Sherman Alexie: By the Book

Sherman Alexie: By the Book

Published: November 7, 2013,

Sunday Book Review, New York Times

The author of “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” would love to go on a date with Dorothy Parker and “get verbally eviscerated.”

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.” It’s an examination of one cult religion but can also be read as a primer on the basic cultlike nature of all religions.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I am a very promiscuous reader. Anytime, anywhere. But my favorite place to read is in a hot bath, late at night, with a big glass of ice water.

Who are your favorite novelists?

My favorite novelists and short-story writers are Louise Erdrich, Michael Connelly, Lorrie Moore, James Welch, Toni Morrison, Dennis Lehane, Kelly Link, David Markson, Mo Hayder, Ralph Ellison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Aimee Bender, Jim Carroll and Colin Harrison.

And your favorite poets?

James Wright, Erica Dawson, Emily Dickinson, C. K. Williams, Ai, Adrian C. Louis, Catherine Pierce, James Welch and A. E. Stallings.

Any new books by Native American authors you would recommend? And your all-time favorite literary works by Native Americans? 

Stephen Graham Jones, a Blackfeet Indian, has written tons of sci-fi, horror, crime and experimental fiction. He’s not new but should certainly be read by many more people. My favorite work of Native American literature is “Ceremony,” by Leslie Marmon Silko.

Who is your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer?

One of my favorite writers, Colin Harrison, writes amazing crime novels that aren’t feted as they should be. The last one I read, “The Havana Room,” begins with a peanut-allergy-related death that will rip your heart and guts and lungs out through your belly button.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of?

I tend to read books that feature crime, criminals and justice. I stay clear of any book with “Native American spirituality” in the description.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

The collected Harold Bloom!

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

“The Basketball Diaries,” by Jim Carroll. My dad gave it to me for my 15th birthday. He thought it was only about basketball. But it’s a book about heroin addiction, Catholic guilt, teenage sex, soul sickness and basketball. This book, above all others, is the reason I write.

What book has had the greatest impact on you? 

“Fire Water World: Poems,” by Adrian C. Louis. It’s the best example of free-verse Reservation Noir ever. And remains one of my guideposts.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? 

I imagine that he’s already read it, but I would require “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown.

Did you grow up with a lot of books? What are your memories of being read to as a child?

My father read all the time. Our house was filled with cheap paperbacks. But I don’t recall anybody ever reading to me. Instead, I’d grab a book and read alongside my dad.

Do you have a favorite childhood literary character or hero? 

Daredevil, the Man Without Fear. A blind and very mortal superhero. I pretended he was part Indian.

What writers inspire you?

I’m a fanboy vacuum. I inhale everything and find influence in most of it, from Shakespeare to “Serenity,” from Jane Austen to “Austin City Limits,” from “Native Son” to “Breaking Bad.”

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I always have this reflexive animosity toward the new hot writers like Karen Russell or Chad Harbach, so I buy their books, read the first page and then set them aside for months. Eventually, I go back, read the books and discover, of course, that the books are great. It’s my literary pathology.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know? 

I would love to go on a first date with Dorothy Parker and get verbally eviscerated.

If you could meet any character from literature, who would it be? 

Bill Denbrough from Stephen King’s “It.” A brave man who was braver as a boy. And a stutterer like me.

What’s next on your reading list?

“Fooling Houdini,” by Alex Stone. I’m a dork about magic.

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