A book by Sherman Alexie—whether a novel, a screenplay or a book of poems—is always an event, and sometimes a long-awaited one: though Alexie is always busy, he publishes at a deliberate pace. Blasphemy, a generous selection of previously published short stories mixed with new ones, is a case in point; readers who came to know Alexie’s work through the early The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven will see in it two decades’ worth of artistic growth, while those new to him will find it a sweeping introduction to his work and all its intelligence, righteous anger and good humor.
Kirkus contributing editor Gregory McNamee caught up with Alexie, who was born and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation, in Tacoma, Wash., where his sons were participating in a Pokemon tournament. Apart from talking about Blasphemy, Alexie also revealed that he has something new starring Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor Joseph in the works.
You’ve produced a large body of work in the last 20 years or so, and in many genres, including poems, screenplays, novels and short stories. Given this abundance, did you have any difficulties in deciding what to select or any regrets in having to leave anything out of Blasphemy?
The first eight or nine stories in the book were easy, and, together and separately, the editor and I pretty much agreed on them. A couple of them were overt and obvious, based on the reaction to them over the years. But beyond that she and I battled a bit. It was fun. We compromised. We fought for stories. Some of them were so old that they almost didn’t feel like stories that I had written... so I was able to be very cruel with my own work. She was defending me against me at various points.
There’s one story in particular that seems a bit apart from other work, and it has a kind of shocking violence to it. I mean “Basic Training,” one of your new stories. When I read it, I certainly found myself wondering whether that was one over which there was any controversy.
My editor just said, “Horse lovers are gonna freak.”
It illustrates one of the things that is so valuable about your work: It gives us glimpses of places into which we would never think to go. That’s one of them.
Yeah. It’s been a surprise. I’ve read the story a couple of times at colleges, one in Kansas, and I’m surprised how many people have never heard of donkey basketball. They thought I made it up. People know me as an Indian writer, but they don’t necessarily think of me as being small-town, especially not small-farm-town. My relationship with livestock is just as influential to me as my relationship with eagle feathers.
It may be like asking a prolific parent to pick a favorite child, but I’ll hazard it anyway. Do you have a particular favorite among the stories here?
I don’t think it’s necessarily the best story, but in terms of emotional connection, it’s “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” the story of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor Joseph. It’s the basis of the movie Smoke Signals. The whole ride from true event to short story to movie is emotional for me, good and bad. That story is certainly my favorite.
Bits and pieces of your own life turn up in your stories, as they do in just about every writer’s work. For a future biographer, which story is the closest to events, and which the most remote? For the sake of donkeys everywhere, we'll hope that the answer to the latter isn’t “Basic Training.”
No, it’s not “Basic Training.” Hmm. It’d be one of the old ones. Oh, “Indian Education”—that’s straight-up autobiography, with just four or five things changed to make it fiction.
There’s a line in one of your stories, “The most intense competition on any reservation is Indians versus Indians.” You’re known, though, for encouraging younger Indian artists. Who are the up-and-coming writers we should be looking out for out on the horizon?
There are amazing poets: Orlando White, S. G. Frazier, Esther Belin. There are no fiction writers, really. The youngest one who’s having a career is Stephen Graham Jones, and he's been around for 20 years. It’s not like when I was a young writer, when there were 40 Indian writers with big-time reputations—Simon Ortiz, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Silko, Scott Momaday, Linda Hogan, James Welch. No new Indian writer has really launched into the national consciousness since Susan Power in 1995.
Why do you suppose that is?
I don’t know. I have theories. I think it’s because of the diminishing of independent bookstores. The people who run them are the ones who read brown people. The online bookstores are culturally agnostic. For them, a book by Snooki is just as good as one by Jonathan Franzen.
A volume of collected stories often accompanies a turn of some sort—an abandonment of the form for another kind of writing, a companion new novel, that sort of thing. Does Blasphemy signal any such change?
Well, a little bit. The new stories aren’t necessarily Indian-centric. Race and culture are not specifically the main issue.
So I guess you could say that that’s a shift. Some of the stories are even narrated by white people. That’s not to say that I’ve become a member of the colonizing force. No matter what success I have, I’m still a member of the colonized.