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Sherman Alexie -- serious writer, funny guy

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Leaning against a black couch in his office, Sherman Alexie is laughing. He laughs often and easily -- at others' jokes and his own, at sarcasm and silliness -- and his laughter is contagious. Last year, he cracked up Stephen Colbert when he appeared on "The Colbert Report." Fans are known to walk away from Alexie's book signings gasping for air, wiping their eyes.

But the photographer sent to take his photo wasn't laughing. For the umpteenth time, he gently asked Alexie to be serious for a moment.

"I look more Indian when I'm serious," Alexie explained, suppressing a smile.

The author of the bestselling 2007 young adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian. He was raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash., northwest of Spokane, and returns there regularly. But as important as his heritage is to him, it's not all there is. "People's ethnicity is the first floor of their house," he says. "But the real interesting stuff is in the cellar and the attic."

Those hidden floors contain the complicated material that makes literature, and Alexie has long been known in literary circles. In 1996, he was named one of Granta magazine's Best Young American Novelists; his novel "Reservation Blues" was shortlisted for the prestigious international IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1997; in 1999, the New Yorker selected him as one of its 20 Writers for the 21st Century.

When he wrote "True Diary," as Alexie calls it now, few writers of his caliber were interested in writing for teens. But with a devoted readership -- and lucrative market -- others have given it a try, including, recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley.

Alexie, the father of two sons, says "True Diary" came together when he imagined the protagonist as a cartoonist -- the book includes cartoons, drawn by Ellen Forney. It won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

This year, he's returned to writing for adults, with "Face," a poetry book from tiny Hanging Loose Press, as well as the new "War Dances," a collection of poems and short stories.

Many of the characters in "War Dances" are midlife, caught between dying fathers and toy-happy kids, often making lousy decisions. One man defends himself during a break-in, with tragic consequences; another chases down an attractive woman in an airport, heedless of his marriage.

These are mistakes Alexie, 43, is glad he hasn't made. But working with autobiographical elements, some assume that the stories themselves are real. One character, like Alexie, was born with hydrocephalus, another has a similar name -- Sherwin -- and writes screenplays, as Alexie has.

So on the first night of his book tour, before a sold-out crowd of 850 in Seattle's vaulted Town Hall, Alexie paused during his reading. He'd come to a line about the philanderer's vintage gray suit. Alexie was, he realized, wearing a gray suit -- not vintage, but still. He read on. Later, he would reassure concerned readers as he signed books. "It's fiction," he said, pointing out his wife standing nearby. "Fiction."

Fiction isn't easy, or necessarily pure. "I'm a method writer," he says later. Like an actor would, he imagines his way into his characters' emotions in order to get them on the page. "In order to write about the emotion, I have to experience it. I get physically tired and exhausted, devoting hours and hours and hours to it.

"In some ways, it's sort of masochistic," he jokes. "I don't put on a leather thing with a zip at the mouth when I'm writing, but maybe it's metaphoric."

Alexie, who writes with a conversational style, has a wry, subversive sensibility that emerges both in the text and the forms it takes. Funny as it is, "War Dances" includes poems written as call-and-response, a catechism in which the answers veer off strangely, a poem called a haiku that isn't one, and stories that contain lists, a Q&A, and a hail of bullet points. The structure is sophisticated yet playful, a subtle way to bring lightness to heavy topics such as senility, bigotry, cancer and loneliness.

Yet for readers who find short story collections frustratingly choppy, the poems may make things worse. One critique called them filler.

With the freedom afforded him by publisher Grove/Atlantic, a major independent press, Alexie crafted the collection exactly as he wanted. A character who creates epic iPod mixes for his daughters fondly recalls the mix tapes of his youth; I asked Alexie if this wasn't a mix tape of a book, with many voices, pieces of different length, shifting rhythms, an evolving story.

"Yes!" he said, bouncing off the couch in his office. "I thought including a poem called 'Ode to Mix Tapes' might lead readers to realize that the whole book is a mix tape." The office is in a bamboo-floored, "green" building developed by Paul Allen. He's still moving in: bookshelves, lining the long entranceway, are filled, but artwork waits to be hung. There are original paintings -- some of which are his book covers -- and framed posters from the films "Smoke Signals," which he wrote, and "The Business of Fancydancing," which he both wrote and directed.

Alexie's film-in-progress, "Learning to Drown" is a documentary about people afflicted by hydrocephalus, also known as water on the brain. Alexie's case, which was critical when he was an infant and left him with seizures until he was 7, is relatively mild; others need drainage shunts and suffer lifelong complications. While the film's subject sounds grim, with Alexie on screen, there is bound to be some laughter.

He's been working: The big desk in the corner is cluttered with papers and an Apple computer. There are many piles of books to be read -- he reads about one a day. He can stay up late here, writing.

Not that it won't be something of a clubhouse for the family; part of his attraction to the office was that it's walking distance from one son's school.

That and the basketball court. Alexie plays regularly with a small group that includes a couple of his college teammates. His love of basketball goes back to high school, where he was captain of the basketball team at Rearden High; he was bused off the reservation to attend there.

"Leaving the rez was the grandest choice of all time," he says, a necessary step toward becoming a writer. He says he was empowered by the books on his father's shelf: "I read about all sorts of different places in the world -- I was transported. So the act of leaving my own body became pretty easy, inside a book. I think it makes it easier to actually leave, then. The books sort of led the way."

Now, Alexie is going in many directions at once -- performing his stand-up / reading hybrid in support of "War Dances," working on screenplays and his documentary and spending time with his family. And fans of "True Diary" will be pleased to hear that he's at work on a sequel. Maybe it'll have poems too.

Kellogg is the lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times' book blog.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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