Sherman Alexie on Writing and Kurt Cobain

A "rez boy" turned literary star and Hollywood player, Sherman Alexie uses pop culture fame to reach today's Indian kids


| September-October 2000


Sherman Alexie’s Seattle office is bordered by redwoods and has three pieces of art on the walls. Two of them are what you might expect: the original artwork from his second poetry and lyrical prose collection, First Indian on the Moon, and a signed and framed print of the poem “Thanksgiving at Snake Butte” by the Indian author James Welch, one of Alexie’s literary heroes.

Then there’s the black-and-white photograph of Kurt Cobain, the grunge-rock superhero who revitalized early-’90s pop music with his band Nirvana, only to kill himself in 1994 with a shotgun blast to the head. The photo is a surprise at first, but then you realize it fits: the sense of being an outsider, the anger, the motivation. Seattle.

“He saved us all,” says Alexie, who isn’t as famous as Cobain but wants to be. Starting as what he likes to call “a small literary writer from Seattle,” he was remarkably prolific and had an appetite for success. His college writing professor, Alex Kuo, once said that he probably had 10 students with more talent than Alexie. But Alexie, Kuo said, “had a dedication that other students with perhaps more talent didn’t have.”

That dedication has paid off. One year after he graduated from Washington State in 1991, two books of his poetry and short stories—I Would Steal Horses and The Business of Fancydancing—were published. As the legend goes, this taste of acceptance prompted him to kick five years of debilitating drinking in one night. He then published five more books of poetry and a short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. His first novel, Reservation Blues, appeared in 1995, and the next one, Indian Killer, published a year later, became a New York Times Notable Book. He devoted much of the next few years writing and producing the 1998 film Smoke Signals while working on new stories. In 1996 and 1999, both Granta and The New Yorker named him one of the best American fiction writers under 40. He is now adapting three novels for the screen, including his own Reservation Blues.



“I identify strongly with him,” Alexie says of Cobain. “Small-town guy, poor, makes himself into this huge rock star.”

Alexie was born just five months before Cobain, a couple of hundred scrub-brush miles away from Cobain’s tiny hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, on the 155,000-acre Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington. Like Cobain, he was driven by his antipathy toward the oppressive forces of mainstream America. With Alexie’s success, though, he has begun moving beyond his early, anger-driven prose into a kind of mythopoetic style, which has come stridently into focus in his new short story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World, published in May.














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