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Saturday, September 8, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Q&A

Sherman Alexie captures the voice, chaos and humor of a teenager

Seattle Times staff reporter

Author appearances

Sherman Alexie performs on his book tour for "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Seattle Public Library's Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. (in conjunction with Elliott Bay Book Co.; 206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com) and

at 7 p.m. Oct. 30 at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Seattle author Sherman Alexie promises to keep his usual NC-17 performances — don't call them "book readings" — clean enough for a PG-13 audience on the book tour for his highly praised first young-adult novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" (Little, Brown and Co., $16.99).

Alexie fans will recognize details from his own life in this semi-autobiographical book. Like Alexie, 14-year-old Arnold Spirit not only survives being born with hydrocephalus (water on the brain), but winds up an honor student who opts for a white school 20 miles away after he discovers his mother's name in a textbook at the Spokane Indian Reservation's school.

As his teacher tells him, "You're going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation."

While Arnold deals with culture shock at the white school — he's the only Indian besides the school mascot — he faces resentment on the reservation, where even his best friend views him as a traitor. His alcoholic parents try to support him but can't shield him from the deaths of close family members nor from extreme poverty (in one devastating moment, his father kills his dog when they can't pay a vet — "a bullet only costs about two cents, and anybody can afford that").

Arnold's self-deprecating narrative and cartoons by Seattle artist Ellen Forney leaven the often-heavy themes.

A starred Publishers Weekly review called the book "a coming-of-age story so well observed that its very rootedness in one specific culture is also what lends it universality. ... Alexie's no-holds-barred jokes have the effect of throwing the seriousness of his themes into high relief."

The multihyphenate Alexie — poet, novelist, director, playwright and University of Washington instructor — just toured the country in the spring for his sci-fi novel, "Flight," his first novel since 1996's "Indian Killer."

Despite a harried morning — and without the first of his eight or nine daily cups of coffee — Alexie was charming and quick to laugh during a recent interview at his Central District office, an adapted apartment where he does all his writing.

Q: If your new novel is mostly autobiographical, why doesn't the main character play Dungeons & Dragons? [Alexie has given speeches titled, "How Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life."]

A: [Laughs]. Maybe that's sophomore year, for the sequel. There was a lot of stuff in the first big draft of it which was actually part of a family memoir. The memoir's some endless epic — unpublished, years late; you know, a mess. So there's lots of pieces of my autobiography that are left out. I certainly was not nearly as smart as Arnold Spirit is.

Q: And were you an artist?

A: No, no. That was added.

Q: And were the cartoons your idea?

A: Yeah. When I started writing it as a novel, for some reason in the first paragraph, I made him a cartoonist. I sent Ellen Forney, who is a friend of mine, about a page, I think, and I said, "Can you draw a cartoon of this?" About five minutes later, it came back over the e-mail. So she was a part of this five minutes into its creation.

I'm getting angry, though, because people are assuming I had nothing to do with the illustrations, that the press hired her. It was a really collaborative effort. Some of them I dictated, some of them we did together, some of them she did on her own.

Q: Thinking of your sons [ages 10 and 6] reading it when they're older, did that influence you at all?

A: No, not really. I mean, I don't know what they're going to be into. I have no idea. The whole nature/nurture thing: I can see the parts of me and my wife that they have, but there's also other alien, strange stuff — I have no idea where it came from. I mean, they're already — like my wife and I — mouthy smart-asses. So I'm sure they'll enjoy that part of Arnold Spirit.

But we do very well keeping my professional life separate. I mean, they know what I do, but they don't care. [Laughs.]

Q: There's a 10-year gap between your novels, and your oldest son is 10. Is that coincidental?

A: No, no. You know, there are all those assumptions about why it was so long. I also wrote a couple novels in between there that sucked. ...

But part of it was being a father. And I'm an active father. I'm not the James Dickey sort of a father where my sons are going to write memoirs about how horrible I was and how much more I loved writing than them. At least I hope so. [Christopher Dickey penned "Summer of Deliverance" about his arrogant, alcoholic, adulterous father, a poet and novelist.]

Also, in that time frame, I published five books of poetry, two books of short stories and made two movies. This is my 19th book. I think I've been busy.

Q: A lot of time in literature, there's a separation between jocks and geeks. Your character is both. Was that deliberate?

A: It was an interesting school that way.... My generation at that white school, to give you some idea, out of the 12 guys on the varsity [basketball] team my senior year, 11 have gotten B.A.s [bachelors of arts], and five have gotten master's [degrees]. Our team grade-point average that year was 3.79. If you took Honor Society and the best athletes in our school, it was the same list pretty much.

Q: In another interview, you said you wrote "Diary" as a novel rather than a memoir because you wouldn't be believed. Was that because of the James Frey scandal, or because so much of it was unlikely?

A: The unlikeliness of it, not the Frey crap. It feels too Horatio Alger. And too sort of self-aggrandizing. I worried about that. You know [in deep voice], the heroic Sherman Alexie. In fact, I had to downplay a lot of things even in fictional form. It wasn't three deaths that year [in his family] — it was eight. That would have turned into some marathon-of-pain book that no one would have wanted to read. It's bad enough as it is.

Q: Did you feel restricted by making the book autobiographical?

A: No, that was just a framework. I even borrowed a little from my father's life. The whole after-prom, ending-up-at-a-pancake-house-having-no-money scene, that was my dad. I have no issues with borrowing or inventing completely.

Q: Did you have any fun going back and thinking, "Oh, I wished I'd said that"?

A: Most of my regrets, through my entire life, involve women. So yes, that was the big thing. [Laughs]. Requited and unrequited.

Q: What was your family's reaction? Were they pleased with it?

A: Yeah. But once again, I'm still just Junior. My brothers and sisters were wondering why in the hell they weren't in the book. [Laughs.] "How come you put the dead sibling in and not the living ones?" [Laughs.] "Because you living ones are complicated. You living ones can sue me."

Q: Was it hard writing about your father, since he's passed away now?

A: It's always tough, you know. But as somebody pointed out, my whole career has been writing about my father. I've been causing myself pain for 15 years. I think that's the big thing that drives my career and drives my success. I mean, certainly, it's the Indian thing, but it's the failing father thing bigger than anything else. That's the majority of letters I get: the "My father sucked too" letters. [Laughs.]

Q: Critics have also praised the book's authentic teen voice. How did you channel your teen self?

A: It was a lot of help from the editor. It was a long process of writing the first, second, third drafts pretty much as I wanted to. And then going back through with heavy editing to make it sound real.... It clicked in. And then I realized I sounded like a 15-year-old. I didn't think it would be that hard for any man to sound like a 15-year-old. But it was. We just act that way; we don't talk that way. [Laughs]

Q: Do you think that voice is how you talked at that age?

A: I think I wasn't nearly as tough. I took things far more personally. And I wasn't as funny.

Q: Now that you're known as a stand-up comedian, is there more pressure to be funny?

A: I don't necessarily think about it that way. I just am. I think it's in reverse, in fact. Some people tend to take me, or my books, less seriously because they're funny. I gave a talk at an academic conference, and I saw a few of the comment cards. One of them said, "Why did you have him here? All he was was funny." I liked that one a lot.

Q: The book has been praised for mixing humor with pathos. Was that a hard balance to strike?

A: It's pretty much how I deal with the world, so no. I just think everything is fairly ridiculous.

Q: Author Neil Gaiman's blurb on the jacket of the book predicts, "It'll both be winning awards and being banned." Do you agree about the banning?

A: Oh yeah. It'll get challenged. He praises masturbation, that's one. He gets a completely inappropriate erection after his sister dies and the guidance counselor is hugging him. The metaphorical boners.

It's always sex that does it. I mean, the Newbery prize-winner ["The Higher Power of Lucky"] got banned because of "scrotum." [Laughs.] Not even a human scrotum! A dog scrotum freaked people out!

My books have been taught in high schools, and they've been challenged in quite a few places.

Q: You've called yourself a "reluctant role model." Has that changed at all, especially with a book targeted at teens?

A: Maybe "reluctant" is not the right term. I have no control over the process, so I'm a not-quite-so-innocent bystander in it. I'm quite aware I have very large social power, especially in the Indian world. So I write aware of that. Especially with this book, certainly, whose theme is about escape, I hope it encourages all sorts of trapped people to feel like they can escape.

Q: A new generation of teens is growing up on the reservation. Do you go back? Have things changed?

A: I visit a lot of other reservations. I really haven't visited mine a whole lot, publicly like that. I gave a talk at Gonzaga University this last spring and during the day, a lot of the local high-school kids were coming from the reservation. So I talked to a bunch of teenagers from Wellpinit, and I grew up with their parents. One of them afterward came up to me and said, "My dad said you were going to be such [a jerk]. And you're not." [Laughs.] I think there is some mythology around me on my rez. I will always be the guy who left for some people. But a whole lot of people show up for my readings [from the reservation] who are happy for me.

Q: So do you still feel like the title, that you're a part-time Indian?

A: God, I don't know what I am now. I'm a writer. I'm this sort of amorphous, ever-shifting writer.

Q: Do you ever see this book being made into a movie?

A: There are very strong and serious negotiations going on right now with a very, very, very famous guy.

Q: How do you answer criticism that you're exposing kids to a lot of negatives in Native American culture, from poverty to alcoholism to bullying?

A: It's what happened and what continues to happen. My dad died three years ago from alcoholism. ...

They [his critics] have no idea how bad it is. Nothing I've written actually comes close to how bad it can be and how bad it is, the level of desperation. The people who don't want it written about or who think it's stereotypical, within the Indian world, are just dealing with a lot of shame. And outside the Indian world, it's just a lot of romantic bastards.

Q: You mock white people in the book who say they love Native Americans. Is there a respectful way for white people to admire the culture?

A: The best way to deal with it is just to leave it alone. You know, you don't need to go into a sweat lodge to respect us. You don't need to wear turquoise earrings to come to my readings. ... People who are way into the Native culture rarely look at the whole picture. We're just as messy and ugly as anybody else. So 'admiring' worries me. That's pretty myopic — widen your lens, I guess I'd say.

Q: So will you read at your events?

A: I never know what I'm going to do. I perform. Depends on what mood I'm in, if I'm grumpy.

During this tour, during the day, I'm going to be visiting high schools. Then at night I'll be doing regular bookstore events, but I'm sure there will be a lot of teens in the crowd. I'm going to have to moderate myself, a bit. I can be an NC-17 sort of evening. I might have to bring that down to PG-13. I know my editor and publishers at Little, Brown want the PG-13 evenings. I going to do my best, dammit.

The thing is, that's still all about what adults think kids are like. I did not have a PG-13 teenage life. I was engaging in NC-17 activities at age 15. [Laughs.]

Q: What's next?

A: I've got a new book of poetry coming out next year called "Thrash." There's another young-adult novel that I'm working on. The memoir I've been working on for years. And the return of two of my famous characters, Thomas and Victor from "Smoke Signals." They are currently in the midst of a murder mystery in a novel I'm writing. Victor and Thomas, 10 years after "Smoke Signals."

Stephanie Dunnewind: Sdunnewind@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2091.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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