talk about.
Rail: And you stuck with them when your popularity grew.
Alexie: Oh, sure. Hanging Loose publishes my poems and Atlantic Grove is my fiction publisher. Two independent houses. My paperbacks have gone to major houses but I still publish with the two small houses I started with. It’s loyalty and it’s also that I am much less of a commodity that way. You have to control that. It would have been easy to become something reprehensible. I’ve seen other Indians and other Indian-esque people do it. Where they become this sort of mascot. Someone like William Least Heat Moon. Who, you know, that’s not his name (laughs). His name is William Lewis Trogdon.
Rail: So you found it important early on to control your placement and identity?
Alexie: Yeah, I was very self-aware and self-conscious of maintaining some integrity and not letting money become the motivating factor.
Rail: Are you still writing that book about how the United States would be now if the British had won the Revolutionary War?
Alexie: (laughs) Yeah, I finished that novel and it was awful. I’ve got three awful novels in my trunk. Actually, it’s not a trunk anymore. I’ve got three awful novels on Zip disks, the 21st Century trunk in the attic. In my will, everything unpublished in my lifetime will be published after I’m dead.
Rail: In that novel, though, how did you conceive the place of Indians in America? Was there a difference under the British?
Alexie: Well, the parallel, the thing I built on was that in Canada Indian people, they call themselves First Nation up there, have a much more visible presence in the national media. There are national newscasters who are Indian. Indian actors get to play in national touring companies. There was an Indian up there for a while who was doing Hamlet for a national touring company. There are still all sorts of political problems but they are much more visible and have much more power. So I just translated that to here, into the United States. That what would happen if Geronimo and Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph all were given more power, how would that affect contemporary life? What would be going on now? So in the novel we are much more a part of the world. In the novel our political power matches black American political power. So we had that kind of visibility in the media, that kind of power. So we had our own Jesse Jacksons and Michael Jordans and Colin Powells and actors and Condoleeza Rice and our own liberals and conservatives. And we were also much more diverse, so we had more voice and more opinion and much larger visibility in the book and then how that would affect national policies. But, in that manuscript I just wasn’t up to par yet. I mean I’ll try again when I get older and smarter, if I do get smarter.
Rail: Do you think there’s a distinct sentiment among the Indians you know regarding the Bush administration?
Alexie: Well, the thing is that poor people anywhere don’t care. They’re worrying about eating. So, political activism is really a luxury. I think most people are worried about getting to work on time. I think that is reflected in the Indian world. I think something people don’t know about Indians at all is how fundamentalist Indians can be. You can’t really tell the political difference between a reservation Indian and a small farm town white guy. It’s a very conservative mindset: pro-gun, pro-military, pro-life, pro-capital punishment. So, Indians in a weird way live these incredibly conservative lives with incredibly conservative values but vote for Democrats because it’s the Democrats who try to help us. We live ironic and contradictory lives.
Rail: But doesn’t learning the real history of America politicize Indians?
Alexie: The thing I always say is that the difference between being poor and privileged is that poor people become politically aware at a much earlier age. And the poorer you are the more political you become at an earlier age. For me, it was growing up on a reservation and being surrounded by politics and lies and the results of lying politicians and failed policies. My first political thought came when I was six standing on line for government food and I realized, "Wait, I’m only in this line because I’m Indian." You turn on the TV and you see commercials for eighty kinds of butter, and yet I’m standing in line to get one kind of butter that says "butter" on it. So, we’re aware of that. But, honestly, there’s never been a difference between political administrations in regard to Indians. You know the "D" or the "R" or the "I" after their names have never really changed how many lies politicians tell us.
Rail: To wrap up, if you could say one thing to someone reading this right now about what they should be aware of or look for regarding Native American issues, what would you say?
Alexie: Well, what came to my head right there was the parallel to Nazi Germany. We are the first line of defense. We are the weakest, the most easily affected by policy. So, once you hear about Indians getting their ass kicked by the government and government policies, other people will be getting their ass kicked up the line. So whatever happens to us and however we are treated is eventually going to be how you’re treated. So every group should be vitally interested in protecting our interests because we’re the privates, we’re the foot soldiers on the front lines.