James Lee Burke talks about violence, writing, littering, alcoholism, liberalism and bestsellers.
June 5, 2002
James Lee Burke has seen and heard enough to fill a book. Actually, make that 22 books.
Burke is best known for his novels featuring Dave Robicheaux, an Iberia Parish detective who sees the world in black and white, a man who is haunted at times by his own alcoholism and his desire to do right in a world ruled by insanity.
At 65 years old, Burke is a demure man with small, penetrating eyes and a disarming smile. His laughter sounds as if it’s rattling itself free from his bones. There are times he laughs so hard it ends in a coughing fit.
He writes about man’s depravity and his grace, his beauty and his vulgarity. His novels have engaged millions of readers all over the world, propelling him to the top of The New York Times’ bestseller list. But for the man who lives in New Iberia, with a second home in Missoula, Mont., life hasn’t always been a gravy train. The ride to the top has been riddled with detours and unexpected delays.
The Times recently sat down with Burke at his home along the banks of Bayou Teche. He was preparing for a national book tour in support of his latest Robicheaux novel, Jolie Blon’s Bounce. In his office, bathed in sunlight filtered through an oak tree outside of his bay window, he gave some insight into the man behind Dave Robicheaux.
Before drawing any comparisons between Robicheaux and himself, Burke points out the differences between the two men. He says of Robicheaux, “The character defects are mine, none of the qualities.”
He laughs so hard he’s headed for a coughing fit.
Burke was born in Houston in 1936. His mother was a secretary and his father was a natural gas engineer. At the age of 18, Burke’s father died in a car accident in Anahuac, Texas.
Although he was raised in Houston, Burke spent a good deal of his childhood in New Iberia. He says “I’ve always considered this area my home. My family has lived in New Iberia since 1836.”
In 1955, Burke enrolled at Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette, where he remembers studying Homer, William Faulkner, Samuel Coleridge, Francis Bacon and John Stuart Mill. He also remembers meeting one of the most influential people in his life, Lyle Williams, his freshman English professor.
After receiving countless D minuses on his papers, he approached his professor, certain he would receive an apology for the mistake of the low grades on his paper. Instead, according to Burke, Williams told him, “Your penmanship, Mr. Burke, is like an assault upon the eyeballs. Your spelling makes me wish the Phoenicians had not invented the alphabet, but you write with such heart, I couldn’t give you an F.”
For the rest of the semester, Burke revised his papers every Saturday under Williams’ supervision and managed to squeeze a B out of the class. “Had it not been for Lyle Williams, I probably would not be a writer today,” he says. While at SLI, Burke published his first short story, Terminus, in the school’s literary journal.
In his junior year, Burke transferred to the University of Missouri in Columbia to study journalism. He hoped that a career in journalism would lead to a literary career. Instead of studying journalism, he studied creative writing and met his future wife, Pearl. In 1960, he graduated with honors.
Before he mastered the bestseller, Burke was a jack of all trades – a land man for Sinclair Oil Company, a truck driver for the U.S. Forest Service, a teacher in the Job Corps, a reporter for The Daily Advertiser, a social worker in Los Angeles’ skid row and professor at four universities and a community college.
The best job he ever had for his writing was as a land surveyor for pipelines in Texas and Colorado. He says, “You don’t use your mind in the sense that you don’t use up creative energy. It’s a real good life. You’re outdoors. You’re rolling all the time. You’re never in the same place two days in a row. The pay’s good and there are great guys to work with. Pipeliners were the most unusual, interesting people I ever knew. They’ve been everywhere. They have no last names and they don’t have first names -W.J., R.C., L.T. And if the guy’s name isn’t W.J., it’s J.W.”
Burke remembers working with W.J., a man that had been all over the world. During World War II, W.J. fought in the South Pacific. He went into the Army as a private and when he was discharged seven years later, he was still a private.
When Burke imitates W.J. he lays on a slow, heavy Texan drawl. He says, “I didn’t like it, man. Them people was mad. They was shooting at me. I ain’t never getting in the U.S. Army again.”
W.J. was also an amateur meteorologist. When he talked about Saudi Arabia, he said, “Boy, that was a hot sumbitch.” When remembering Iceland, he remarked, “Boy, that was a cold sumbitch.”
Burke laughs and says, “This was what he extrapolated from the experience.”
One day W.J. showed up for work five days late. He said he had been in Lake Charles and that he was never going back, that it was a town of liars. He said that they had concocted a story about him one evening in a beer joint during a bourrée game that had gone sour. They threw him out and locked the door on him. W.J. hooked the winch from his truck to the building, pulled it off of its blocks and drove through the front wall, blowing his horn for another drink.
Burke is still imitating W.J., “If I’d done something that awful, I would have surely remembered it.”
Burke laughs so hard recounting the story that he’s brought to tears.
“Those are remarkable people,” he says. “They’re the cutting edge of empire.”
Although working on the pipeline provided fodder for writing, Burke says the drawback was being away from his wife and four children for long periods of time. Over the years, he says he continued to work at “anything that made money.”
He wrote steadily and developed a system for dealing with the rejection of his short stories. After receiving a rejection notice, he gave himself 36 hours to get the story back in the mail and off to another magazine. He’s used the same system for 45 years. “If you keep your story at home, you’re insured to lose,” he says.
While he continued to work, write and raise a family, Burke also struggled with alcoholism. He attended a 12-step program for people with drinking problems and has remained sober for the last 25 years. He’s reluctant to talk about it, because he says “unless a person goes inside of it, it’s like listening to Sanskrit,” but he takes a crack at it anyway.
What compelled you to quit drinking?
“For people who have gotten on the dirty boogie, there are choices to be made. A guy can stay on it and flame out, blow out his doors, crash and burn. That’s when he can make a choice for another kind of life. Until a person gets to that point where he decides that he wants a better life, in all probability, he’s going to live inside what is a kind of hermetically sealed environment where insanity seems rational.
“People who are knowledgeable about addiction today treat it as a disease. They don’t try to proselytize about it. But there’s no question that condemnation of the addicted person only empowers him to stay out there, to stay on the dirty boogie. Maybe a day finally comes when he realizes that shame and guilt should not be his province and at that moment he can elect to have a good life.
“Condemnation and criticism of the drunk or the addict is the same as giving him the liquor store. He will determine to prove that he can handle it, that he is not afflicted, that he is not morally weak, because the indictment of him is usually on the basis of moral weakness. He is being told, in effect, he’s a spiritual leper. An alcoholic is going to do everything in his power to prove he’s normal by getting drunk again. It’s insanity but it’s the nature of compulsive, obsessive behavior.
“Then when he meets a group of people who have been there, who have been inside that hermetically sealed environment where you see the world through a glass darkly and they tell him that, yeah, he’s responsible for all the mistakes he made, nobody made him drink or use and that he needs to make amends and he has to own up to things and he has to get square with the world and he cannot blame anyone else for his plight except himself. But nonetheless, he has to be aware that there’s a difference in his chemistry that is not like other people. Booze doesn’t have the same effect on everyone. It’s just one out of 10.
“Then maybe he begins to see hope and he also learns that he is not a pariah. That’s the onus which alcoholics struggled with throughout history, that they were weak. If you tell a man every day he’s weak, he’s not good, you condemn him to repeat his behavior. No one is ever better – you learn that in any 12-step program – because of criticism. You never make anybody better by excoriating them.”
Burke published his first book Half of Paradise in 1965, followed by two more – To the Bright and Shining Sun (1970) and Lay Down My Sword and Shield (1971). The first two books sold well and established him as a writer, but the third book didn’t fare as well. He continued to write, despite having difficulties publishing his material.
In 1984, his books were out of print and he had not been able to strike a publishing deal for a hardcover book in 13 years. He sent a collection of short stories to Louisiana State University Press to consider for publication. They published the stories the next year under the title The Convict. Burke says that with that book, “LSU Press put me back in business.”
He says, “It’s like being rich twice and being broke three times.” He says he owes a debt of gratitude to LSU Press he can never repay. He’s also leery to draw a connection between his sobriety with the fortunate change in his career. He says his career took a change for the better because he continued to write despite the rejection.
In 1986 he published his fourth novel, The Lost Get Back Boogie. The book holds the distinction of being the most rejected book in New York’s publishing history.
“That’s not exaggeration,” Burke says. “It’s known for the record, 111 times with my current agent. It was out with another agent previous to those 111 rejections. It was under submission through my current agent, Philip Spitzer, over a nine-year period and received 111 rejections.” The Lost Get Back Boogie was later nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Burke may have had a difficult time publishing his work during those lean years, but he never quit writing. He says that just because no one was buying his work didn’t mean that his writing well had run dry. “I wrote all of those years,” he says. “I just couldn’t sell anything.”
“I write all the time,” he says. “You can’t compute it in terms of hours. You can’t compartmentalize it. It’s something you live inside of all the time. It’s a continuum.”
Burke’s daily routine consists of writing, taking care of the business of his writing, lifting weights at his local health club and fishing when time permits. He says, “There are a lot of other things to be done and if you don’t do it, it will be done for you, but not to your benefit.”
In 1984, he was fishing with writer Rick DeMarinis on the Bitterroot River in Montana. DeMarinis suggested that he try his hand at a crime novel. Burke later flew from Missoula to San Francisco and begin outlining a new novel on a yellow legal pad. He wrote two chapters while sitting in an Italian coffee shop next to Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore on the North Beach. After he typed the chapters out, he had the beginning of The Neon Rain, the first novel featuring Dave Robicheaux.
Burke has since written a dozen books with Robicheaux as the protagonist. Although he has another series following the life of a Texan, Billy Bob Holland, the Robicheaux books have become his trademark.
He is also a Guggenheim Fellow, a Breadloaf Fellow and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow. His short stories have been published in national magazines and collections of short stories like Best American Short Stories and New Stories from the South. He is the only writer with the distinction of receiving two Edgar awards (named in honor of Edgar Allen Poe and given by the Mystery Writers of America) for Black Cherry Blues (1989) and also Cimarron Rose (1998). The success of Black Cherry Blues allowed Burke to quit his teaching job and to write full time.
Burke’s novels are painted with vivid descriptions of the land, pithy dialogue and sudden acts of physical violence. The combination of action, description and dialogue makes for a page-turning read. The common criticism made against his work is that there is too much violence.
How do you respond to the criticism that your writing is too violent?
When people use that term violence, we hear it all the time, “Look at the violence in this.” What kind of nonsense is that? It’s just doo-dah. It’s like saying, “My God, look at this Hamlet leaving all these bodies in the fifth act. Jeez, this is terrible.” This usually comes from the same people to whom the violence in Central America leaves no scratch. The loss of a hundred thousand civilian lives in the Iraq war are just kind of passed over, a war conducted against a man who was the ally of the administration during the 1980s, a man whom we armed and suddenly who became the anti-Christ. I don’t have any doubt this guy is evil, but that was not the attitude of our government towards him previously. People do not consider this violence.
This is the most violent nation on earth. We export more arms than any other nation on the planet. It’s our greatest product. That’s not metaphor. That’s a statistical fact. President Clinton exported more weaponry than Presidents Reagan or Bush. It’s our big gift to the world … We arm both sides. The M-16 meat cutter used to be found everywhere. Dave Robicheaux says that our gifts to people who harvest rice with their hands are the AK-47 and the M-16 …
In (Mario Puzo’s book) The Last Don, he talks about the gambling industry and he says what kind of government would inculcate a vice in its citizenry? And, of course, it’s all with the blessing of the state and the federal government that the poor, the uneducated, the obsessive and the compulsive – who are the only people who gamble habitually, because it’s not gambling. You’re going to lose. There’s no way you’re going to win. This is an act of violence, in my mind, because it robs from the poor. Oh, they’re there by their own consent, but it’s not an informed consent. Everyone knows it. No one who had any awareness of the commitment which he’s made would be there.
I used to spend a lot of time at race tracks. I love horse-racing. If you watch the action at a track, you’ll notice the bar is empty during the first races. By the seventh race, it’s packed with two kinds of people – the winners and the losers, but more losers than winners because the compulsive gambler wins when he loses. His loss confirms his long-held and cherished suspicion that the universe has plotted against him and he’s got the evidence to prove that he is not responsible for his own failure. The fates have done this to him, but he’s happy again, as happy as a pig rolling in slop. And then if he wins, he’s proven that he can intuit the future he’s painted with magic. Well, in other words, we’re talking about a psychological basket case.
Of course, the attrition, the real violence sometimes is precipitated on down the road. I mean, after this guy spends the rent and the grocery, and they do. If you look at the guys at the $2 window, that’s where the money is made. These are the guys that drop it all.
As a former reporter, do you think the media is liberal?
It’s an old myth that the press is liberal. It’s absolutely nonsense. It’s a statistical fact 90 percent of media are owned by Republican interests and that’s great. But to say the press is liberal is just silly and has nothing to do with reality. Secondly, most news people, almost universally, are decent people.
It’s like people in the book business. You don’t have many negative experiences. They tend to run of a kind. They are people of goodwill. They enjoy language. They enjoy books, and I would say that 95 percent of them are simply interested in the truth. There’s maybe five percent that have an agenda, but they’re usually not journalists. They’re columnists and the ego is very apparent in their prose When you start seeing those five words – I, me, my, mine and myself – you know who I’m talking about.
Most journalists want to just file the story and go to lunch. They have an irreverent sense of humor, but you see journalists become imbued with cynicism because they see the discrepancy between the way a city is run and the way its operations are reported. Most mainstream media stay away from controversy…
There’s an unwritten history of the 1980s. When I published the novel The Neon Rain, which deals with clandestine operations in Central America, the smuggling of arms, the Iranian-Contra story had not broken when that was written, but I knew about it. Here’s a guy living in Wichita, Kan., who knows about it. Where in God’s name is everybody else? Here’s a guy teaching freshman English at a Midwestern college. If I could have access to that information, I mean the media people in Washington, D.C., did not? It was a story that people didn’t want to touch. It was well known in Gulf Coast ports, but the larger story also involved the trade-off of narcotics for arms. I’ve just heard that story from too many people. Those ties between the underworld, the narcotics industry, the arms industry and CIA operations go back to the Golden Triangle in southeast Asia, back into the French and British colonial period …
There are many stories, but I’ve heard them, even recently from individuals, that all coincide. The dope went north and the guns went south. It’s probably the worst political scandal in America’s history and when the Sacramento Bee broke the story, I think the Washington Post and The New York Times discredited it, but I believe the account in the Sacramento Bee. I’ve just heard it too many places.
I heard the head of the DEA say it. This guy was a Reagan appointee. He said, this is an exact quote, “The Contras are introducing cocaine into the United States.” Now for anyone to simultaneously say we’re serious about what’s called The War on Drugs is deceiving himself, deluding himself.
Do you consider yourself a liberal?
I consider myself pretty traditional, really. People of my generation, who were born in the Depression, tend to be traditionalists. If I had to call myself a name I’d say I was a Jeffersonian liberal. But, see, something has become askew in American thinking. Liberals now are tarred in every way by people who want to associate in the popular mind liberalism with some kind of fanatical movement.
Traditional liberalism has involved certain kinds of movements that gave us Social Security, minimum wage, public healthcare, environmental and consumer protection, the civil rights acts of the 1960s, the fair hiring act, the equal employment act, public education. What is it that is so objectionable about Medicare for God’s sake?
I remember on many occasions when liberals, or people who were supposed to be liberals, were called liberals and they shrink. It’s beyond me, absolutely beyond me. I mean, do people think that the right wing gave us Social Security, collective bargaining, clean water? I don’t know. I think it’s one of those deals where you say it enough times, people began to believe it.
Now, there are people, to my mind, who are libertine, who have taken on the guise of being liberals and they are not liberals. They are involved in something else. I’m not knocking them, but this stuff about correctness in language, this hyper-sensitivity about ethnicity and the notion that people are not accountable for what they do, this is not liberalism.
Liberalism is founded on the Jeffersonian notion that ultimately the individual deserves the protection of his government, that the government has to give power to and protect those who have no voice, who are disenfranchised. The government is there to make the society work in an equitable and just way. That’s the spirit of and the tradition of the liberal movement in this country. This other stuff has nothing to do with it.
Empowering an adult bookstore to open up shop in a neighborhood filled with elderly people who lack political power, whose finances are immediately compromised and their property values plummet, that is not, in my mind, enforcement of the First Amendment. It has nothing to do with the First Amendment. This is a misinterpretation of the constitutional views of people like Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and all these other early guys. They weren’t there to protect pornographers who create victims out of defenseless people.
The libertine view of life has much more to do with fashion than it does politics. There’s nothing liberal about Hollywood. That’s just nonsense. The Disney Company violated minimum wage laws in Haiti. I mean, you’ve got to really work to violate sweatshop laws.
You have said before that opening a Wal-Mart in a small town is the equivalent of setting off a hydrogen bomb. Do you think cultures can survive in the face of corporate America or will the Wal-Marts of the world win out in the end?
The latter is, I’m afraid, what probably is going to occur in my lifetime.
Louisiana’s great tragedy is the lack of education that we provide for the poor, for those who have inherited the problems of the past. I think, you see, as long as there are politicians who are sycophants for right-wing and venal and industrial interests, we’re going to see more of the same. What all demagogues and all those who manipulate the electorate and exploit the earth seek is an uninformed electorate. Their enemy is knowledge and enlightenment. If you can give people cheap goods – you give them Powerball lotteries, drive-by daiquiri windows, implicit permission to drive with alcohol behind the wheel – in effect allow them the libertine ethos, which normally only the rich have had access to, and are sacrosanct, in effect, are finally not made accountable for, as long as we give these things as a kind of collective opiate to the poor, we’re going to have all these other problems.
For example, no one, in my lifetime, I know, has ever been arrested for littering, even though Southern Louisiana is strewn with trash from one end to the other. As soon as that happens, it’s like pulling on a thread on a sweater, and people are going to start asking other questions. How about these oil industries that have caused Louisiana to be rated eight years in a row as having the worst water quality in the nation? Number 50. Your accountability goes from the bottom up. So you’ve got this huge number of people who are uneducated, often addicted. They’re given casinos they can go to and lose their money.
The cynicism involved, to my mind, is mind-numbing. To me, it’s hopeless, in my lifetime. I think what’ll happen is that the generation after mine will see a time when people from other places, as well as indigenous native Louisianians, will rediscover what we have and will create a replica of what used to be and they’ll live in it. People will see what used to be there but they won’t be the original denizens. It’s the irony of history. It’s in retrospect that we value what we lost.
But the damage is done here by developers. You see live oaks lopped down in front of Wal-Mart in Abbeville, hundreds of years old. It makes your heart sick. In my lifetime the changes are just enormous. Lafayette used to be a sleepy Southern town covered with oak trees. From the Oil Center plumb out to Vermilion Bayou was a solid tunnel of oak trees. It was a two-lane road. It was beautiful. Just before you reached the river on the right-hand side was an antebellum plantation.
I don’t believe it has to be either/or. There are ways to do things so that you don’t destroy what is just invaluable. It’s irreparable. It’s like watching people using a chainsaw while on acid. But you can’t turn it around.
This used to be the Old Spanish Trail that went through here. It used to run all the way across South Louisiana to New Orleans. Boy, you drive on the four-lane out here to New Orleans and it’s just incredible. For 20 miles from the airport into Southwestern Louisiana it looks like a sewer. I don’t know another place like it and I’ve been everywhere in the United States. It’s mind-numbing. People come here from other places and they just kind of wince and say, “Why in God’s name do you allow this to happen?”
But I don’t know the answer for it. Education is part of it, but at some point we have to enforce the law. It becomes discouraging when you get involved with it, trying to do something. There are people here in New Iberia who really work hard to save the trees, to keep the town clean. It’s just a daunting task. They’re really dedicated.
And it’s not simply the poor. You see people who obviously are of means throw their trash out the window, bags of garbage, man, just explode on the side of the road. The bayous are full of it. I see trash every morning floating down to the Gulf. It’s one of those things you got to work the serenity prayer on but it goes down sideways anyway.
To me, what’s disturbing, is that it was not always like that. It was not like that years ago. I think maybe part of it has to do with that kind of Mardi Gras mentality. People become imbued with this notion of laissez les bons temps rouler, like there’s no tomorrow. Just fling your garbage. I think Dave Robicheaux calls it a self-congratulatory form of hedonism.
Dave Robicheaux is a better writer than I. I know that sounds peculiar, but I try to quote Dave and I can’t do it. It’s really humbling. (Laughs)
What’s the secret to writing best-selling novels?
(Laughs) What’s the secret? There is no secret. There is none.
You build a readership, as a rule, over a very long time. It’s incremental. There’s people whose early work becomes best-seller fiction, but oft times it doesn’t sustain itself. Now there are others for whom there’s a kind of electronic element at work – sales to film and television. But that’s not enough either. Usually to get into what is called, in publishing, best-sellerdom, requires many years while the readership grows and grows. It’s a fickle business. You learn real quick. It’s like the oil business. It’s gushers or dusters.
Why is the business so fickle?
It’s popular taste. One thing an author can always rely upon is that if he has success, it will go away from him. It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time. So when you have some success, put it in the bank because you’ll need it.
What’s key to a successful life?
You do it a day at a time, I think. If I’ve learned anything it’s that maybe you don’t learn a lot. I feel as young as I was when I was 21. I’m probably a little more patient than I was then, probably less impetuous, but otherwise I think it’s one of the great myths that age brings you great wisdom. What we learn ultimately, I think, is probably that the things that are valuable really are not purchased with money. It’s like one of those admonitions that’s true: Money keeps a mess of grief off your porch, but the things that really count are the things that you never can buy – family and friends, the good life.
Although Burke’s latest novel, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, has just hit bookstores, he has already written his 23rd novel, set in New Iberia during the Civil War. He says the book will be published next year.
54 thoughts on “The Man Behind Dave Robicheaux”
I have always been drawn to the complexity of the social and political conundrum that Burke presents in his novels. To set aside one’s own situation and social make up is not always an easy thing. It is an absolute gift when a writer can make you want to do that so easily, can welcome you into that world they describe and challenge your perceptions . In this interview alone , I could easily add several new favourite quotes to my list, such humanity! A real pleasure to read.
From 20 years up the road, I think you nailed it.
I have made Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcel, Billy Bob Holland et al my regular companions ever since discovering a copy of Heartwood in a bookshop remainder bin. The complexities wrapped in the surface formula of the crime stories, the running commentary on American society, the evocation of place, the beauty and terseness of the prose style and the humanity of his protagonists– all of these make JLB a spokesman for our times.
Having just discovered James Lee Burke I am currently consuming his books as fast as I can find them.Dave Robicheaux is the best character I have read in a long while.Many thanks JLB
My parents missed giving me JLB’s initials by one letter. And my dad’s parents. And me again with my son. Had I read James Lee Burke before my son was born I would have absolutely given him that monogram. My mother is from a long line of people that lived in and around Long Beach, Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Chrstian, Bay Saint Louis, and other Mississippi Gulf cities and towns. I stumbled upon Burke with Sunset Limited. I am currently working backwards to the beginning and then from Sunset forward. I lose myself in the descriptions and characters he writes. I fail to remember when I have read better. Thanks Mr. Burke.
In the 40’s I had an older brother living in Pascagoula, Mississippi. My father would drive us down US Hwy 41 through some of the towns you mentioned and I remember my brother referencing the others, bringing back fond memories. A simpler time . . . at least for me. It goes without saying I’m a JLB fan!
Since I first picked up one of James Burke’s novels at the local public library, I have not been able to get enough. Not only does Burke write intriquing stories but I find myself stopping to contemplate the depth of his work. Though I am nearly in the same age group, have a bachelor’s degree in history, and recently decided it was time to work on a master’s degree (keep those brain cells working), I find myself stopping to research quotes or the use of certain works. Burke’s use of descriptive verbage is quite simply unbelievable. Can’t wait for each new work.
At age 25 most of Mr. Burkes books were written before my literary interest peaked. I found a copy of Swan Peak somebody left in my office last year and since then I have read, in order, all the Robicheaux novels up to Crusaders Cross, the first Billy Bob Holland novel, and The Lost Get Back Boogie. I am on the second Holland book, Heartwood, right now. Needless to say I am a fan, thank you Mr. Burke for providing me with days of reading material and a lifetime of memories from these grand stories.
I am reading all the books James Lee Burke wrote. I read a lot. His books about Dave are the best.
I have been reading your books for a long time and enjoy them greatly. They wear me out and I know that the next one will also but I can hardly wait untill it comes out.
Thanks for a lot of good hours.
A friend gave me three of Burke’s books to read. He said that I would appreciate his writing and he was correct. As someone who participated in a government sponsored trip to South East Asia and as a police officer, I immediately wanted to know his unit and his department. I was stunned to learn that he had neither one. To be able to write so well and so intimately of my two most life altering and intimate experiences without having lived either of those experiences is unique, to say the least. There were times during my reading that I thought that Burke was walking around inside my head.
For my money, Mr. Burke is the best writer of Crime Fiction in America because what he writes is literature. They are not escapest fiction, what he writes resonates in the mind. If anyone can be said to have inherated the mantel of Chandler and Hammet and John D. NcDonald it is Mr. Burke. I have read everything he has written and always look forward to the next book. Not only are these stories outstanding, but “Dave Robicheaux” has something to say that goes into the heart of all decent, thinking people……And I really like Clete, who has little to say but always manages to get the job done! Keep Writing Mr. Burke. We shall keep reading.
Dave Robicheau has come alive for me by way of Mark Hammer’s readings on Recorded Books. Give ’em a try — he’s got the Baayouuuu acent down perfectly !
MY APPRECIATION FOR BURKE’S WORKS IS TOP OF THE LIST. HE HASN’T SOLD OUT HIS ETHICS LIKE JAMES PATTERSON IN “CO-AUTHORSHIP”, A FRAUD ON THE PUBLIC FOR SELLING TRASH VIA THE BOOK COVER SPLASHING HIS NAME AND THE CO-AUTHOR IN FINE PRINT!! WHEN I SEE “JAMES LEE BURKE” ON THE COVER I BUY IT! I AM SOMEWHAT PHYSICALLY IMPAIRED AND DONATE THE BOOK TO MY LOCAL LIBRARY TO GET THE AUDIO VERSION. THE READER IS GREAT AND MAKES ME FEEL LIKE I’M THERE. DEAF SMITH,TX, IS A COUNTY IN WEST TEXAS, NOT A TOWN OR THE COUNTY SEAT. I DON’T KNOW THE FICTIONAL TOWN BILLY BOB HOLLAND COMES FROM, BUT HE IS A RARE CREATION! THANKS JAMES. I WAS BORN IN 1937 AND MISS A LOT OF THINGS FROM MY CHILDHOOD DURING THE WWII YEARS LIKE HOME DELIVERY, STREET VENDORS WITH FRESH STRAWBERRIES AND THE LIKE.
I find I have a huge lump in my throat and tears in my eyes because Mr. Burke’s new books will some day come to an end. His core morality resonants with what (I hope) to achieve before my own demise. His ability to express the dispair and the hope his characters embody is a gift from the Creator and I thank him for sharing it.
JL Burke is the finest descriptive author I have ever read, and one who also releases forces of nature named Dave and Clete to kill off the demons and monsters preying on the poor and the vulnerable.
My Grandma taught me to read when I was 2 and I am 66 now. In decades of reading passionately, I have never encountered an author who has moved me so deeply.
The inclusion of the ghosts and artifacts of the Civil War, the murky reality of the Mob and it’s minions, and the Arcadian culture and linguistics feed my sense of history and interest in peoples and worlds which are otherwise remote and unknown to me.
Several times I have felt the need for Clete out in the dark and misty backyard with a cutdown when experience a seemingly endless moment of mindless existential fear in the night. My fears settle, and the need for a drink recedes into the mist.
I ran with terror, bewilderment, frustration and despair for many years, and my only answer was another drink. Now I have a sense of relief and gratitude.
Mr Burke’s novels have opened many doors for me into the forces of dark and light that play all around us. I love it!
Thank you, Mr Burke.
ra, I’m glad you found some of the answers you needed in these books. One thing more let me say. I discovered Burke picking up what I think is his 2nd novel at a friends of the library sale. The title was something close to A Bright and Shining Light. It was about coal miners and shine runners in KY/WVA. Roby is not in it of course, but you will like it.
Living in Scotland I grew up in admiration of the America I saw on TV and in film where the big man in the white hat always prevailed and you could recognise the rights and wrongs immediately. As I grew up my reading led me to see that there was another darker America, one that didn’t always treat everyone equally, correctly or even legally. I was informed of this through John Steinbeck among others and I consider James Lee Burke as great a writer as any other to emerge from your country. To highlight the wrongs, misconceptions and contradictions the strongest nation in the world hosts, and I’ve witnessed some of these myself while working on oil/gas projects with numerous Louisianna and Texas residents in Africa, while telling the most compelling believable tales with wonderful characterisation and discription is a joy. A joy I have been enjoying and trying to spread since I first came across a budget two books in one compilation. I hope this joy continues for a long time yet.
Please though don’t think for a second that these prejidices/traits are solely American, Britain invented almost anything you can think of when it comes to mistreating it’s own people or subjigating others for profit.
Thank you JLB.
PS Sorry about the loss of income but rather than buy her own copies my daughter recently stole my full collection of your work while I was away working.
James Lee Burke’s writing is a gift to those who like a good story. I am a semi-retired English teacher. Numerous times I have recommended Burke’s books to students who “hate to read” — only to have them want to sit down with me and discuss Dave Robicheaux and ask em to alert them when a new Burke novel is published. Burke’s prose is so intoxicating, thrilling dtective genre afficianados and drawing in new readers at the same time. I have never read an interview/article where Burke discusses the presence of Catholicism in his books. I think it lends an authenticity as well as frame of reference for his philosophies.
I enjoyed reading Mr. Burke’s comments in the Times interview as printed here on R. Reese Fuller’s website. The differences between “Jeffersonian Liberalism” and “libertine” are sharply defined by JLB, and his views on how the poor, uneducated, and disenfranchised should be taken seriously. Legalized gambling and lotteries are fraudulent ways to raise revenue. The impoverished are further victimized by their own governments. Then the taxpayers are expected to pay the welfare and child care costs, and the hospitals and doctors are expected to take on the medical burdens as charity. Our country has lost it’s moral direction and I blame the attitude of “I’m gonna get mine and to hell with you.”
I first became aware of James Lee Burke while driving through the White Mountains in NH(in the early 1980’s) after having checked on a cognitively impaired sex offender who was under my supervision. An NPR radio reporter was interviewing him and the signal was fading in and out. He captured my attention with his eloquent and direct manner. I pulled over to listen to the remainder of the interview. Later that week, upon visiting a bookstore in Newburyport, Ma. I was chagrined when the bookseller informed me that his works were out of print. A short time later I was able to purchase reissued editions in a Barnes and Noble. Given my occupation, Irish heritage and fondness of reading, I quickly became an avid reader of Mr. Burke’s works. I eagerly await his new releases and often feel like I have met or dealt with the characters he writes about through my work in the parole field. Now retired, I hope someday I can muster the discipline to put into written words those stories that I came to know through my work. Thank you for your gift Mr. Burke. I have been enriched and entertained by your talents. “All the Best”.
I just started reading the latest Dave Robicheaux, THE GLASS RAINBOW. Burke writes so beautifully, with such power, he nearly makes me cry. He actually writes extremely long narrative poetry.
Extremely long narrative POEMS, I meant to say.
I read my first James Lee Burke novel in 1996 after visiting, and falling in love with, New Orleans. The book was “Heaven’s Prisoners” and it has started a long association with everything James has published since. He is a kind of American moral compass and his novel The Tin Roof Blowdown was such a blistering attack on the George W Bush administration’s lack of response to Hurricane Katrina that I truly believe it made people sit up and take notice. Without doubt, one of the finest writers of our time with the ability to make you laugh, think and despair of every character he has breathed life into.
In the late 1990s, I heard an NPR piece on Cimmaron Rose. After reading it, i picked up In the Electric Mist and read it while solo camping in the forest one weekend. I have been hooked on Burke ever since.
I’ve heard it said that “Everyone loves a good redemption story.” and I think JLB understands that well. If it is not Dave or Clete being redeemed then its a small act of kindness by someone as otherwise nefarious as Preacher Jack Collins. Each book leaves me thinking about the great beauty and great evil thAt can live in the souls of humans.
I am so happy that Burke will be releasing Creole Belle in 2012 and hope that it resolves the questions unanswered at the end of Glass Rainbow. God bless you, James Lee Burke, for both your contributions to literature and your expositions about the complexities of humanity.
I realize that the original article is quite old now, but I wanted to correct one bit of misinformation. JLB is actually NOT the only person to have won two Edgars for his novels. In fact, Dick Francis won THREE times for his books. In addition, T. Jefferson Parker and Jon Hart have both won twice.
I do love JLB — just wanted to set the record straight!
I have read almost every book written by JLB and listened to them in my car more than once because I can’t get enough. My son is an artist and I tell him all the time that the pictures JLB paints are so colorful and filled with what’s real that he rivals all the best masters. I too look forward to every new addition. I’m now immersed in ‘Feast Day of Fools”. The tool of language is so in adequet but JLB seems to have found a way to express the range of our humanity to a “T” Bravo. Pleeese keep writing for I am addicted.
Love the work. As entertaining as anything I’ve read. Just want to disagree with JLB about the media being biased. Like most Democrats, JLB considers anyone who disagrees with his view as biased. The fact that 95% of media describe themselves as liberal should answer the question. Not to say they aren’t good folks, just biased!
Great article and gives much insight to Dave R. and his very talented and thoughtful creator James Lee Burke. Very new fan but am very loyal and will remember lessons forever. Many thanks to JLB for hours spent reading such enjoyable writing. His skillful use of the English language is incredible.
My 1st JLB book was Purple Cain Road. I found it one night, in the late hours between insanity and delirium. I have no recollection of buying it or where it came from. It was in hard back. i found it at a time when I was the depths of Alcoholism, and my mind was almost gone. I had been tearing the house apart in the hope of finding some booze. The solitary dark journey of my soul was in full flight. I will never know why I turned the 1st page of that book when my body was screaming for Alcohol.
So began a wonderful journey.
Thank you JLB
JLB is truly one of the masters. It is easy for outsiders to pigeonhole him under the guise of “crime fiction”, but what he really writes are paintings of the human soul. Let’s hope his legacy is similar to that of Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway. He deserves no less. Thank you Reese for bringing us this interview.
Ten years later, James Lee Burke remains the greatest living American writer of fiction
Not only do I know the people in Mr. Burke’s stories, I know the places. Viet Nam, crawfish boils, clear trout streams, the smell of crude oil, the floor sweep in’tee nig’s’ pool hall. Each story is a trip back home. Thanks.
Great interview of a great novelist. My first book was the Will Patton narration of Pegasus Descending. I tend to listen to JLB’s books narrated by WP and read his others. Once I heard WP narrating the Clete Purcell character no other voice would do.
Thank you, Mr Burke, for hours upon hours of enjoyment, and, just as important to me, your insightful views of the sins of our society and often times misguided motivations of our government.
The first Dave Robicheaux novel by James Lee Burke I read is Purple Cane Road; all the others in the Robicheaux series I’ve read in sequence and am currently deeply into The Tin Roof Blowdown. Sadly for me, only three more of the series await me. For the third of a century I taught secondary English, I would instruct my students that six rules of effective writing, notwithstanding that sometimes rules need to be transcended, are that it be simple, clear, vivid, varied, organized, and, above all others, honest. Burke’s writing certainly is that–and so much more. His Dickensian array of characters is wonderful to behold. In short, he is a writer who matters.
With the risk of sounding dramatic, the writings of JLB have given me some guidelines for life. The priceless one? Do not judge other people, cause in doing so, you take their burden on your own shoulders.
His novels always make me evaluate my own actions and mindset. They are more valuable to me than any coaching or coaching books ever will be.
They made me accept live as it is, and most of all; they made me accept my self as I am and turned me into a better, caring an selfconcious man.
From across the Atlantic: Thank you.
Mr. Burke’s description of his life and times is much like reading one of his great novels. Very inspiring ! lhd
My mother taught me to read when I was about four years old. She never told me there were books I should not year. Sooo, been reading omnivorously ever since. JLB is a fine story teller. Not only that, he tells it in a way that demands to be re-read. Thanks to you talent, your skill and hard work. The world is never lonely when you are in my mind.
Since i read the first novel/krimi by James Lee Burke; i have been utterly in love with his way of writing and description of life in the Southern States of Amerca, both now and before.
I do not have the right word’s, since Danish is my native language.
To my mind, there is no other American writer who can describe, the life in the Southern States of America.
Pardon my French.
Burke’s comments about pipelines being interesting can be extended to the entire oil patch. During 20 years as an auditor (domestic and foreign) I met oil geologists who were experts on water quality all over the world and one who was very knowledgeable about exotic birds. Any subject/good talks.
Hi, I’m a almost 68 year old barber from Florida and during my career I think I’ve cut a million haircuts and read a thousand novels. I read all of Sare Paretsky’s novels because I was going to Chicago and the stories were all set in the city. I started James Lee Burke because my daughter was teaching at LSU and I wanted to get a feel for the state. Shortly I was reading the whole series, just finished, and like a football fan I’m yearning for one more championship. I’ve been pondering what to write to Mr. Burke, other than saying thank you, and wonder if he ever sees himself as a blend of John D, McDonald and Wendell Berry.
John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee was the first series character I ever read. I even bought Plymouth Gin because of him (not easy to find). I have followed with Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford, but none have the interest, as a character and brilliance as a writer that James Lee Burke has for me. Burke’s writing makes me want to write, like Winslow Homer’s paintings make me want to paint.
It really is amazing the thoughts that can spin out of a human brain and be translated to the printed page. The man is genius! Lead on JLB….take us places that we can’t go to unless we read the poetry.
My wife and I – doing social distancing through the coronavirus as Easter, 2020 nears – decided to watch “In the Electric Mist” again. It had been some time – I sure wish Tommy Lee Jones had taken possession of Dave Robicheaux as a character. His laconic style and pent-up violence seemed to capture what I imagine Dave would be like. Seeing the film caused me to do some looking online and I came across this wonderful interview. Thank you JLB for sharing yourself. I first found Dave and Clete and Tripod and Alifair and Bootsie long ago – probably around 1990. I am a lover of hard boiled detective fiction and the great prose styles of Hammett and Chandler, McDonald, Crais and Robert B. Parker … but the exquisite beauty of nature and harshness of venality, the power of love and friendship, the tortures of addiction and the powerful images of redemption and grace … have never been more evocatively written about by anyone. JLB is in a class all by himself. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on life and writing for this article … and thanks to all who posted their thoughts on here in response to the article. Your sharing was a real testimony to the enduring power of JLB’s writings – and I learned much and was reminded of how much I also owe this great author. Now I want to go back and read them all again! Not so sad a journey …
I used to give away copies of “The Manchurian Candidates” frequently. Nowadays I give James Lee Burke’s novels and often have to buy other copies or editions. As a former high school teacher I kind of feel like it’s my duty but mostly I just want friends to share the bounty he has so generously provided us with.
Delightful interview. As a 67 year old native of Louisiana I regret to say I’ve never read anything by Mr Burke, but just found I have a copy of Heartwood which I’m about to begin.
Mr. Burke amplifies reality for me as a reader and a Viet Nam combat vet. It’s amazing he and his characters Dave and Clete demonstrate such an understanding. After Viet Nam I entered the field of education putting in 34 years and earning four degrees including a doctorate. But like ther character Dave I frequently harken back to a troubled and lonely childhood and all that conveys. I’m happily married but still frequently wake to the sounds of rounds popping through the chopper I piloted for two years.
Mr. Burke is an excellent writer at clarifying the human condition and the times and experiences of those of us of the same age group. How he does it is a mystery but he does it well
I first heard of JLB while reading a John Sanford novel. Lucas Davenport was settling into his hotel, and planned on reading a James Lee Burke novel. Totally different kinds of fiction, but both very addicting.
I came across JLB about ten years ago. I’m British and have been to the states a number of times on business trips, but never to Lousiana/New Orleans. They teach you in creative writing classes to start with place and from place comes character and from character comes conflict and from conflict comes story/storylines and plot.
The thing with JLB is the power of his descriptive writing, place is a character. New Orleans, New Iberia, he shows them as characters, a living stage for his fictional characters to act out their stories. Show not tell written lyrically, like prose poetry, punctuted with succint dialogue from totally believable flawed human beings. His writing lives inside my head. I’m there observing and taking in everything Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel do in their malcontent myriad world of sky, water, flora, fauna, gangsters, corrupt cops and politcians. Story and beauty juxtaposed against ugliness, despair and misery in search of truth. Great writer.
I am thrilled to have found this page! First let me offer my sincere and abundant thanks for all the hours and hours of reading pleasure (and knowledge gathering) that JLB has provided me in the last ten years. Yes, I came late to the party having somehow missed these wonderful stories when they were first being published. Since then I’ve caught up.
Most authors would appear to be content to give us as many stories as possible from one world they have created, Burke has given us stories from more than four different worlds. It is so wonderful.
I started in the middle with Last Car to Elysian Fields, then went to the beginning (through the public library for most I must admit) but when I ruined a book, left in a car with an open window and it rained that night, I had to replace the book. I went online, purchased a used copy that turned out to be Autographed. Knowing it had extra value, I took a couple of days before I turned it in. Of course some one in the Library initially objected: the book had writing in it. Later it was on the shelves.
In 2013 my wife, my sister and I attended the International Dyslexia Association Conference in New Orleans. We had lost a house to Superstorm Sandy, so the results of Katrina were very much on our minds, even 8 years later. Taking a bus tour that still had to avoid the 9th Ward was a further reminder of the extent of the damage, reminding us of the floating houses and mountains of debris we had experienced in Ortley Beach, New Jersey.
Reading The Tin Roof Blowdown made it all the more real as we spent time in the city as very interested visitors. Later I read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers which reinforced and expanded my understanding of the whole experience. So thank you Mr. Burk and I am so glad to see you have new book coming out in May. I would just add that all your protagonists are very real people . Thank you.
I have greatly enjoyed 33 books by Mr Burke and am looking forward to the next. JLB is 6 months my senior and it would be my distinct honor and privilege to meet him and buy him dinner if ever he comes to Los Angeles again.
I was born in the South and have lived here for most all of my 65+ years. My grandmother was an avid reader of historical fiction based in the South, and from her came my own love of reading, particularly novels of this region. As I get older, the old saying “So many books, so little time” is always at the forefront of my mind. When I pick up one of James Lee Burke’s novels, however, I always read slowly to make the books last, many times reading the beautiful descriptive prose again and again. How nice too, to see how this page of comments remains alive with well deserved appreciation for an author who delivers.
James Lee Burke is an amazing author! I love to listen to his books online through our library system. And Will Patton is the best narrator ever. Will’s voice and the JLB’s writing make these characters come alive. Thank you Mr. Burke for sharing your gift of writing with all of us.
I have read hundreds of books, hundred of authors, many different catagories and I love them all. Of all the authors, James Lee Burke is tops. I have all his books in my library with the exception of his last. I have read them all more than once and will read them again. I hope Dave and Clete can hold their age for a while longer, I will miss them when they are gone as I know they will, as will I.