Sherman Alexie

Interviews | Jun 19th, 2006

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Best known for his breakthrough film Smoke Signals, Sherman Alexie has had a remarkable output over the past ten years, spanning award-winning novels, short stories, poetry, spoken word performances, music recordings, and screenplays. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian and raised on a reservation, Sherman Alexie’s work attempts to demystify and de-stereotype modern Indian culture through “heart, history, and humor.” (I stole that line from this site.) Mr. Alexie graciously spoke with us about his new collection of short stories, Ten Little Indians, his recent film The Business of Fancydancing, and his views on war, politics, rock n’ roll, and excessive chest hair.

How’s your book tour going?
Oh, I haven’t started yet.

I thought you did a couple of dates already?
Oh, that’s just college stuff, not bookstore appearances. Two different crowds.

How so?
Well, with colleges, there’s more focus, you’re usually part of a theme, so a lot of classes come because they’ve been studying you. At universities, you end up with a lot of people who may never read anything by you again. And bookstore audiences, by and larger, are the fans. So bookstores are much more of a lovefest!

Well, we’re big fans, so this interview will be a lovefest! (Laughs) I understand you have a new book of short stories, Ten Little Indians. Can you tell us about it?
Yeah, it’s nine stories (It’s called Ten Little Indians; I thought that was funny). Eight of the stories are about very successful white-collar Indians – poets, teachers, college students… I really wanted the stories to not focus on social dysfunctions, but rather to focus on their ordinary lives: their love affairs and their ambitions, rather than the way in which Indians are typically viewed as failing, and the way that I have portrayed them as failing. So in some sense I guess it’s about how people are good at their jobs, but clumsy at love.

What was your experience like with the filming and distributing of The Business of Fancydancing?
It was terrible. (laughs) It was so ridiculously hard to get it played anywhere. I found out that there’s not much difference between independent movie houses and a theater in a mall. The business practices are exactly the same.

Like the Angelika?
The Angelika practices the same set of business policies as the AMC 97 in Secaucus, New Jersey. The art of the film may change, but the business practices do not.

How do you go about getting your movie into the theater?

Begging and pleading! And we had the luck of my literary career and the success of Smoke Signals. So a first-time director would have no chance to get played where we got played, and get the reviews we did. I mean, when we played in a city, we got reviews in major ways. It certainly wasn’t because we had advertising dollars. The movie was really dependent on fans and people who paid attention to what was in their towns. The thing that pissed me off, and it did piss me off so much, even now, was when people would ask, “When is your movie going to play in our town?” “It played in your town for five damn weeks!” I don’t know, maybe I’m hyper aware of what’s going in my city, but I could tell you what movies are playing, which authors are coming, what bands are around… But I guess other people just don’t pay attention. Unless the people who are willing to see these kinds of films are paying attention, it’s ridiculous and pointless to even try to be in theaters.

Don’t kill us, but we actually missed it too.
Well, yeah! See! (Laughs) It’s impossible! When I do it again by myself this way, I’m not even going to think about theatrical. Number one, it’s the cost of film and getting the prints ready that ate up 75% of our money. And if we just focused on shooting the movie and getting it ready for DVD, we’re set. We could’ve made this movie for $100,000 or even less, just thinking of DVD.

Is that the route you’ll take next time? Go straight to video?
Yep. Straight to DVD. Yep. I’m never going to think theatrical.

I remember a few years ago going to one of your readings, and you mentioned you were working with Miramax on a film, and the opening scene was going to be Christopher Columbus landing in the US…
And being blasted to bits? (Laughs)

Exactly! (laughs) What happened with that?
By the time Miramax bought and released Smoke Signals, and we started developing Reservation Blues, they turned into a whole different company. So they weren’t really interested in a tiny little film about Indians any more. So it was put in turnaround and now I’m just waiting for the contract to run out so it can be mine again.

So that’s it for Hollywood?
I worked on a few projects in Hollywood, and nothing ever happened, so all I do now is script doctor on their stuff. Unless I’m presented with a great opportunity to develop something on my own, I’m not going to do it.

Do you still plan on making Reservation Blues into a movie?
In the future, yeah. All by myself, with a little camera and do it the way we did Fancydancing, but straight to DVD.

That’s one of my favorite books of yours, actually.

Thank you. Yeah, it would be great. In some sense, what it does is open up and become mine again. I might see if anyone in LA is interested… because of Smoke Signals, because it’s Thomas and Victor again, it’s a rock n’ roll movie… I’ll see if anyone’s interested.

I think it’s a great premise, and I was wondering where you came up with the idea for the book.

Oh, just frustrated rock star ambitions.

Do you play guitar?
No, not at all. Don’t play anything. Can’t sing either. I play basketball, that’s as close as I get. I can dribble rhythmically.

As a straight man, what led you to incorporate gay protagonists in Fancydancing and The Toughest Indian In The World?
Sort of the same thing – frustrated rock star ambitions. (Laughs) Well, because homophobia is so huge in all of society, especially in brown communities and the Indian world, it was pretty much a political move. You know, slap my audience around. Knowing that a significant portion of Indians is reading my books and seeing my movies, I wanted to go after homophobia in the Indian world.

How have most Indians received those works?
Oh, uncomfortably.

Has anyone indicated to you that their views of gays has changed after reading those works?
Oh, no, no, no.

How did your wife receive those stories?
(Laughs) Well, the first time she saw me read, before we met, her first question was, “Are you straight?” So, I don’t mind being mysterious and ambiguous. (Laughs)

I was curious what you thought of Bowling For Columbine?
I thought it was entertaining and fun. I liked it.

Did you think it was effective in changing people’s views?

No. I don’t think we change anybody’s views. I don’t think people can change their minds about guns… I think that’s sort of genetic.

So it’s just preaching to the converted?
Yeah. Nobody’s minds will change. Perhaps if someone’s life was changed by gun violence, say a dad with a gun in the house, and his kid shoots himself or a friend, that probably would change his opinion on guns.

Yeah, but your books change a lot of people’s ideas about Indians…
Oh god, I would hope so! I don’t know… Sometimes I feel like I’m preaching to the converted, too.

Well, I don’t know. I think you shed new light on the contemporary life of Indians, especially in terms of the migration of Indians from reservations to cities. And many don’t know anything about modern Indian life, so your works are a learning experience for some, I would think.
Well, I hope so. All I try to do is portray Indians as we are, in creative ways. With imagination and poetry. I think a lot of Native American literature is stuck in one idea: sort of spiritual, environmentalist Indians. And I want to portray everyday lives. I think by doing that, by portraying the ordinary lives of Indians, perhaps people learn something new.

Do the white hippies piss you off? The ones that dress up like Indians and talk about Mother Earth and weave dreamcatchers?
It used to make me angry, but now it just sort of amuses me. You know, people who adopt other identities only want the good stuff. Nobody ever says, “I want to be an Indian – I want to live in poverty!” When you see a white person adopting Indian culture, you’re really looking at somebody treating the world like it’s a shopping mall.

That’s a great point. And you can say the same thing about whites that think they’re adopting the ghetto image.

Yeah, it’s the mall of America.

I understand you protested the war against Iraq. Has your stance changed since Iraq was quote-unquote liberated?

(Laughs) Iraq has not been liberated. It hasn’t even begun! People weren’t dying in tens of thousands, like they’re going to from starvation and disease, unless things change rapidly and the Red Cross and other humanitarian efforts are allowed to proceed fully. But in protesting… it was funny. I could understand conservative response to it, to anti-war protesting, but what really shocked me was how many liberals were so angry at anti-war folks.

Well, I think liberals have become more conservative since 9/11…
The world is the same place it was on 9/10. The U.S. has changed, but we still live in the same exact world. We are no more threatened than we were before. But it’s politically convenient for politicians to make us feel afraid, so it can justify all sorts of economic and political actions. But the war with Iraq didn’t prevent or start anything. It was a completely predictable move. As far back as October, a month after September 11th, there were all sorts of conservative magazines and conservative theorists who were advocating a war with Iraq then. Everything followed a very predictable path. For anything to really change, we need to do something unpredictable and original and imaginative. The basic need for retribution and revenge is primitive. This war was just primitive. It was fought with the latest technology, but its motivations were primitive. It lacks the poetry we’re capable of, and people reacted primitively, from all across the political spectrum.

When you protested, did you receive any negative feedback?
I think it’s going to be like Reagan’s, in the sense that people are going to remember him as some sort of icon, and the reality of it is that Reagan in the end had very little to do with what happened during his administration. And it’s going to be the same thing here. Dubya has very symbolic value, but with little policy value. After Reagan left the presidency, he wasn’t on any policy boards, he wasn’t helping to define or control or promote conservative interests. That was due in some part to his Alzheimer’s, but also due to the fact that he’s no intellectual. And the same thing is going to happen with Dubya. His shelf life is eight years, and his value will diminish greatly after that until he exists merely as a symbol.

Would you say that most Indians are politically conservative or liberal?
Socially conservative! By and large, Democrats support Indian issues, so we give our money to them, but Indians live conservatively. They’re Democratic politically, but Republican in their personal lives. So they’re pro-gun, pro-war, homophobic…

Sounds like suburbia – vote liberal and live conservatively.
Yeah. I mean, there are not many differences between white folks in a small farm town and Indians on a reservation.

I understand that you were the National Poetry Slam Champion for a number of years…
Not quite the right term. I was Heavyweight Poetry Champion. National Poetry Slam is something different. The Heavyweight Poetry Bout is between established literary poets, “book poets”, and the National Poetry Slam is more oriented toward poetry performers and spoken word artists.

What I find remarkable about your writing is that you always find new ways to describe modern Indian experience. Can you tell us about the creative process that goes into your work?
(Laughs) It’s not remarkable! We’re human beings – human beings are endless! Every moment that’s ever happened in any book or poem or story or movie happens on my tiny little reservation, or in any other place. I could spend my entire career on just one person’s life.

What’s your process when you sit down and write?
I just write and eventually it takes form. So I’m just writing every day. Stories, pieces of novels, essays…

Do you keep a 9 to 5?
Oh, no. I tend to binge. So for a couple of weeks, I’ll work 12-14 hours a day, and then I won’t do anything for a couple of weeks.

How much of yourself do you put into your protagonists?
Increasingly less! It’s funny, when Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight In Heaven came out, I was so mad when people would call it autobiographical. But I recently reread it and I thought, this is a memoir! So with Ten Little Indians, the new one, there are just shades of myself, and in most stories, nothing at all. I would consider Ten Little Indians a completely imaginative work.

With which of your protagonists would you most want to spend a day with?
Thomas Builds-the-Fire.

Aw yeahh! Is that the character you feel the most affinity with?
I used to… I guess I still do in some ways. I thought I identified most strongly with him, but after Evan Adams played him in the movie, now all I see is Evan. So I’m still Thomas, but Thomas is Evan, Evan is Thomas. So it’s all connected. So because I love Evan so much, and I love Thomas so much, it’s all in a bizarre love triangle. (Laughs)

What are some projects that you haven’t taken on yet, that you would like to accomplish?
Stage play! I’d love to write one. Eventually I’ll do that. And I’d love to do a one-man show, defined as such.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with us?
I’m working on a mini-biography of Jimi Hendrix for HarperCollins, and a memoir of my dad and my grandfather called I’venting My Grandfather.

I understand that they were war veterans. Did that influence your view of war?

Oh yeah. My grandfather died at Okinawa in World War II, and his wife died three months later, so my dad was an orphan. So I was raised by a war orphan. There’s no more powerful reason to be against war than to be raised by a war orphan.

And your father was a veteran too, right?
Yes, he served in between Korea and Vietnam. Actually, he was in the military and they found out he was the only son of a soldier killed in action, and I guess there were military rules that you couldn’t serve if you’re such a person, so they gave him an honorary discharge.

Wow… To wrap up, what is something about you that your average reader would be surprised to know?

Oh gosh… Umm… I’m addicted to crossword puzzles.

That’s not a bad thing.
You want something bad?

Something juicy.

Umm… I have a semi-hairy chest. And I get mad at it. I hate it. It looks floppy to me. So every three or four months I get angry enough to the point where I shave it. And then I spend the next two or three weeks scratching. So I just got a sample bottle of that new Nair for Men, so I’m going to try that out. So there you go – that’s personal and gross.

Thank you! And thank you very much for taking the time with us. We appreciate it.
You bet. Thank you very much!

Ten Little Indians is now available through Grove Press and bookstores nationwide. For Sherman Alexie news and speaking tour dates, go to