Philosopher of crime

By Craig Sisterson

James Lee Burke talks to Craig Sisterson about artistry in crime writing, speaking for those with no voice and the central issue of modern times.

American crime writer James Lee Burke. Photo / Supplied
American crime writer James Lee Burke. Photo / Supplied

Any true artist, whatever their creative medium, needs both humility and vanity, says legendary American novelist James Lee Burke. "Humility is not a virtue in a writer, it is an absolute necessity," he adds, his mild Southern accent reverberating down the phone line from his "property that tries to be a ranch" just outside Missoula, Montana. Burke and his wife of 50 years, Pearl, now split their time between Missoula and New Iberia in Louisiana, the lush setting of Burke's evocative and award-winning crime novels starring ageing detective Dave Robicheaux.

Burke's 18th and latest Robicheaux novel, The Glass Rainbow (released in New Zealand next week), is ostensibly the reason for our interview, but just like his rich and layered tales themselves, my conversation with Burke ends up being a bit deeper and more philosophical, and laced with history, politics, social commentary, and literary references.

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.

The humility a writer must have is just recognition that their artistic talent is a gift, says Burke. "All good art has its origins I believe in some source outside oneself. And every good artist knows that the gift comes from somewhere else, and it's there for a reason, and that's to make the world a better place." The greatest enemy of art is self-absorption and ego, he continues.

Arrogance and pride are "a cancer" and, if an artist "begins to think of himself as someone who in effect went out and acquired the talent" rather than appreciating it for the gift it is, then he is heading for a fall. However, an artist must have faith in their talent, and feel compelled to share something important with the wider world, Burke says.

"It's a kind of vanity. George Orwell once said writers write because they want to set history straight. And that's the emotion the writer feels, as though he is seeing reality in a perfectly accurate way, and he feels an obsession to communicate his vision."

Some may question a crime writer, even one as acclaimed as Burke, talking about art and making the world a better place. But anyone who's read his novels knows that they have a fair bit more to say beneath the page-turning action than your typical easy-reading "airport thriller".

"I don't make much distinction between genres," he says.

"I think literary art is literary art, or it's not. Writing is either good or bad."

Burke wanted to be a writer from an early age. Born in Houston and growing up on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, the first books he remembers reading and really loving were crime novels - The Hardy Boys series. It was the "adventure, the mystery, and being able to identify with young boys who were solving great crimes" that held such great appeal, he recalls with a fond chuckle.

Burke shared a youthful passion for words and storytelling with his cousin, Andre Dubus, and I hear a note of pride in his voice as he notes both ended up being writers all of their lives. While Burke has published 30 more books since his 1965 debut Half of Paradise (which took several years to find a publisher), won two Edgar Awards (the "Oscars" of crime writing), had his fourth novel The Lost Get Back Boogie rejected a record 111 times over nine years then be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and last year the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, his late cousin was pretty talented too. Dubus is considered one of the best American short story writers of the 20th century.

Burke has also lived a full and fascinating life away from the page, a life he says has truly enriched his writing.

"Everything I was doing all the time, in some way I thought of as translating into my art," he says. "When I was a social worker in Los Angeles, I knew that all these people I was seeing - convicts, street people, migrant farm workers, skid row derelicts - were all going to become players later in my work. I learned an enormous amount about the other America, one that we don't recognise. It was the same in other jobs."

For Burke those other jobs included working as a landman for the Sinclair Oil Company, as a pipeliner, land surveyor, newspaper reporter, college English professor, clerk for the Louisiana Employment Service and instructor in the US Job Corps.

"The story, the great drama, is around us all the time, it's always there. It's a matter of seeing it."

You could say there are three main threads running through Burke's various careers: working on the land (as an oil man and surveyor); working with words (as a journalist, English professor, and novelist); and working with those less fortunate (his social work and employment-related roles). Fans of his crime novels will notice clear similarities with issues and themes consistently highlighted through his writing, especially when it comes to man's relationship with land and resources, and the stark reality of life for those at the lower end of the economic and social spectrum.

When I ask Burke whether he consciously incorporated such issues into his storytelling, or whether they just naturally emerged given his background, he doesn't hesitate. "It was always a conscious attempt to give voice to those who have none," he says.

"I believe that's what the artist does. He tries to give voice to those who have none." Burke's love for the land is also clear from both his writing and life away from the page.

"Where we live in the Northern Rockies is just as good as the Earth gets," he says. "Much of it is like the Earth was on the first day of creation, it's just beautiful." He is a keen outdoorsman, particularly enjoying fly-fishing. In his novels, Burke is renowned for a masterful touch for his Louisiana, Texas, and Montana settings.

While other crime writers try to immediately grab readers' attention with action-based hooks, in The Glass Rainbow Burke takes the entire first page to describe a room in a Mississippi river town, complete with ventilated storm shutters "slatted with a pink glow, as soft and filtered and cool in color as the spring sunrise can be".

From there, Burke's latest book evolves into an intricate tale involving a series of depraved murders, a convict-turned celebrity writer, some old-money Louisiana families with plenty of skeletons in their closets, and hired mercenaries. Septuagenarian investigator Robicheaux (picture a slightly warmer and more connected but no less tough version of Clint Eastwood's ageing hero in Gran Torino) has his hands full trying to dig for the truth, keep his hulking sidekick Clete Purcel out of jail, protect his enamoured daughter Alafair from two older men with murky motives, and deal with nagging visions of his own mortality.

Reviews of Burke's writing often contain words like lyrical, evocative, lush, and sensuous. The page-turning plots and compelling characters such as Robicheaux, Clete, and the strong-willed Alafair (named after Burke's own daughter, who has herself become an acclaimed mystery novelist) are also impressive, but almost secondary.

When I ask what is so special about the regions where he sets his books, Burke notes "the past is always visible" in such places, which are "emblematic of the larger story". Moreover, "Louisiana is at the centre, in a peculiar way, as is Montana, with the central issue of the 20th and the early 21st century, and that is energy and minerals".

For art to survive, it has to represent a larger story than a regional one, says Burke, and the era we're in is all about the use and pursuit of natural resources.

"It's been the issue since 1914, and that's a larger story. I think we're in some denial about that. You guys went into Gallipoli in 1915 and that was the issue. The Kiwis that the British used for cannon fodder in the Dardanelles, the issue was natural resources. It was oil."

More recently, this central issue has led to the creation of "an antagonism between Christendom and the Islamic World that is going to be with us for decades", he says.

For decades Burke has been touching on such larger issues through the prism of crime fiction. As an artist, he's had something important to say, and found a way to say it that has entranced readers around the globe. And, like a true artist, he is grateful for his gift.

"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."

The Glass Rainbow (Orion, $38.99)

- NZ Herald

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