Occasionally I'll come across a book that becomes one of my all-time favorites. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of those. It made me laugh, weep and cheer. It also won the National Book Award. I am honored that Sherman Alexie agreed to be interviewed.
When and why did you start writing for children?
Many of my books prior to True Diary have been used successfully in high schools. So I always knew they were popular.
What is the most valuable advice you can give to a newly published writer?
Take a drama class and learn how to perform your work.
What is one of your favorite children’s books that you'd like to recommend?
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (http://www.thirteenreasonswhy.com/)
What are you working on now?
I'm working on my second YA novel - Radioactive Love Songs. It's about an urban Indian kid's epic Odessey in a car with an iPod stuffed with his mother's favorite love songs.
What is your favorite dessert and why?
I'm not supposed to have sugar, but when I do I always go for pumpkin pie. It tastes great and I love the year-round irony of an Indian celebrating Thanksgiving.
Sherman J. Alexie, Jr., was born in October 1966. A Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, he grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA, about 50 miles northwest of Spokane, WA. Approximately 1,100 Spokane Tribal members live there.
Born hydrocephalic, which means with water on the brain, Alexie underwent a brain operation at the age of 6 months and was not expected to survive. When he did beat the odds, doctors predicted he would live with severe mental retardation. Though he showed no signs of this, he suffered severe side effects, such as seizures and uncontrollable bed-wetting, throughout his childhood. In spite of all he had to overcome, Alexie learned to read by age three, and devoured novels such as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath by age five. All these things ostracized him from his peers, though, and he was often the brunt of other kids' jokes on the reservation.
As a teenager, after finding his mother's name written in a textbook assigned to him at the Wellpinit school, Alexie made a conscious decision to attend high school off the reservation in Reardan, WA, about 20 miles south of Wellpinit, where he knew he would get a better education. At Reardan High he was the only Indian, except for the school mascot. There he excelled academically and became a star player on the basketball team.
In 1985 Alexie graduated Reardan High and went on to attend Gonzaga University in Spokane on scholarship. After two years at Gonzaga, he transferred to Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, WA.
Alexie planned to be a doctor and enrolled in pre-med courses at WSU, but, after fainting numerous times in human anatomy class, realized he needed to change his career path. That change was fueled when he stumbled into a poetry workshop at WSU.
Encouraged by poetry teacher Alex Kuo, Alexie excelled at writing and realized he'd found his new path. Shortly after graduating WSU with a BA in American Studies, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in 1992.
Not long after receiving his second fellowship, and just one year after he left WSU, two of his poetry collections, The Business of Fancydancing and I Would Steal Horses, were published.
Alexie had a problem with alcohol that began soon after he started college at Gonzaga, but after learning that Hanging Loose Press agreed to publish The Business of Fancydancing, he immediately gave up drinking, at the age of 23, and has been sober ever since.
He continued to write prolifically and his first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993. For this collection he received a PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction, and was awarded a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award. In March 2005 Grove Atlantic Press reissued the collection with the addition of two new stories.
Alexie was named one of Granta's Best of Young American Novelists and won the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award and the Murray Morgan Prize for his first novel, Reservation Blues, published in 1995 by Atlantic Monthly Press. His second novel, Indian Killer, published in 1996, also by Atlantic Monthly Press, was named one of People's Best of Pages and a New York Times Notable Book. This book was published in paperback by Warner Books in 1998.
In the past, Alexie has done readings and stand-up comedy performances with musician Jim Boyd, a Colville Indian. Alexie and Boyd collaborated to record the album Reservation Blues, which contains the songs from the book of the same name. One of the Reservation Blues songs, "Small World" [WAV], also appeared on Talking Rain: Spoken Word & Music from the Pacific Northwest and Honor: A Benefit for the Honor the Earth Campaign. In 1996 Boyd and Alexie opened for the Indigo Girls at a concert to benefit the Honor the Earth Campaign.
In 1997, Alexie embarked on another artistic collaboration. Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne/Arapaho Indian, discovered Alexie's writing while doing graduate work at New York University's film school. Through a mutual friend, they agreed to collaborate on a film project inspired by Alexie's work.
The basis for the screenplay was "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," a short story from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Shadow Catcher Entertainment produced the film. Released as Smoke Signals at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1998, the movie won two awards: the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy.
After success at Sundance, Smoke Signals found a distributor, Miramax Films, and was released in New York and Los Angeles on June 26 and across the country on July 3, 1998. In 1999 the film received a Christopher Award, an award presented to the creators of artistic works "which affirm the highest values of the human spirit." Alexie was also nominated for the Independent Feature Project/West (now known as Film Independent) 1999 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.
In the midst of releasing Smoke Signals, Alexie competed in and won his first World Heavyweight Poetry Bout competition in June 1998, organized by the World Poetry Bout Association (WPBA) in Taos, New Mexico. He went up against then world champion Jimmy Santiago Baca. Over the next three years he went on to win the title, becoming the first and only poet to hold the title for four consecutive years. The WPBA closed its doors in early 2005.
Known for his exceptional humor and performance ability, Alexie made his stand-up debut at the Foolproof Northwest Comedy Festival in Seattle, WA, in April 1999, and was the featured performer at the Vancouver International Comedy Festival's opening night gala in July 1999. He continues to pursue his work in comedy.
In 1998, Alexie participated with seven others in the PBS Lehrer News Hour "Dialogue on Race" with President Clinton. The discussion was moderated by Jim Lehrer and originally aired on PBS on July 9, 1998. Alexie has also been featured on Politically Incorrect, 60 Minutes II, and NOW with Bill Moyers, for which he wrote a special segment on insomnia and his writing process called "Up All Night."
In February 2003, Alexie participated in the Museum of Tolerance project, "Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves," an exhibit showcasing the diversity within the personal histories of several noted Americans, and celebrating the shared experiences common to being part of an American family, encouraging visitors to seek out their own histories, mentors and heroes. This project was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, "Our Big American Family," which originally aired in January 2003, on which Alexie was a guest.
Alexie was the guest editor for the Winter 2000-01 issue of Ploughshares, a prestigious literary journal. He was a 1999 O. Henry Award Prize juror, was one of the judges for the 2000 inaugural PEN/Amazon.com Short Story Award, and a juror for both the Poetry Society of America's 2001 Shelley Memorial Award and the Poets and Writers "Writers Exchange 2001" Contest. He most recently was a juror for the 2005 Rae Award, and has served as a mentor in the PEN Emerging Writers program.
He was a member of the 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2006 Independent Spirit Awards Nominating Committees, and has served as a creative adviser to the Sundance Institute Writers Fellowship Program and the Independent Feature Films West (now Film Independent) Screenwriters Lab.
Alexie was the commencement speaker for the University of Washington's 2003 commencement ceremony. In 2004, 2006 and 2008 he was an Artist in Residence at the university and taught courses in American Ethnic Studies.
One of his most recent honors is receiving the 2007 National Book Award in Young People's Literature for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Other awards and honors include the 2007 Western Literature Association's Distinguished Achievement Award and the 2003 Regents' Distinguished Alumnus Award, Washington State University's highest honor for alumni. His work was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2004, edited by Lorrie Moore, and Pushcart Prize XXIX of the Small Presses. His short story "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" was selected by juror Ann Patchett as her favorite story for the The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005. He holds honorary degrees from Seattle University (doctor of humanities, honoris causa - 2000) and Columbia College, Chicago (1999).
Alexie's most recent publications are Flight, released in April 2007 by Grove / Atlantic, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his first young adult novel, published in September 2007 by Little, Brown.