Interview: Sherman Alexie
Since his market breakthrough collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, came out in 1993, Sherman Alexie has been giving talks as well as writing fiction, poetry, and screenplays. His newest novel is Flight, with his first young adult novel, the semi-autobiographical The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, expected out in September.
Q. What are the new books about?
A. Flight is a time travel war novel. An orphan Indian kid on the verge of committing a terrible act of violence gets tossed through time. He ends up in Little Big Horn, Sand Creek, then also jumps into the body of a flight instructor for a suicide bomber. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, an Indian kid leaves the reservation school for the white school on the border. He’s the only Indian except for the mascot.
Q. What is Native American literature to you?
A. By and large, native American literature is literary. It’s almost strictly created by Native American professors. In terms of people who have major publishers and major careers, it must be approaching 100%. In the native world, we’re poor. College is our savior. So I think what else can a poor bookish minority do? What other job can they have where they’re going to be celebrated and esteemed? I hadn’t even thought about it in those terms before. It is the one place where we are wanted in a major way. They recruit brown-skinned professors.
Q. Why has writing been so welcoming?
A. In the art world there are judgments in the power structure. The reason brown writers have risen in the last 20 to 30 years [is] we’ve bypassed that. We’ve created our own power structures and have our own critics now. We appeal directly to readers. The whole white critical world – the Harold Blooms and Helen Vendlers – the people who used to be taste makers are now marginalized. It’s things like Pages that have marginalized them. Bloom or Bender would argue heavily against Pages – and they’d lose. [Note: this interview was originally supposed to run in the March/April issue of Pages, which has since been shut down by publisher AMS because of the company's bankruptcy problems.]
Q. What are the challenges facing Native American writing?
A. If you look at Native literature 30 years ago at the writers with big careers, probably the same 15 writers are big now. The last big splash from a native writer was in 1995 – Susan Power in The Grass Dancer. One of the reasons why there hasn’t been another writer [breaking out] in all these years is because from what I’ve seen in my travels, in Native literature we all tell the same damned story. There is a repetition of theme. It’s not bad at all, but I don’t think it inspires younger native writers as much as more diversity of theme would.
Q. What needs to change?
A. I love Native American literature where it is, but we desperately need new blood. Out of assimilation is going to come that new kind of writing from natives that didn’t grow up feeling separate, people who don’t automatically believe that their native identity limits them that will go in a new direction. I’m hard wired to be pissed; I’m hard wired to be separate, and I’ll be very interested to see a Native writer without that hard wiring.
Q. And how do you want your writing to change?
A. I’m thinking of the Native American as witness to the rest of the world. I want to write about the rest of the world through my eyes and my fictional character’s eyes. How does this native character look at white folks? How does this native character look at black folks? How does this native character look at artichokes. I want a change of address card for myself.
An Independent Bookstore Struggles to Survive
You often hear about the difficulties that independent booksellers face. Here's a story
that brings it into sharp focus. There's no single one factor - chain stores hurt the new business, Internet buying put pressure on the used titles, a major store leaving the shopping center dropped traffic, and a rent increase to start in September may be just the last straw for Diablo Books
. The owner of the shopping center, Regency Centers
, hasn't been commenting to the press and apparently refuses to reconsider the increase, even though it's not delivering on the necessary anchor store to help attract customers for all the stores. Now there's sense - demand an increase, probably because you couldn't manage to keep a big store in the space, drive out existing businesses, and then make no rent at all. Sometimes you have to wonder whether business managers ever learned basic arithmetic.
Garrison Keillor No Lifelong Lutheran?
There are things I've taken for granted: the sun will rise in the morning, the Red Sox will choke at a critical time at the end of the season, and Garrison Keillor is a lifelong Lutheran. But apparently the last is not correct. Someone highly placed in a Lutheran organization - I kid you not - mentioned this today in an interview on a totally unrelated subject. That is, unrelated to Keillor, not to the religion. When I searched on the web, this interview
at ChristianityToday.com confirmed it. (Ironically the piece was posted on June 6, 2006 - I'll leave the numerical representation to the devout and superstitious.) That's one out of three down. Wait ... the Sox did
win the Series a few years ago. I'm hoping that the overturning of my life's assumptions doesn't continue.
Borders Still Trying to Get Loyalty Program Right
Loyalty programs are popular with many companies because they think that bribing customers can result in more sales and, hopefully, more profit. As a reader, I'm all for it and love the B&N program with the straight 10% off on books and magazines. Heck, I even pay for the program because I've found that it saves me money past the $25 annual fee. In fact, that fee pretty much guarantees that the people who buy in are going to be serious print buyers and, therefore, frequent customers. Why not offer a discount to keep that frequency at your establishment?
But Borders continues to thrash about with its Rewards program. I remember a few years ago asking why they didn't offer a discount and was told that they were "experimenting" with one in some stores. Eventually they came out with what seemed to me an entirely half-baked approach - too complicated and, even though free, offering too little to be bothered. I think it was a "discount day" tied to a certain amount of spending, meaning that I'd have to work my benefit around their schedules.
I just received an email addressed to Dear Valued Member. (And I thought they didn't remember me.) "We've made it simpler than ever to get your membership rewards," it announced. "Now, for every $150 you spend on qualifying purchases at Borders, Borders Express, or Waldenbooks in a calendar year, you’ll earn $5 in Borders Bucks, issued the first week of the following month and valid until the end of that month. The more you spend, the more you get. There’s no limit to how many Borders Bucks you can earn! "
Oh, jolly. I get coupons to buy even more, rather than reducing my cost on what I'm already spending, and I only have to use that measly $5 coupon (meaning that I have to spend even more money) in a specific month. While we moved over a year ago into an area without Borders stores, this certainly isn't going to send me driving to find the nearest one.
Although I got the news yesterday in a mailing from Borders, The Wall Street Journal ran an article today that compared the old and new plans (I hadn't used the old one, though was signed up) and said that the new one is potentially less generous. Too badk, as Barnes & Noble last fall upped its discounts on books for its members.
Life Magazine Gets Shut Down - Again
According to the BoSacks Reporter
(put out by publishing consultant and icon Bob Sacks), Time Inc. is going to close down Life Magazine. Here is the memo that reportedly went out yesterday:
March 26, 2007
To: Time Inc. Staff
From: Ann Moore
I regret to inform you that we will no longer be producing LIFE magazine, effective with the April 20th 2007 issue. We remain committed to the LIFE brand, and will be concentrating on expanding the title’s other businesses, including a new photographic portal making millions of LIFE photos available to the public.
LIFE Magazine was a truly innovative publishing venture. It was developed, edited and published by some of the best talent in the business and we can remain proud of its many achievements. LIFE enjoyed strong consumer support. Research showed readers consistently placed it above its competitors in terms of quality edit and photography. In addition, consumers couldn’t get enough of the LIFE picture puzzles, with the Picture Puzzle book quickly becoming a New York Times Best Seller.
But despite consumer and advertiser support (LIFE was one of the top PIB launches of all time in gross revenue in its first year), we were not able to compete with the decline of both the newspaper business and the outlook for advertising growth in the newspaper supplement category. Growth requires taking risks and the potential upside once looked huge, but the timing worked against us since the market has moved dramatically since October 2004. Sometimes we have to make tough calls, and this was one.
LIFE is continuing with plans to put its entire collection of 10 million images online, 97% of which have never been seen by the public. The site will be launched later this year and will be a single destination to view the most important photography of our time, both archival and contemporary. In addition, LIFE will continue to publish books, including the second LIFE Picture Puzzle book (on newsstands April 2 and in bookstores nationwide on April 17). Two more books are in the works for 2007.
We thank the many dedicated and talented LIFE magazine employees, and we want to assure you that we are taking immediate steps to place as many LIFE magazine employees as possible within Time Inc. LIFE is one of the publishing world’s most iconic and well-known brands. We are proud that its name will continue through books and online initiatives and we remain dedicated to the brand.
This is apparently the third time
that the magazine has shut down, though the first time the company was shifting the brand and that big manila folder of photographs to the Web.
New Name for Warner Books
The International Herald Tribune has a story about Warner Books changing its name
to ... wait for it ... Grand Central Publishing. As brand/identity decisions go, this seems like a poor one to me. The name sounds like either a speciality press for train fanciers or a small publisher trying to sound like a big one. Other than Grand Central Station - which means these people have been in Manhattan way
too long - what is the association supposed to be for most readers and retailers? Not that it necessarily means that much for the consumer. I've long believed that no one, but no one buys a book because of the company that published it. If it's well produced and the title and content grab you, who cares about the name of the faceless corporation getting your money? And if managers have little enough to do to make important choosing a name that customers don't and won't care aboutthe name is important, well, Hachette Book Group USA (American arm of the French book publisher Hachette Livre - book en Français) also owns Little Brown. Why not just use an established brand? Just think of all the money saved in unnecessary consultant fees.
Mini-Review: Getting Mother's Body by Suzan-Lori Parks
Suzan-Lori Parks, better known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, came out with her first novel, Getting Mother's Body
, a few years ago. In a Seattle Post-Intelligencer interview
, she called the work "a deep and reverent bow to William Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying,' which also has characters on a journey dealing with a dead relative."
It may be, but don't expect the complex southern saunter of language. Ms. Parks spares the page unneeded words with a beautiful economy, possibly the result of being accustomed to showing stories on stage through dialog and action. In this case, the use of shifting narrative points of view drives the action and yet circles back on it, like advancing the plot and character development through a spiral instead of a straight line. You keep coming back to previous point, stripping back layer after layer and showing the complexity not only of character, but of life. Other than saying that this journey is a quest for something valuable that may or may not be sequestered in a given place, I won't go much into the plot. What is important is not the arrival at the destination or even the destination itself, but the process of traveling. Perhaps that's what made it resound for me. Our final destination is, after all, physical death, so we have is the traveling. I also liked the use of dialect as a leveling factor. No matter how high and mighty some people might be in the social era of the time, the expression of thought and feeling was generally the same, showing more of a kinship than perhaps many of the people would have wanted to admit.
Making Money from Authors' Archives
Here's an interesting New York Times Sunday Review of Books profile
of how at least one Manhattan rare book dealer has helped create a frenzied market for the collected papers of authors - sometimes even while the author is still living.
Stephen King Moves to Comics
An AP story
noted that novelist Stephen King is cooperating with Marvel Comics to adapt his Dark Tower series into comic books. With over 200,000 of the first issue selling, it certainly is seeing some attention from the people who count - the readers. He also seems to be getting some critical recognition finally. While I'm not a big King reader, as horror isn't a genre I like that much, years ago I read his novel Christine, about a killer car, and was stuck to the pages like library paste. he knows how to drive a story, set up an involving plot, and create interesting characters. I think many critics lose sight of what is important in writing - telling the story, not glorifying the verbal gymnastics of the author.
New Alternate Book Selling Strategies
Turn the Page
Authors and publishers seek new ways to sell titles
When Rachel Weingarten wanted to sell her book Hello Gorgeous!: Beauty Products in America 40’s – 60’s, she passed local book shelves and headed to the cosmetics counter at New York fashion hub Henri Bendel.
“On a bookshelf, it doesn’t distinguish itself,” she says. “My last name is … not at the top and the book is small – it’s a tiny coffee table book.” It’s tough to get attention when in a year like 2005 there are an estimated 172,000 new books released. Some authors and publishers are looking for new ways to connect with a book-buying public.
Granted, getting books on a cosmetics counter is unusual, but Weingarten has sound reasons. Women shopping for make-up are more likely to have an interest in the topic of glamour, and having the book in front of them offers the chance of an impulse buy.
The concept of trying to find readers in places other than bookstores isn’t new. For years Sterling Publishing
has published niche category books, such as crafts or woodworking, and placed them in specialty chain stores and independent shops. But the pressure is on from competitors and the company keeps pushing to find new outlets. “In a cut-throat publishing world, it represents an opportunity to break out a book that might not be successful if they were just focusing on the trade business,” says sales and marketing vice president Jason Prince. He’s seen the sales for a single title run into the hundreds of thousands of copies. “In the last five or ten years, you’ve seen a lot of publishers have an epiphany about [non-book store] markets.”
That’s a major reason you see books in gas stations, grocery stores – pretty much everywhere you turn. The book industry has even discovered the virtual world. Nancy Jo Jenkins
, a Christian writer whose first novel, Coldwater Revival, recently debuted decided to take the plunge into connecting with blogs. Her agent recommended that she try a PR company with a specialty in going after influential targeted blogs. That firm wrote an interview with her and sent that and other materials to selected blog publishers. Her Amazon ranking of popularity, where a smaller number is better, dropped from 300,000 to 55,000. Eventually a television producer who saw the listing booked her for a ten minute interview on a satellite-distributed program. “You never can tell,” she says. “Something in a blog could lead you elsewhere.”
There are authors having video commercials
created for their books and posting them on spots like Youtube.com
. So what’s next, selling books in a virtual world? Sorry, it’s already happening. Christopher Penczak, who writes about metaphysics, paganism, and magick, is testing offering a talk on the social networked site called Second Life
, a 3-D virtual world in which people interact though animated figures. “I’ve done pretty well through traditional channels, but I like to teach workshops and I like to do lectures, which are interactive,” Penczak says, though he doesn’t know what to expect. “I’ve agreed to do it for the adventure, but it’s not my area of expertise.”. Hopefully any copies that sell will be very real.
(Note: the above story was supposed to go in the March/April issue of Pages Magazine. But the title was owned by American Marketing Services, which went bankrupt. So I figured I might as well do something with it.)
Selling Authors with Documentaries
I saw this story
in the New York Times. It's a fascinating idea - instead of relying on in-store readings, authors and publishers could create films about the author or title and let people watch them. You could include a reading, interviews with the author and experts, and put the results anywhere from a book's web site to YouTube (some authors are already doing this
) to online sellers like Amazon.com, I suppose. According to the article, bookstores are planning screenings of the film, but given its short nature and the lack of personal connection to the author (oh, right there before us!), I suspect that it will become yet another advantage of online sellers.