Sherman Alexie Interview

January 27, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly


I am a 14-year-old girl at a Justin Timberlake concert. I am wearing glitter nail polish and a T-shirt with the word “Juicy” pasted on it in puffy, pink letters. I am in love. When the music starts, my heart goes pitter-pat-pitter-pat, and I scream so loud that dogs in China begin to howl. People look at me strangely, but I don’t care because I am a 14-year-old girl at a Justin Timberlake concert…

I know it’s not exactly professional, but this is how I feel about interviewing Sherman Alexie. I want to giggle and invite him to my house for a sleepover.

Book critics are not supposed to admit we have personal reactions to prose. We are just literate androids that consume novels like flavorless bowls of oatmeal and then spew out dispassionate, semi-witty quips about the authors who write them. But I can’t help it — I love books, and I love the people who write the books I love. If you want to read a cold, impartial review by some priggish academic, pick up the New Yorker. I’m a fan.

Alexie’s latest novel, Flight, is a short, tender satire about a young American Indian/Irish orphan named Zits who has spent the better part of his 15 years bouncing back and forth from foster homes to juvenile detention in Seattle. He has been scarred — emotionally and dermatologically — by life.

On one of his visits to juvy, Zits meets a handsome anarchist named Justice who inundates the angsty American Indian with left-wing revolutionary dogma. Justice supplies Zits with an amoral philosophy and a pair of handguns. The journey ends in a public massacre.

However, just as the brain matter begins to fly, Zits is transported by postmodern powers through time and space into the body of a white FBI agent in 1975. The rest of the novel follows poor Zits as he jumps back and forth through history witnessing (and sometimes participating in) horrible acts of violence.

In another writer’s hands, this could be a really corny book. But as always, Alexie deftly imbues his characters with equal parts cynicism and compassion to form a sophisticated, modern parable. It’s a bit like Catcher in the Rye meets Gunsmoke meets Quantum Leap.

I spoke with Alexie about his novel while he was doing laundry at his house. (His favorite red shirt was recently stained during a book tour.) He greeted me kindly with his soft reservation accent and then proceeded to shatter all of my political and social opinions one by one.

Boulder Weekly: There’s a scene in your novel where the main character goes on a public shooting spree. Did the events at Virginia Tech change the way people perceived that narrative?

Sherman Alexie: It’s interesting. I think there has been some reaction to it but not a whole bunch. I don’t think people have a way of talking about it. Nobody seems to have connected [the shootings at Virginia Tech] to the fact that we’ve been in a war that’s lasted longer than World War II. We’ve been watching our president’s amorality for years. How can people not think those amoral decisions are going to influence sociopaths like this kid?

BW: Were these all themes you were thinking about while writing this book?

SA: Yeah, I was trying to explain war and talk about it in one way or another.

BW: How do you feel about the way this book has been received so far?

SA: It’s about what I expected. It’s about 60 percent positive and 40 percent negative. I knew there would be an elitist literary reaction to the time travel factor — that I would dare to have a genre element.

BW: Some critics thought it was strange that Flight was not published as a hardback.

SA: Actually, we did that for a number of reasons. There are so many returns of hardcovers that it’s an economic model that’s broken for most writers. So I did this to try to remove some of the stigma from publishing a paperback original. I took a lower advance, and we published in paperback to send a message: This is the way [writers] are going to be more successful. It’s also the way more first-time and experimental writers will get published.

BW: But not everyone saw it that way?

SA: This is the first time I’ve gone public with the idea — with the Boulder Weekly. Part of it is that I’m responding to a review in the Rocky Mountain News by Jenny Shank. She thought Black Cat (Flight‘s publisher) hated the book, and publishing a paperback original was like a studio not allowing a movie to be reviewed before its release. It was shocking to me that someone with very little experience in publishing like Jenny Shank would even have a guess at that. The arrogance was astonishing. So I’m telling the Boulder Weekly all this so you guys can hammer on your competitor, the Rocky Mountain Fucking News.

BW: We definitely will.

SA: Good.

BW: I’ve heard that you don’t actually like to write novels.

SA: It’s not that I don’t like them. It’s just not my natural form, so it takes a lot more effort.

BW: Do you feel poetry is your natural form?

SA: Yeah, it’s still what I write the most. I’m always working on a poem.

BW: What do you feel is the state of poetry in America right now?

SA: Poetry has always been, is now, and will always be mostly ignored. But that’s only in its most literary incarnations. I hear poetry whenever I turn on the radio. Eminem is a better poet than just about everybody. He’s better than Billy Collins; he’s better than Richard Wilbur; he’s better than me. “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is better than Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” People’s elitist notions of what poetry is prevents them from seeing that it’s everywhere all the time.

BW: You surprise a lot of people with your views. Quite a while back, Boulder Weekly published a review of the movie Narnia, and you wrote a letter to the editor defending Christians. I think that surprised some of our readers.

SA: Well, I am a Christian. I’m a Catholic. The reflexive, anti-Christian thinking in that particular review was just lazy. It was as shallow as any attack by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. We liberals pretend to be smarter, but we’re not.

BW: Do you think America is filled with reactionary junkies?

SA: Yeah, and I’m a born-again gray-issues guy. I was fairly fundamental before 9/11, but that morning everything changed. What really got me pissed was Ward Churchill blaming the victims, saying that the people in the Trade Towers deserved their deaths. He’s just an evil bastard, and those are evil words, but what killed me was people’s rush to defend him. My defense would have been: “Yeah, he has a right to say what he wants, but he’s completely wrong, and it’s evil.” The problem for me with liberals is that we’ve abdicated our moral responsibility to the universe.

BW: Do you have any idea where we lost that?

SA: Looking back, I think it was when white liberals abdicated the Christian church. They lost their tribal identity. Their religion became less about tribe and justice and more about self-help. Facetiously speaking, I think yoga fucked us.

BW: Do you think there’s a liberal politician out there who would be a good president?

SA: The guy who won in 2000: Al Gore. I’m still pissed at the Nader-ites for that one. Talk about fundamentalism. And I’m sure Boulder voted for Nader about 90 percent. Dumbfucks. (Editor’s Note: Actually, it was 20 percent, Sherman.)

BW: Have you ever been to Boulder before?

SA: Many times.

BW: Do heads explode when you come here?

SA: Generally, yeah. But I get away with so much because I’m an Indian. Everybody feels like shit in the presence of an Indian. I get invited to speak at all sorts of stuff: Christian conferences, right-winger events, diversity business things. People just like to be beaten up by an Indian. I’ve made a lucrative living pounding on the left and right white people of America.

BW: That’s so fantastic that I don’t have any words for it.

SA: I know. And recently, I’ve been getting grief from people because I’ve become an optimist. I love my country, and people have such problems with that.

BW: You’re a patriot?

SA: Well, I have to speak autobiographically. I live in a country where a reservation Indian boy, whose parents didn’t go to college, who used an outhouse until he was 7, is now one of the most published and awarded writers in the country. That does not happen anywhere else.

2 Responses to “Sherman Alexie Interview”

  1. Loved your article so much that I read it twice!

    ~Charlotte M. Liebel

  2. Dale Bridges Says:

    Thank you so much, Charlotte. I was so flattered by your comment that I read it three times.

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