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Sherman Alexie: behind the scenes

October 16, 2009 |  2:04 pm


Last week I was in Seattle, where Sherman Alexie kicked off his tour for "War Stories," his new collection of stories and poetry. The article is in today's paper, and begins:

Leaning against a black couch in his office, Sherman Alexie is laughing. He laughs often and easily -- at others' jokes and his own, at sarcasm and silliness -- and his laughter is contagious. Last year, he cracked up Stephen Colbert when he appeared on "The Colbert Report." Fans are known to walk away from Alexie's book signings gasping for air, wiping their eyes.

But the photographer sent to take his photo wasn't laughing. For the umpteenth time, he gently asked Alexie to be serious for a moment.

"I look more Indian when I'm serious," Alexie explained, suppressing a smile.

When you spend a couple of hours hanging around an author, you gather bits and pieces that just don't make it into the article.

Like this: The day was absolutely atypical Seattle, striking blue skies and 70-some sunny degrees. The place we went for lunch had an outdoor table, so we grabbed it. We wound up in the sort of anti-shadow of the Jones Soda building -- sun bounced off its windows, making it as bright and hot as Los Angeles. Alexie didn't seem to mind, but he wasn't as thrilled about the weather as I was. He likes Seattle the way it is -- gray, drizzly, cool. Never thought about living anywhere else.

The first reading of his book tour was that night in Town Hall -- not an actual town hall, but a converted church. The room seats 850, and a line of standby hopefuls waited on the sidewalk outside. Inside, the ceiling curved over stained-glass windows, and the audience sat in curved, cushioned pews. Alexie read and riffed from a podium on a low wooden stage where a grand piano waited. Eventually, he brought out Sean Nelson, the lead singer of Harvey Danger, who sang Hall and Oates' "Sara Smile" -- the song appears in one of the stories Alexie read from "War Dances." He sang four other 80s songs throughout the evening, including "Borderline" by Madonna, and I kept expecting the audience to clap along, or maybe sing along with a chorus. But no. "That's Seattle," Alexie explained later. Reserved.

Not so much when Alexie tried to do a French accent -- all his accents come out sounding rez, he said, and it did -- or repeated his father's explanation of sex. That brought laughter that sent my tape recorder into the red. I'm too reserved to repeat it here, and besides, reading it on a blog it doesn't do it justice. Maybe he'll tell it again on his book tour -- it's worth repeating.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Kevin Casey / For the Los Angeles Times