Monday, December 7, 2009

Two authors walk into a bookstore: Sherman Alexie, Jess Walter and the Magical Madness of Spokane

Jess Walter talks about why he lives in Spokane
“Hating the place you're from is another form of self-loathing. You can either make the city you live in better, or you can find another place to live.” — Jess Walter

From Great Falls, we scattered. If we wanted opportunity, wanted to experience college, or wanted to just plain make something of ourselves, we felt we had to leave. The rest of the world, we assumed, offered so much better than our windy Montana city. By way of Missoula, Tyson and I came to Spokane in the spring of 2003. I wish I could say it was for reasons more romantic — for a great job, a great person or some fantastic idea of the culture we'd discover, but no. Spokane was the closest larger city, with higher wages and lower rents. We still consider ourselves Montanans, and proudly so, but Why not try Spokane?

No one told us about the Spokane Insecurity Complex — that underlying sense of complaint, the older generation filled with harrumphs of “that's just how it's done” and the young biding their time until they could afford a move to Seattle or Portland. We were baffled — Look at how much you could do here! We would've killed for a place like Empyrean in high school! There's nothing BUT potential.

Since 2003, things have improved. The restaurants, the art events, the music — all of it seems to be on a continuing upswing. Sure, plenty of kids still hightail it out of here and find success in bigger cities, but an increasing number are staying. They not only want to work with what Spokane has, but show the rest of the state that it can (and will) be so much more.

It's not an easy battle. I heard a joke once that Spokane is the city comes together once a year to vote 'No.' And in some ways, that's still true. Fear of change and prejudice are difficult things to overcome in any city, and Spokane has a stubborn streak.

“In the rest of the world, I'm vaguely ethnic. Here, it's 'Who's the Indian in the blazer?' In my head, I'm thinking, 'I'm a fuckin' millionaire, you asshole.'” — Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter

Still, the bright spots remain. In front of a packed audience at Auntie's Bookstore, two of Spokane's most famous authors read new pieces centered around their hometown. Both fresh from book tours, they mentioned relief at talking about something other than their latest, The Financial Lives of Poets (Walter) and War Dances (Alexie).

Reading a selection of free verse poems, Sherman Alexie talked about growing up in Reardan, the Spokane Indian Reservation, his family, and most affectingly, the death of his father, Sherman Alexie Sr. He told a story about how when his father was in the hospital near the end of his life, the staff would come in with books to sign, assuming that he was the one who wrote them. His dad would sign them anyway. Now, with Alexie meeting fans who say they've visited his father's grave, “he probably feels like Jim Morrison.”

Sherman Alexie reads some new poetry
“I want to stay with my father, even inside a nightmare.”

After he finished, Jess Walter read a poem that listed off his reasons for staying in Spokane, after years of being asked why he continues to live here. He talked about living in a neighborhood filled with halfway homes, shelters and the poorest elementary school in the state. He talked about keeping a man from beating a woman, who was limping and carrying a child, and escorting her to a shelter. “I don't want to be the sort of person who hates a place because it is poor.”

“This used to be a list of why I didn't want to live in Spokane,” he said, before also pointing out that Seattle drivers lose 26 hours of their lives in traffic. “What would you do with an extra day?”

Jess Walter reads a poem about Spokane

At the end, both authors took a handful of questions from the audience. Alexie expanded upon his views on digital media. After his Colbert appearance, he'd received emails calling him everything from a “conservative luddite” to a “communist” for believing that digital overload and addiction was contributing to the failure of our bookstores, magazines and newspapers. They also talked a bit about the film licensing of their books, including how Billy Bob Thorton once expressed interest in directing Citizen Vince. "But then he didn't get the money he wanted."

Then, I raised my hand. “Hi,” I said. “I was wondering if you keep track of the things you've written about that have since disappeared.”

They did not quite understand. The copy editor in me realized I should have been more clear.

“The places, I mean. Like the place with the faded Pepsi sign that you wrote about in Citizen Vince [set in 1980]. It's something else now.”

“Oh, Sam's Pit,” Walter answered, appearing somewhat surprised by the question. “Yeah, I used to think some things would be around forever, like the motels up against Sunset Hill, but that's not the case anymore. I used to think that if we shot the movie in Spokane, we wouldn't have to move that many cars off the street.”

Alexie called himself “terminally nostalgic,” and that he was constantly thinking about what was no more, even down to the now-closed doughnut shop where he worked for three weeks. And I thought, I know how he feels. Where is the line between moving ourselves forward as a culture and preserving the small things we hold dear? The diner where I spent so many high school evenings, Cattin's, is now a Rite Aid. And while the food may have been greasy and the air thick with cigarettes, I hate that nothing remains.

The Banter
“Asking for your advice is like asking for rain in Seattle. It's going to come whether you want it or not.” — Walter to Alexie

Despite the seriousness to the discussion and some of the work read, Alexie and Walter are beyond funny together, giving each other a hard time about basketball, joking about Spokane's quirks and some of the silliness inherent in their writing careers.

On recording the audiobook versions of their novels:

Alexie: “It's funny, they don't let you improvise.”
Walter: “I kept tripping over words, thinking, 'This damn author!'”
Alexie: “I have a lisp. […] I am never writing with the letter S again.”
Walter: “I only have so many voices. I kept waiting for an opportunity to work Sean Connery in.”

Signing Books

When the questions finished, those of us with books lined up to have them signed. Some took photos with the authors, some talked about relatives they had who went to school with them. When I approached Jess Walter with my Citizen Vince, I said, “I drove by the place with the Pepsi sign on the way here. It must have changed recently.”

“Sam's Pit,” he said again, and I immediately wondered why I kept not mentioning it by name. “Yeah, I think it's been about four months now. When they first started remodeling, they kept the Pepsi sign up for awhile, but not anymore.”

Now the building looks like a yellow Craftsman needing a little repair, strangely plunked down on the corner of a busy road. I've driven past it hundreds of times before the remodel, stared at that sign and the boarded up windows, and never once thought to take a picture until it was gone.

I thanked him for signing my book and let the next person in line approach. Walking through the store, then out the front door, I crossed the street and stopped. Reaching into my bag, I pulled out my camera.

Auntie's Bookstore

Just in case.

—Sara Habein


  1. Thank you for a beautiful post about a great literary afternoon!

  2. Great wrap up and great writing. I was bummed that I couldn't get to this. Thanks.

  3. Thanks all. It was a good time.

  4. Sara, I have really been meaning to tell you something...

    Your writing is BADASS! You really capture the heart of these gents. Your transitions between your perspective/angle and the authors/reading itself was exemplary!

    I met Sherman Alexie in Paris in 2004, having somehow managed to never see a single one of his Missoula readings. He and Debra Earling of UM (and also his cousin) were both at an American Writer's Conference, where I also met Michael Chabon and Donna Tartt (!!!!!!). But he was awesome and hilarious and didn't trust me cuz I was so like 'yeah, I'm tall but I could give one red fuck about basketball.'

    The mere mention of Citizen Vince prompted immediate curiosity so I'm definitely getting it pronto (or putting it on the treasure hunt list). and this are awesome. I'm so impressed with and covetous of your focus and output!


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