Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter used to sit in a diner in Spokane, Wash., and talk about their literary dreams. They were in their early 20s, scraping by with odd jobs like writing obituaries.
And now? "I'm 14 exits past any dreams I ever had," Walter said April 17, talking with Alexie and MPR News' Kerri Miller at the Fitzgerald Theater. The longtime friends are now award-winning authors and co-hosts of the podcast "A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment."
Walter's novel "Beautiful Ruins" was Fresh Air's favorite novel of 2012. Alexie, a poet, screenwriter and author, was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In an ironic twist, this honor came at the same time his young adult novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," landed at the top of the most frequently challenged books list.
The two friends delighted the crowd at the Fitzgerald with stories of growing up poor, dreaming big and writing novels that no one will ever read.
On their favorite books
"I think there are things you get from a book that you don't get from anything else. Reading a novel, it's an immersive experience," Walter said. "You are so deep inside someone else's consciousness, it's almost like getting an injection of pure empathy."
The book most deeply imprinted in Walter's memory is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." He read it when he was 19 and a young father, working three jobs and going to college. He would sit with his daughter in the park and read Marquez. "I experienced that book with a baby on my chest," Walter said. "When I see it, I lose my breath because I love that novel."
For Alexie, it was a library book on the reservation where he grew up. "Even now diversity in children's book is an issue," Alexie said. "But when I was a kid there was nothing. I had read the entire collected reservation library by the time I was seven; it wasn't a big library. I was reading auto repair manuals, I was reading encyclopedias, I was reading everything. Then I found 'A Snowy Day.'" The children's book features a young black boy wandering a city after a snow storm. It was the first time Alexie had encountered a character that looked anything like him.
"He was my surrogate into literature. There was nothing in any literature that was remotely about me and the people like me," Alexie said. "To pick up the book and to see it, to see that kid, was a revelation."
Alexie's recent acceptance to the American Academy of Arts and Letters doesn't mean that he's above rejection.
"I've been rejected by The New Yorker now 18 straight times," Alexie said. "I've had four stories in, over the years, but my last 18 submissions have been rejected ... Every writer who's been in the magazine has a similar story."
Walter laughed it off with a joke ("I've never been rejected ... only once in a bar") but addressed the difficult reality facing writers. "There are very few magazines — you may have noticed," Walter said. "Kurt Vonnegut famously made his living writing for slick, glossy magazines but the number of magazines that now publish fiction is four? Five?"
On the Twin Cities
The writers broke into some playful banter about their time in the Twin Cities.
"Minneapolis and St. Paul are not twin cities," Alexie said. "They're not even fraternal twins."