The National Book Award winner and comedian explores the ancient connections between narrative and comedy.
Question: What’s the connection between your writing and your stand-up comedy?
Sherman Alexie: Well, I think it’s old-fashioned actually. You know, I think people think it’s something new, but the idea of being a storyteller, you know, for most of our existence was not related to books, it was about the ability to stand up in front of the fire and, you know, earn your supper. So I think it’s just something old and inspired in me, but I never really was the funny guy growing up. If you’d ask my siblings, they’d tell you I was the depressed guy in the basement, but they’re the funny ones. But it just, I got on stage and started talking and people laughed. At the beginning, I didn’t even necessarily know what was happening, but as the years have gone on, I realized that humor is pretty amazing in its ability to transcend differences, politically, ethnically, racially, geographically, economically. There’s something about it that really opens people up spiritually, I think, and they listen. They pay attention. And it’s also a great way to offend people.
I don’t know, we’ve all been to literary readings, you know, where we got theater, but so bored by the person up in front of us reading their work so dispassionately that it nearly turns us off their books. You know, there are writers who I’ve heard do their work that I can only hear their voice when I’m reading their books and it’s so disinterested in their own stuff and I just never wanted to do that. I wanted to make the mistake the other way, you know, I’m pleased when somebody’s offended, you know, by my large stage presence, because there’s still people who show up who get offended. I get up there and give a show and I’m improvising and, you know, talking about current events and what happened yesterday or what happened an hour ago, what happened five minutes before I walked into the place, you know, and giving people a glimpse of how my, you know, crazy mind works. And then they’ll come up after me and say, “Well, I’m really disappointed you didn’t read the story,” and you look at them and think, “Well, you can read the story, you know, what happened tonight will only happen once! You know, you were here for a one-time thing!” So I guess people are trapped in their perception of what a literary artist is supposed to be.
Question: Do you find narrative or poetry harder?
Sherman Alexie: You know, I write poems naturally. I’m writing them all the time. I think it’s more of a reflex talent than fiction is for me. Seems like I have to work harder to write fiction. That said, poems are much more demanding, you have fewer words, you can make fewer mistakes. You know, if you write a ten-line poem, you really can’t make any mistakes. If you do, the poem is terrible. But when you write a novel, you have all that space to mess up in and people are more forgiving. So I think poetry audiences are far more demanding than fiction audiences are.
Question: What do you consider your best work?
Sherman Alexie: Well, you know, writers generally come in two groups, those who love what they do and those who can’t stand what they do. I’m in the second group. I have a really difficult time looking back. Yeah, so I figure out of the thousands of pages I’ve published, there’s probably about 100 great pages. I think I worked on probably about a 2 percent greatness rate. So there’s probably 10 poems, 2 stories that are great and the rest of it is from anywhere from pretty good to, you know, total crap.