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Sherman Alexie -- serious writer, funny guy

The author has new poetry and short fiction collections. He's working on a documentary. And he's laughing all the way.

October 16, 2009|Carolyn Kellogg

SEATTLE — Leaning against a black couch in his office, Sherman Alexie is laughing. He laughs often and easily -- at others' jokes and his own, at sarcasm and silliness -- and his laughter is contagious. Last year, he cracked up Stephen Colbert when he appeared on "The Colbert Report." Fans are known to walk away from Alexie's book signings gasping for air, wiping their eyes.

But the photographer sent to take his photo wasn't laughing. For the umpteenth time, he gently asked Alexie to be serious for a moment.

"I look more Indian when I'm serious," Alexie explained, suppressing a smile.

The author of the bestselling 2007 young adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian. He was raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash., northwest of Spokane, and returns there regularly. But as important as his heritage is to him, it's not all there is. "People's ethnicity is the first floor of their house," he says. "But the real interesting stuff is in the cellar and the attic."

Those hidden floors contain the complicated material that makes literature, and Alexie has long been known in literary circles. In 1996, he was named one of Granta magazine's Best Young American Novelists; his novel "Reservation Blues" was shortlisted for the prestigious international IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1997; in 1999, the New Yorker selected him as one of its 20 Writers for the 21st Century.

When he wrote "True Diary," as Alexie calls it now, few writers of his caliber were interested in writing for teens. But with a devoted readership -- and lucrative market -- others have given it a try, including, recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley.

Alexie, the father of two sons, says "True Diary" came together when he imagined the protagonist as a cartoonist -- the book includes cartoons, drawn by Ellen Forney. It won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

This year, he's returned to writing for adults, with "Face," a poetry book from tiny Hanging Loose Press, as well as the new "War Dances," a collection of poems and short stories.

Many of the characters in "War Dances" are midlife, caught between dying fathers and toy-happy kids, often making lousy decisions. One man defends himself during a break-in, with tragic consequences; another chases down an attractive woman in an airport, heedless of his marriage.

These are mistakes Alexie, 43, is glad he hasn't made. But working with autobiographical elements, some assume that the stories themselves are real. One character, like Alexie, was born with hydrocephalus, another has a similar name -- Sherwin -- and writes screenplays, as Alexie has.

So on the first night of his book tour, before a sold-out crowd of 850 in Seattle's vaulted Town Hall, Alexie paused during his reading. He'd come to a line about the philanderer's vintage gray suit. Alexie was, he realized, wearing a gray suit -- not vintage, but still. He read on. Later, he would reassure concerned readers as he signed books. "It's fiction," he said, pointing out his wife standing nearby. "Fiction."

Fiction isn't easy, or necessarily pure. "I'm a method writer," he says later. Like an actor would, he imagines his way into his characters' emotions in order to get them on the page. "In order to write about the emotion, I have to experience it. I get physically tired and exhausted, devoting hours and hours and hours to it.

"In some ways, it's sort of masochistic," he jokes. "I don't put on a leather thing with a zip at the mouth when I'm writing, but maybe it's metaphoric."

Alexie, who writes with a conversational style, has a wry, subversive sensibility that emerges both in the text and the forms it takes. Funny as it is, "War Dances" includes poems written as call-and-response, a catechism in which the answers veer off strangely, a poem called a haiku that isn't one, and stories that contain lists, a Q&A, and a hail of bullet points. The structure is sophisticated yet playful, a subtle way to bring lightness to heavy topics such as senility, bigotry, cancer and loneliness.

Yet for readers who find short story collections frustratingly choppy, the poems may make things worse. One critique called them filler.

With the freedom afforded him by publisher Grove/Atlantic, a major independent press, Alexie crafted the collection exactly as he wanted. A character who creates epic iPod mixes for his daughters fondly recalls the mix tapes of his youth; I asked Alexie if this wasn't a mix tape of a book, with many voices, pieces of different length, shifting rhythms, an evolving story.

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