Interview: Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie does terrific stuff with words. He writes novels (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), short stories (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), poetry (The Business of Fancydancing), and most recently, Thunder Boy, Jr. Here, a few more terrific words from him on vulnerability, creativity, and art.
How do you describe yourself? How do you describe your work?
I’m a writer, pretty simply. That’s the most basic identity I have, and I think that extends into everything I do.
Even in the most extreme circumstances, I’m always thinking: Can this be a poem? Can this be a story? Can this be something? I’m always looking to be the unreliable narrator of my own life, and I would call my writing highly biased anecdotes.
What kinds of things open you up more to the world?
Over the last couple of days, I’ve been involved in really intense conversations where I didn’t say a word. I was just eavesdropping on other people’s lives. They knew I was listening because I asked a question and then they talked, and I just listened as they monologued, [like] a driver of a car I was in. So, what opens me to the world - and I often forget it because I’m such a loudmouth - is listening.
Is there anything that your creative process depends on?
Music. I need music to get my brain into that altered state to sort of slip this world and move into the ether.
Any particular kind of music? It can be almost anything, really. But there are some standbys for me. What song always puts me in a different place is PJ Harvey, “To Bring You My Love.”
When you look back on books or poems or stories, do you associate a song with them that was with you as you worked on them?
I used to create soundtracks for all my books. In the preparation for the book, I would create a soundtrack and play that. But I haven’t done that in five or six books now. For my book, War Dances, I just made this entire tape of Hank Williams and Hank Williams’ covers.
How do you handle vulnerability?
Brené Brown [has this] concept of the vulnerability hangover, and I most feel it in my life after I do a performance. I do a combo of literary reading, standup, one-man show monologue stuff, and I try to be open and bare. I do a lot of improv-ing and I’ll say what I’m thinking and I’ve often been wildly inappropriate. I always go back to the hotel and lay in bed and just replay, replay, replay everything and curse myself into 19 levels of my own hell.
Has that limited you in your subsequent performances?
No. In fact, it’s a really self-punishing way for me to remember the things I’ve improved that I want to keep. As I’m punishing myself, I’m also engraving those words in my head so I can recall them later.
If it makes me feel more vulnerable, there’s a much greater chance that it’s going to get repeated, because it’s those moments in any performance when I’ve taken off all the masks that I wear. A friend of mine says that I’m often a Russian nesting doll. As I get closer to the center, which I never get to, I think that’s where all that [vulnerable] stuff is. You have to be vulnerable to be a great artist.
All of us who do this react in radically different ways [to] vulnerability. I try to burrow back into the art with it, so I go interior with it. I think other people might go exterior and that’s when it gets really self-destructive, when you start medicating it with substances or people.
What won’t you tolerate?
Racism, misogyny, homophobia in the world and in my immediate presence. I will confront it when I see it. It’s easier for me to do that because I’m a very large man. I’m a big, ambiguously ethnic man.
When you were a kid, was that confrontation muscle as strong in you?
I was bullied big time. So, I guess what you could really say is I will not tolerate bullying.
How do you think about recovery?
I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’ve been sober for 25 years now. But it still sneaks up on me. I’m not a day-to-day struggler. My alcoholism is a trickster, it lies in wait.
The most recent intense time for me was four or five years ago. I was at the National Book Festival and I got into my [hotel] room and there was a gift basket and in the gift basket were four mini bottles of Jack Daniels. The thing is, I‘m fine with rooms with mini bars, I can be in bars with my friends. But for some reason, seeing those four bottles in that gift basket, I hadn’t felt the booze lust like that in years. I opened one and I smelled it, which was the stupidest thing in the world, and then I immediately poured all four of them into the toilet. Recovery is ritual. Addiction is ritual, so you have to fight ritual with ritual.
Are there things you believe in now that you didn’t believe in when you were younger?
I think there are things now that I have the words for that I didn’t necessarily [have] growing up in my tribe on my reservation. The most dangerous force in the world is tribalism.
When did you realize that?
Without the words, I would go back to second grade when our white school teacher, [an] ex-nun, was punishing us. I didn’t know what to call what she was doing with us until I saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib, the stress positions, that’s what she had been doing to us. The first time I saw those photos, I vomited. [She was] a conservative Christian tribalist taking us defenseless eight-year-olds and treating us like prisoners of war.
Then, at the same time, as I was becoming more and more intellectually curious and curious about the world, many of my fellow tribal members started to punish me for my ambitions because my ambitions weren’t the same as the rest of the tribe.
How do you describe the social function of art?
Teaching you how to live. Every book is holy. Every single one of them, even the bad ones. Every single book has at least one good idea about how to be a human being.
Between rhyme and reason, which would you choose?
You can’t memorize reason, so I’m going with rhyme.
What’s the best-kept secret of being an adult?
We get dumber. A friend of mine - he’s a cynical bastard - sent me an email and I created a GIF [for him] of Winnie the Pooh saying, “Cynicism preempts joy.” So, by dumb, I mean cynical. Cynicism is stupid and joyfulness is genius. I’m at my worst as an adult when I’m being cynical, which is almost all the time.
Are there things that can help you break through cynicism?
Playing basketball and having sex.
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