excerpt from A Conversation with Sherman Alexie
by Travis Franks
In October, Spokane/Coeur d’Alene artist Sherman Alexie visited Arizona State University to deliver the Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture to Barrett Honors College. Alexie’s written work has been recognized with the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. While he was here, he sat down with me in a local diner to discuss artists’ influence on other artists, future directions of Native American literature, and the need for genre diversity in storytelling.
Travis Franks: Can you talk about your relationship with our managing editor Simon Ortiz and his influence on your work?
Sherman Alexie: Well the biggest thing has been his personal kindness toward me. When I started writing, this was long before emails and cellphones, so he actually heard about me and wrote me a letter at the English Department at Washington State University. And he put twenty dollars in there. And he wrote this very kind letter: “I’ve been hearing about your poems from people, and I’ve seen a few of them, and I want you to keep up your good work.” Just kindness out of nowhere.
TF: Can you talk about your writing process?
SA: I mean, I’ve published 25 books. I work my ass off. I keep writing, and one of the reasons I have so many books is because I don’t have a writing community. I don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about writing. I write. The thing is, the loneliness of the road makes you feel like you want to go out and connect or create this sense of belonging, but I don’t need that. If I have a couple of hours, I write. I have a lot of airplane time. I write. I drop my kids off at school. I write.
TF: What has Absolutely True Diary taught you about Young Adult fiction as a genre and the need for novels about Indigenous teens?
SA: The young adult genre is the only one that’s growing and doing well across the board. It’s actually selling books in big numbers. There’s a hunger for it. And a lot of adults are reading in that genre. I really think it’s because the basic idea is plot, of a three-act structure, of old-age storytelling. And there’s actually a lot of innovation going on inside of that, but these are mainstream novels about mainstream issues.
I think with True Diary, not just is the Indigenous kid popular but it’s this kid in an age old story about the adventure of growing up, about seeking adulthood. It’s the story of an Indigenous teen that fits neatly into an American story, and I think that’s why it’s so widely popular.
TF: You are so successful at creating and reaching a broad audience through poetry, prose, screenwriting, social media, and a podcast. Is this visibility a product of your success or a reason for it?
SA: It’s chicken and egg. I think it’s so blended that it’s impossible to separate it. It’s all storytelling. In fact, I would argue that my stage ability, my performance ability, is actually far more traditional than my words on the page ability.
It’s a combination of growing up inside of a traditional culture with traditional ceremonies and storytelling, but also being a TV addict. I’m equal parts western civ and tribal traditions. I’m equal parts pop culture and powwow culture. And that’s who we all are.