Being Native American, Sherman Alexie has, of course, an innate affinity for animals.
On a recent day he cruised a McDonald’s drive-through and noticed a seagull eyeballing him from the asphalt.
“And he came walking up to me and I opened the passenger side door and he hopped in. I threw three or four fries on the mat and he grabbed them and jumped out and then he wouldn’t come back in,” said Alexie, quick to laugh. He didn’t have time to snap a photo on his iPhone, but was left with potential grist, comedic of course, for the writing mill.
“I’ve exaggerated the story completely in my head ... being an Indian, I talk about my really close relationship with the seagulls. ... ‘I called to the seagull and the seagull came...’ ”
Then again, maybe it’s not about his heritage at all, considering that his 1998 Camry “is an archaeologist’s dig of french fries.”
A writer of several genres, Alexie, 46, will bring humor and sharp observation to the Stranahan Theater at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The Authors! Authors! series is presented by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. He will also answer questions and autograph his books, and for this last task he takes a page from Loretta Lynn’s playbook: “Don’t you dare go home ’til your last fan goes home.”
Born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash., Alexie wrote the screenplay for Smoke Signals (1998), about two young Native American men, one of whom comes to terms with the hand he’s been dealt. It was based on a short story from his 1993 book Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
In addition to stories, he writes poetry and novels, and teaches. A hit with teens was his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a semi-autobiographical novel that won the 2007 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Its character, Arnold Spirit, is born with hydrocephalus (as was Alexie), “too much grease inside my skull — like my brain was a giant French fry.” He survives an operation at six months (as did Alexie, who also had seizures but has no residual negative effects), is bullied at school, and by his teen years is a budding cartoonist. War Dances (2010), a collection of stories and poems, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Alexie is working on a children’s book, a sequel to his young-adult novel, an adult novel called Fire with Fire, “and a couple of screenplays for my own kind of projects.” He’s teaching graduate-level fiction writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and has taught at the University of Washington. “I wanted to teach without worrying about going to meetings.”
He periodically rewrites screenplays at the request of Hollywood producers who want him to spin more humor into a script. “It’s almost always about being funny.”
He’s done stand-up comedy “but it wasn’t appealing to be standing in a bar telling jokes. I’d already been in empty bookstores trying to make a living and didn’t want to try to make a living in empty bars.”
And he’s a three-time world heavyweight poetry-bout champion, an event held in Taos, N.M. It involves “getting on stage and performing poems, and the judging is based on the quality of the poem and the quality of the performance.” Two people face off reading one poem per round and each round is scored by a three-person panel. “Then the last round, the tenth, was improv, you would pull a word out of a hat and then have a minute to start a poem. All three of mine were very close. I’m better at improv, which directly relates to my comedy talents.”
Alexie lives in Seattle with Diane Tomhave, his wife (also a Native American), and their sons, ages 12 and 16. He plays league basketball and his social life is mostly hanging with his dribbling friends. “And none of them are writers. That’s a purposeful accident.”
He loves movies and reality TV shows that demand talent such as Project Runway, Top Chef, and So You Think You Can Dance. He follows the British saga Downton Abbey (urging, at the end of last season, dead Matthew to “Blink! Blink!”). His favorite show: HBO’s Game of Thrones based on the popular fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin. “There’s all sorts of violence and depravity that even HBO can’t film.”
Growing up on a poor reservation where his father was often absent, family members were lost to alcohol-related deaths, and few succeeded in college made him determined to attend a white high school 30 miles away. There, he excelled at studies, became a star basketball player, and was voted class president.
“And part of that was being so sick: once you fight for your life then you’re willing to fight for everything. A 5-year-old sick kid is a tough-ass creature.”
It’s little surprise that his creative themes often spring from a well of pain with despair, poverty, violence, and alcoholism experienced by his Native American characters.
“My work is no more despairing than Faulkner’s. But because I’m an Indian it gets assigned a special value like it’s more depressing than all the other depressing stuff,” he said. “I’m firmly in the tradition of sad-ass Western civ literature.”
He writes at an apartment he rents and keeps notebooks and an iPad handy for jotting down ideas.
“Disciplined? Nope not me. I’m a binge writer. And it’s completely unpredictable. A friend of mine described it as a zit building and then finally popping. I have a good memory so I carry around sentences, lines of dialog, images that occur to me or that I read or see, and then all of a sudden, something comes to the forefront.”
Such as, perhaps, the time he called the seagull and the seagull came...
Contact Tahree Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org and 419-724-6075.