By the time I arrived at the 14th annual Humanities Montana Festival of the Book two weeks ago, Sherman Alexie had already set the town on fire. People kept coming up to me, wide-eyed and short of breath, asking, "Did you hear Sherman last night?" It was all "Sherman this" and "Sherman that" everywhere I turned in Missoula. It seemed I had missed the Event of the Year by arriving at the festival the day after the author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian read to a packed house at the Wilma Theater. My only consolation was that I'd heard Alexie give a reading in Anchorage, Alaska in 2001. That night, he did indeed spark and crackle like the end of a live wire dancing near a puddle of gasoline. Let's put it this way, Sherman Alexie is not shy, he's not always polite, and he's never boring. That's why it's a good thing there were plenty of fire extinguishers on hand at the Wilma that night in Missoula.
Fellow author and festival-goer Jo Deurbrouck (Anything Worth Doing) was in the audience when Alexie set everyone's hair on fire and she was kind enough to submit this exclusive report for Quivering Pen readers. As a bonus, she also had lunch with crime novelist James Lee Burke (The Tin Roof Blowdown, Light of the World) who's also in the business of murdering mediocrity.
I love events whose sole purpose is to offer up a smorgasbord for the mind. If you arrive hungry, willing to taste every dish no matter how different from your usual fare, you will leave sated. You may even leave changed.
I had this experience a couple weeks ago at Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book, although I’m still asking myself how changed I want to be.
See, I’m a writer, and I take the craft seriously. My last book, an adventure narrative called Anything Worth Doing, won a 2012 National Outdoor Book Award and an Idaho Book Award Honorable Mention. But like most writers in the 21st century, I don’t believe my job ends with the creation of good books. I interact with readers outside my books via email, snail mail, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. I take that part of the job just as seriously. I also enjoy it. It’s writing after all, and when my fingers are on a keyboard I’m as comfortable as I can be in this life.
For the last year, though, I have been giving readings and talks. That has not been comfortable. I’m nagged by the feeling that people are giving me their time just as they do when they pick up my books, and that they have every right to expect that they’ll go home well-fed. And I try, but what I know about is words on the page and that strange country that comes into being every time a reader’s eyes start to dance across those words. What do I know about public speaking? Could two skill sets be any more different? Until I went to the Festival of the Book, I had never personally talked with a writer who disagreed when I said any of that.
At the festival, I attended many talks and readings over three bountiful, bookful days, enjoyed them all, and every minute was aware that these writers were more powerful on the page than off. With two huge exceptions. These authors couldn’t, at a glance, have been more different from one another. Their single obvious commonality was that both are excellent craftsmen whose books are commercially successful.
One was Sherman Alexie, the author, most recently, of a short story collection called Blasphemy. He read at the Wilma in downtown Missoula. Of dozens of festival readings, panels and other events, his was by far the best attended. The theater holds more than 1,000 and every seat was filled. Organizers estimated that at least 300 had to be turned away at the door.
The other was James Lee Burke, an award-winning writer who has published 34 titles by my count, 20 of which are crime novels centering on a protagonist named Dave Robicheaux. Burke has been in the business for more than four decades. Despite the fact that tickets for this luncheon event cost $35, he also spoke to a full house, although his venue, a restaurant called The Tophat, was smaller.
Alexie put on a startling comic performance. Bemoaning the indignities of middle age, he described the long hairs that have appeared on his chest while holding both hands at chest level, fingers outstretched and waggling. To show why he thinks male yoga instructors are “creepy,” Alexie performed an elaborate skit that ended with him in front of the podium on his knees, miming a man who kneads the body of an imaginary student into position.
Many of Alexie’s jokes had blades in them. These bladed jokes were usually about Native American anger at a world run by “you white people.”
Between skits and jokes, Alexie read deeply personal short stories and poetry about the pain of growing up Native American, about complicated family relationships, about love and death. During one of these, a short story about a boy caught between racial resentment and adolescent love, Alexie enlisted the audience as backup singers. At key moments in this raw story he signaled, and hundreds of voices solemnly intoned: “IIIIIII’d love to love you, baby.”
At The Tophat, Burke didn’t mime or deliver edgy jokes. He didn’t play a Donna Summer song on his iPad so the audience could learn its part.
He just talked. About his characters, whose misadventures amuse him so much that he’d interrupt himself mid-anecdote with his own laughter. About his writing habits. About life. His conversation was salted with references to classics like “Davey Copperfield,” and to poetry authored by people like “Johnny Milton.” He sounded like he was talking about friends—to friends. Like this: “Remember Johnny Milton’s famous sonnet about awakening at dawn to a visible darkness?” as though an audience as thoughtful as this one had of course read (and could still recall) Paradise Lost.
I won’t try to guess how people felt leaving the Wilma after Alexie’s performance except that there’s no chance they were bored. I’d bet, however, that most of us at the Tophat that day left enfolded in Burke’s generous regard. You want this guy for your uncle. You want to buy him a beer, lean your elbows on the bar and say, “Please, tell me a story, Mr. Burke.” You know in advance that the story would be about decent people trying to get by in a crazy world.
Those two very different performances seem to me alike in one way: they were powerful. What’s more, their power is too crafted to be accidental, too connected to things that make their respective books powerful.
Here’s what I think. Each of these men has created a character, one called Sherman Alexie and the other James Lee Burke. It’s that character who stands on stage and delivers dialogue. As I write these words, it sounds like I’m talking about something contrived, but I’m not. I’d bet a lot that these performances, like all good stories, are true: Alexie’s anger, that’s in him. Burke’s generosity is in him. What I’m suggesting is that they’ve crafted some or all of themselves into that guy, the guy who can fill the Wilma with the force of his personality, or the guy whose twinkling eyes make you beg for a story.
I don’t understand how I’ve let myself pretend that I don’t know how it’s done. The skills of the performer—her ability to evoke emotion rather than describe it; to enact a believable character and a satisfying story; to create a conduit between an idea and the minds of an audience—aren’t these also the skills of the writer?
My question is whether I want to do it. I already edit every word I write or say, whether in a poem or lying beside my husband at night. In order to deliver the kind of powerful performances these two men gave in Montana, I believe I would need to ask who this public self of mine should be and then edit, not just my words and stories, but me.
Photos by Ken Stolz