“Books are the Only Provable Way to Improve Your Life”
Sherman Alexie visits our “literary city”
“If I wasn't writing poems, I'd be washing my hands all the time,” Sherman Alexie once said. His work has that effect—of running clean water over smudged realities, revealing what's underneath, and not just the starkness of it, but the humor and hope, too. Alexie won fame for his first novel, Reservation Blues and later The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He wrote the screenplay for the well-loved indie film Smoke Signals, based on a collection of his short stories. Alexie has continued to make films, write poetry and compose perspective-shifting fiction. On May 26, he will visit the KiMo Theatre in promotion of his first children's book, Thunder Boy Jr., the story of a family and a young boy's search for identity within it and the wider world. Illustrator Yuyi Morales breathes life into Alexie’s words, creating a book with multiple stories running through its pages. In mid-April we spoke over the phone and, with typical humor, Alexie illuminated his work and spoke candidly about anger, process and Janelle Monáe.
Alibi: Thunder Boy Jr. is a different kind of book and audience for you. How did the idea and the story evolve?
Alexie: It originated at my father's funeral. I'm Sherman Alexie Jr. and at my father's funeral I noticed that the tombstone had my name on it and I thought, “Wow, that's a lot of pressure.” There's a lot of pressure that comes with being a “Junior” but it had never been more concrete than with the concrete tombstone. So, I knew I would write about it in some form, but I didn't know what form it would take. I started working on a … picture book and I tried lots of ideas trying to find the right thing and I couldn't. I often told the story to my sons, just a bedtime story that I improvised over the years, about these two brothers named Thunder and Lightning and then, it occurred to me—why didn't I make a Thunder and Lightning picture book? Then, the father, tombstone, being a junior, [it] all melted together in my head and out came Thunder Boy Jr.
So, what happened to all those ideas that were scrapped?
They're burning on a pyre.
It's interesting that the original concept for this book struck you at your father's funeral. Could you talk more about your father's legacy and how he instilled a love of reading in you?
My dad was a big time reader—genre stuff, Westerns and mysteries, spy novels—so, my house was filled with paperbacks. In fact, there was a pawnshop in Spokane [where] you could buy a bag of paperbacks for a dollar. In that way [books] ended up being very affordable for a family in poverty like ours. It was really my father's love of books that got me reading at a young age. I wanted to be like my father, but [he] also dealt with alcoholism and social issues and depression … so books were his escape, I think. Writing this book, I wanted to portray that love between a father and son in a positive way. I wanted to show the joy of Native American self-identity … A lot of our journeys as Native Americans can be really rough politically, socially, economically, but I wanted this family's story to be a love story.
“I'm angry that we live in this massively rich country and that people are still struggling to eat. I'm angry that we have to legislate paying people living wages for their work. The list goes on and on of the ways in which our selfishness harms us.”
It's really beautiful that you're able share this family's story in a book, celebrating fatherhood and your father, all while passing it on to young readers.
All to encourage Brown readers. The thing that changes people's lives, the thing that can lift you out of economic [and] social hardship is education, is books. Books are the only provable way to improve your life.
You're one of the few Native American writers who've cracked popular consciousness with your work. How do more people do that?
I started my career at an earlier time in the culture, I think that has a lot to do with it. I don't know how you crack internet culture as a writer. I think I have a certain set of skills, not just the writing, but my ability to perform on stage and on camera … I'm funny. That helps a lot. And I'm tall, dark and relatively handsome.
What lessons are important for you to pass along to your children and, by proxy, what's important for them to read about?
To value eccentricity. To take care of other people. To always consider the ramifications of all your actions. In other words, to think tribally in a good way. To live in the world as gracefully and gently as possible.
Yet, in your work there is frequently an undercurrent of anger—
I wouldn't call it an undercurrent, I'd call it an overcurrent
Are you still angry?
Of course. It doesn't consume me like it used to when I was younger, but of course I'm angry. I'm angry about all the injustice in the world. I'm angry that we live in this massively rich country and that people are still struggling to eat. I'm angry that we have to legislate paying people living wages for their work. The list goes on and on of the ways in which our selfishness harms us. I'm angry about bullies!
What does one do with that anger?
Write! That's all I can do. I write, and I vote. That's what I have.
As you're embarking on your book tour—what is the day-to-day like and what do you write during that time?
I work on poems. I have a concentrated amount of time so I work on the most concentrated writing form, which is poems. I usually get one or two a day done when I'm on a book tour.
What are you excited about lately?
You know who's really cool and I'm really into? I'd heard some of her songs before, but she popped up again and I'm just obsessed with her—Janelle Monáe. I'm obsessed with her music, but also her whole persona. The way she dresses and her clothes … the dancing. She sings amazingly, has great songs, she dresses cool, her videos are amazing, she's beautiful … I'm obsessed with her and obsessed with wondering why she's not the biggest star in the world.
Have you visited Albuquerque before?
Hundreds of times.
Do you have any impressions of the city itself?
I love Albuquerque because there's a massive Native audience. It's funny … I don't think anybody from any other walk of life would call Albuquerque a literary city, but for me as a Native guy … Albuquerque is definitely a book city. It's a place where I get to hang out with all the brown-skinned book geeks.