Author Sherman Alexie Talks 'Flight'
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
Call me Zits. It's not quite as memorable as call me Ishmael, but arresting nonetheless. The 15-year-old narrator of Sherman Alexie's new novel, "Flight," is half Native American, half Irish. He's never seen his father. His mother died when he was six, and he shuttled through dozens of neglectful and abusive foster homes.
So Zits is a little, shall we say, angry. He finds himself in the middle of a bank, about to gun down random customers when he's transported through time and space before coming back as himself in the end.
So who can carry off a novel about a time traveling, mixed race, teenager with homicidal tendencies? Sherman Alexie, who joins us from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle to talk about his book.
If you have questions for him, call us at 1-800-989-8255, or e-mail
Sherman Alexie, welcome to the show.
Mr. SHERMAN ALEXIE (Author, "Flight"): Thank you. It's great to be here.
ROBERTS: So there's this initial story where we meet Zits, and then he ends up in the bodies of other people, in other times in American history, other ages, and witnesses memorable events. How did you end up deciding to take that narrative tack in this story?
Mr. ALEXIE: Well, the book started off with one idea. I was watching a documentary about 9/11 a couple of years back, and they interviewed one of the flight instructors who taught the terrorists how to fly. And in watching it, I was so struck by his sense of personal betrayal.
He was talking about one of the terrorists and said, you know, I taught him how to fly, and he would come to my house and we would drink and tell stories. And sometimes he'd be too drunk to drive home, so he would sleep on my couch. And the instructor just kept saying he was my friend, he was my friend.
So that sense of personal betrayal, when compared to the epic crime, that combination just hit me. So I started writing about that, but then I started thinking about other moments of incredible violence in United States history and what story hadn't been told about that particular act of violence. And so I started writing about other eras.
And I couldn't figure out how to connect them, these different eras of violence - the Battle of Little Bighorn, the political activism among American-Indian movement members in the '70s.
And then I read "Slaughterhouse-Five" - I reread "Slaughterhouse-Five," Kurt Vonnegut's time travel novel where his character - highly autobiographical character Billy Pilgrim - comes unstuck in time. And it's about World War II and the bombing of Dresden and concentration camps and, you know, space planets. And I thought, well, if Vonnegut can do it, I'll try - desperately.
ROBERTS: My guest is Sherman Alexie. His new book is called "Flight." The number to call: 800-989-8255. Or e-mail: email@example.com.
So ultimately, is this a study of violence, do you think? It's certainly sort of a journey of understanding violence for the main character.
Mr. ALEXIE: Well, you know, it's funny. The response to it, which I thought would be interesting, has been about half positive and half negative. So that's been very fascinating to watch, because it was, for me, a very - a book of an idea. The notion that violence is perpetuated on both sides, you know, of any conflict, you know.
And I just heard your news blurb before the show, and I thought - they've extended the tours of soldiers by another three months, and, you know, that made me sit back in my chair because the violence goes on and on. And however you feel about it, whichever side of this war you're on, it's the violence goes on and on and on. Both sides committing incredible acts of pain and suffering. And it never ends.
So that was very much in my head, how to talk about war in a different way. And the idea that, you know, even at Little Bighorn, people talk about it as being this incredible victory for Indians. And it was, certainly. But nobody ever talks about what the Indians did afterwards, which was commit these incredible acts of mutilation and torture.
And so at what point did it stop being a military victory of the oppressed and become just another series of war crimes and crimes against humanity? This is what my character witnesses there, those incredible mutilations.
ROBERTS: And it's been 10 years since you wrote a novel. Did you consciously choose this forum for this message? Was there something about a novel as opposed to a screenplay or an article that you felt lent itself to talking about these issues?
Mr. ALEXIE: Well, it's - I haven't published a novel in 10 years. I've written (unintelligible)…
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROBERTS: An interesting distinction.
Mr. ALEXIE: Yes, it's very interesting. I wrote one about Indians trying to build a disco in the '70s that was awful, so I didn't publish that. No, this book came to me in the midst of while I was writing another one. I do have another novel coming out this fall, a young-adult novel called "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," and this book arrived in the middle of it.
There was this - my other character is highly autobiographical, and his life is not nearly as strange and as violent as Zits' is. But I kept having these visions and these feelings, and I think the Iraq war really is what made me write this book, the continual sense of failure, turning on the news all the time, the constant death, my sons who are nine and five asking me now for a couple years what is happening? Why does this keep happening? And them hearing that the country is growing increasingly against it and it's still happening.
So it was, for me, a way of trying to deal with all those unanswered questions about why this current war continues.
ROBERTS: On the other hand, I mean without giving away the ending, it's a very hopeful, optimistic ending, and it sounds like some of the inspiration came from a place of sort of being exhausted and depressed by violence.
Mr. ALEXIE: Well, I guess it was a form of prayer for me, I think. Maybe it was my way of hoping that something positive happens or hoping to be hopeful. Certainly a couple of reviews have been really negative about the idea of this book ending with some sense of hope, and that made me laugh because I thought, you know, my entire career, I've been rewarded for my cynicism, and I'm being punished for my optimism now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ALEXIE: And so, you know, I wrote it a number of ways, the ending, and I did write it, you know, tragically ending and not tragically ending and more ambiguous; and in the end, the most honest feeling for me was to end it with at least some sense of hope. So I did it.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Ann in Detroit. Ann, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
ANN (Caller): Thank you. I just have a comment for Mr. Alexie. And I heard you speak a couple of years ago in the Traverse City area, and I admire so much your ability to blend a sense of humor with some very serious and sometimes shocking material, but, you know, things that people need to hear. And sometimes the only way they can hear them is when there's also a sense of humor blended in with it, and I really admire that so much.
ROBERTS: Thanks, Ann.
Mr. ALEXIE: Yeah, that's one thing we haven't talked about is this book is funny. Zits narrates is, and in a lot of ways it is a very self-absorbed, narcissistic 15-year-old boy…
ROBERTS: Which is redundant, you know.
Mr. ALEXIE: Yeah, that's true. He's very smart and very funny and is, you know, literally doesn't take anything seriously, or at least pretends not to. So I think that whole mocking tone really fits him. And in a sense, I'm like that, I guess, growing up in a culture of storytellers and, you know, highly indigenous stand-up comedians. It's just my natural way of communicating.
ROBERTS: Well, you know, since you got a lot of recognition for "Smoke Signals," to some degree you've been sort of everyone's favorite Native-American, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROBERTS: You've spoken for a people an awful lot, and in this book you take on that stereotype of the alcoholic Indian, and Zits hates that stereotype. On the other hand, his father embodies it. Does that to some degree indicate your ambivalence?
Mr. ALEXIE: Well, you know, I certainly get tired of people calling the alcoholic Indian a stereotype. It's not. It's a cold, damp reality. We have a major problem with alcoholism among Native-Americans; and as an individual artist and as an individual human being, I am a recovering alcoholic, so it's part of my daily life. My mother, my father - and in fact my father died three years ago of alcohol-related kidney failure after being on dialysis for seven years.
You know, my sisters and brothers are all alcoholics. My aunts, cousins are all alcoholics in one stage of recovery or another. So it is my life, and it is what I've known, and it continues to be what I've known. I'm very curious to find out how many writers of, you know, my career size have had their fathers die of kidney failure because they wouldn't stop drinking. So I write about it because it continues to be an active and daily part of my life.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Paul in Carson City, Nevada. Paul, welcome to the show.
PAUL (Caller): Hi, how are you doing? Thanks for taking my call.
PAUL: Sherman, you were here in Reno a few weeks ago, and I meant to ask you a very serious question which I never got to. You were talking about the American mosaic. And I realized you were a basketball player, and I look around in the NBA and I see lots of stars from all over the world. And so I am and interested and curious: When are we going to see the next Sherman Alexie starting power forward for the Seattle SuperSonics?
(Soundbite of laughter)
PAUL: You know, I think it's a great question. I'm sorry I didn't ask it then. I'll take the call off the air.
ROBERTS: Thanks, Paul.
Mr. ALEXIE: Yeah, I grew up playing a lot of basketball and played against a lot of far superior players.
ROBERTS: Did you play power forward?
Mr. ALEXIE: No, I'm 6'2". I'm a guard. But I played against a lot of great players who played Division I college, who played in the NBA, who played in various other professional leagues. And I have played against many Indians who never went to college, who barely graduated high school or didn't graduate high school, who were every bit as talented.
So there is enough talent in the Indian world for some Indian to actually become an NBA basketball player, but it has not happened. There have been players with Indian heritage, but there hasn't been a Native-American professional basketball player who became a regular for all sorts of social and political reasons. So I hope that our continuing progress as citizens, as capitalists, as college-educated folks helps one of us become an NBA player. That would be great.
ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
My guest is Sherman Alexie. His latest book is called "Fight." You can join us at 800-989-8255 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. This is Noah in Norman, Oklahoma. Noah, welcome to the program.
NOAH (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to add to the person who had said earlier that he had blended well laughter with violence, and I thought that Heinlein says in "Stranger in a Strange Land" that Michael Valentine Smith could never learn how to laugh until he saw something very, very painful, and only then was he able to understand why humans would laugh. And I think that oftentimes you'll find that when a person is able to best deal with violence and pain and suffering, it's the person that is able to, you know, accept that life is bad, but things are humorous at the same time.
ROBERTS: Thanks, Noah.
Mr. ALEXIE: Well, yeah, one of my standard observations is that, you know, the two funniest groups of human beings I've ever been around are Indians and Jewish folks. So I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide and the power of…
ROBERTS: Now there's a phrase you don't hear very much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ALEXIE: Yeah. So - and it's true. And I found that all sorts of people really respond to that in positive and negative ways. You know, one of the criticisms of my work in general, my entire career, and of "Flight," the new book, in particular is the humor. You know, I get called all sort - you know, shallow and glib, and I have found that the people who are least funny are the ones who can't handle humor. So it even makes me want to be more funny and more sarcastic and cynical and mocking.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Laurel(ph) in San Antonio. Laurel, welcome to the program.
LAUREL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
LAUREL: I wanted to thank Sherman Alexie for his books and for his work. I've enjoyed it. I did an American Indian literature class last year. I just wanted to say that an event happened to me yesterday that really affected me. I visited a local museum here in San Antonio, and in amongst the treasure of the collection was a ghost dance dress from Wounded Knee. And it was on display in a relatively respectful manner but without the necessary context necessary to understand it, and it was like a trophy still.
And, you know, I've talked to a couple people about this. I understand and resonate with the humor of the need to survive alcoholic families, genocides, but the violence is - the violence of that event being on display just right in front of you without any warning - are you there? It is My Lai, it is Dachau, it is Haditha, it is Darfur, and until we recognize the history and are willing to confront it…
ROBERTS: You know what, Laurel? I'm going to let you go just because your phone line is cutting in and out and give Sherman Alexie a chance to respond.
Mr. ALEXIE: Well, my initial response to that is - one of the things I've gotten into trouble lately for, too, is I've become very pro-American.
ROBERTS: That's gotten you into trouble with whom?
Mr. ALEXIE: With liberals. You know, in the age of Bush, you know, during this administration, the anti-American sentiments have really bothered me. You know, I live in a country where I get to say exactly what I want. Watch this. Listen, everybody, I hate President Bush. You know what's going to happen when I…
ROBERTS: Did you burst into flame?
Mr. ALEXIE: Nope, I didn't burst into flame.
ROBERTS: We didn't get pulled off the air.
Mr. ALEXIE: Nope. I'm going to get my haircut here, you know, in 20 minutes so I look pretty next week on my book tour. So, you know, the ghost dance museum piece - you know, I don't know how I feel about it being in a museum, but it also is emblematic of how much things have improved.
I was in an Indian casino a couple months ago, and Jay Leno walked through the lobby. So, you know, if Native-Americans are not completely mainstream right now, you know, I don't know what would define that better than Jay Leno walking through the middle of an Indian casino because he's performing that night.
So we've come a long ways, and it's the current situation that bothers me. It's, you know, John McCain walking through Baghdad saying it's safe when he's guarded by 18 Apache helicopters and 47 Delta soldiers.
ROBERTS: Sherman Alexie, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. ALEXIE: Thank you.
ROBERTS: Sherman Alexie's new book is called "Flight." He joined us from KUOW in Seattle. Neal Conan is back tomorrow with a special broadcast from Tucson, Arizona. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.
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