One of only two authors to win two Edgar Awards, James Lee Burke has been called "the Faulkner of crime fiction." Now, many readers are saying that Purple Cane Road, the eleventh installment of his long-running series about Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux, is Burke's best book yet.
When a pimp tells Robicheaux that his mother spent her last days whoring in New Orleans and was drowned by cops working for the mob, Dave admits, "My mother's memory, the sad respect I always had for her, had been stolen from me." The pimp is soon murdered, but Robicheaux's search for the truth about his mother's violent end has only just begun.
Burke's career has seen its ups and downs. First published at age nineteen, by the time he was thirty-four he had four novels under his belt. But then, suddenly, publishers wanted nothing to do with him - yet, the novel they rejected for nine years, The Lost Get Back Boogie, would eventually earn a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.
He speaks in a soft Louisiana drawl reminiscent of iced tea on front porch swings. His eyes shine like blue polished stone. Every few sentences, he chuckles as only a gentle, older man can. He is grandfatherly, polished, graceful, modest, and very well read.
Dave: You've been working on the Dave Robicheaux series for a long time. Purple Cane Road is the eleventh novel. As an author, how do you approach an audience when many of your readers will be coming to a series for the first time with each new title while others will have read all ten previous installments? How do you please them all?
James Lee Burke: Each novel should be self-contained. That's what I aim for. Each should deal with a different theme and plot situations. The challenge is to encapsulate events and characters out of the past in such a way that the reader is familiar with the larger story, without being repetitive. That's what art is.
Irwin Shaw once said, "A pro is a guy who takes something hard and makes it look easy." That's the challenge - you have to make it look easy.
Dave: Is it ever easy?
Burke: No. Not for me.
Dave: Now, of course, you have two series going at once. What made you decide to start the Billy Bob Holland series?
Burke: That series really returns to two earlier novels I'd published about the Holland family: Two for Texas and Lay Down My Sword and Shield. The Hollands were my mother's family. I didn't even change names. I really went back to earlier material.
But I thought there was still a great deal to write about - particularly the story in Cimarron Rose, which was based on my great-grandfather. He was a drover, and he had his trouble with alcohol. He was a gunfighter. This was during Reconstruction. He kept a journal, and I used it, the story of his life as a gunman, a violent man who eventually became religious. He went through a conversion, and he became a saddle preacher. It's a pretty good story.
Dave: How much of that is fictionalized?
Burke: It's a true story. He knew the Daltons, and he drove a trail of cows up through Oklahoma Territory. In his diary, he said he had trailed two thousand head up to the cow pens outside Wichita, and he was to sell the herd in the morning. There was dry lightning that night, and his cows got loose.
He wrote, "I chased cows all over the Kansas and Oklahoma Territory, and when I returned to my camp in the morning, I was destitute. I cursed God for my bad luck, and only three words went through my mind: whiskey, whiskey, and whiskey." He said he lived in despair and he believed himself beyond redemption.
It's depression, but people back then didn't understand it. He was a violent, angry man. He killed nine men, supposedly, in gun duels. Every Sunday he sat on the mourners' bench in the Baptist church - in the southern Baptist church, the mourners' bench was for people who were beyond help - and week after week he sat in front of the congregation until, he wrote, "eventually, this pall on this soul lifted like ash from a dead fire." And he became a preacher.
He preached in the same cattle camps where he'd once been a drover. He was quite a guy.
Dave: I've been going back to some of the earlier Dave Robicheaux novels - including Dixie City Jam, which I thought was great. In Purple Cane Road, the plot revolves around Dave's family even moreso than in those earlier installments.
Burke: The story of Dave's relationship with his mother has been ongoing since the first novel in the series [The Neon Rain]. This is the last chapter in that story.
Dave: His daughter also plays a large role. As she's growing up, do you see her becoming more prominent?
Burke: Alafair has become a stronger and stronger presence in the novels as she's matured. She's the El Salvadoran little girl whom Dave pulled from the wreckage of a plane. She was being flown with her mother illegally into the United States.
She's based on our own daughter, Alafair. They're lives have paralleled in some ways.
Dave: How does your own daughter feel about her fictional namesake hanging out with psychotic killers?
Burke: Well, she was a prosecutor here in Portland for four years, so she's dealt with the bad guys!
Dave: The violence in these novels...Dave is often witness to, and sometimes a participant in very violent acts. He's trying to find peace, but he's having trouble.
Burke: Dave always indicates that violence is the first refuge of the frightened, the inarticulate - and ultimately, it's a form of moral failure. It's the last resort of the intelligent and the brave. When he acts violently, it's usually in defense of another, and even then he indicates that violence diminishes all the participants.
It's horrible, but it's very much a part of human life. We decry violence all the time in this country, but look at our history. We were born in a violent revolution, and we've been in wars ever since. We're not a pacific people.
Dave: Lettie's Death Row sentence provides the opening for Purple Cane Road. Dave knows that she killed someone, but the murder isn't really the issue.
Burke: He believes there was provocation, that she should not have been sentenced to death. Ultimately, what he's talking about is the arbitrary imposition of a capital sentence. And that's the governor's dilemma, too - he has to decide whether he should commute her sentence.
Dave: You've never been a police officer, but clearly whatever you're doing to draw these scenes and stories is working.
Burke: Ernest Hemingway once said that if you know the characters, you write about their psychology. You don't have to worry about the vocational roles or the geography. You can place them anywhere. The real story is the human story. The fact that Dave is a police officer becomes incidental.
Dave: Are you still reading classics like Hemingway, or do you gravitate more toward contemporary books?
Burke: I go back sometimes to the guys who I think did it best. I just finished The Wapshot Chronicle, which I had never read, John Cheever's first novel, for which he won the National Book Award. Those guys - Robert Penn Warren and Ernest Hemingway, Cheever and Steinbeck - they were just titans. They were so good, it's hard to compete. We learned it from them. They invented the mold.
Dave: I reread East of Eden recently. I don't know any other 800-page book that completely grabs me in the first twenty pages.
Burke: It's a masterpiece. It's an epic experience - about growing cabbages! He was able to take the story of Cain and Abel and place it in Salinas, California. He used his own family as characters.
Dave: He wrote a lot of different things over the course of his career, including a great book about driving around the country, Travels with Charley. You drive all your book tours, right? Do you and your wife make a lot of stops?
Burke: Not really. The cities are not that far apart. We started in Spokane, went to Seattle, now we're in Portland. We'll go to Eugene tomorrow. Just throw everything in the car and after a few hours we're in the next spot. It just rolls by.
Dave: Would you consider writing about it? Or an autobiography - anything along those lines?
Burke: I wouldn't write anything autobiographical. If you've lived a life like Laurence of Arabia, it might be a consideration, but otherwise it's a little bit vain, it seems to me.
I have a novel in mind about the war between the states, and I just finished another book about Montana, and I'm working on another Dave Robicheaux novel. I'm a book ahead of the publisher now.
Dave: For a writer who's trying to write in this form - an ongoing series about a character or a set of characters - what advice do you offer? People must ask you.
Burke: The only thing an artist has to remember is to never lose faith in his vision. It's that simple - that's the big lesson. All the rest is of secondary importance. It's difficult sometimes if you receive rejection after rejection, but if a person has talent, he knows it's there.
It's discouraging to be criticized because you can't contend with it. It's like someone saying, "Sorry Jim, but you just don't measure up. We're really looking for someone a bit more handsome than you."
In truth, most of the time, the rejections seem silly to you. You reach a point where you don't hear either the denigration or the applause. I learned a lesson. I had some success when I was younger. Everyone loves you when you're in tall cotton.
Dave: Stephen King has created a big buzz by selling serial installments of his new book directly over the Internet, without his print publisher. That could be an ideal platform for a writer like you, someone working with such suspenseful plots. Is that something that piques your curiosity at all?
Burke: For me, it wouldn't be interesting. When I finish a book, I like to feel that it's right. I like to be finished and go on to something new.
It was a nineteenth century way to publish. Thomas Hardy's novels were published in serial form - and I think, actually, Hemingway's To Have and Have Not came out in serial form in Esquire, but then again it's a marred novel, the structure's kind of messed up.
Dave: It's interesting to read those books that aren't quite perfect, though. To see through them, to catch the imperfections. Do you read mostly for pleasure or are you always investigating what the author is doing?
Burke: I do, but only if they're good. Never read bad stuff if you're an artist; it will impair your own game. I don't know if you ever played competitive tennis, but you learn not to watch bad tennis; it messes up your game. Art's the same way.
It's great to read people who really do things in unique ways. Like Cormac McCarthy. Ron Hansen is another. He takes a lot of chances. Joyce Carol Oates is another; she does real bold things. There's a new guy named Steve Yarbrough. He's a guy to watch. He has a lot of talent. Andre Dubus III, who was just up for the National Book Award - he's another. You see it. Not only do they have a wonderful story to tell, but stylistically, they're doing new things.
Dave: I had a professor once who really like Hansen. She had us read Mariette In Ecstasy.
Burke: A metaphysical mystery story. You don't know if she's imagining these things or if she's in league with the devil. Then you realize it's an allegory about the presence of the altruist in the midst of mediocrity. Everyone turns on her, and she really is a saint. It's a fantastic book.
Dave: It may have been the only book that everyone in the class agreed about and loved. None of us had read it previously.
Burke: People have never heard of it, but they read it and it blows them away. Hansen is a great writer. Did you read Hitler's Niece?
Dave: I haven't.
Burke: It's a great book about evil. Again, the story is about mediocrity. Here's a guy who is a total loser, and all of Germany decides he's a great man. I think it's probably pretty close to what Hitler was: he was a deviant, a sadomasochist; he hired prostitutes to defecate on him - in reality! He was not a healthy guy, and he probably murdered his niece. He was a degenerate. But he convinced people like Erwin Rommel that he had this grand vision. Rommel wrote letters praising his charisma - what did he call him? "The Frederick the Great of our times." Hansen did a great job with that book.
Dave: You published your first novel forty years ago. How is it different for you now? You must feel more secure, at least.
Burke: More successful, certainly. Today, there are more opportunities for writers in terms of access to larger success, but it's more difficult to publish a literary novel in the lower ranges. In other words, you almost have to hit a home run. You can hit a triple, maybe, but nobody's interested in a single.
My first three novels were published by three different houses. They were not big sellers. They did well, but I didn't get a triple. Maybe a double. But my fourth novel wasn't accepted for nine years, and it was thirteen years before I published in hardback again.
Dave: Eventually, that novel [The Lost Get Back Boogie] was nominated for a Pulitzer. How do you account for that?
Burke: It was just a tough market. That book received 111 editorial rejections in New York with my current agent, Philip Spitzer. Philip kept it out there for nine years.
When I met him he was driving a cab in Hell's Kitchen, running his one-man agency at night - but now Philip Spitzer is one of the most successful agents in New York. We stuck with each other through all those hard years. Lost Get Back Boogie is well-known as the most rejected book in the history of New York publishing.
Dave: Something to hang your hat on, I guess.
Burke: Well, there's a lesson. When LSU Press brought it out, they had me cut it down, but you see, that hadn't even been an option before. Not one of those editors said, "How about cutting down this book?" They just said, "No way. Take this out of our office. Go rent a gun and shoot yourself." It was not an easy rejection.
I don't know why it got so thoroughly rejected. Some of the rejections were actually virulent - and I'm not exaggerating. The letters were full of anger. It just made people mad for some reason.
Dave: And now it's a favorite of many of your fans.
Burke: I think it's pretty good. I cut it, and it all worked out.
James Lee Burke visited our City of Books on August 4, 2000. We talked for a half-hour or so in the Internet Annex before heading across the street to meet the large crowd gathered for his reading in the Pearl Room. Farley had told me how kind he'd been last time he was here at Powell's. In fact, he was.
Things that didn't make the interview's final edit: Burke says he's a fan of the History Channel; he lived in Denver in the early seventies, when the road up to Fort Collins was still a two-lane through open fields; he wonders why people who see UFOs are likely to live on the fringe of society.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State