James Lee Burke: An Interview and Appreciation
By Deen Kogan
Few contemporary writers, or even those long gone, come with the bona fides that James Lee Burke possesses. This amazingly prolific writer, with a great laugh, engaging smile and affection for and appreciation of the human race, with all its foibles, has produced 27 novels and two short story collections in a career that spans more than 42 years. His vibrant and unforgettable characters, cadence of speech and the rhythms of the writing have seduced readers and critics alike.
Jim, as he’s called, was absolutely destined to be a writer. His family first came to New Iberia, Louisiana from Waterford, Ireland in 1836 and the Irish oral tradition is part of his heritage. He was born in Houston, Texas, in 1936 and grew up on the Texas- Louisiana gulf coast.
He and his wife, Pearl, met in graduate school at the University of Missouri; he has B.A. and M.A. degrees from there. The Burkes have been married almost 50 years. They have four children: Jim, Jr (attorney), Andrea (psychologist), Pamala (who maintains the Burke web site) and Alafair (law professor) who has three crime novels to her credit. It’s been said that talent runs in the family.
Burke’s life experiences enrich and color his writing. He’s worked on an offshore oil exploration rig, as a land surveyor, creative writing professor, newspaper reporter, social worker on L.A.’s Skid Row and instructor in the U.S. Job Corps.
He has received his share of literary honors including Guggenheim and Breadloaf Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, two Edgars for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America and American Guest of Honor accolades at the 2003 Bouchercon, the international crime fiction convocation. Ask Jim what writers he read as a boy and he’ll tell you about Frank Dixon and the Hardy Boys and the bi-weekly visits by the library bookmobile, which guaranteed “a great day!”. Ask him which book of his he favors and he’ll tell you the one he’s writing. Burke’s literary career really dates to 1965, when his first novel, Half of Paradise was published. To the Bright and Shining Sea followed in 1970 and Lay Down My Sword and Shield in 1971. Then he hit a publishing stone wall. Jim says he holds the single submission record of rejections as The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 111 times over a nine-year period. When the Louisiana State University Press did publish it in 1986, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
While Burke’s novels transcend genre classification, he is revered by the detective fiction reading community for the two series he has created. Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux made his debut in The Neon Rain in 1987 and Texas Ranger / attorney, Billy Bob Holland in 1997 in Cimarron Rose.
The Robicheaux series is the favorite of many readers. A complex, honest man, who constantly fights his demons, Robicheaux might be a mirror image of Burke… his life in the Bayou, past alcoholism, a daughter named Alafair and as with Burke’s just published novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown (Simon & Schuster, July 2007) his passionate love for New Orleans and what it stood for.
The Tin Roof Blowdown is the 16th in the Dave Robicheaux canon. There is much sadness and a somber tone of resignation in the writing. With Katrina’s advent, the Louisiana and New Orleans he knew is gone and will never be the same and the hurricane does not bear all of the responsibility.
But that was before Katrina. That was before a storm with greater impact
than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern
Louisiana. That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western Hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.
Burke has an unforgettable image in this book, one of many, but one he repeats from his latest short story collection, Jesus Out To Sea, a collection of ten tales centering on the devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi before and after Katrina (Simon & Schuster, June 2007).
In the title story, Jesus Out to Sea:
At dawn, I saw a black woman on the next street, one that’s lower than mine, standing on top of a car roof. She was huge, with rolls of fat on her like a stack of inner tubes. She was wearing a purple dress that had floated up over her waist and she was waving at the sky for help. Miles rowed a boat from the bar he owns on the corner, and the two of us went over to where the car roof was maybe six feet underwater by the time we got there. The black lady was gone.
And in The Tin Roof Blowdown:
A big, fat black woman in a purple dress was standing on top of a car, waving at the sky. Her dress was floating out in the water. She was on the car a half an hour, waving, while the water kept rising. I saw her fall off the car. It was over her head.
The Tin Roof Blowdown may be Burke’s best work yet and there’s much more to come. He writes every day, seven days a week. Like Dylan Thomas, this is a man who will not go gentle into that good night.
These days Jim and Pearl split their time between New Iberia, Louisiana and Missoula, Montana. They built their ranch home on 120 acres of rough land in the Montana mountains so after the writing is done for the day, there are horses to feed and pastures to tend.
For years, Jim did book tours, driving cross country with Pearl, in a well traveled Volvo, one year East, one year West. On one of his many visits to Philadelphia, we had the pleasure of eating together at a Chinese restaurant on Walnut Street whose people came from the same China village as did Pearl’s family. (Editor Jane Duffin was part of the party).
On another occasion, we took a drive to Eastern State Penitentiary along with stops at most Philadelphia area book stores.
Jim doesn’t tour anymore and he has certainly paid his literary dues. In fact, the Volvo is in car heaven, and today there’s a Toyota truck and Avalon for transportation.
James Lee Burke is a stellar example of a moral, socially committed writer who is deeply concerned about the welfare of this country. His work is a fusion of the examination of evil and appreciation of the beauty of the land he loves and as he’s written: “It’s a great country. Don’t let the hucksters and charlatans take it away!”
For additional information on James Lee Burke, visit his website: www.jamesleeburke.com. The site also lists the complete Burke Bibliography.
Deen Kogan, director Society Hill Playhouse, also produces literary conferences including: Noircon, which was held April 3 – 6, 2208 http://www.noircon.com