Darkly funny, sharply observant, Flight
lays bare the experience of a teenaged outsider circa 2007. Alternately heartbreaking and wondrous, Sherman Alexie's first novel in ten years tells the story of an orphan careening through foster homes until finally, not long after we meet him, he walks into a bank and comes unstuck in time. Gritty, intense, and especially timely, it's a lightning-fast read besides.
And according to Alexie, the story bound in these paperback pages is only a start. "Flight has been so extensively rewritten in my mind," he says, "that we think I'm going to rewrite it extensively and republish it in a year and a half."
Having written seventeen books (prose and lots of poetry) and several screenplays, the Washington native is not afraid to flaunt convention. Sometimes at his readings, for example, he never quite gets around to reading. Or he'll simply use the book to get started. "My performances are a process of rewriting," Alexie explains.
Before his event downtown, Alexie stopped by to discuss the new book, slobbering on Stephen King, potlatch culture, pile of crap novels, and more.
Dave: Your book tour took you to Virginia on the day of the shootings.
Sherman Alexie: That day. It was an awful coincidence, being on tour for a book that features a disassociated kid grabbing pistols and walking into a public place. I felt it was my responsibility that night not to say a word about my book, so I didn't. I told a lot of other stories. I'm a performer, so I have a lot of material. I did the old bits. They didn't know it was the old bits. Nobody talked about the book.
Flight is heavily influenced by Slaughterhouse-Five. It has an epigraph from Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut died the week before that. A couple awful coincidences.
Dave: The first line of the novel recalls another classic of American fiction.
Alexie: Moby Dick. It's meant to be an interesting, funny opening. I tried — and for some reviewers I failed — to point out that for teenagers the state of their complexion is at least as important as Moby Dick is to Ahab.
As somebody who had really bad skin and still struggles with acne, I know it's of vital importance. Perhaps there was a better opening, another allusion to some novel or poem that might have captured it better, but that's what I was trying to do: to show how much his scars affected him and how much they changed his outlook on the world.
Dave: In so much of your writing, the question of identity is front and center. In Flight, from that first line, "Call me Zits," we understand how he sees himself and how he believes other people see him.
Alexie: Physically marked. It was a way of talking about identity without going on and on about the damn Indian thing again.
Dave: Acne has nothing to do with his race. It's a problem of adolescence.
Alexie: Exactly. Which becomes a way in which everyone can identify with him. My zits are me.
Dave: Something that struck me reading Reservation Blues, in relation to Flight, was how ingrained boyhood violence is. And I don't mean boys walking into public places with pistols. I'm thinking of Thomas getting beat up by his friends.
Alexie: I grew up in a violent world. It's what I saw. Fistfights were incredibly common. I learned how to fight. It wasn't until I left the reservation school and went to the white high school on the border that I learned you don't throw a punch, that your automatic reaction was not to throw a punch.
It's still ingrained in me. I've met all sorts of people from other backgrounds, generally from poverty, whose first instinct is to throw the punch. Chris Offutt, an Appalachian writer. Black writers. Chicano writers. We've talked about this. As young men, we were taught to fight. It's still the case.
I've been on panels where a prep school, white, academic writer is being a smart-ass in one way or another and my first instinct is literally to stand up, walk across the stage, and pound him in the head. I have to actively resist that. I understand the motivation and the desire to commit violence because that's part of my hard-wiring.
Dave: In many of your books, there's an orphan or a character missing a parent. The child is missing too many pieces to form a complete or satisfying self-image.
Alexie: Well, that's a constant theme of any colonial literature. That's what I write.
Dave: How so in relation to colonial literature?
Alexie: Displacement. The killing of your birth father and the substitution of an adopted father. Think of your birth parent being your original culture and your adopted parent being the colonizing culture. In a sense, Native Americans, anybody who's been colonized, they're in the position of an orphan.
Look throughout the world. That missing parent is a constant theme in colonized people's literature. Literature out of Darfur, for instance, it's just starting — there hasn't been a major novel out of that yet — but, literally, parents are being murdered in front of their kids' eyes.
Now, here, after so many generations of being colonized, it's not about actual murder anymore. It's about the symbolic murder and the legacy of murder.
One of the ways in which colonization works is that it destroys family units, and it destroys generational contact. I had no grandparents because they all died for various colonial reasons. Without that connection to grandparents, I lost my connection to my history.
Dave: How have reservations and reservation life changed since you grew up on one?
Alexie: One of things we forget as natives and non-natives is that reservations were created as concentration camps. They were created so Indians would be shipped there and die. I really think that's still their purpose: to kill.
What has changed? Casinos have changed them. Not all of them, but a lot of them. So there's more money, more jobs, but there's still a distinct lack of education; there are still the same social problems. The joke is, Instead of Chevys up on blocks in the yard, it's Lexuses on blocks in the yard. The amount of money flowing through any particular tribe has increased, but the social problems persist. They may not be as poor materially, but they're poor spiritually.
A big change: Almost seventy percent of natives live off reservations now. The flight from the reservation just keeps happening.
I lived in a pretty isolated reservation at a pretty isolated time. There was no Internet. There weren't five thousand channels on television. There were no satellites. Even reservation Indians don't feel as isolated as they used to.
Now even their social dysfunctions take on pop culture guises. You look at the reservations with really bad social problems, like some of the Plains Indians, the Sioux reservations — social problems among young men have manifested themselves in warring gangs called Bloods and Crips, which has nothing to do with Bloods and Crips but everything to do with watching Boyz N the Hood. There's no more cultural isolation. We're very much part of the cultural mainstream, even reservation life, because of technology. Being poor and outcast, we look more and more like all the other poor outcasts of the United States.
Dave: I saw you read "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" a few years ago at the New Yorker Festival.
Alexie: With Zadie Smith.
Dave: Right. I've read that story a couple times since. I love it. The guy spends every penny he gets, but only with or for other people. I love the ambiguity, that friction. Is he doing a good thing or a bad thing? Are we with him or against him?
Alexie: Part of that is growing up in a potlatch culture where the wealth of an Indian is determined by how much he gives away. That's still part of who I am.
It was an attempt to write a Spokane Indian without ever being so explicit in his Spokaneness. It was a very subtle way to write about being a Plateau Indian, giveaways and potlatches. It's a very Plateau experience.
It's hard to talk about that story because I wrote it in about two drafts, and I didn't think it was all that good. The New Yorker called and asked if I had any stories to submit. I had two that were done, that one and another. I thought they'd take the other. They took "What You Pawn."
It got published, and I still thought it was just okay. Then as soon as it was published, there was a firestorm, in a way I hadn't experienced since my first book, Lone Ranger. I got fan letters, hundreds of them. And other writers were sending me fan letters, which was shocking.
Even though I attend those festivals, I'm not really included in that world. I'm still, in a sense, the Indian guy. They're my peers in terms of awards and publishing and reviews and sales, but I'm still not really a part of their gang. It's not like Franzen and I hang out. Suddenly I was getting fan letters from people I never would have imagined. T.C. Boyle sent me a fan letter. I was, What?! And then the story ended up in O. Henry and Best American Short Stories...
Dave: It's a great story!
Alexie: I know. I know. You work so hard on some of them, though, and you think, That's it. And then others just appear. This is one of the ones that just appeared.
I don't know how I did it!
I don't know. What did I do? I read it, and I think, This is really good.
I'm adapting it into a screenplay now, and the people I've sent it to for financing can't handle the ambiguity.
Dave: Not Hollywood enough?
Alexie: Not at all. Even independent producer sources cannot handle the ambiguity.
One of the ways I wanted to preserve it cinematically... At the end of the story, he's dancing in his outfit and traffic stops. In a story, that feels low-key. It does. It's just an emotional ending.
In a movie, that would end up looking like Hoosiers or Rudy or something, some triumph, which is not the feeling I want. In writing the screenplay, I thought, There can't be the swelling music. It has to be a silent dance.
Then I remembered an interview I gave when the story came out. The guy asked a great question. He said, "What do you think happened to Jackson Jackson the next day?" I said, "He probably pawned the damn thing back." So in the screenplay, after that ending, when he's dancing — and I imagine emotion swelling in the theater, everybody's going crazy, that dance has the big music, and you think, That's it —
No. Cut to the next day. He's sitting in the alley with the outfit. He walks to another pawn shop, walks in, walks back out counting money. He walks out of frame, and we hold on the store window as a new pawn shop guy walks into the display window and hangs it up.
Dave: Which would be true to the story.
Alexie: Yes. But people have an issue with it because he does not triumph.
Dave: But after everything that happens, it wouldn't make sense if he turns his life around. It wouldn't be the same story.
Alexie: Exactly. And that's the whole notion of Hollywood movies: utter transformation.
My feeling is that it should feel like the story title, which is taken from a Lucille Clifton poem, "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," but it should also feel like, "What I Redeem I'm Going to Pawn."
Dave: If the response to "What You Pawn" took you by surprise, have you had the opposite experience? What's thrilled you that didn't resonate with readers or critics?
Alexie: Oh, the thing is, I'm never happy with anything I've done. I'm such a self-hater. I'm mortified by my own books.
It's been the case more often where something I thought was shit got a lot of attention. Like Indian Killer. I think it's a pile of crap novel.
Dave: Did you think that at the time?
Dave: What don't you like about it?
Alexie: Everything. Its tone. Its characters. It feels to me like a big cartoon. And the fact that it gets taught so seriously when I feel like it's really a cartoon, that bothers me. I love it when people teach it as a cartoon.
Dave: When you were working on it, what was interesting to you about it?
Alexie: The range. But I didn't go far enough. And I didn't complete it as a mystery novel. I was trying to write an actual mystery novel, and I ended up getting too fucking literary and didn't solve the mystery. That's really what bothers me.
I think all the other stuff is really just a way of talking about the fact that I wrote a genre novel that I didn't complete as a genre novel. If I had, it would be a far superior book. If I'd kept that in mind instead of turning it into some pretentious murder literary piece of shit.
Dave: This is the self-hating part?
Dave: I'll put the question another way. If you had to create a Sherman Alexie box set, what would go in it?
Dave: I'm not sure who's forcing you, but you can't publish another book until you put this set together.
Alexie: "What You Pawn I Will Redeem." There are about eight stories. I've written about eight stories that measure up to just about anybody's stories. Probably ten or fifteen poems. That's probably it.
Dave: What if I asked the same question about other people's work. What would you include?
Alexie: "Because I could not stop for death/Death kindly stopped for me/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality." I'd start with that poem.
Great Gatsby. Invisible Man. The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien. The poem "She Had Some Horses" by Joy Harjo. "Fire Water World," Adrian Louis.
Adrian Louis has a poem in his new book, I can't remember the title, but it's about him having to make the decision to have his wife's — she has severe Alzheimer's and rheumatoid arthritis, and he had to amputate a finger, he had to sign the permission to get her finger amputated. I mean... That poem is the most painful thing I've ever read. So, that poem.
I could go on and on. I'm a fanboy, across all genres, from the most mainstream pop culture writers to the most obscure literary theorists, so I could go on and on for days about that box set. But one book? If I only had one book, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Dave: When you say you're a fanboy, have you actually had fanboy encounters?
Alexie: Neil Gaiman. We both fanboyed each other. He was a fanboy of me, which was great.
It was in Sydney, Australia, last spring, at the Sydney Book Fair. I rarely go to the parties because I'm shy. People don't believe that, but those situations make me horribly uncomfortable. This one was in my hotel, so I went up there. I'm hiding in a corner, and I see him. So I walk up, and as I'm walking up to him he turns. His eyes light up with recognition, and he says, "Sherman Alexie." I was so happy. I was going over there to slobber all over him, and he slobbered on me! So we slobbered on each other.
Stephen King, I slobbered on. The first time I met Lorrie Moore, yeah. Gosh. Toni Morrison.
Most of the experiences have been positive. The thing I do now, I actually send fan letters. When I read something I like, I'll send an email or a letter. I send notes of appreciation for poems, stories, books, music.
I like getting the letters from anybody. I love reading them. It's fun. It's such a lonely job. We have to deal with so much potential rejection and real rejection. I mean, no matter how good you are, ninety-nine percent of the world doesn't give a shit. Getting a letter from someone who's in the same boat, I think it's polite in a job field short of politeness.
Dave: I assume that most of the people at your readings enjoy your writing and have read at least some of it, but do you get many people who are not so fond of your work?
Alexie: The ones who are uncomfortable come in a few categories, and they're pretty easy to figure out. The ones who come because I'm an Indian, so they expect spiritual shit. The ones who come because they've only seen Smoke Signals, which is a very sweet and tender movie. They expect me to be like Thomas, rather than being the profane, mouthy asshole I can be, performing.
It generally has to do with people's perception of what kind of Indian I'm supposed to be, why they're offended. I think vegans hate me now because I make fun of them. I'm on some vegan boycott list, me and Oscar Meyer.
In Eugene last night, a few people walked out while I was telling a story. What really gets people walking out is when I talk about sex.
Dave: What were you talking about?
Alexie: I told a story about the night before my reading in Virginia, in the hotel. I went down to get a couple bottles of water from the vending machine, and in the room next door I heard people having sex. I stayed there through the whole thing as they got louder and louder. And of course as I tell the story I exaggerate and improvise. Then I talked about my own sex life in relation to this couple in the hotel room.
Four or five people walked out. Generally, sex will send people running, which makes me want to talk about it even more. It makes me want to write a really horny book, which I've never done.
Dave: You've done stand-up comedy, though. I would imagine you have to be working an edge there if you're going to be interesting at all.
Alexie: The very nature of my performances pisses some people off. They come expecting a reading. They're used to some spectacled writer standing at a podium, intoning. I don't do that. I don't even read necessarily. Sometimes I don't get to the book.
And every night is different. I never know what I'm going to do when I stand up there. I have standard bits, standard material, different stories that I tell. Or, tonight, I might talk about my day, about feeling like a zoo animal while I was doing a photo shoot on the Portland waterfront, and what an idiot you feel like when people stop and give you the look of, Oh, it must be somebody. Then they look and, No. Next they think, Oh, it must be a fashion shoot, until they look at you and think again, No.
They go through the list of reasons why someone would be taking a picture of you, and they never get to writer. Your value in the country as an artist, even as successful as I have been, you get put in your place quickly during a public photo shoot. Maybe I'll talk about that. Certain people get bothered.
I did the keynote at an American Literature conference in Louisville a few months ago. By and large, people liked it, but I got emails and I got comment cards later. One guy wrote, "I hated him. All he was was funny."
Alexie: I often make T-shirts with negative comments about me. I play basketball in them. Time magazine, for Indian Killer, wrote that I was "septic with my own unappeasable fury." I had that T-shirt for a while.
I haven't done it yet, but I'm thinking about "All he was was funny."
Dave: You could create a whole line of Sherman Alexie gym wear.
Alexie: With negative comments, yes.
Dave: But to do something different and stimulating, something potentially offensive to convention — readings could use more of that, in my opinion.
Alexie: A huge part of my success has to do with my performances, with me going on the road and building an audience through word of mouth. Being unafraid of any venue. Because of my performance ability, I now get to take my stories into places that other literary writers don't go: Christian conventions; I do diversity training for corporate gatherings; reservations; poor communities.
If you compare me to a literary writer, where do they go?
Dave: The 92nd Street Y.
Alexie: Right. And I'm in a high school gym in Shiprock, New Mexico. I'm at multimillion dollar retreats in Oahu, talking to twelve of the richest one hundred guys in the world. That spectrum is what I've worked on, and it's because I can tell a story aloud.
What gets me angry is that this is where it all started, some caveman or woman sitting around a fire, and somebody saying, "I'm bored." That's where it began. That's what I do. I would die if all I could do is write books.
Dave: How does one outlet feed the other? You've written a lot of books.
Alexie: Now, with Flight, when I perform it, I rewrite it. I don't read from the text. Or if I have the book in front of me as I'm reading, I'll jump off as something occurs to me. Whatever I'm performing, I'll improvise. Great ideas will come. Other images, parts of other books, other characters. I'll bring in characters from books that I'm working on now.
My performances are a process of rewriting. Even a book that's already published, I have no problem rewriting in the context of telling a story about it.
Flight has been so extensively rewritten in my mind that we think I'm going to rewrite it extensively and republish it in a year and a half. I'm of the mind that I'll keep doing it. I'll have no problem rewriting this book every two or three years and watching it change. To think in terms of a career and one book, I think it's a fascinating exercise. Nobody's done it. I can't believe nobody's done it. It's what you talked about earlier [prior to the start of the interview], the notion of books being static.
Dave: And sacrosanct. Once the binding is stitched, that's the book.
Alexie: My culture doesn't treat storytelling that way. I've never treated the text as sacred. Why not take that feeling into the publication itself?
Dave: In an interview you gave a while back, you talked about Reservation Blues, how some of that story came out of your regret over not being able to sing. So you wrote about a musician and a singer. Your idea for Flight makes me think of the way restless musicians will constantly reinvent their songs. The songs change from tour to tour, year to year, the instrumentation changes, or the tempo.
Alexie: When you know music well enough — and I know it just well enough to hear the stuff inside the music — it's almost always the mistakes that are more interesting, the deviations, the errors, the recovery, the experiment inside the song.
I would love to think of being a musician-as-writer, a writer-as-musician. That's a great way to talk about it. Like I said, I really think it's why I've done well. I've been that, unofficially. Maybe by republishing Flight I'll be that officially.
Dave: What were the particular challenges of writing a book of this length? What were the opportunities? It's a lot longer than a short story, but it's only a third the length of Indian Killer.
Alexie: It was a challenge. I knew it was going to be short when I started. I felt that. Even though it had these time travel and historical elements, I knew it was going to be concise. Again, Slaughterhouse-Five being its primary influence.
I kept thinking about it as a poem, as if I was writing a really long, formal poem. So the key in my head was repetition: the same smells, the same sights, using repeated phrases the way you would use meter and rhyme in a poem. I thought that would make the book hold together more and make it more of an experience, to feel fuller.
I didn't want it to feel slight. I wanted it to feel intense.
Dave: Who makes the best fry bread?
Alexie: Ha! Wow. There's a woman on my rez, Flossie Abrahamson.
Dave: Flossie Abrahamson.
Alexie: Best of all time.
Dave: Any particular quality?
Alexie: A thin and crunchy exterior and the softest inside imaginable.
Dave: We haven't talked about the Northwest, but you live right up I-5.
Alexie: I love being from the Northwest. Certainly I take a lot of comfort and challenge in my career from being Native American, but there's something special too about being from the Pacific Northwest, which is by far the most literate region of the country and one of the most literate regions of the world. The Seattle to Portland corridor is powered by books.
I love being here in Portland. It feels like I'm directly connected to a really powerful literary culture. I'm glad I'm from here. I don't know that I'd be a writer otherwise. Recently we've gotten more respect as a literary region in terms of our writers, but I think by far we have the best readers.
Dave: It's fun when readers visit us in Portland. The American Booksellers Association held its Winter Institute here in January. Five hundred booksellers converged from around the country. It was great bringing them to Powell's. So many said, "I wish my hometown could support a bookstore this big."
We take it for granted sometimes. You don't find that everywhere.
Alexie: A few weeks ago, I was doing an interview, and the guy asked, "How many bookstores are near where you live?" I started counting bookstores within a fifteen-minute drive, used bookstores, new bookstores, chains, independents. Nineteen.
Sherman Alexie visited Powells.com on May 15, 2007. We started talking; before I knew it, an hour had passed. As will sometimes happen when a transcription runs sixteen-plus pages, bits and pieces of conversation wound up on the cutting room floor. But this belongs in here somewhere:
Alexie: There are great books about childhood. The latest one is Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, an incredible book, one of my favorite of the last few years. But that kid is not twelve. That kid — no way is that a twelve-year-old kid. That's a twelve-year-old filtered through the genius that is David Mitchell.
I worked really hard to make Zits sound like a bright fifteen-year-old. Even when he inhabits an adult body, with adult concerns, he's still very much a kid.