This is the second part of a two-part interview with James Lee Burke, one of the best living mystery writers south of the Mason-Dixon line. I interviewed him about his two new books. Jesus Out to Sea, a collection of his short stories, came out in early June. The Tin Roof Blowdown: A Dave Robicheaux Novel will be published on July 17. It is the 16th in the series. If you have not read the series you need to read at least one of them.
Scott: Do you think your past work as a social worker affected your writing style and writing product?
James: As a social worker on skid row in Los Angeles and on the south and east sides of the city, I learned a bit of what Michael Harrington called "the other America" is like. We lived on the Southside and saw first hand how the poor were exploited by slumlords and underhanded merchants. What was most striking was the obvious disrespect with which they were treated. I've put many experiences from that period of my life into my fiction.
Scott: You write so convincingly about alcoholism that a professor asked that I ask you about it. (If you choose not to answer I'll just delete this question.) But you write about it so well that I have to wonder if you've had your own struggle with alcoholism.
James: On the subject of alcoholism, tell the professor to go to an open meeting sometime and check it out.
In the stories narrated by Dave Robicheaux, we learn something about the nature of alcoholism and its deleterious influences. I think the portrayal is an accurate one. Many people have written me and have said the books have helped them in their recovery. That to me is one of the greatest rewards I have received as a writer.
Scott: There are still a huge percentage of people I encounter up where I live in Maryland whose reaction to the people in Louisiana is, "Well, stop your whining and just move." As someone speaking — through your books — for some of those people, what is your reaction to that way of thinking?
James: When I hear people indicate a lack of sympathy for the storm victims in Louisiana, and I have heard many such comments, I have little doubt about whom they voted for in the last two national elections. What occurred in New Orleans is national disgrace.
Regarding the attitude of people who are unsympathetic toward the victims of Katrina or Rita, I believe these folks are a small minority in comparison to the huge numbers of volunteers who went to New Orleans and other Louisiana cities in the aftermath of the storm. Also, enormous amounts of money have been given by goodhearted people all over the country. Americans are still, in my view, the most charitable people on the planet.
Scott: In the short story, “Jesus Out To Sea,” you write what seems the closest to a criticism of the president that I've seen in your fiction and wonder if you would elaborate on whether it matches your own thinking
A guy sitting on his chimney with Walkman ears on says the president of the United States flew over and looked down from his plane at us. Then he went on to Washington. I don't think the story is true, though. If the president was really in that plane, he would have landed and tried to find out what kind of shape we were in. He would have gone to the Superdome and the Convention Center and talked to the people there and told them the country was behind them.
James: The president's behavior before and after Katrina made landfall seems to speak for itself. I subscribe to the psychoanalytic view that there is no mystery to the human personality. People are what they do, not what they think, not what they say. Mr. Bush's behavior, to my mind, is in a category that has no name.
Scott: What do you aspire to that you have not yet accomplished?
James: In regard to the future, I hope to write short stories and essays and novels until I catch the bus. I would like to write more about the Holland family and their place in Texas history. I also know some pretty good stories set in the 1950s, and I'd like to have a shot at adapting the short story "The Night Johnny Ace Died" for the screen. The life of a writer can be a great life. Every day is different; every kind of story is still waiting to be written. It's a great drama to be a part of. I hope to be a player in it for a few more innings.
Scott: You mention more than once in these two books how many votes David Duke got in an election. To what do you account his popularity? Is it possible that it’s peaked, because up here in Maryland I've not heard his name in a few years.
James: Regarding the mention of an ex-Klansman in a couple of my books, he is less important than the social aberration he represents. The worst in us comes out when we're afraid. The demagogue, the dictator, the despot, the leader of a lynch mob all have one goal only and that is to seize power by inculcating fear in as many people as they can. Men like these help us convince ourselves that someone else is responsible for our problems. We scapegoat our brothers and commit atrocious deeds under flags and religious icons of every kind, but ultimately we murder every virtue we possess. Men like the fellow you mention pass quickly into history, but they leave behind a dirty fingerprint on the soul.
Thanks for having me on your blog.
Keep the faith, noble mon.
Thanks again to Mr. Burke. This interview, especially his final remark, is a honor.