Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter are longtime friends. They’re also two of the most celebrated authors to ever come out of Spokane. When they get together, the conversations are free-flowing, funny and deep.
Luckily for us, we can now listen in on those conversations with “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment,” a podcast from American Public Media’s Infinite Guest network.
“It’s two writers looking at the entire world through writers’ eyes, and that includes everything from books and literature itself to cooking,” Alexie said. “Our producers have given us complete free rein, so it’s just great fun to go into the studio and start talking.”
They hope to do a new podcast every other week for a year, with running times around 45 minutes to an hour, Walter said. They’ll talk about their work and the writing process, bring on guests and talk about life.
“We figure we can talk for 26 hours this year,” Walter said. “That’s kind of the treat, for the two of us to talk. We did one by phone and there were times I forgot we were taping. We were both talking and laughing.”
They’ll mix it up by reading from new, unpublished and in-process works. They’ll bring on guests artists – Seattle musician Star Anna made an appearance in episode 1, and author Steve Almond will be featured later – and “civilians,” Alexie said. One early episode features Polly, a friend of Alexie’s wife, who has a back injury.
“I really enjoyed the talking about something real,” he said. “Because as writers, in talking to other writers, you traffic in metaphors. There’s nothing metaphoric about Polly’s back injury.”
For Alexie, the podcast is in part about demystifying a writing process – it’s like a talking rough draft of their lives and their books.
Walter likens it to hanging out with the authors enjoying a beer and good conversation. But more than that, it’s an opportunity for the two writers to talk about their work with each other, and listeners, too.
“We’ve been bouncing stories and poems off of each other for years, so it seems like a cool thing to do in public,” Walter said, adding he’d like to “spark that creative conversation and let people overhear it. I’ve been thinking myself about how precious and timid we can be about the work, how we can be overprotective of it sometimes as if there’s some kind of magic or alchemy that causes it to work. And it really works you refine it and sharpen it, and sharing it with friends and other writers is the first step in that.”
That’s part of what makes doing a podcast so exciting – and terrifying, Alexie said. It’s flying without a net, without the editing and revision inherent in the publishing world.
“It’s a new form, and I know we’re both nervous about the new form of it,” Alexie said. “And usually when we present our writing to the world, it’s gone through many, many, many edits. So to present a new work, unformed, rugged, to present ideas off the cuff and improvised, all that is very scary, but that’s what makes the show exciting.”
The first few episodes were taped in Seattle (where Alexie lives) and feature Seattle-area guests. That won’t always be the case. They plan to do a couple shows in Spokane in September, Alexie said.
“There’s a good chance we’ll grab my mailman one day in Spokane,” Walter said. “As Sherman said, it’ll be just who ever we have around.”
Alexie also envisions doing some future episodes in front of a live audience.
Their friendship stretches back a couple of decades. Walter said it’s possible he and Alexie met as kids, when the Walter family lived near Springdale for a time, and Alexie was growing up not too far away in Wellpinit. If it happened, it was probably on a basketball court during an AAU game, Walter said. They first officially met in the early 1990s, when former Spokesman-Review reporter and writer Kevin Taylor introduced them.
“We met at a McDonald’s and sat there eating French fries and talked about our ambitions,” Walter said.
Aside from geography, the two share something else, Alexie said: “I think most of my friends, of whatever race, are poor kids who brain their way out of poverty.”
Lest “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment” sound too buddy-buddy, Alexie said they’ve been on the lookout for something to disagree on.
“We’re going to do a ‘Big Lebowski’ show,” Alexie said.
No spoilers here – you’ll have to check out the future podcast to see which of them thinks “The Dude” is a dud.
Subscribe to “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment” through the iTunes store, or check it out at www.infiniteguest.org. There’s no fee to subscribe. And be warned, it carries an “E” for explicit – meaning the content is not meant for young ears.
Both writers have other projects in the works. OK, Walter says he’s “between novels,” and Alexie has seven books that are past deadline. Regardless, they both have new works out in the word.
Walter revisits Expo ’74 in a short story called “Mr. Voice” in the current issue of Tin House Magazine. It’s one that he read last fall at the Humanities Washington fundraiser Bedtime Stories. Another Expo-related story, “Belongs to the Earth,” will be concluding chapter of The Spokesman-Review’s Summer Stories series, and will appear next weekend.
Alexie has gotten back into the movie business as an associate producer of “Winter in the Blood,” a film adaption of James Welch’s acclaimed novel. The film, which stars Chaske Spencer, David Morse and Gary Farmer, premiered in New York on Aug. 20.
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