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An Interview with James Lee Burke, Author of The Glass Rainbow and the Dave Robicheaux Novels

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After my recent review of The Glass Rainbow, the 18th book in the Dave Robicheaux Novels series, I had an opportunity to chat with the author, James Lee Burke. The idea of picking up a phone and calling a New York Times bestselling, two time (MWA) Edgar Allan Poe Award winning author, and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master recipient was slightly intimidating, but he immediately set me at ease. “Hello? Mr. Burke?”

“Please. Call me Jim.”

James_Lee_Burke_interview_blogcriticsJames Lee Burke’s latest novel, The Glass Rainbow, which was released on July 13, pits Louisiana deputy Dave Robicheaux against a serial killer and rapist who is determined to beat Robicheaux in a masterful game of cat and mouse. But the real question is, as the reader soon finds out — who is the cat and who the mouse?

The Glass Rainbow is like playing a new, frustrating version of the game Clue; as soon as you’re absolutely positive that it was Professor Plum in the parlor with the candlestick, Professor Plum ends up in the parlor with the candlestick buried in his skull — except in the Burkesque version it would be your parlor, and your fingerprints on the candlestick. And, instead of looking for the real killer, Colonel Mustard and Mrs. Peacock would both be giving you the hairy eyeball.

Dave Robicheaux might just have met his match in this novel of twists and turns — especially when the game starts getting personal.

James Lee Burke has spent a lifetime creating complex, intricate characters. Writing has always been his passion although, as I was soon to discover, that calling has not always been an easy choice.

His novels may be works of fiction, but James Lee Burke has striven to create within them a microcosmic, and realistic, reflection of our larger society.

He is a champion of the working class, a believer in noblesse oblige; one subject he often covers is the corruption of those in power. In the words of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” James Lee Burke echoes this sentiment in our interview.

When I did the review of The Glass Rainbow, I had never read any of the other books in the Dave Robicheaux Novels series. That wasn’t a problem, James Lee Burke did an excellent job of introducing the characters, their histories and their relationships. Not an easy feat considering the number of books in the series. And that led to my first question for him…

How important do you feel it is to put history from the previous books into a new novel?

That’s a good question; the challenge in writing a series is to encapsulate enough material from previous books so that the current novel stands alone — without being redundant.

I wanted to talk to you about Louisiana. It has an amazing history with some crazy characters and a lot of corruption, some of which you touch upon in the book, little tidbits here and there. Tell me about Louisiana and why it fascinates you.

Well, as Dave Robicheaux says, it’s really a Caribbean nation. A piece of South America that was torn loose during a hurricane and floated northward and it affixed itself to the southern rim of the United States. But it is not like the rest of the United States — even the law, we have a Napoleonic code. It was settled by the French, people from France, and by Acadian French from Nova Scotia and by Spaniards. And it operates today, in many ways, just like a Caribbean country. When you cross the state line into Louisiana you know you’re in a very different place; the music, the food, the people, the way of life is obviously quite different from even the culture in the adjoining states of Arkansas and Mississippi and Texas.

It’s a special place, and at one time, it was an edenic paradise. That time is gone. The environmental stress on Louisiana is just enormous. I think Louisiana is a tragedy.

And I always say this… that if people want to see the future of the United States under a petrochemical oligarchy, the kind of guys who we saw around from 2000 to 2008, they need to visit Louisiana and ask themselves what price they’re willing to pay for access to cheap gasoline.

What price are we willing to pay? Because Louisiana is everybody’s punch, and the damage to that state is just enormous. You cannot believe it without seeing it, what these men have done. That state’s been turned into a dumping ground by the petrochemical industry — with the aid of Louisiana’s politicians.

This is a statement recently made by a state legislator, I didn’t say this, a state legislator did; he said we should put the Exxon flag on the top of the state capitol, because Exxon owns everybody in the building. That’s from a Louisiana lawmaker. Senator John Breaux said, “My vote’s not for sale — but it is for rent.” Senator Breaux said that.

And Congressman Billy Tausan? Billy Tausan is a Republican — I certainly didn’t vote for him — but he was asked what kind of state Louisiana was in and he said “Half of it’s under water, and the other half is under indictment.”

You know that old saying about Irish stories? That there is no happy ending in an Irish story? Well, that’s how I feel about Louisiana. There is no happy ending in Louisiana’s story.

I wanted to ask you about your writing process. When you sit down to write, is that what you do? Just say, “Okay, I’m starting a book” and then sit down and keep writing until it’s done? Do you take breaks? Do you ever get writer’s block?

No. No writer’s block. Never had it. Don’t believe in it. Doesn’t exist. I don’t buy that one.

Ernest Hemingway said it… If you’ve got writer’s block, write one sentence. And if you can write one, you can write two. If you can write two, you can write three. If you’ve written three, you have a paragraph. There’s just no such thing as writer’s block.

I work all the time. I write all the time. No days off, not for any reason. I get up in the morning and I start at it, get into the afternoon, I work at it. I work at it at night. I work on it until I go to bed at eleven. I keep a notebook by my table and I write in the middle of the night sometimes. Sometimes I’ll write from maybe 4AM to 6AM and go back to bed, but I write all the time. And I always have. That’s the way I’ve always done it.

Are there any books or projects that you began and maybe shelved that you plan to start working on again?

No, I never put aside a project, I always finish it. But those books that I didn’t publish, I put them away, I used parts of them in the first three books in the Dave Robicheaux series. But I told my daughter Pamala, who manages a lot of my business affairs, she runs my life actually!, I told Pamala that when I “catch the bus”, burn everything that’s not in print–it goes up the chimney.

It’s almost a requirement, in order to write well, that you’re an avid reader, or have been. They kind of go hand in hand. What were your favorite books when you were growing up?

The Hardy Boys! I loved The Hardy Boys. The bookmobile used to come every week to our neighborhood and I would always get a new Hardy Boys book.

Who are you reading right now?

At the moment I’m reading James Welch’s book titled Killing Custer [The Battle of Little Big Horn and the Fate of the Plains Indians]. Great book.

Mr. Burke’s team at Simon & Schuster were very gracious in helping me arrange our interview. And on short notice. I’d just like to say thank you to them, along with his book editor, Sarah. Thanks so much for taking the time to track me down — and for the wonderful opportunity. And to Mr. Burke… Jim, who went over our interview time to speak to me personally, off the record, offering his advice and encouragement to a fellow journalist and writer. You, sir, are a gentleman. Thank you.

Photo credit: Frank Veronsky

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  • the real bob

    AGG–you are unbelievable with the interviews! You got James Lee Burke???!!! What a coup! This is major! Congratz!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch/ Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Nice interview, on both the Q and A fronts!