James Lee Burke was working on his next book when the phone rang. “Let me finish this sentence, just a second,” he said to the caller.
It seems like Burke, 76, is either at work on an upcoming novel or on tour (he drives himself) promoting his most recent one. He has long been a regular on the nation’s best-seller lists, a tradition that’s continuing with the new “Light of the World,” the 20th title in the acclaimed Dave Robicheaux series.
Robicheaux is a Cajun deputy sheriff in New Iberia, La., a recovering alcoholic whose compassion for the marginalized and whose personal code of honor see him through many dark hours. In contrast, Clete Purcell, his unpredictable best friend and former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, is mostly about mayhem.
In “Light of the World” (Simon & Schuster, $27.99, 560 pages), Dave and his wife, Molly, are vacationing in Montana with their adult daughter, Alafair, and are joined by Clete and his adult daughter, Gretchen. Terror is unleashed when an escaped serial killer comes looking for revenge.
Though Burke’s tales involve some of the most vile characters and violent situations in popular fiction, his body of work has transcended genre to become what many critics and academicians regard as literature.
Burke, who has a master’s degree in English, was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 2009. He has won two Edgar Awards from the MWA (“Black Cherry Blues” in 1989 and “Cimarron Rose” in 1997) and a Gold Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association (“Sunset Unlimited” in 1998), all for best crime novel of the year. Burke is also the recipient of Guggenheim and Beadloaf fellowships and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Houston-born author has written 27 books split between three series, and five stand-alone novels. “The Lost Get-Back Boogie” was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1986 after being rejected 111 times over nine years, and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize nominee. His short stories have appeared in many anthologies and literary magazines, including “Best American Short Stories” and the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and Southern Review.
Three of his books have been made into films. The Dave Robicheaux character has been played by Alec Baldwin (“Heaven’s Prisoners, 1996) and Tommy Lee Jones (“In the Electric Mist,” 2009). The 1998 TV movie “Two For Texas” starred Kris Kristofferson as an escaped prisoner from a Louisiana chain gang.
We caught up with Burke on the phone from his home in Lolo, Mont., near Missoula. He and his wife of 53 years, artist and poet Pearl Burke, also have a home in New Iberia, La., where there’s a street named after him. Visit the author at www.jamesleeburke.com.
You’re working on your next novel?
It’s called “The Wayfaring Stranger” (from the 19th century song title), set in the years 1934 to 1948, and deals with the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the beginning of oil extraction along the Texas-Louisiana coast. I introduce a new character named Weldon Holland, based on my late cousin. The first chapter begins with an encounter with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
What about that sentence you were working on when you answered the phone?
That was just a line of dialogue. Let me read the opening sentence of the book instead: “It was the year none of the seasons followed their own dictates. The days were warm and the air hard to breathe without a kerchief, and the nights cold and damp. The wet burlap nailed over the windows was stiff with the grit that blew in clouds out of the west, amid sounds like a train grinding across the prairie. The dust bowl …”
The Dave Robicheaux books are full of angst and violence, yet they always have a broader landscape of contemplative philosophy and compassion. They don’t seem like genre fiction.
People often put things into categories, but anyone who has invested his life in writing knows that to think categorically about expression is limiting and interferes with purpose. “Hamlet” deals with murder, betrayal and madness, but no one ever considers it a crime story.
All the great plots come from the Bible, Greek and Roman theater, and Elizabethan drama. There are no new plots. (The Robicheaux series) has the structure of a classical play, like most everything I’ve written.
Dave Robicheaux can be morose, but he’s a straight shooter and a guy you want on your side.
Dave is the Everyman figure out of the medieval morality play and represents many of the values that Americans admire, (including) loyalty and empathy for the underdog. Washington Irving wrote in his journals, “A writer must establish a rapport with his reader, based on friendship and trust and familiarity.” In other words, audiences have to like the protagonist or they won’t read the books, and I’ve never forgotten that. There are reasons why everybody likes Huck Finn.
You always invest a lot of words describing the environment and the weather.
That’s due to my classic education and the heavy influence many of the naturalists have had on me. In particular Stephen Crane, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell …
Dave has gone up against some very bad guys in his career, yet the serial killer Asa Surrette in “Light of the World” tops them all.
This book deals with the darkest character I’ve written about, a man who is truly wicked. If you’ve been around psychopaths — and I’ve met them — you walk away with a terrible feeling that the person possesses a darkness that goes beyond anything we understand. You finally just say a quiet prayer. walk away and remove that presence from your life. If it gets inside you, it will lead you into depression.
Clete Purcell has taken on new depth since you introduced his long-lost daughter, Gretchen, a former contract killer, in the previous novel, “Creole Belle.”
They have similar backgrounds. He never knew her as a child, when she was in the hands of abusive people. Clete’s own father was a violent and drunken man. Clete is trying to make up for the years he wasn’t around.
There is a fictional Alafair — Dave’s daughter – and a real Alafair – your daughter. The lines between them blur.
A great deal of the real Alafair is in the books. The fictional Alafair was adopted, but our Alafair is our child by birth. Both of them went to Reed College in Portland on scholarships, both were honors students, both have undergraduate degrees in psychology, both graduated at the top of Stanford Law School and both became novelists.
So where do they depart?
They really don’t. Our Alafair lives in Greenwich Village with her husband, teaches law at Hofstra University and just published her ninth (crime) novel. She took an IQ test at school and I talked to the man who gave it to her. He said she was off the chart, then he said, “Her mother must really be proud …”
The New York Times Book Review has called you “the reigning champ of nostalgia noir,” and you have said, “I sorely miss small-town America and the loss of our sense of national purpose.”
Small-town America was predicated on respect and civility, and in the 1960s we began to confuse frankness and candor and honesty with in-your-face denigration of others, and that’s still with us (including on TV). It takes no intelligence to insult and demean others, and (that attitude) takes away from the culture that made us a great egalitarian country.
There was some talk about a Dave Robicheaux series on HBO.
It looked like we might have had a cable TV deal a while back, but it didn’t come together. My new film agent had some other deals last year, but none of them bore fruit.
Does your wife, Pearl, see your manuscripts?
She is my first and best editor and reads everything I write.
No matter how grim the stories get, you always leave your readers with hope.
That’s the intention. As (Renaissance humanist) Sir Thomas More said, “No matter how bad the times are, good men can always prevail.” If my books have made life any better for somebody, then I feel much better about the life I’ve had.”
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe