In case anyone is wondering, Sherman Alexie is doing just fine.
Alexie’s publicity tour for his new memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” had been going great guns this summer when he began feeling haunted by the subject of his book: his mother, Lillian, who died in 2015. He started seeing her everywhere — in a handmade quilt that hung near a hotel elevator; in an airport valet sign that bore her name; in the sirens that went off three nights running, always at the moment he was telling audiences the story of her death. He felt himself breaking down. He wept, a lot. He realized that he needed to grieve in a more private way. He canceled his events for most of July and all of August, and he went home.
It was, he says, the right thing to do.
“For the first time in my life, I pulled off the freeway and got a motel room before crashing,” Alexie said in a recent phone interview from his home in Seattle. He will be in St. Paul on Sept. 14 to open this year’s Talking Volumes, the Star Tribune/Minnesota Public Radio book series.
“Instead of crashing, I averted a crisis,” he went on. “Which generally I don’t have the foresight to do. So I’m good, and I knew immediately it was the right decision.”
At home, the visions of his mother ended. For seven weeks, he wrote, read and shot hoops. He lay on the couch. “It’s really been a very quiet, typical writer’s life for that extended period,” he said.
Quiet is unusual for Alexie. “That’s one of the things I think aspiring writers don’t understand — that a successful writing career becomes a job.” Touring, speaking, interviewing, meeting fans — “the public life gets in the way of the private life,” he said. “And it’s the private life that’s required to be able to write.”
Alexie was not complaining. “It’s the problem that every writer wants,” he said. “I’ve always been really adept at keeping that separation.” But writing the memoir “exploded that boundary,” he said.
“I didn’t anticipate feeling this way. I definitely underestimated my mother.”
Back on the road
Lillian Alexie’s life was violent from the beginning: She was born of rape. She drank heavily until one terrifying New Year’s Eve when Sherman was 7 years old — and then never again. But her intense bouts of rage never abated.
Lillian lived her whole life on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash. She was a quilt maker and a keeper of the culture and traditions, one of the last native speakers of the Spokane language, one who always brought food to the funerals she attended (and she attended them all).
She also might have been bipolar, Alexie said, although she was never diagnosed. In his book, he recounts how, when he was a boy, she once threw a “mostly full can of Pepsi” at his head, knocking him unconscious. When he came to, “my mother was still quilting,” he writes. “I don’t know if she even moved from the couch after she’d knocked me out. Maybe she’d thought I was faking it. That’s the only way to justify the fact that she hadn’t sought to help me.”
But Alexie’s memoir — his 26th book — is not a “Mommie Dearest” screed. It is steeped in love and sorrow and feelings in conflict. Lillian was his mother, after all, and Alexie clearly loved her (and sometimes hated her, he admits). The book is told through narrative and poetry.
The poems came first, “a poetry explosion” in the aftermath of her death, he said. “I must have written at least 100 poems in the three or four months after her death. So I thought I had a book of poems.”
But then Alexie underwent surgery for what turned out to be a benign brain tumor, “and after a few months of recovery, my brain kicked in again and it came out with nonfiction. So apparently for me a tumor removal causes nonfiction.”
Now that he’s back on tour, Alexie plans to be careful not to conjure up his mother’s ghost again. He’s doing only two appearances in conjunction with the memoir — Talking Volumes, and the New Yorker Festival in early October. And he’ll be doing things a little differently. “I’m not performing the book,” he said. “I’m getting interviewed. That’s a whole different thing.” If he’s asked questions that he doesn’t want to answer, he won’t answer them.
“I’ll put my armor back on,” he said.
‘True Diary’ anniversary
Alexie’s other events this fall will be in connection with the 10th anniversary of his award-winning young-adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
That book is fiction, but it tells some of the same stories that Alexie tells more fully in the memoir. “True Diary” is a very funny, sometimes bawdy story of a teenage boy on the Spokane Reservation — a boy a lot like Alexie once was.
Critics loved this book (“It’s humane, authentic and, most of all, it speaks,” the Guardian of London wrote; the New York Times called it “a gem of a book”), but not all parents do. Although it won a National Book Award, “True Diary” appears consistently on lists of books parents asked to have removed from schools. In 2014, it was No. 1 on that list.
Earlier this year, a parent in the New London-Spicer School District in Minnesota petitioned to have it removed, calling it “immoral drivel.” (The petition was denied.) The book was also challenged this year in California and Wisconsin.
None of this surprises Alexie, who isn’t angry but is sharply plain-spoken in his response.
“If you did a Venn diagram of people who tried to ban my book and people who voted for Donald Trump, I think you’ll find they’re the same circle,” he said. “And if you voted for an inartful vulgarian like Trump, then I don’t think you get to ban anything. Your moral compass is spinning. You don’t get to be the arbiter anymore.”
Tough stories, told funny
Alexie, 50, grew up on the Spokane Reservation but realized by the time he was 12 that if he wanted a good education, he would have to leave.
“During the first few days of seventh grade, I opened my math book and saw my mother’s maiden name written on the inside cover,” he writes in the memoir. This discovery made him so angry he threw the book across the room (“and impaled it three inches deep into the wall”) — not because the book had belonged to his mother, but because he realized he was being taught from a 30-year-old textbook.
When he got home from school, he asked his parents if he could leave the reservation school and go somewhere better.
“My mother, despite all the pain she caused me, saved my life twice,” Alexie writes. “The first time, in 1973, she saved my siblings and me when she stopped drinking. … And then she saved my life again when she let me walk away” from the reservation in 1979.
That story (also told in “True Diary,” in slightly different form) is representative of a lot of the stories Alexie tells. It’s tough, a little violent, and it reveals society’s deep indifference to the lives of people who live on reservations. And yet in print, on stage and in person, Alexie is funny. Audiences respond to his warmth and self-deprecating humor, the jokes he tells with a half-smile and sometimes with a deep booming laugh.
This wasn’t always the case. “A reporter once asked my sister what it was like growing up with such a funny man — me,” he said. “And she said, ‘He wasn’t the funny one.’ Yeah, it’s true. I was the morose kid in the basement playing Dungeons and Dragons by myself. I have become funny. I think my adult ceremony was learning how to be funny. My vision quest was going into the mountains and coming back with comic timing.”
And once he learned it, it was addictive. “Getting a crowd to laugh is heroin,” he said. “Omigod. Forget about the opioid crisis for me, man. My opioid is making people laugh.”
Label him. But label yourself
Alexie is aware of the labels that often go in front of his name: Native American writer. Indian writer. Seldom just “writer.” That is not what bothers him.
“I’m very much a Native American writer,” he said. “The problem is not my identifier. The problem is that white writers don’t get called ‘white writers.’ White writers are every bit as racially and tribally and culturally identified as everybody else. A Minnesota white guy is a very distinct kind of white guy. An upstate New York white guy and a Minnesota white guy are two different species of white guy.
“So if you want to combat the racism in the literary world, white people need to start identifying their tribes. The problem is not that I get labeled, it’s that there aren’t enough labels.”
Alexie was first known as a poet. He has gone on to write novels, children’s books, screenplays and short stories. Much of his work has been autobiographical. But since writing the memoir about his mother, that has begun to change.
“I had a story in the New Yorker this summer about a white hotel maid,” he said. (“Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest.”) “I have another story coming this fall in the New Yorker about a Mexican-black-white kid growing up in a small Idaho town.”
He’s told his own story, over and over. “My joke is, it’s going to be all Amish murder mysteries from here on out.”