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Book Notes: Alexie visits to celebrate short stories

It’s been 20 years since Sherman Alexie published his short story collection “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”

Twenty years since critics lauded the collection with comparisons to Richard Wright’s “Native Son” (Chicago Tribune) references to its stark, lyric power (New York Times), praise for its searing yet affectionate honesty (Kirkus Reviews).

And in the 20 years since, Alexie has published numerous poetry collections, short story compilations and novels, winning the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”), a PEN/Malamud Award (for short story writers) in 2001 and a 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for “War Dances.”

Alexie, a Spokane Indian born and raised on the reservation northwest of Spokane, said in a recent phone interview that he’s still surprised by the success of “Lone Ranger and Tonto.”

“I didn’t think it would get published necessarily, so the idea that this career has kept going is pretty amazing,” Alexie said from his home in Seattle.

The book, which is being released in a new 20th anniversary edition, is one that still resonates and continues to draw in readers.

“I wrote some of those stories when I was 19, so I think there’s a sense of innocence in it. Even in the midst of all that pain and sorrow, there’s a sense of innocence,” Alexie said. “It was real innocence. It wasn’t a literary pose of mine, it was actually who I was. I think you can still feel that in the pages.

“Now,” he quipped, “I’m a jaded old man.”

Not really an old man. Alexie turns 47 this week, and he was in his mid-20s when “Lone Ranger and Tonto” was released. Getting that kind of adulation for an early book is enough to make some writers freeze – a problem he was well aware of, Alexie said. He admitted he had to overcome a strong desire to not write another book.

“I forced myself to write ‘Reservation Blues,’ because I knew if I didn’t get it out there in the world, I might never. I’d seen that before with big first books,” he said. “I was very purposeful then.”

Now, he’s always writing. A new book of poetry is set for release in November, he said, and he’s working on his follow-up to “Absolutely True Diary” – as told from the point of view of Rowdy – and a novel about the further adventures of Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, two characters introduced in “Lone Ranger and Tonto.” He’s also working on a picture book for next year and a collection of tiny short works for teens.

These have been his recent obsession, he said. He’s using text messages, emails, and different visual formats that seem well keyed to teenagers.

“I’m finding I can do a lot of these,” he said. “It’s an interesting format in that you want the whole experience inside a story, but yet you only have a couple hundred words to do it in.”

Poetry has always been his first love, and he writes four or five poems a week, he said. He recently had a bit of a thrill when his poem “Grandmother,” from “The Business of Fancy Dancing,” was featured Sept. 9 on the public radio program “The Writer’s Almanac” and read on air by host Garrison Keillor.

“That was really fun. That’s a great big deal there,” Alexie said. “(Keillor) has great voice, but when you hear him read a poem, you go instantly back to Wobegon. So I instantly thought of myself sitting on a porch in Wobegon. That might be the only poem that I’ve even written that would fit in Wobegon.”

He’s heading out on a book tour, celebrating the new edition of “Lone Ranger and Tonto,” and the paperback release of last year’s short story collection, “Blasphemy.” The tour brings him to Spokane for a reading Wednesday at the Bing Crosby Theater, sponsored by Auntie’s Bookstore. He’ll be dipping into works from both collections while in town.

“I usually read something old and something new,” he said. “Nothing blue.”