If ever someone asks me “which author impressed you most?” the name James Lee Burke inevitably passes my lips. In addition to Ray Bradbury and Clive Cussler, he has most influenced me to become a writer, too. He is best known for his offbeat and moody mystery novels featuring a former police detective turned bait shop owner, Dave Robicheaux. Many authors write mysteries, but this man has no peers. I spoke with him via phone at his home in Montana a few years back.
JONATHAN LOWE: You’re in Montana now, where your novel Bitterroot was set. I take it you’re what they call in Arizona a “snowbird?”
JAMES LEE BURKE: Well, I guess that’s fair to say. We live in Louisiana part of the year.
Lowe: It is New Iberia or Lafayette, Louisiana where you go in the winter?
Burke: New Iberia, now, which is a couple hours west of New Orleans.
Lowe: What is your background. When did you start writing?
Burke: A long time ago. I published my first story when I was 19, and my first novel back in the mid-1960s. It was titled Half of Paradise. After college, and before Black Cherry Blues, I did a lot of other things to make money, and that included teaching, social work, driving a truck, and working in the Texas oil fields.
Lowe: Where did your characters Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland come from? You seem to be alternating point of view between those two in some of your books, much like you alternate between states yourself during the year.
Burke: Well, all the characters have been published in over twenty books now. I think they all have the same origin, and are composite biographical characters, but have a reality of their own. Like any writer, I draw from the subconscious. The elements of myth, which comes from the unconscious, figures into it, and there are allusions from classical literature too.
Lowe: You’re one of my personal favorite authors, and I can tell you why. It’s because you don’t use lazy clichés like “he screamed like a stuck pig,” something I read in a bestseller by another author who shall be nameless.
Lowe: I also like it that you actually take the time to create images, making characters out of objects and settings. Just like John D. MacDonald did in the Travis McGee series. Who are your favorite authors, and who influenced you?
Burke: I’d have to say Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and William Faulkner.
Lowe: You’ve been compared to William Faulkner, who used stream-of-consciousness as a literary device.
Burke: Well, that’s an old method. The Sound and the Fury is one of the best books we have.
Lowe: What do you think about the state of fiction today? I’m pretty disappointed with the serial killer sub-genre. I don’t want to know who-dun-it, but rather why they did it. Get the feeling you’re the same, true?
Burke: I feel that the psychological story as narrative art is what interests me. Hemingway did it well, and you can spend a lifetime learning it.
Lowe: Will Patton is the perfect narrator for your own stories on audio. He’s got the accents down, but more than that, the attitudes of the characters. Very believable.
Burke: He’s done a very good job, and also Mark Hammer on the unabridged. They’re both excellent as narrators.
Lowe: My favorite book of yours is Sunset Limited, I’m not sure why. The last CD of that one contains some of the best writing I’ve ever heard.
Burke: Thank you.
Lowe: Do you have a favorite? I suppose you have to say it’s your latest, in answer to that question, though, right?
Burke: Well, actually, my favorite is Purple Cane Road. Everything came together on that one.
Lowe: Thank you for that. It’s a great novel as well. Very personal and also a culmination of redemption for its first person point of view character. What about Bitterroot?
Burke: Well, it’s set in Montana, about a former Texas lawman who helps a friend in trouble and then runs into a prison parolee who’s out for revenge. That’s the overview, anyway.
Lowe: What was your Hollywood experience like? I loved your movie Heaven’s Prisoners, which starred Alec Baldwin.
Burke: Yes, it was adapted, and my experience on that was really good. Everyone on the creative team very vibrant. Of course in Hollywood it’s all a matter of money. If you have a hundred million for the budget, you can take anything and make it look good. It doesn’t take much to be a producer, either, besides knowing how to write a gaudy bill. You just get you director Michael Mann and screenwriter Joe Esterhaus, and you’re off to the races! (laughs)
Lowe: So is there another movie in the future, do you think, based on another book?
Burke: I don’t know, I kinda stay away from that.
Lowe: Do you work all the time, or just part of the year? A book a year, or more?
Burke: Oh, I work all the time. I work every day, seven days a week. It’s what I do. Been at it for a long, long time.
Will Patton is an award–winning actor who has narrated audiobooks by such authors as Charles Frazier, Larry McMurtry, Don DeLillo, and Ernest Hemingway. He has won thirty-two AudioFile Earphones Award for his narrations. His numerous film credits include Remember the Titans, The Punisher, The Mothman Prophesies, Armageddon, and The Spitfire Grill. He starred in the TNT miniseries Into the West and on the CBS series The Agency and won Obie Awards in the theater for his performances in Fool for Love and What Did He See.
“Purple Cane Road is a beautifully written psychologically complex, stunningly atmospheric page-turner. James Lee Burke is the Faulkner of crime fiction.” –Jonathan Kellerman, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“No other living writer has been more influential on the contemporary crime novel than James Lee Burke. Using a painter’s careful brush strokes of character and place, he has turned the form into a literary exploration of the moral ambiguities that lie in the darkness of our souls. His work has set the watermark so high that I don’t think anyone else will ever reach it. With Purple Cane Road, he has gone and moved it up yet one more notch. This one is his best.” –Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times bestselling author