Wednesday, October 13, 2010

9mm interview with James Lee Burke

Welcome to the latest instalment in Crime Watch's ongoing series of author interviews; 9mm - 9 Murder Mystery questions put to a variety of New Zealand and international crime, thriller, and mystery authors.

I'm fortunate enough to get to interview a lot of fantastic crime fiction authors, well-known and lesser-known - sometimes directly for Crime Watch, and sometimes for some of the various great newspapers and magazines I write for (eg the Weekend Herald, Good Reading, etc).

Since I started the 9mm series with Lee Child almost seven months ago, I've made sure that every interview I do with every author, whether in-person or over the phone or Internet, includes the nine 9mm questions, in amongst whatever else I'm interviewing them about (eg their latest book, their particular characters, their visits to New Zealand etc). I've got to say, all the authors have been incredibly generous with their time, and welcoming of the 9mm questions, so I hope that you all enjoy seeing how different authors answer the questions each time.

Today, for the 38th instalment of 9mm (how quickly the series has grown), I thought I would share with you the 9mm part of the interview I did with MWA Grandmaster and mystery writing maestro James Lee Burke for a feature in the Weekend Herald, in the lead-up to the release of his latest excellent Robicheaux tale, THE GLASS RAINBOW.

Getting to interview Burke was a real privilege, and a highlight of what has been a tremendous year for me, on the crime fiction reading and interviewing front. You can read my Crime Fiction Alphabet post on James Lee Burke here. And my Weekend Herald feature here.

To give you a sense of Burke, as you read his answers, here's a paragraph from my Herald feature, describing his demeanour during our interview:
  • "Throughout, the 73-year-old laughs easily and often, almost explosively at times. He is unfailing polite, yet not at all stuffy or formal. He answers the phone with a jovial "Is this New Zealand calling?" then tells me to call him "Jim". Down-to-earth and humble, his soft-spoken manner and measured cadence belie some strident opinions when it comes to several things he cares deeply about, including the environment, "people of humble origin", and the purpose and importance of art."
But now, James Lee Burke stares down the barrel of 9mm.

The Crime Watch 9mm Author Interview: James Lee Burke

Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?I don’t make much distinction between genres. I think literary art is literary art, or it’s not. I think among American crime writers over the years the best was James M. Cain. There’s no question about it in my mind, he was a very good writer.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
The Hardy Boys - it was great to read those books. The adventure, the mystery - being able to identify with young boys who were solving great mysteries.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything); unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Well, I’ve been a published novelist since, oh, many years ago. I finished my first published novel, I finished writing it, in 1960, HALF OF PARADISE. So I’ve been doing it for over 50 years. I’d published short stories [before that].

Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Fly fishing in Montana. We live on some property that tries to be a ranch, and that keeps me very busy. Montana is a grand place, and Louisiana is too.

What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider? Something the locals would recommend?
Well, there are two places we identify as home. In New Iberia I think people would find it a very hospitable place, wonderful place, and the ambience is just lovely. Of course it’s on the Gulf, which is having terrible problems right now. Montana where we live in the Northern Rockies is just as good as the earth gets. It’s just absolutely as good as the earth gets. Much of it is like the earth was on the first day of creation, it’s just beautiful.

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Oh, I’d like to play a cotton bowl, or a crawfish. I’ve never thought about it (laughing). I wouldn’t visit a fate like that on my worst enemy [playing Jim Burke]

--- Maybe Tommy Lee Jones?
I don’t think anybody is going to be lining up to play me in a film (laughing).

Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
Well, I’ve always felt that about every book I wrote, but the one that obviously, at least in my mind, that’s most important, would be RAIN GODS. RAIN GODS is the best book I’ve written.

And the book that allowed me to write full-time, BLACK CHERRY BLUES - it won the Edgar in 1989, and it marked the first large commercial success that I had, and it allowed me to work fulltime as a novelist. I wrote for many years and held other jobs at the same time. It’s not easy to do sometimes.

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
Oh, elation, because it took me four years for it [HALF OF PARADISE] to find a publisher. I always wrote more easily than I published, but when I published that book, it was a glorious moment. And my first review was a six-column banner review in the New York Times Review of Books, and so it’s been downhill ever since (laughing). But it was a great review, and the man who reviewed me was Wirt Williams, he wrote the book ADA DALLAS [one of three of his books nominated for a Pulitzer Prize], he’s from Louisiana, and he was a very nice gentleman. I didn’t know him them, but I came to know him later. He compared my work to, get this, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Camus, and Sartra. I thought, hey, that’s pretty nice (laughing).

I thought all my reviews would be like that, and then right after that review, the New York Herald-Tribune gave me maybe the second worst review I ever received, the guy just tore it apart. I tried to remember a lesson that Ernest Hemingway imparted to young writers, when he said ‘If you believe the critics when they say you’re good, you have to believe them when they say you’re bad’.

What is the strangest or most unusual or memorable experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Well, it’s always been a great experience. The great benefit of being a professional writer - and I’m sure you have this experience yourself as a professional writer, I was a newspaper man myself - is that you are always around intelligent people. And it’s always an enormous pleasure to go, say, to a book convention or a book festival. And to have people came to, in effect, praise your work, and to want to hear you read aloud to them, and talk about how you wrote the book, it’s just an enormous compliment.

After many years of working hard at it, it is of course a great sense of accomplishment to feel that maybe you’ve brought some degree of pleasure to others. Not many people have the chance to experience that reciprocity in their work. I mean, most people fight with their job, but to me writing is just the perfect life, always has been. I can’t think of a better life - I never wanted to be anything else other than a writer.

Thank you James (Jim) Lee Burke. We really appreciate you taking the time to answer the 9mm questions.


So what do you think of this 9mm interview? Have you read any of James Lee Burke's books - the Robicheaux series or others? Which do you think is his best? Have you seen the films that have been made from his Robicheuax series (Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux in Heaven's Prisoners, Tommy Lee Jones in Into the Electric Mist)? I'd love to read your comments. Please share your thoughts.


  1. He is the most awesome writer I love all his books.

  2. He really is a terrific author, and perhaps a little overlooked sometimes, by the wider mystery-reading public.

    I remember earlier this year when Peter Temple (deservedly) won the Miles Franklin Award in Australia (a literary award) for TRUTH, and someone commented that from now, whenever any snooty nose-in-the-air 'literary' afficianado discredits the worth and quality of crime fiction, we should just throw a copy of TRUTH at their head.

    I think we could just push a whole shelf of James Lee Burke books over on top of them.

  3. I've read all of the Dave Robicheaux novels and love them!
    Great interview. Thank you!