Iconic Mystery Novelist James Lee Burke Charts His Path to Wayfaring Stranger

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James Lee Burke—the acknowledged dean of American mystery novelists, a rare winner of two Edgar awards, the man named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, the writer Michael Connelly calls “the heavyweight champ”—has transcended his chosen genre.

The prolific, beloved American writer who started out as a literary novelist published his first book (Half of Paradise) in 1965, and he followed it with four equally literary books: To the Bright and Shining Sun; Lay Down My Sword and Shield; The Convict and Other Stories; and The Lost, Get Back Boogie. Then a long 13-year hardcover publishing drought set in, and Burke couldn’t get arrested in New York.

A fellow novelist suggested crime as a solution—a crime novel, that is—and Burke sat down in a San Francisco café a few days later to write The Neon Rain, the first of 20 enormously successful novels about his flawed Cajun hero Dave Robicheaux. The series, set in the corrupt swamp of Louisiana’s cultures and focused on righting social injustices, made Burke into an icon.

It also allowed him the artistic freedom to eventually return to his first love and to explore the power of the written word to move the heart and the mind. Increasingly, Burke now calls upon his naturalist influences—Steinbeck, Faulkner, dos Passos—in historical literary fiction like his newest novel, Wayfaring Stranger. Alongside his more traditional Robicheaux mysteries, Burke’s historical fiction (White Doves at Morning) draws on his Texas and Louisiana roots, mining his plentiful and powerful familial stories and influences.

This in-depth talk with Burke—the most extensive and wide-ranging interview he’s ever done—began as he chatted with Paste earlier this fall about the West, not the South.

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You know, I love California.

I did book tours up until 2005, 35 stops each year, and always had a great time in California. But you know, some guys lose it on those tours. They’re hard work, up at 5 a.m. for the TV interview and signing late into the night every day. One writer, he started going crazy, throwing books into the air. It was his first time at this; he went totally nuts. Throwing books all over the store! (laughs)

California is a great state—it’s an open-air theme park for the insane. It’s just a great place! I think it has to do with the La Brea Tar Pits. I mean it’s not an accident that Charlie Manson and Dick Nixon both come from the same area. (laughs again)

Steve Hunter and I did a signing at the old Mystery Bookstore in L.A. one time, and the crowd got out of control. Fellow there in line, he was an ex-boxer, used to hang out at the old Olympia gym on the Southside, got into it with a fellow, a real obnoxious guy in the line. Punches got thrown. The owner threw the guy out of the store. People were drunk. It was a disaster. I signed about 2,000 books that evening. I wanted to check myself into an asylum when I left.

Literary events on the West Coast were notorious—the beats, guys like Gregory Corso, Lenny Bruce, people knew how to scuffle. Most of those guys came out of rough backgrounds, were rough guys. Neal Cassidy—you know he never used profanity? He thought it was degrading.

I think we’ve had two big losses in our modern culture—one is the loss of civility, but the other is the loss of eccentric behavior. We used to honor our crazy writers, people like Dylan Thomas. Allen Ginsberg was never dull. At one talk at the University of Kansas, he took off his clothes (laughs) at the podium, on the stage. That was the most expensive disrobement in the history of people taking off clothes. The Kansas state legislature cut the liberal arts budget by one million dollars. Because of this one guy.

A great many of my family are attorneys or writers. My first cousin was Andre Dubus. He and I more or less grew up together, born four months apart. He was one year ahead in school, his freshman year he won the Louisiana state college writing contest. I started writing my freshman year in college in Lafayette; I thought I had to get into the action with Andre. I entered my first story in the contest and I won honorable mention, but that was pretty good. I’d been a poor student in high school, but improved in college.

People overlooked the greatness of Andre’s work—the best of it was written in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He wrote some of the best stories in the English language, I believe, during that period. You see, he came along at the same time as Barthelme and Raymond Carver, and I’m not taking away from their work—but I don’t think it’s a contest. Their work was minimalistic, they were part of a literary movement.

But Andre Dubus wrote traditional stories—not in theme, but his characters were flesh and blood. They were scarred by war and abusive homes and racism, certainly. He took with him this enormous and dark experience of the Deep South. Because he saw it first-hand, almost everything he wrote was easily recognized. I remember all of the people in his stories; I remember all of the events. His memory was like Jack Kerouac’s—he memorized everything he heard and saw. His stories about the Marine Corps, about bush league baseball, about prostitutes, one who’s raped by the black man, Sonny Broussard—that story is the most haunting story I’ve ever read, and I’ve never seen it anthologized. It ends, the story ends, in Angola prison. The poor guy is put to death—you never forget that image of this man sweating behind this black veil that’s dropped over his face in the electric chair.

All of those things happened. These are things that people don’t believe today, or they block them out. You see, only nine miles from New Iberia, which was our family home, where all the Burkes have lived since 1836, a black kid, named Willie Francis, was electrocuted in 1948. He was just a boy, he committed a homicide, I think he was 14. He was electrocuted twice. First time, the executioners were drunk and they burned him very badly. And then he recuperated, his lawyer petitioned the governor for clemency. That was Jimmie Davis, the man who wrote “You Are My Sunshine.” The man refused to grant him clemency. This poor kid was put to death. These are things, stories that we knew, that happened in our lifetime. And Andre wrote about ‘em.

I started writing quite young. I published my first story at 19, in a college literary magazine, and I’ve been doing it with a serious bent ever since. My first published novel was Half of Paradise. I wrote it between the ages of 20 and 23, finished it while working on a pipeline in Texas. My wife and I met and married in graduate school, and I worked for a pipeline company.

I believe that the issues in my work have always been the same. The influence, of course, was always the work of the great naturalists—in particular, Steinbeck, and I put William Faulkner in there, too. James T. Farrell influenced my work. Certainly Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, did. Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, John dos Passos were big influences. But all of those people share the following commonalities: the environment is as important as the characters the environment has produced; and the theme is always social justice. You can’t understand one without understanding the other. To me, those have always been the most interesting components in Western literature, even going back to the Greeks. Many of my stories have their origins with Elizabethan and Greek theatre. And the Bible. I’ve been stealing from antiquity. The advantage of having a classical education is that few other people do. They don’t know where you’re getting all these great stories. They come from the Old Testament! I’m afraid to tell them (laughs)—I might be in trouble.

But, more seriously, the great stories are actually found in antiquity. Faces change, stories don’t.
Sadly, many people now look upon antiquity with disdain. We think it has nothing to offer. Actually, the classical world contained within it the scientific and engineering capacity—it contained everything that the modern world contained except a power source. It took a long time for us to get to the steam engine. Maybe it’s because manpower was so available, such huge amounts of it.

We simplify antiquity. We look in a simplistic way upon the Romans, in their amphitheatre, watching the gladiators. That was one aspect of their world. There were other aspects that were not only remarkable, but awesome, in the old sense of the word.

Speaking of antiquity—moving to L.A. in 1962 was one of those seminal experiences one has in his life, and it taught me a lesson I never forgot. Never be fooled by the appearances of a city. If you want to learn how a city works, live in its slum. Then you’ll see Frankenstein at work—get a view of the monster.
I was a land surveyor at the time, working in Colorado, and I ran out of work during the winter. We moved to L.A. to get into the union, but I got locked out—union insularity, it was a lockout union, I couldn’t get a book. So we moved to the south side of L.A. and lived on West Adams. It was a rough neighborhood. More than rough—it was run by criminals. We started to learn how it worked.

Then I went to work for the Bureau of Public Assistance, and I worked on the Southside and the East side, East Los, which was the same then as it is today. Same players, different faces. I worked on East 5th. Many of our so-called clients were convicts or mental cases out of Norwalk, but we quickly learned what poor people go through in a society which rewards celebrity, fame and money. It treats others with a kind of benign form of brutality. It’s an incremental, erosive kind of oppression that goes on on a daily basis. There’s a lot of money to be made off of poverty.

The best tenant any slumlord can have is a welfare recipient. The check is in the mailbox the fourth day of every month. I used to make out rent budgets every month for these terrible places, no upkeep on them, the slumlords are just, many of them, the scum of the earth. I’d make out rent budgets to the owners of those properties, and they lived in the Wilshire District and Beverly Hills. There’s low overhead on the building, because the owner never repairs anything, and the insurance and the tax base are low, and sometimes, when they get tired of running the property, they hire a torch to burn it and they collect the insurance.

That might be extreme, but it is a totally Darwinian environment. I would see these things every day. Cops would arbitrarily bust people of color for no reason. They’d look through a window, see people playing cards inside an apartment on hot summer evening, they’d bust the whole joint. They’d run guys in for pitching pennies, matching coins on the street corner, drinking beer in public. You’d see it every day, all the time.

In the meantime, the working girls were on every street corner around there. I never saw one of them picked up by the cops. They were there, working the trade. Narcotics and the gangs were there—not the Crips and the Bloods, but their antecedents—East L.A. Purple Hearts, Clanton 14, Aranjas (the Spiders), the Choppers, the L.A. Viscounts, which was called a paddy gang, they were all whites. But the issue was the same—control of turf. The only difference was the lack of sophisticated weaponry—they didn’t have Uzis or AR-15s. They were still using pipe guns, you know, guns made from pipes. But drive-bys were common—kids drive by a bus stop and fire into a group of people waiting for a bus. Step up behind some guy and stick a knife in his back. It was that bad. But, that was life on the Southside. All the kids were in gangs—that’s the only way they could survive. If they tried to make it on their own, they would be stomped into marmalade.

Well, how bad does it have to get before it gets bad? It can’t get much badder than that.

I never forgot these things.

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