Authors: Sherman Alexie
Tags: #Adult, #Humour
sound of the heartbeat, of the deer running through the green pine forest, of the eagle singing its way through the sky.”
“Don’t pull that Indian shaman crap on me,” my mother said.
So my mother certainly wasn’t impressed by my indigenous rhetoric, but she would have been deliriously happy if I’d become a messianic doctor or lawyer (or a doctor or lawyer with only a messiah complex) and saved the tribe. In a capitalistic sense, that’s what the tribe needed (and still needs). But I was a former premedicine major who couldn’t handle human anatomy, and I knew far too many lawyers, so I chose the third most lucrative pursuit: small-press poetry.
My family was surprised, but they weren’t disappointed. Since I was one of the few people from my tribe to ever go to college, I was already a success story. My mother worked a series of low-wage social-work jobs for the tribe, and my father was a randomly employed blue-collar alcoholic. I made more money delivering pizzas than they did while working far more important jobs. I might have been considered a black sheep if I’d come from a more financially successful family, but my literary ambitions made me a white sheep, albeit a lamb who published in tiny poetry magazines like
The Black Bear Review, Giants Play Well in the Drizzle, Impetus,
Don’t get me wrong. I was excited and proud to be a publishing poet (and still have copies of every journal where I’ve been published), but I also kept my day job as a program information coordinator (secretary) for People to People, a high school international-exchange program in Spokane. I knew that I would eventually return to college (I left three credits shy of my B.A. in American studies), get that degree, and then trudge through graduate school in creative writing. But I was in no hurry to do that. I just wanted to write my poems (and the occasional story) and live as cheaply as possible. I knew how to live in poverty, having grown up on an American third-world reservation, so my urban six-dollars-an-hour job was almost luxurious.
New York Times Book Review
editor named Rich Nicholls changed my life when he noticed
The Business of Fancydancing
lying in an office slush pile. As he later told me, he thought the cover was extraordinarily beautiful—it featured a surreal photograph of a Navajo fancydancer that some readers wrongly assumed was my self-portrait—and that was the primary reason he picked it up and flipped through the pages. He assigned the book, as well as a few others as part of a survey of contemporary Native American literature, to James Kincaid, an English professor at the University of Southern California. My Hanging Loose editors were shocked to hear one of their books was being reviewed, because there are Pulitzer Prize–winning poets whose books don’t get covered in the Times. And more shocking, my book was part of a front-page review. Yep, right there on the cover of the
Times Book Review
was a photograph of some Indian guy on a motorcycle (I’m terrified of any vehicle with less than four wheels), and inside that review was Mr. Kincaid declaring me “one of the major lyric voices of our time.”
I was sitting at my desk at People to People when my Hanging Loose editor, Bob Hershon, faxed me an advance copy of the review. I read it once, ran to the bathroom to throw up, then returned to my desk to read one sentence again and again: “Mr. Alexie’s is one of the major lyric voices of our time.”
As Keanu Reeves, the Hawaiian balladeer, would say, “Whoa.”
I didn’t believe I was one of the major lyric voices of our time (though I’m probably in the top 503 by now), but I guessed that review was going to help my career. In fact, that review tossed my ass over the stadium fence directly into the big leagues. After Kincaid’s compliments went public, I started receiving phone calls from agents and editors. Many phone calls. Dozens of calls. A Hollywood producer interrogated me.
“Are the film rights available?” he asked.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “But you know it’s a book of poems?”
“What do you mean, a book of poems?”
“I mean, poems, you know, with skinny lines, stanzas, mostly free verse, but some rhyming stuff, too. My mom thinks they’re pretty cool.”
“You mean poem poems?”
“Do your poems tell a story?”
“Most of them are narrative.”
“That’s good, that’s good. Could you send me a copy of the book?”
“You haven’t read it?”
“No,” he said. “But I read the review. The review was great.”
Dozens of agents and editors loved the review (though I wonder how many of them had read the book), and they all wanted to know if I wrote fiction.
“Well,” I said to them. “It’s not just a book of poetry. There are four short stories in there, too. And a lot of prose poems.”
“But do you write fiction?”
“I have a manuscript of short stories. There must be thirty or forty stories in it.”
“But do you write fiction?”
I didn’t realize that “fiction” was a synonym for “Sure, we’ll publish your book of obscure short stories as long as we can also publish your slightly less obscure first novel as part of a two-book deal.”
I was terrified by all of these big-time agents and editors, and especially of one particular agent, who enjoyed more fame and fortune than any of her clients did.
“Send me the manuscript today,” the famous agent ordered.
Bullied, terrified, and naive, I sent her my manuscript of short stories, glacially printed out by a five-hundred-dollar Brother word processor.
“You’re not ready,” she said after she’d read them. “I’ll take you on as a client, but we’re going to have to work on these stories for a year or two before I send them out to publishers.”
I was shocked. I had been dreaming about immediate fame and fortune.
“But wait,” I said. “I thought I was one of the major lyric voices of our time.”
“According to the manuscript I’ve got sitting in front of me, you’re not even one of the major lyric voices on my desk.”
Ouch. That one really hurt. And this woman wanted to be my agent? Was that how agents were supposed to talk to their clients? And who the hell was I, calling myself one of the major lyric voices of our time? I was wondering if I should get business cards that identified me as such, or perhaps leave it on my answering machine.
Hello, you’ve reached Sherman Alexie, one of the major lyric voices of our time. Please leave a message if you’re not too intimidated and I’ll get back to you, with my versatile and mellifluous voice, as soon as possible.
Of course, these days my wife, Diane, only refers to me as “one of the major lyric voices of our time” when I stutter or mispronounce a word or say something so inane and arrogant that it defies logic. A few years ago, as we argued about the potential danger in using a cracked coffeepot, I shouted, “You can’t heat cracked glass! It will shatter! I majored in chemistry! I know glass! What do you know about glass?”
Yep, I have just offered you scientific proof of the majorness of my voice.
“But the thing is,” I said to the famous agent. “I think my stories are pretty good. And I hate to be repetitive, but they said I’m one of the major lyric voices of our time.”
“These stories are not major. But you’ve got potential. I’m a great editor. If we take it slow, we can make this book the best it can be.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was hoping things would go much faster.”
“Going fast would be a mistake for you.”
“I don’t want to go slow. I can’t afford to go slow.”
“Then we won’t be working together. Call me if you change your mind.”
She hung up without saying good-bye. I’d always heard of people who hung up without saying good-bye. I’d seen them on television and in movies, but I’d never talked to somebody who hung up without saying good-bye. She remains the only person I know who has ever hung up on me without saying good-bye.
I still owe her a phone call.
I would love to call her up and say, “Well, Miss Fifteen Percent, we published this book at the speed of the light, and it’s now in its 1,220,342nd printing, and it was the basis for a really cool movie called Smoke Signals. Maybe you’ve heard of the movie? It was released by Miramax, yes, Miramax, that’s spelled M-I-R-A-M-A-X, and the movie won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. Yes, that’s
Robert Freaking Redford’s Sundance Film Festival!
And I’ve published one million books since that first one, and I’ve hugged Stephen King and been kissed on the cheek by Ally Sheedy and sat in a big couch in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s living room while my feet dangled off the floor, so perhaps you were wrong about EVERYTHING! And by the way, what do you know about glass?”
As they say, revenge is a dish best served with the introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition of a book of short stories.
Eventually, despite my narcissism and naïveté, and thanks to the recommendations of friends, I met the agent Nancy Stauffer Cahoon, who, after reading my manuscript, said something beautiful and surprising.
“That story, ‘Flight,’ the one about the kid and the jet,” she said. “That reminds me of James Tate’s poem ‘The Lost Pilot.’”
“Wow,” I said, falling in literary love. “That story was directly influenced by that poem. Nobody has ever noticed that.”
“You had me at hello,” Renée Zellweger said to Tom Cruise.
“You had me at James Tate,” I said to Nancy.
Okay, I didn’t really say that to her. But I was impressed that she talked to me first in artistic terms and only later in financial terms. I hired her immediately (or does the agent hire the writer?), worked with her to edit the manuscript, and immediately cut “Flight” and a dozen other stories. As a sentimental gesture, I’ve added “Flight” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” to this edition. I think we deleted “Flight” from the original book because it sounds more like children’s literature and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” because it contains themes more adroitly covered in other stories. Read them for yourself and decide whether we should have kept them.
After Nancy and I got the manuscript into shape, we sent it to twelve or fifteen publishers and set up an auction date. I was going to be auctioned as a literate steer! On a Friday in January 1993, six or eight publishers joined the bidding. During the auction, I updated Bob Hershon, my Hanging Loose god, and Diane, my new girlfriend (and now wife). By the end of the day, Morgan Entrekin and Atlantic Monthly Press had won the auction; then published the book in September 1993. During the twenty-seven-city book tour that followed, I worked with and became friends with, and owe many thanks to, Morgan, Judy Hottensen, Miwa Messer, and Eric Price, my original Dream Team at Grove.
Grove won that original auction with an amount of cash that absolutely boggled my mind. My parents hadn’t made that much money in the last ten years combined. I ran outside, jumped into a snowbank, and made angels.
I was rich, rich, rich. Okay, to be more accurate, I was middle-class, middle-class, middle-class. But that was a huge leap. I was the first Alexie to ever become middle-class and all because I wrote stories and poems about being a poor Indian growing up in an alcoholic family on an alcoholic reservation.
This book could have easily been titled
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Get Drunk, Fistfight, and Then Fall into Each Other’s Arms and Confess Their Undying Platonic Love for Each Other in Heaven Followed by a Long Evening of Hot Dog Regurgitation and Public Urination.
When the book was first published, I was (and continue to be) vilified in certain circles for my alcohol-soaked stories. Rereading them, I suppose my critics have a point. Everybody in this book is drunk or in love with a drunk. And in writing about drunk Indians, I am dealing with stereotypical material. But I can only respond with the truth. In my family, counting parents, siblings, and dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, there are less than a dozen who are currently sober, and only a few who have never drank. When I write about the destructive effects of alcohol on Indians, I am not writing out of a literary stance or a colonized mind’s need to reinforce stereotypes. I am writing autobiography.
When this book was first reviewed, people often commented on its autobiographical nature, and that always pissed me off.
“You see the description on the book,” I would say. “It says ‘Fiction.’ That’s what this book is.”
Of course, I was full of shit. This book is a thinly disguised memoir. I was a child at the crazy New Year’s Eve party depicted in “Every Little Hurricane.” My mother did punch another woman in the face during that party. My father and cousin did break through the basement door while playing full-contact Nerf basketball and roll down the stairs together. The best truth about that story is that my mother did stop drinking after that horrible night and has remained sober since. The worst truth? My father never did get sober. He was in residential treatment a few times, attended dozens of AA meetings, took Antabuse, made endless promises to his family and himself, but ended up on dialysis machines during his last years and lost a foot to diabetes before he passed away in March 2003. O my drunk and lovely father! He was one of the Indians who tossed his drunken friend onto the roller coaster in “Amusements.” How could one Indian have done such a thing to another Indian? I never asked my father why he did it, but I wrote a story about why I thought it happened, and even after my father read the story, I still didn’t have the courage to ask him why he did it. How lame is that?
What else is true? My best friend, Steve, and I traveled to Phoenix to pick up his father’s ashes just like Victor and Thomas do in “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” though the fictional father was much more like my father than Steve’s. And yes, there was a flexible gymnast on the airplane during the trip who told Steve and me that she was the first alternate on the 1984 Olympic team. Is that woman out there somewhere? Does she remember two Indian guys sitting across from her on a Morris Air flight from Spokane through Salt Lake City to Phoenix?