Song of Myself: Interview with Sherman Alexie | Under Cover

Sherman Alexie’s first YA novel, 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian’

You were born with hydrocephalus (water on the brain), and you grew up poor on the Spokane Indian Reservation with alcoholic parents. How did you learn to read by the time you were three?

Partly it was because my dad was a major genre reader. He read a lot of, like, The Executioner and The Punisher and a lot of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. He was way into the John F. Kennedy assassination; so there were dozens of those books around the house. Even though my dad was a randomly employed, blue-collar alcoholic, he was also very much into reading. And then the other thing was, ironically, because I was so sick and because Indian health service has such great contracts with major health-care providers, I ended up in a lot of therapy—physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy. Because they thought I was going to be mentally disabled, they had me in a lot of educational therapies. So my brain disease and my brain surgery got me the kind of early childhood education that I never would have gotten otherwise.

When you were five, you read The Grapes of Wrath, which remains one of your favorites. Back then, what appealed to you about the story?

Fleeing poverty. Getting in the car and going and trying to find a way, and being stopped at nearly every turn—the struggle against poverty.

You understood that concept at such a young age?

One of the things that I’ve always said is that you measure the quality of a person’s life by the age at which they had their first political thought. I was about four, standing in line to get government food on the reservation. And it struck me that all over the news I was watching Russians standing in line to get government food—and they were the enemy.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is the tale of a 14-year-old Native American who transfers to an all-white school in hopes of finding a better life. Essentially, it’s your real-life story. Why not just write a memoir?

The material in True Diary was actually first part of a memoir. I’ve been working on a family memoir about my family’s history with war. So I wrote this entire huge section about the first year I spent at the white high school, and it didn’t fit whatsoever, thematically. So I put it aside. I had 450 manuscript pages that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Then a YA editor called me, as she had been calling me over the years, about every six months: “So where’s that YA novel?” She called me on this day that I had printed out those pages, and as I was talking to her, I was looking at my desktop and there was the manuscript, sitting there, and I thought, “Wow! I think that’s a novel.” So it was really sort of a coincidence. And then partly I made it a novel simply because—this is weird to say—nobody would actually believe it as a memoir.

Boys are going to love the book, because it’s funny and entertaining and has great illustrations. Also, one of its characters equates the joy of reading to getting a “metaphorical boner.” Did you coin that phrase or did you hear it in high school?

All my metaphorical and metaphysical boners are recent.

How did you come up with it?

It was literally while lying in bed, talking to my wife about loving books and loving her—and loving her and books together.

You’re a successful poet, novelist, screenplay writer, and filmmaker. Did you ever imagine your life would turn out so well?

You know, I worked hard, and I got lucky. I always think of that movie Broadcast News, when William Hurt says to Albert Brooks, “What do you do when your reality exceeds your dreams?” And Albert Brooks says, “You keep quiet about it.”

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