I am married to one of them. Did writing the book change your understanding of your parents’ lives—and your own? In another life, I am a high-school English teacher who also coaches the basketball team. When did you first think of her as the subject for a story? I grew up with tons of poor white Christian conservatives, but I also knew, and know, a few poor white liberals. So I am constantly irritated by their exclusion from the national dialogue—from the theological debate. When you were a child, what did you think you’d grow up to be? And writing is a minimum-wage job for most writers. I am the guy who will clean and organize his room—towels piled in the tub, garbage in the bins, stray hairs gathered—before checking out so that the maid has it a bit easier. Marie is a Catholic—though flexibly Catholic, she thinks, rather than strictly Catholic. My love for her is contentious, as is my love for my own writing. I also wanted to write about a poor white person who, contrary to societal assumptions, is a kind and empathetic person. Did it feel like a different undertaking? And Marie was born out of that question. Sherman Alexie’s story “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest” appears in this week’s issue.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY LEE TOWNDROW
Your story in the Fiction Issue, “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest,” is about a motel maid called Marie. The only non-minimum-wage job I’ve ever had is writing. Motels are transient places for most of us—we stay for a night or two and then move on. I am a poor, public-school kid who got lucky. But then I took human anatomy and quickly learned that I was more interested in the heart as metaphor than as an actual body organ in my hands. If you could have any job in the world, what would it be? Based on her experiences, I would guess that being a motel maid is among the most dehumanizing and demoralizing jobs out there. It explores your relationship with your family, in particular with your father, a Coeur d’Alene Indian, and your mother, a member of the Spokane Tribe. I wondered what it would take for a woman to work as a maid for decades. But I also knew a lot about maids because every American writer is basically a travelling salesperson. I was never a motel maid, but my younger sister worked as a maid for a year and would tell us these horrific stories about the messes she encountered. My late father was easy to love; my late mother was never easy to love. I wanted to honor the physical, emotional, and spiritual strength of a blue-collar worker—of a woman in the service industry. I have never written about my difficult mother in such detail, in fiction or in nonfiction. How significant is her faith in the story? The Fiction Issue this year is centered on the theme of American jobs. How did you look at a motel room through her eyes and imagine the steps by which she might clean it? When you started the story, did you know how Marie would clean a room? You’re publishing a memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” in June. Over the years, Marie has worked with countless cleaners who all moved on, too. There is such a thing as a liberal American Christian. This story began as a reaction to the Trump election, in general. She will spend less time in my room, so she’ll have more time for the messes left behind by the inconsiderate guests. I have never felt more vulnerable in my writing life than I do now. I also tip ten bucks for each night I have been in the room. My mother and my books are all siblings. As for my life now as a writer? So, yeah, I grew up in poverty and worked as a doughnut maker, pizza man, dishwasher, secretary, and janitor. In the midst of all this turnover, why did you want to write about someone who remained in one place? But this is the first time that you’ve written a memoir. Did you ever imagine that you’d become a writer? Think of Jesus washing the feet of the poor. And, since liberal Christian theology is all about social justice and service to others, I think it’s fairly easy to think of service workers as being Christlike. And, since motel maids are overwhelmingly female, there is also an epic degree of misogyny. And that life would also be a miracle. In writing this memoir about her, I have come to understand for the first time that she, and not my father, is the primary source of my storytelling life. But, in particular, I was angry that I could be thought of as being part of the “liberal élite.” Even inside the literary world, I did not follow an élite path. I have spent hundreds of nights in motels and hotels of widely varying quality, and I pay attention to the lives of people around me, especially the folks who are working in service. So, yeah, I enjoy being the Native American writing favorably about poor white liberals in the pages of The New Yorker. So maybe Marie is Jesus as a motel maid. I knew about the basics of motel-room cleaning through my sister’s work experiences. It constantly seems like a miracle. I had planned on becoming a pediatrician, and started college as a chemistry/math double major. Your fiction has sometimes drawn on events from your own life or tales you heard.