The crowd was packed tightly into the reading room at Elliott Bay Book Company Monday night to celebrate PNBA Book Award winners Sherman Alexie and G. Willow Wilson. The authors read from their award-winning books, Wilson from her novel Alif the Unseen and Alexie from Blasphemy, his collection of new and favorite stories. They finished the evening by chatting with the audience about book banning, graphic novels, book covers and breakfast. We share some of that back and forth below.—Kristianne Huntsberger
Q: Willow, How did your cover come about? I really like the juxtaposition of the geometric design and the circuit board.
Wilson: I really like the cover too. I can’t take any credit for any part of it. I was done in house by a really wonderful design team. It went through a lot of iterations. Whenever there is a book set in the Middle East there is this overwhelming temptation on the part of graphic designers to involve sunsets, silhouettes of mosques and a woman facing the other way. And I said, let’s not do that. Some of my books, especially foreign editions, over which I have very little control, have that sunset, mosque, woman looking that way thing. With this, they wanted to do something iconic and that sort of leapt out and I said, geez that’s awesome.
Q: Sherman, how much control did you have over the process of selecting these stories?
Alexie: I pretty much have final say on every aspect of my publishing career . . . As an Indian, it’s hard to sign things for white people. But, in doing the book editing . . . We sat down separately and made a list of twenty different stories from old stories. The first five or six were the same and then it varied dramatically and then we asked other people and the lists were wildly different, so we ignored all them. But, we ended up arguing . . . I hate my stuff, so pretty soon I wanted it to be three stories and a poem. Oh, and air. I was going to put air in . . . “What you Pawn I will Redeem” I love. “War Dances,” I love and “What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?” It should have been those three stories and air.
Q: Willow, what’s the difference between writing graphic novels and fiction?
Wilson: Going from comics to prose was like running naked in the streets: “I’m free, I’m free!” Because suddenly I could ramble on and on and there was nobody to stop me, except my editor. It helped me at the same time be more disciplined in writing prose because I could tell a little bit more easily where the fat was and I was less shy about trimming it out.
Q: Mr. Alexie, What is it like to have The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian banned?
Alexie: I’m really happy when it gets banned. It means sales, number one. If you look at the sales figures in the area where it gets banned; boom! You sell a thousand copies in 24 hours. If you want to get kids to read a book they wouldn’t otherwise read, then ban it. I also start laughing because the number one reason it gets banned is because it mentions masturbation, once as a metaphor and once as something he likes. It doesn’t describe it . . . Then I realized it was a cultural thing. I didn’t realize before I wrote the book that it was only teenage democrats that masturbate. . .
And, Percival Everett, one of my favorite writers, said, “I would feel bad if I wasn’t pissing off those people.”
Q: I’m beginning a writing exercise with fifth graders, do either of you have advice for kids who are just starting to write fiction?
Wilson: Start now. The thing about writing 50,000 words prep before you get to something good is really true. . . when I was in High School I wrote reams and reams of, what I thought at the time, were really awful vampire stories. When I got into college, I thought, man, I’m really glad I got that all out of my system . . . Then Twilight came around and I though, man, I wish I’d kept that! Crap sells!
I hesitate to give advice about starting out. The thing that people need to do the most is to just write. . . There are an awful lot of writers, or people who want to be writers, who sit down at their computers and they say, ok, I’m going to make a website, I’m going to write a blog, I’m going to go on Twitter. There are a lot of ways to procrastinate and not actually write . . . So the best advice that I’ve ever heard, and it’s not mine, is: write and finish things.
Alexie: The most unrealistic thing about the Twilight werewolves is that those Indians have stomach muscles. If it was realistic, you’d have them running for, you know, fifty feet and their bellies would be dragging the ground and their fur would be all matted. And the real coastal Indians would kick the shit out of vampires.
For fifth graders, or for any writers, I do the breakfast exercise . . . What did you have for breakfast?
Woman: Cucumbers, bananas—
Alexie: Cucumbers and bananas?
Woman: —and blueberries all pureed all together.
Alexie: Oh, like a shake? Well, the whole healthy thing is not interesting, but the cucumber is interesting. Just having a cucumber for breakfast. So the first sentence of the story is, “I had a cucumber for breakfast.”
Wilson: That’s Kafkaesque.
Alexie: Why did I have a cucumber for breakfast? Because I was out of cereal. Why was I out of cereal? Because my mom didn’t go shopping for cereal and my dad never buys cereal. Or he always buys cereal my mom won’t allow me to eat. I had a cucumber for lunch. Why did I have cucumber for lunch? Because I really liked having cucumber for breakfast. In fact, it was so good that my little brother ate a cucumber for lunch because he always likes to do what I do. I had a cucumber for dinner. Why did I have a cucumber for dinner? I don’t know. See?
You do it verbally at first and then I think it hits some genetic, primary impulse. Everybody here, what you had for breakfast is interesting because it reveals your entire life.
Q: Willow, I have an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old and I am interested and excited by what you (just) read, but is it appropriate for them?
Wilson: I’d say its fine for the 15 year old, but I wouldn’t give it to a kid under 14. I mean God knows what they’re getting into these days. It’s probably tame by their standards, but as a parent, I wouldn’t give it to them anyway. There is some language and there are some, no pun intended, veiled sexual references . . . I think anybody old enough for Twilight is old enough for this far superior book—featuring no Indians. Wait, no, it does have Indians, but the other kind.
Alexie: We’re the other kind.
Wilson: The original kind.
Q: Sherman, political issues are around all your books and stories and I wondered whether you ever thought about writing non-fiction?
Alexie: I know I am very political and the work is very political and I have a very political life and I’m active—I’m so active that years ago, the state Democratic Party, before Maria Cantwell appeared, asked me to run against Slade Gorton. Because they thought we were going to get blown up no matter who went up, so they wanted some theatre, I guess. But, I told them I really couldn’t do it because, you know, well, I’m unvettable! At the conference I’d have to have everybody up there that I had done something unelectable with . . . The first hit on a Google search and they’d say, “Nope!”
In terms of writing non-fiction, I try to write non-fiction, but I always change the real story into something better. Even in my own life I do that. I’ll start telling my wife or sons something that happened and then I’ll realize that I need to make it better and then I will . . . I lie too much to write non-fiction. My impulse to lie is too great. So, maybe I should run for office! I have been working on a family memoir for 15 years and if I ever finish it and publish it I’m just going to call it, “The Series of Lies That I’m Going to Call a Memoir.” That’ll be the title.
Kristianne Huntsberger is a writer, performer and educator who, when not roaming the world, makes her home in Seattle. She has worked with the Elliott Bay Book Company in various capacities over the past ten years.