Sunday , February 25 2024
"I think all good narration contains an element of mystery and suspense."

Interview with Mystery Writer James Lee Burke, Part One

This is the first part of a two-part interview.

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite mystery writers. I've long been a fan of his books, especially his Dave Robicheaux series that you should sample if you haven't already. Furthermore, you know relations are going great with a publisher's publicist when she sends you, unsolicited, two books by an author you greatly admire without you even requesting it. I thanked her and asked if I can interview him and she said sure. So this here is the result, two books, one interview, with a theme running through the books of Katrina and Rita.

Burke, who, among other jobs, worked as a reporter and social worker before becoming a best-selling author, has twice received the Edgar Award for Best Novel, for Black Cherry Blues in 1990, and Cimarron Rose in 1998. He has two new books coming out. First out, this week in fact, is Jesus Out To Series, a collection of short stories. We talk more about that in the interview.

The Tin Roof Blowdown: A Dave Robicheaux Novel will be published on July 17, and follows Detective Robicheaux and his department as they are ordered to investigate the shooting of two looters in a rich neighborhood. The looters had ransacked the residence of New Orleans' most powerful mobster. This is the 16th book in the series, with the character of Robicheaux having been portrayed in major motion pictures by Alec Baldwin, in Heaven's Prisoners from 1996, and by Tommy Lee Jones in this year's In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.

There is something very, well, Southern about Burke's books, and not just that they take place near New Orleans. The pacing seems more slow, but in a good way, and Burke tackles the racial issues that still are a major part of life down there, maybe more on the surface where up here in the North it's, I think, dealt with less directly, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on your perspective.

I do these interviews, when possible, in two parts. For the first part I ask general biographical-type questions about the author, his style, his opinions on writing, etc. Then I finish the book(s) and ask a second set of questions as well as including follow-up questions to anything that needed, well, following up on from the first part.

Here then is the first part.

Scott Butki: How would you describe to your readers your two upcoming books, Jesus Out To Sea and Tin Roof Blowdown?

James Lee Burke: Jesus Out to Sea is a collection of stories based in one fashion or another on my experience growing up and spending a large part of my life on the southern rim of the United States. I feel blessed in the knowledge that I probably belong to the last generation that will remember what we call "traditional America."

I noticed that, at least based on the publicity materials for the two books, both deal in some way with Louisiana life during and after Katrina. Is that coincidence? Or are there issues you are trying to raise?

Two of the stories (the title story included) in the story collection deal with Katrina or its aftermath. The Tin Roof Blowdown also deals with both Rita and Katrina and their consequences.

Do you have any thoughts on how the government and media responded to Katrina?

In regard to the question about governmental response to Katrina, I think the facts probably speak for themselves. New Orleans was destroyed. The destruction of the city actually began in the first administration of Ronald Reagan and the shot behind the ear was delivered in '05. Others can come to their own conclusions. The United States Coast Guard performed heroically. I think Mr. Bush's attitudes and behavior belong in a category that has no name.

I understand your short story, “Jesus Out To Sea,” received enormous response after it was published in Esquire. What was that like?

The short story "Jesus Out to Sea" appeared in Esquire and was received with such enthusiasm by the readership that the editors have decided to return to the regular publication of fiction in their magazine. This obviously makes one feel very proud. But I also need to add that the editors at Esquire have been a fine group to work with and they do a fine job with both editing and formatting a story.

What do you think is the appeal of mystery stories?

I think all good narration contains an element of mystery and suspense. If it didn't, if the storyline were predictable, we would have no interest in reading it. I think the "crime novel" has replaced the sociological novel of the 1930s. I think the progenitor of that tradition is James M. Cain, who in my view is the most neglected writer in American literature.

What's the best part and worst part about being a best-selling writer?

The actor Ben Johnson once said, "What's the worst thing about getting old? Getting old." The best thing about being a best-selling writer is being a best-selling writer. More seriously, today I can write full time and pay the bills. But I learned long ago that success, like fashion, is a fickle companion and can leave one in the wink of an eye.

Thanks again to Mr. Burke for his help and kindness. The second part of this interview will be published in the next few weeks after I finish the two new books.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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