Q&A: Author Sherman Alexie on 'Blasphemy'
Author Sherman Alexie talks with Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn about short-story writing, family life, basketball and other pursuits.
Seattle Times book editor
Author appearanceSherman Alexie will launch his book "Blasphemy" at 10:30 p.m. Monday Oct. 1 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Live chat with Alexie on Monday, Oct. 8
Author Sherman Alexie will chat with readers and Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn at noon Monday, Oct. 8, at seattletimes.com. To submit a question in advance, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lit Life |
The assignment: Interview Sherman Alexie about his just-published collection of short stories.
The book: "Blasphemy" (Grove Atlantic, 465 pp., $27) includes 31 stories, some previously published and some in book form for the first time. Some are very short, others as long as novellas, including the classic "War Dances" and "The Search Engine."
The dream: Alexie and I chat in a book-lined library. No brandy (Alexie doesn't drink), but maybe a cigar (oh, right, I don't smoke). We chart the deeper meaning of his National-Book-Award winning work. Wisdom is dispensed. Words are recorded, for the ages.
The reality: Alexie leaves town, so I ring him on his cell. He's caroming around Brooklyn in a cab, checking in with one of his three publishers, reading the driver directions from his iPad. He has to hang up. He'll call back.
Can I count on it? Maybe just count — to 10. To 20. To 150. I cultivate a Zen-like state and think, for the thousandth time, that it's a good thing journalism is not brain surgery.
Then he does call back. Time to put the torch to my Alistair-Cooke fantasy and seize the moment. Here are some excerpts:
Q: What did you take with you to read on the road?
A: That is the best question ever. Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams." I have a goofy book called "Humble Brags" (a collection of fake-humble tweets). James Lee Burke's new paperback. I think he's a great writer.
Q: Given all the other things you write, it's interesting that you're still writing short stories. They're not especially commercially viable — what do you like about the form?
A: Well, I still write about Indians. That's not supposed to be commercially viable. Left, left, left! (to the cabdriver). It's just reflexive for me. It's a fit, regardless of its economic merits. It's what I primarily read.
Q: What short-story writers do you admire?
A: When I started, Raymond Carver, Simon Ortiz, Leslie (Marmon) Silko, Hemingway, Tim O'Brien. Those books were huge for me. Lorrie Moore and Junot Díaz. Oh: I have that with me, that's another travel book (Díaz's new story collection, "This is How You Lose Her"). I met him when he was an undergraduate. He's a (expletive deleted), but he's a nice (expletive deleted).
Q: Basketball is a thread throughout these stories, from its role in liberating an elementary-school kid to the preoccupation of an aging jock ... what does it mean to you now?
A: Oh ... I'm a battered, slow shell of my former self. I'm a middle-aged man (Alexie is 45), but on a basketball court I am ancient. In my day life, I don't necessarily feel more mortality. On a basketball court, man, death is always double teaming me.
Shooting ability doesn't change — (the problem is) the ability to actually get open for the shot. I have gotten stronger, but I am a completely different player now. I used to be a penguin in the water, now I'm a penguin on shore.
Q: Another big theme in your stories is redemption. What does it mean to you, and to your readers?
A: Redemption with no possibility of the afterlife? ... For somebody like me who's not religious, it's mostly not being an asshole. Maybe that's it. Very few of my characters actually achieve it. I certainly believe in failure.
Q: You have two sons. How has your writing about fatherhood changed since you have become a father? Do you ever wonder what your kids will think when they read your stories? Does that affect the writing process?
A: It doesn't affect it at all. When certain folks get really uncomfortable with my young-adult books, they say, do you talk to your children this way? I say, yeah, they live with me. My kids are unsheltered in the best way possible. They're liberal little Seattle kids. They're very aware that the writing pays the rent. I know they like it because my job gives me so much freedom and flexibility to be with them.
Q: I bet you still get a lot of attention from adolescents as a result of "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." (Alexie won a National Book Award for this young-adult novel.) What do they look to you for?
A: On my website, there's a snail-mail address. I get a letter pretty much every day. Handwritten letters.
The theme is identification — rich, poor, black, brown — it's the sense of being caught between being in a community and being an individual. The pain of your parents and your tribe telling you what to do and who to be.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or email@example.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.