Sherman Alexie speaks in Bend

Audio slideshow: Interview with American Indian writer

By David Jasper / The Bulletin


Published Jan 18, 2014 at 12:04AM / Updated Jan 18, 2014 at 05:39AM

Pick a topic, and Sherman Alexie likely has a thought on it: Government. Basketball. Traditional books vs. e-readers. Deserts vs. rain-soaked Northwest metropolises.

Those were a few of the topics that came up during a short phone interview with the award-winning American Indian poet and novelist Monday. Alexie, 47, was happy to be back at his Seattle home after a weeklong writing residency in sunny Santa Fe, N.M.

“I’m glad to be back with water and rain and no sun,” he said, laughing.

We don’t know what weather is in store for Alexie when he visits Bend next week, but if previous patterns hold, we can forecast an entertaining evening for those who attend his appearance Friday at Bend High School (see “If you go”).

Alexie comes to Bend as the second of four authors in this year’s installment of Deschutes Public Library Foundation’s Author! Author! literary series.

Known for his wit and candor, Alexie — whom Men’s Journal called “the world’s first fast-talking, wisecracking, mediagenic American-Indian superstar” — said he plans to discuss, among other subjects, his recent poetry collection: “What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned.” Published in November, it’s his 24th book overall.

Alexie is arguably better known for his fiction, thanks to the fact that semi-autobiographical young adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

“I certainly have a much larger teen audience” as a result of the award, Alexie said. He’s written on other young adult subjects, including troubled youth in “Flight,” about a teen orphan of Indian and Irish descent who, upon committing a grievous act of violence, briefly inhabits the skin of other people facing violence in other times and places.

But, Alexie said, he does not write with young people in mind.

“No,” he said, a hint of mirth in his voice. “They’re smart enough; they can read whatever I write.” (Note, the past few years, “Absolutely True Diary” has been one of the most often challenged or banned books, according to the American Library Association, for reasons including language and being sexually explicit.)

The National Book Award also breathed new life in the backlist of the author, who’s been writing and getting published ever since his first two poetry books, “The Business of Fancydancing” and “I Would Steal Horses,” were published in the early 1990s. “Things were always selling, but now they’re selling at high rates, and I get letters from teens who are moving into my other work,” he said.

In fact, he said, “Flight” and “Absolutely True Diary” appeal to “reluctant readers” because of their short length, subject matter and honesty.

“I’ve gotten a lot of letters from … brown-skinned boys, who sometimes say it’s the first book they’ve ever finished. I think I’ve become a gateway drug to more books,” Alexie said.

Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who was born hydrocephalic, meaning “water on the brain.” At just 6 months of age, he underwent surgery. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington.

Elsewhere, Alexie has said of his youth, “I was a controversial figure on my reservation when I was a kid. I was mouthy and opinionated and arrogant. Nothing has changed.”

As a teenager, Alexie found his mother’s name written in a textbook that was assigned to him two decades later. Frustrated by such limitations of his education, he made the decision to attend a white school 20 miles away. He was the school’s only Indian, and Alexie became a star both academically and on the basketball court.

Entering college at Washington State University, he’d planned to become a doctor, but two things happened: He fainted (more than once) during a human anatomy class, and he found his way into a poetry workshop.

After graduation, he earned a pair of fellowships from the Washington State Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1993 he published his first short story collection, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” for which he won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN award.

In the course of his long career, Alexie has also done stand-up comedy, competed in and won poetry competitions and served as a guest editor for the literary journal Ploughshares.

He’s also served as an outspoken critic of e-books, famously calling the Kindle “elitist” and knocking them in an appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” a few years ago.

Seeing as how his books are available for Kindle purchase at Amazon, we wondered if he’d eased his position on e-readers, or even begun to embrace them.

“It’s not an embrace,” he replied. “You know, it’s part of the business. I have to do it. But I’m still all for bookstores and books. E-book sales sort of plateaued this year. Actual hardcover sales outpaced e-book sales, in terms of the rise. So perhaps the e-book sale ceiling is lower than anybody expected.”

Alexie, a married father of two sons, said that when his kids “walk into my man-cave filled with books and media at home, they can follow the path,” he said. “My iPad, with all my stuff on there, that’s my iPad. My kids don’t play (on) it. Because physical media — books, CDs, DVDs — it all leaves a trail for people to follow. It’s egalitarian and public. Having all your stuff on your own digital device is exclusive, and elitist.”

Author! Author! brings authors to Bend for discussion of literature, their current works and the writing process. Science writer Rebecca Skloot spoke in November, and next up is “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed on March 16. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks concludes this year’s series on June 19.

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

If you go

What: Sherman Alexie at Author! Author!

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Bend High School, 230 N.E. Sixth St., Bend

Cost: $20, $75 for preferred seating and reception with Alexie

Contact: www.dplfoundation.org