A conversation with Sherman Alexie
Q: How often do you read The Seattle Times in print or online?
Sherman Alexie: I read The Seattle Times every day. I’ve been a Seattle Times subscriber for as long as I’ve lived in Seattle. That makes it 16 years as a Seattle Times subscriber.
I subscribe to four newspapers: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Seattle Times.
Q: Tell us about the difference between a local and a national newspaper.
SA: First of all, local sports coverage is huge. Local high schools and small colleges; nobody’s going to give you that kind of coverage. So there’s nothing better for local sports coverage than the local newspaper.
Coinciding with that is local government coverage. Nobody sends a reporter strictly into city hall to cover news like a local newspaper will. And nobody has those kinds of relationships — reporters having long-term relationships with government officials — that don’t exist anywhere else. So it’s local newspapers that do that.
Q: You get four daily newspapers; tell us your morning routine.
SA: Oh, yes, I wake up at whatever time. Morning is a very flexible time for me; it’s whenever I wake up. That’s anywhere from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. depending if I’ve been writing or not.
My wife will already have been up before me and she’ll have the newspapers out. She reads The Seattle Times but doesn’t necessarily look at the other newspapers. So, The Seattle Times will already have been read. I usually read it after my wife, and she will often be ready to talk about it, or will introduce it to me with: “Make sure you read this,” or “Make sure you read that.” So, it ends up being a marital activity, the idea of reading something together, which is not the same because you see it and it’s sitting there, and there’s usually food on it, maybe some crumbs from the kids’ breakfast or coffee stains from Diane’s coffee on it. So, it feels lived in immediately.
Q: Is there any difference in the way she reads it?
SA: Well, we look at different sections, of course. She looks at the front page. I go immediately to sports. Then, I read entertainment and then I go to news. She does it in reverse. She goes news, entertainment and then sports, and generally only basketball and a little bit of baseball. So we have reverse notions of reading the newspaper.
Q: Which columnists do you make sure to read?
SA: I read all the editorials. The opinion page, that’s generally where I start. I go to the back of the section and read the opinions, giggle at the newspaper’s moderate stance.
Danny, who I know … I know everybody because I’m in the community. I know everybody so it really is like having coffee with friends, or if not friends then at least people I don’t hate.
Q: Who in particular gets your blood boiling?
SA: I grew up in Spokane with Spokane’s conservative columnists and incredibly conservative letters to the editor, so The Seattle Times editorials and letters to the editor all seem pretty middle-of-the-road. Everybody seems so reasonable and rational, which I kind of enjoy. I think that’s why I have The Wall Street Journal, so I can get angry. I like The Seattle Times’ kind of moderate stance in a very liberal city. I think that’s what stands out is its moderate stance. I really don’t distinguish, because I am so far left, I really don’t see much difference between the left and the slightly right people of The Seattle Times. As far away as I am to the left — if we talk about it in geographical terms — if the Earth is The Seattle Times, I’m on Saturn looking back at the Earth. From that point of view, the moderate left and moderate right of The Seattle Times, look fairly similar to me.
Q: What’s your ideal experience as it relates to the news?
SA: The ideal situation is where you have a dialogue, where I might have missed something or not paid close attention to some detail, especially about local coverage, especially in regard to the new mayor, which we’re very fascinated with in terms of what he’s up to. With the City Council, lately it was the panhandling law, the stuff that really affects our community in very minute ways, but which no one outside of Seattle cares about how aggressive the law is. Nobody, nobody at all. So it’s those kinds of stories that we really get into. And with our specific kind of politics, where we work a lot with the poor and homeless and disabled communities and the weaker among us, that’s really where Diane and I are looking at the local newspaper to give us information about those kinds of things.
The big thing is, when you talk about other forms of news, you’re not talking about the mainstream. I know when I look at the local news in The Seattle Times, I know that the people reading it with me are the widest possible, really diverse set of people, and it’s an older set of people. I feel with the Internet and The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly it’s really biased young, I mean 20-somethings. I know when I read The Seattle Times, I know that I’m not only reading it alongside people from my generation, but I’m also reading it alongside people from an older generation. I appreciate the collective experience of the readers and knowing that the newspaper is highly aware of that as well.
Q: How is Sunday newspaper different from the daily edition?
SA: Sunday’s an all-day thing. You don’t want to rush Sunday. Once again, I get a bunch of Sunday newspapers, but I start with the local Seattle Times. There’s a very specific pattern to it.
I start with Real Estate. I have a great house and a great office, but there’s always some dream. You know, “What if I lived there or what if I lived there?”
Also, being anthropological about your community, I’m a college professor and a literature professor, occasionally. So I read a newspaper for more than what it contains on the surface. What really interests me is the subtext, the ideas about the city, the changes that are reflected in reading real estate values or what’s for sale, reading the vocabulary, looking at the neighborhoods and the addresses and knowing my community, and thinking, “OK, the Central District, which houses are for sale?” And looking at the address and knowing, “Oh, that house.” It’s that feeling of seeing the transitional state of your city inside the real estate ads. It’s getting a peek at the dreams of the people around you like you know what a house says about you if you’re sitting there and it’s for sale and it costs this amount. Then there’s the blueprints or condo blueprint of the week. It’s just the notion of peoples’ homes and, once again, that place that does not exist anywhere outside of Seattle. Nobody cares about that house on 34th and Olive except pretty much that 10-square block around 34th and Olive. You dream about who is moving in. I create all these fictions about who’s moving in — what dream — and you see new people in your neighborhood — who’s moving in — and you’re aware of that. So, the real estate section is always filled with possibilities, and that’s where you start. And then you go to sports.
I’m a sports junkie. The Sunday Seattle Times is intense with local coverage. Like baseball season, and the hopes and dreams of a city as contained within its sports franchises. Once again, it’s the same thing that nobody cares about the Mariners as much as the people who live in Seattle, and nobody is going to write about them as affectionately and critically and intelligently as the local sports writer. I watch ESPN, but ESPN anchors don’t care about the Mariners. These guys do, as well as the Storm, the Sonics before they left, University of Washington, but beyond that — like SPU, the local high schools, swim teams, soccer teams — and I read it all. I don’t even know where those high schools are sometimes (Where’s Shorecrest?).
But there’s that notion of caring about your cit., I think part of it is because I grew up in small towns and small towns revolved around their sports. I still think I do that; I’m still connected to high school sports in that way. You measure a city by its high school sports, and that’s how people interacted. I can give you the mascots of pretty much any small high school in Washington state. I could do it. When I go speak at high schools around the state in the more rural areas, and high school kids have come and they start yelling out their high school, I’ll start yelling out their mascot to them.
So, it’s all that stuff. Ichiro belongs to us, we belong to him. That relationship with a local sports guy is vital.
It’s real estate, it’s sports and then it’s the book reviews. I’m a writer. I think I have a more contentious relationship with book reviewers locally than I do with the editorial staff. You’re reading it and go, “No! You anglophile!” At various points I’ve done research on the reviewers in the papers to find out their biases. You realize they’ve never given a positive review to anyone other than a white American. So is it a subconscious literary racism or not?
So the, book reviews are next — the book pages — sort of moving into entertainment, and then local news.
Q: That’s a big investment of time.
SA: It’s all day. I mean, in between other things. You read the newspaper and finish a section and go away and then you come back to it. And the thing about having the newspaper, it is there. You aren’t reading on a computer where you click away and it’s gone. A Web page has no physical presence in your life; it’s not on your table.
When that big, thick newspaper is sitting on your kitchen table, it has this positive weight, this sort of physical authority. It is getting in the way. It will not allow you to ignore it. To begin the day with that “THUMP!” when you hear it hit the step. And that thump is a connection to American history. Because when I hear that thump, I remember my paper route.
Q: You were a delivery boy?
SA: Yes, in Reardon, my small town. I delivered the newspaper.
So, you hear that thump, and I not only remember my paper route, but it calls to mind American history. And you think of town criers and I immediately think of kids in the Great Depression with knee socks and newsboy caps.
I worked at The Spokesman-Review as an intern. So when I hear that thump, I also see the printing press rolling out.
Q: As a writer consuming the newspaper, how is your perspective different?
SA: I don’t think it is. I was a newspaper reader long before I was a writer. So when it comes to a newspaper, I’m always first and foremost an audience member. And there is an applied authority, an expertise I’m willing to go with, a benefit of the doubt I’m willing to give the newspaper. Of course, I read it critically, as we all do. But there is an authority to a newspaper that I’m willing to sit back and let the newspaper happen to me. And so, as a critical reader, I certainly don’t think, “Well that was a crappy lead.” Where with a novel, I will be more critical in that regard. But it’s just a different critical reaction as a writer. I sort of suspend my literary eye, and I am fully immersed as an audience of news, which is a whole different relationship with the written word.
Q: What do you love about living in the Northwest?
The relationship with the water. I mean, it’s water, we’re not going to run out of it. It’s true. You know in Eastern Washington, it was about lakes and streams and rivers everywhere, all the time. My reservation is waterlogged. Two of our borders are rivers. And then when you come to Seattle, it’s not only about Elliott Bay and Lake Union and Lake Washington, it’s also about the amount of precipitation in the air at all times.
What does Tom Robbins write? “It wasn’t really raining but everything was wet.”
So the constant moisture, water, H2O. You’re always highly aware of the fact that you can never be apart … you can’t pretend that you’re not a part of nature. Even living in the city. Today, when I went into a restaurant, it was sunny and I didn’t bring a coat. Then I came out and it was raining hard. I got soaked and everyone was running, and I thought, why are you running? Running is not going to keep you any drier. I was laughing at myself and thought the same amount of raindrops are going to hit you.
But that whole notion that even the weather can change in Seattle so quickly, but not terrifyingly, dramatically. The notion of rain, no rain, water, water, water. Plus, it’s good for our skin and our hair.
Q: Why is a local newspaper important to a community?
SA: The writers live in the city and report on the place where they live. And a newspaper has hundreds of years of tradition behind it and it has an authority because of that. It connects us to the greatest parts of our past, and it’s time-tested, and we know what to expect. It’s predictable. I’m certainly no cultural conservative, but there is something honorable about tradition, and the newspaper is tradition. I get up and read it the same way my dad did, and my dad read it the same way his dad did. So by reading the newspaper, I’m not just learning about my community, I’m participating in a millennial tradition, and I’m always aware of that.
Q: Anything else you want to say?
SA: I won’t stop getting the newspaper. If some day there’s only one left in the world, I’ll be subscribing — and I’ll be the better for it.