Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter's podcast, A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment, is a literary variety show that focuses on the messiness of writing. The two big-time, famous Spokanites (Alexie lives here, but that's where he's from) use in-progress chunks of their own short stories, first drafts of flash fiction, and little poems as jumping-off points for humorous but also meaningful conversations about the craft. They invite great writers on as guests (shout-out, Padgett Powell!) and also exceptional local musicians. It's the opposite of fussy, the opposite of pretentious, and no matter your level of writing experience, you'd do well to fit the show into your tightly regimented podcast schedule.
About a year ago, the show went on hiatus due to Alexie's brain surgery and his subsequent recovery, but also because, Alexie says, he and Walter couldn't figure out why they were doing it. Trump's election changed that calculus. Now they're back! They recently taped a new show with Timothy Egan (The Immortal Irishman), and they're gearing up to tape a live show with Karen Russell (Swamplandia!) in February. I caught up with Alexie by phone while he was driving. He'd had a busy day taping a show for KUOW, and he pulled over on the side of the road to speak with me.
Did Trump's election inspire the reboot of A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment?
I'm not one of those artist-writers who thinks they have any real power. I'm laughing because they've already begun the calls for Poets Against Trump anthologies—talk about the most powerless gesture in the history of the world. But what we can do with art is become spiritual boosters. I think we can be spiritually nourishing even if we have no political power. We end up being the equivalent of noise-canceling headphones.
Are you going to be talking about concrete political actions against Trump on this podcast?
Definitely, and culturally, too. Jess and I are both Eastern Washington red-state guys. I jumped over Chris Vance today on the radio because he was talking about how liberals don't know red-state America. I know red-state America! I was president of the Future Farmers of America in a conservative Christian high school! I was prom king in Lincoln County, which is the whitest, most conservative county in the state. And even then I was a leftist red-state Indian!
What helped you become king?
I used to be beautiful. Now I look like an old guy who should be lecturing his children about the front yard. But really, what helped me was (1) I had a jump shot, (2) I was good at public speaking, (3) I was friends with all cliques. I was an actual egalitarian. I hung out with the geeks, the jocks, with everybody. I did it with my liberalism. I think there is a place—and Jess is the same kind of guy—I think there's a place for us as artists to talk about how our egalitarian liberal natures can help.
Who needs a talkin' to?
There are two groups of people who need to be lectured. Trump won because of two specific groups of white people. The moderate working-class whites and the leftist Jill Stein voters. One side rooting for an America that never existed and one side rooting for an America that is never going to exist. It was the romantic dreams of both sides that gave us Trump. And it's a small population in the swing states: It comes down to 250,000 people. If 250,000 of them over seven states changed their mind, this would have been a Clinton blowout. So it's not just a certain kind of conservative voter we need to be appealing to. We also need to straighten out those leftist assholes. I'm a far leftist who thinks no one like me should be in charge of shit.
You mean people in charge need to be able to compromise?
Yeah! It was amazing to me that Clinton got vilified about her e-mails that talked about the ways in which she compromises. That liberals were vilifying her—ugh! I'm sitting in a parked car on the side of the road right now. I'm in a car. Every liberal in the country compromises with each mile we drive in our car. All of us, at every point in the day—because we're privileged fuckers—are compromising. There are plenty of people who voted for Trump who compromised in a way, too—knowing they were voting for a racist-sexist-homophobe, but hoping for the best. Leftists couldn't vote for Clinton because she was a politician?
A vote for her would have been impure.
Rebecca Solnit had a line that I read on Twitter: "Voting is a chess move, not a Valentine." That sums it up. All this talk about it being wrong to vote for the lesser of two evils—I vote for the lesser of the two evils at least 100 times a day!
Can you give me an example?
On the way to the radio station this morning I needed a coffee. So I opened up my fridge and there was a can of Starbucks mocha. My son drinks it, and I think he bought it. So I stole my son's mocha. I stole my son's Starbucks. If I hadn't been staggering out of the house because I slept too long, I could have stopped at some patchouli-smelling coffee joint and felt pure.
Does that embrace of non-pureness tie in with the mission of your podcast?
Yeah, one of the great things has been how many aspiring writers listened to it, which was great because they got to see us for all of our incompleteness, our struggles, our faults, our doubts, our fears. Jess and I very purposely set out to do the opposite of publicity for ourselves. We talked about the struggle to create something great.
I loved how you and Jess read works in progress on the show. What are you working on now?
Yesterday at 3 a.m. I finished my memoir, which is coming out next summer. So I'm segueing now into postpartum blues.
You wrote a memoir? I think of you as a fiction and poetry guy, but not a memoirist.
I'm done with the bullshit that my whole career hasn't been autobiography. I've been lying for 25 years and everyone knows I'm lying. This memoir has completely eliminated that thinly constructed facade. I feel now I have to completely pivot into something new. But I have no clue what that is. My wife says now is the time to start writing your Remains of the Day, says I need to be the Indian writing about white people. She's 70 percent kidding. One of my standard responses about interviews is about how I get exoticized, even though aside from my Nativeness, I'm a typical Seattle liberal. The thing I always say is I know a hell of a lot more about white people than white people know about Indians. Because if you live in the US, you become an American. I have an idea for my next book that I think I can write in a month. It's a young-adult book and it speaks directly to what just happened to us in terms of whiteness in this election. There is no brown person in this United States who is shocked that Trump won. My white liberal friends are utterly panicked and shocked. And the rest of us brown folks are like, "Well, shit, of course. Now we have to get to work." The thing that amazes me is how many white liberals are shocked even though their parents voted Trump. How can you claim to be shocked if you come from Trump voters?
You've been reading with the Tacoma poet Robert Lashley a lot. We just recently nominated him for a Stranger Genius Award. What do you think of his stuff?
I think he's astonishing. What I really love about him is that he's an incredible performer who is also great on the page. He has learned or somehow innately knows that semiformalism is the way to go.
Because you can gesture toward form and still have a bit of wildness?
Yes, the wildness of free verse. Because of his formalist impulses, he has five or six more poetry tools in his toolbox. Of course this is a way of complimenting myself because I'm a brown semiformalist. And the thing is: Just having a few more tools makes you surprise yourself. He is so nakedly emotional up there—I can see even when he's still greatly amused by something that came out of his brain. Not in a self-congratulatory way, but in a surprise way.
Karen Russell is going to be your guest at the live taping of A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment at Town Hall on February 17, hosted by Seattle Arts & Lectures. What's your favorite thing about Karen Russell's writing?
Her complete love of weird-ass people, and her absence of judgment for those weird-ass people. She doesn't look past the eccentricities. She doesn't say, "Underneath all that is a person just like the rest of us." No, no! They're weird all the way through, and it's beautiful.