November 07, 2007

Winter Blog Blast Tour: Sherman Alexie

If you go to Sherman Alexie's website and read his biography, one thing that's immediately striking is the similarity of his childhood to that of Arnold Spirit, the main character in his recently released novel for young adults, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In that respect, the story is absolutely true. And it's that ring of truth that gives it such power and makes Arnold the character so fully realized. In our review of the book on our sister site Readers' Rants, we wrote:

[This story] reflects the complexity of real life, with painful and haunting details that could only come from real experiences of reservation life--making Junior a sort of every-boy who both suffers greatly and finds strength and friendship in unlikely places.

Of course, Mr. Alexie also has a way with words, injecting keen observations and pithy humor into his writing for adults as well as his YA work. As Publishers Weekly described Absolutely True Diary,

Jazzy syntax and Forney's witty cartoons examining Indian versus White attire and behavior transmute despair into dark humor; Alexie's no-holds-barred jokes have the effect of throwing the seriousness of his themes into high relief.

It's not surprising to find out he's received awards and accolades such as a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, a PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction (for his collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), and numerous short-story prizes. And then there are the Sundance Film Festival awards for his film, Smoke Signals, which was based on his short story "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona." Oh, and that little matter of being a finalist for the National Book Award in the category for Young People's Literature. Did we mention that?

I have to admit, when we took on this interview we were really intimidated. Sherman Alexie is a celebrity in the literary world, especially with respect to writers of color. He's a National Book Award Nominee and a Cybils Nominee, for crying out loud. Even though we've interviewed some pretty intimidating people--authors included--between the two of us, I just about gulped when we sent off our list of impudent and nosy questions.

FW: Much of your work written for adult audiences is – adult. Graphically depicted alcoholism, obscenity and profanity is just an everyday – every moment occurrence. Was there any point at which you felt that you could not write for young adults? Did you sense any indrawn breaths or resistance when you broached the topic with agents or publishers?

I really didn't feel the need to censor myself when writing YA. And my agent and publisher also felt no such need. In fact, at one point in the process, my editor Jennifer Hunt asked that I put back in a few curse words that I'd deleted. Teenagers curse. And think and worry about sex and drugs and booze and violence. My previous books for adults have always done well with YA audiences, and have been taught in numerous high schools, and have always been challenged and banned in a few places, so I already knew what to expect with my YA. So far, I haven't heard of any bans or challenges, but I'm sure that's going to change.

FW: Zits, the main character from your novel Flight, is much more hard-edged than Arnold Spirit, from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both stories end with a message of hope, but Zits and Arnold take very different journeys toward finding that hope. Could you talk a bit about these two teenage characters and the different perspective each one provides about life as a young Indian?

Well, Zits is utterly disconnected and lost, unmoored in identity and in time. This is very much unlike Arnold, who certainly struggles through life, and has many identity questions, but is not unmoored, so to speak. Simply stated, I'd say that Arnold is struggling to reconcile two identities (rez Indian and off-rez Indian) while Zits first has to learn how to be human, rather than a feral orphan. I would bet that Zits would think of Arnold as a very lucky and spoiled whiner!

FW: Arnold has a unique and quirky perspective on his life as a kid with physical difficulties growing up on the reservation, but also as an Indian kid going to an all-white school. What did you hope to convey to your audience—whether white or Indian—about reservation life? About "mainstream white" life as it appears to an outsider?

The reservation system was created to disappear and murder Indians. And I still think to some large degree that reservations still serve that nefarious function. I think Arnold, by leaving the rez, is escaping a slow-motion death trap. But I would also love my readers to recognize that a small white "mainstream" town can be a kind of death trap, too. If you asked Gordie and Penelope, two of Arnold's white friends, I think they'd feel just as trapped by their town and "tribe" as Arnold feels by his. Metaphorically speaking, we all grow up on reservations, don't we?

FW: Where did the character of Arnold come from? What made you want to tell this story through his eyes?

Arnold is me. Well, he's twice as smart and funny as I was at the same age. But he's largely an autobiographical character and I wanted to tell this story for artistic and political reasons. Artistically, I just wanted to write a funny, moving tale. Politically, I want all those folks, Indian and not, who celebrate me to realize that they are also celebrating the fact that I left the rez. All of my books and movies exist because I left.

FW: Could you talk about the role of Ellen Forney's wonderful illustrations in this book? How closely did you work together in bringing Arnold's cartoon visions to life?

I made Arnold a cartoonist about ten minutes into the first page of the first draft of this book, and emailed Ellen a few minutes after that, and asked her if she wanted to be the illustrator, and she sent back her first Arnold drawing just a few minutes after. Ellen and I have been working together since the very beginning. I'd guess that a third of the cartoons were dictated by me, another third were true collaborations, and a third were Ellen's ideas. I've learned that most YA illustrators are brought in after the fact, but that was not the case here.

FW: In your recent NPR interview with Renee Montagne, you said that anyone who thinks that the problem of alcoholism on the reservation is just a stereotype is a "romantic fool"--that it's truly an epidemic. Do you see books with teenage characters as a way to reach young reservation kids before it's too late? As a way to educate mainstream America and rouse them to action? Are you writing for "your community" or for young adults as a whole?

There's really nothing that any book, or any work of art, can do to combat the epidemic of alcoholism in the Indian world. It's really a matter of this one book reaching particular kids, who will find sobriety, inspiration, and love in the words, and let them change their lives. With books, social change happens on a micro level.

FW: In the same interview, we find out that in the beginning of Arnold's story, he feels like he doesn't belong anywhere—either on the reservation or in the all-white high school. By the end, though, he's discovered that he "belongs to more than one tribe." To what extent is this based on your own life experiences? Did you learn the same lessons that Arnold did, or is this something that has changed over time—is the transition between "worlds" easier now, maybe?

For many years, I've said that my two strongest tribal affiliations are not racially-based. My strongest tribes are book nerds and basketball players, and those tribes are as racially, culturally, economically, and spiritually diverse. And, like Arnold, I also belong to a hundred other tribes, based on the things I love to read, watch, do. Ever since 9/11, I have worked hard to be very public about my multi-tribal identity. I think fundamentalism is the mistaken belief that one belongs to only one tribe; I am the opposite of that.

FW: When writing on ethnic issues, the temptation is to be either an apologist or a sensationalist. Do you feel that mainly centering your writing on a subculture, for the consumption of the dominant culture, is risking that your writing will be taken as caricature – writing Indians who fit into the dominant culture's preconceptions about reservation life?

But doesn't everybody belong to a subculture? And doesn't every writer work out of a subculture? John Updike is not universal. He's writing out of a Northeastern American white subculture that is every bit as strange as my Spokane/Coeur d'Alene background. Lorrie Moore's white folks are vastly different than William Faulkner's white folks. Louise Erdrich's Indians are vastly different than my Indians. In fact, as I write, I think William Faulkner's white folks and my Indians are more alike than one would suspect. And for that matter, I also see my reservation in the work of Flannery O'Connor.

FW: Many authors who write about racially charged subjects for young adults run into the attitude that there is a way to talk about race, and at times face a sort of editorial interference as they are urged to talk about it in one way or another. Do you feel that having a touchy subject matter interfered with your editor's ability to give you feedback? Are you willing to talk a little about what your experience has been in this area?

My YA editor, Jennifer Hunt, is African American, and grew up in the very white American West, so she was the perfect editor for this book. She and I can have absolutely frank discussions about race and racism that I might not be able to have with a white editor.

For more information about Sherman Alexie, try the following links:

  • Sherman Alexie's Official Website,

  • An audio excerpt from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

  • 2007 National Book Award Young People's Literature Finalist Interview

  • NPR Interview: "Author Sherman Alexie Targets Young Readers

Don't forget the other fabulous stops on today's Winter Blog Blast Tour:

Lisa Ann Sandell at Interactive Reader

Christopher Barzak at Chasing Ray

Julie Halpern at The Ya Ya Yas

Micol Ostow at Shaken & Stirred

Rick Yancey at Hip Writer Mama

Jane Yolen at Fuse Number 8

Shannon Hale at Bookshelves of Doom

Maureen Johnson at Bildungsroman

David Lubar at Writing & Ruminating


Anonymous said...

This was wonderful, just wonderful.

Thanks guys - it's everything I would hope to find in the WBBT.


Anonymous said...

AWESOME interview. Thank you.

tanita✿davis said...

Just reading these again gives me chills - he really answered -- everything. Awesomely. I'm so impressed.

Vivian Mahoney said...

I love the thoroughness of the answers. Wonderful interview!

Sarah Stevenson said...

I was amazed all over again when I was putting this post up and re-reading all the answers. In fact, I was kind of speechless, which makes it awfully hard to write an intro! ;)

Unknown said...

Sherman Alexie is one of the writers I point to when I talk about Fine Writing for Young People and Not Crap. The kind of stuff that not only walks a child over the bridge from Karen Hesse to Kurt Vonnegut, but which pays attention to the view from that bridge too.

Really, he's such a hero, and your interview here is so good. Great questions, wonderful job.

Sara said...

Just this moment finished The Absolutely True Diary. While I was reading, I actually understood basketball, and I laughed at fart jokes, and I flinched when a quarter split open my head, and...well, I could go on, but seriously, that was the closest I'll ever be to being a 14 year old boy. A beautiful, beautiful, funny and brave book.

And then to come here and read this interview...that was just icing, man, so, so good to hear Alexie talk about his life and his work. Thanks for being brave enough to interview him!

Saints and Spinners said...

Absolutely True Diary had me both laughing and feeling miserable. That's the kind of writing I appreciate.

Rebekah said...

This was great! I loved reading the interview as you answered many of my questions. I do book reviews also and did one recently of Part-Time Indian.