At the release of his 26th book, best-selling author James Lee Burke looks back—and doesn’t hold back—on a lifetime of writing.
There goes James Lee Burke. The 69-year-old best-selling crime fiction author leaves the front door to his house wide open behind him as he hurriedly jogs down the long driveway of his Lolo ranch, waving his hands high above his head to stop an oncoming moving truck.
“Oh, damn,” you can hear him say as he disappears. “He’s going to take the whole thing down.”
The delivery truck can’t fit under the driveway’s archway, and Burke’s alarm seems to indicate he’s seen this scenario play out poorly before. Back at the open front door, Burke’s wife of 46 years, Pearl, watches her husband reach the dirt road that cuts through their property, successfully stopping the truck driver. “He’s going to need to get the pickup truck,” she says.
What’s being delivered?
“Books,” Pearl says. “A lot of books.”
Burke’s latest, Pegasus Descending, the 15th novel featuring detective Dave Robicheaux, was released Tuesday, July 18. Burke stopped doing book tours more than a year ago after experiencing vertigo while driving from appearance to appearance, but he’s steadfast about maintaining his accessibility to fans. He now has his publisher, Simon & Schuster, deliver books to his house so he can hand-sign them for bookstores across the country that have pre-ordered them. If, that is, he can get the books into the house.
Burke retrieves his flatbed pickup and, with the help of the delivery driver and a guest, starts unloading a pallet of boxes from the truck onto his ride. The load is immense.
How many books are there?
“Should be eleven-hundred,” Burke says.
That’s too much for one flatbed to safely handle, and even once they’re all up to the top of the driveway, two trips later, they’ve got to be moved into the house. And it looks like it’s about to rain. So for the next 30 minutes or so, Burke and his guest create a steadily paced two-person assembly line from his pickup to his office, moving the 55 boxes one at a time. Before he was ever a full-time writer, Burke worked as an oil company landman, a pipeliner, land surveyor, newspaper reporter and, sure enough, he’s moved freight. “You gotta watch the back,” he says. “Once you mess up your back, that’s the sort of thing that you don’t shake.”
Unlike his helper, who’s perspiring through his shirt, Burke never breaks a sweat. On the last load he lifts two boxes at once, just to finish strong. When he’s finally got everything inside, he sits down on a couch and takes a finishing swig of his morning coffee, like it was all nothing.
“Where were we?” he asks.
We were about to talk about his work ethic. Burke is a frequent New York Times best-seller with 26 books in print, two stories adapted for the movies, countless short stories published, and a beautiful home outside Lolo and another in New Iberia, Louisiana. Yet he still writes seven days a week. As Pegasus Descending ships to stores, he’s already shopping his next project, a recently finished collection of short stories titled Jesus Out to Sea. He’s achieved a level of name recognition that makes self-promotion almost beside the point, but nonetheless plans to spend who knows how many weeks signing the 1,100 books now stacked in his office. We’re about to discuss the motivations behind his unremitting pace when the doorbell rings.
It’s another delivery person. Burke goes to the window and waves.
He turns back with a laugh and says: “More books.”
“Everybody gets to the same barn.”
Burke and his wife first came to Missoula 40 years ago so he could teach English at the University of Montana, and he still speaks in professorial tones. He’ll make a statement, often repeat a bit for emphasis, and then drop in a quote to support his claim. His depth and range with the latter is staggering. During the course of one interview, he manages to cite John Steinbeck, Homer, a legend about Icelandic women, the Bible, Carl Jung, Anton Chekhov, Mad magazine, George Orwell and at least three characters from his own books. But more than underlining his point, the references show his keen appreciation and respect for what he calls “the art.”
“I don’t want to do anything else,” he says. “I can’t imagine not writing. I taught writing for years at four universities and one community college, and sometimes students would say, ‘Hey Jim, you think I oughtta stay with it? You think I got the talent?’ and I would find a way to not answer that. That’s the wrong question. Anybody who asks that question has got to start doing something else. A guy who’s got it doesn’t care what anyone’s opinion is, he’s just going to do it. He knows he’s never going to do anything else and that when he’s buried he’ll be clutching that typewriter to his chest.”
Burke pauses, either for effect or to make sure the note taker has caught up, then continues. “George Orwell put it much better than I. He said, ‘A writer writes in order to correct history, to set the record straight.’ By that he meant it’s an obsession. You feel that somehow—and it’s a vanity, of course—that inside you, you have trapped a perfect picture of truth and you feel compelled every minute of the day to convey it to someone else. And if you don’t you feel miserable. You squeeze the camera lens— click—and that perfect moment, you gotta tell someone else about it. You can do it on a washroom wall, if you have to. You just never let go of it.”
Burke’s early career reads like a feel-good screenplay that lines up exactly with his message of stubborn confidence. He always wanted to be a writer, started his first novel in his early 20s, and at the age of 29, in 1965, saw Half of Paradise finally published. That was followed by two more successful novels in 1970 and 1971, and then the bottom dropped out. In a story that’s been told so often it’s become legend, Burke’s The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 111 times; he went 11 years without having a novel published at all, and 15 before making it back into hardback. It’s a master course in perseverance, and one the author refers to often because it’s helped remind him to stay humble and work hard.
“Those who claim personal credit for what they’ve written or are grandiose about their talents and success are about to lose it. It’s all just about to go away from them. They don’t know it, but when they have an ego the size of the national deficit, it’s about to go away,” he says. “I was fortunate to learn the lesson early. I had some success at an early age and I thought I was ready to rock. Then I hit a rough patch where I received hundreds of rejections. Hundreds. Nobody would touch me with a dung fork. But the way I figure it, it’s all rock ’n’ roll. Going up or coming down, everybody gets to the same barn. That’s a great saying, isn’t it? I heard that recently. I like that one.”
That exact line also ends up in some dialogue from Robicheaux’s longtime partner Clete Purcel in Pegasus Descending. Robicheaux and Purcel are dealing with the tail-end of their detective careers, but Robicheaux, like Burke, is still a long way from the barn.
Eight pages earlier, in the same chapter, Purcel turns to Robicheaux and says, “You don’t get it, Dave. You never did. We’re dinosaurs. This isn’t the same country we grew up in. The scumbags own it, from top to bottom. Except they’re legal now and have college degrees and wear two-thousand-dollar suits. Back in our First District days, we would have fed those motherfuckers into an airplane propeller.”
The trials of Burke’s early career may help explain his work ethic, but an author who claims to not believe in writer’s block still needs motivation. Lately, Burke’s been inspired by his childhood, what he calls “traditional America” and a possessive pride in the era in which he was raised. As his characters grow older, and as Burke starts to “think older,” he finds himself increasingly nostalgic for how things once were.
Those sentiments come through in Pegasus Descending, but even more so in the collection of short stories he started writing while finishing the novel. The title piece from Jesus Out to Sea, which appeared in April’s Esquire, is a biting lament about New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Another story is titled “The Night Johnny Ace Died”—the musician shot himself on Christmas Eve, 1954, and died the next day—a story Burke loves so much because of the era it captures that he’s hoping to see it adapted into a screenplay.
“I’ve been wanting to write these stories,” he says, “because they deal a lot with America as it was when I was kid. The Depression Era and World War II. It was a great time to be around. I always maintain this: that my generation will be the last that will remember what people call traditional America. The country in which we live today is not the same one in which I was born.”
In explaining what made mid-century America so great, Burke slips into the kind of political commentary that usually simmers just below the surface of his novels. Crime fiction is sometimes belittled for its good guy/bad guy simplicity, but done well the genre consistently gives poignant voice to those at the bottom of society’s ladder. In Pegasus Descending, for instance, Robicheaux finds himself investigating an impoverished teenager who committed suicide, a drug dealer accused of murder and a transient killed in a hit-and-run. In each case, Robicheaux faithfully defends the low-life and works up the food chain to convict shady upperclass businessmen and their frat-boy sons. If you’re looking for it, the storylines can be read as not-so-veiled sociopolitical commentaries on class structure.
“This country is not the same anymore,” Burke continues. “It has to do with our vision of the world. World War II was a time of privation and rationing, enormous losses in the war. Gold stars hung in people’s windows all over. We knew we were on the right side of things. Everyone knew that if the Nazis and the imperial Japanese were victorious, the life of civilization would die. The world would become a slave camp. No one doubted that. There weren’t many pacifists around back then. Brothers, we win this one or a lot of us will be bars of soap. It was a great time in that regard. Everyone was involved. We live in a different country now. I think we’ve forgotten who we are. Today, to allow one group of people to fight our wars seems dishonorable to me. If this is an honorable enterprise, everybody should have to go, starting with me. Everyone from 17 to 70. I think that way we’d have a fewer number of wars.”
When he gets to talking about his views on modern society, it’s hard for Burke to stop, and he knows it. He keeps going anyway, shifting focus slightly: “We’ve given over the country to the worst people in it. That’s my view. In part, it’s because we’ve forgotten the importance of working people … We’ve given up the high road to the people who have hijacked Christianity. They’ve done it through political correctness, insanity over gun control, sexual politics. We’ve allowed people who have no compassion at all for the working classes to pretend successfully that it is they who have Joe Bob and Bubba and Betty Sue’s interests at heart … Anyone who believes that the people running this country today care about the interests of working people has a serious thinking disorder. But, unfortunately, I think the onus falls on us. We’ve allowed it to happen. We’ve gotten caught in political correctness, radicalized people—ah, you know, I’m saying more than I should.”
His views—Burke prefers not to think of them as politics—are less veiled now. Burke still splits his time between Montana and Louisiana, and Hurricane Katrina dealt a crippling blow to one of his hometowns. It influenced his writing in Jesus Out to Sea, as well as the ending of Pegasus Descending; two-thirds of the way through, while finishing the book in Montana, the storm hit and the levees failed. He doesn’t say it outright, but the emotions that event stirred in him seem to have him fired up, on point, and looking to tell stories—or capture perfect pictures—that explain just how clearly he sees the country changing.
“I think Robicheaux says, ‘You do not give up the country of your birth either for natural calamities or evil men,’” Burke says, paraphrasing a line from his latest book’s epilogue. “That’s his resolve, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. I think we live today in bad times. I have a great fear for our country.”
“Really not that important.”
Burke’s early struggles in publishing, his political views and his reflections back to his childhood all fuel his prolific creative output, but every so often the author reverts to his role as husband, father and grandfather. In the hallway outside his office, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is stocked with hundreds of books, including well-worn copies of Dostoyevsky’s works, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. The shelves share space with dozens of family photographs, and on the floor is a Star Wars action figure set for when his grandkids visit.
Burke likes to play too. In May, he purchased two gaited Missouri foxtrotters named Love That Santa Fe and Missy’s Playboy from Bill Free, a trainer in Florence. He loves the horses, loves talking about their breeding history, how they’re “pranksters” and “just kids.” Last week they learned how to break into the feed room, which gives Burke a good laugh.
But ask Burke what he does for fun—when he’s not writing or signing copies of his books—and he goes back to talking about work.
“For fun? Right now I fiddle around out there in that pasture, digging out leafy spurge, which I call the anti-Christ of the noxious weeds … It’s like an obsession. I used to trout fish. I went from the stream at Rock Creek, poetic moments on the Blackfoot, to the 2,4-D [a herbicidal spray] buzz and swinging a mattock at a plant,” he says, breaking into a deep laugh. “That’s what I use. I have a mattock that would kill King Kong. I’m a grown man with three university degrees swearing at a plant, chopping its little tendrils into tiny pieces thinking that I’ve achieved something. When I become aware of what I’m doing I realize that maybe this life is really not that important.”
“No reason to regret.”
Burke’s been interviewed a thousand times over the course of his career and inevitably he’s asked how he goes about researching his books. The answer’s been the same for years: he doesn’t.
“I think the story and the characters live in the unconscious. I’ve always subscribed to that belief,” he says. “I believe in Carl Jung’s theory about inherent memory. The great stories are written in our legends—in mythology, in the Bible, written by the Greeks and the Romans. It’s all there. I think someone figured out years ago that there are only about two dozen conceivable plots, and then the variations upon them. Most great literature deals with themes of redemption, and that’s obviously on the minds of my characters. I think also there are a lot of societal themes, issues representative of historical themes. It’s about power. Power.”
So instead of riding shotgun in police cars or shadowing modern-day P.I.s, Burke works exclusively at the desk in his office. The space is cluttered with Xeroxed newspaper clippings, proofs of a new book cover, letters and other papers. A row of yellowed historic family photographs lines the back wall. The built-in bookcases that fill one full wall and hover above his computer contain hundreds of copies of his books—hardback, softcover, mass-market paperback, foreign editions, etc. And then, of course, there are all those boxed copies of Pegasus Descending eating up a corner and most of the middle floor space.
“What do we have in here that’s interesting?” Burke asks rhetorically. He reaches behind his computer to a small cubby and pulls out a sword. It belonged to his great grandfather, the man on whom he based his 2002 novel White Doves at Morning. He reaches into the cubby again and pulls out a knob he says once opened the door to Boss Tweed’s bathroom. “That sweaty, fat, unwashed hand turned this knob,” Burke says proudly. Then he reaches back again and pulls out a skull. He takes a long look at it, holding it directly in front of his face. “Looks like a fellow I hung out with; second baseman at Beaumont,” he says, before placing the replica of “Lucy”—one of the earliest evidences of the human form—back down. Finally he picks up a Winchester 94 rifle from the side of his desk. He holds it up like a hunter would before aiming, assures that it’s never loaded in the house and adds, “This shows we’re liberals who believe in the first and the second amendment.” He poses with the gun for a second, then realizes he’s run out of material. He turns back to the computer and says, “Well, yeah, that’s where I do all my writing.”
In his element, with his horses, at his ranch and in his office, Burke’s the very picture of a man at peace. He’s as affable as anyone you’ve ever met, courteous, quick with a laugh and thoughtful. He may work his fingers to the bone writing as much as he does, but it doesn’t seem to take anything out of him. He loves the work, and it’s part of the reason, for instance, that he’s looking forward to momentarily putting aside his established Robicheaux franchise to peddle an unsolicited collection of short stories. “It’ll go away,” he says matter-of-factly of his fame and success, “and I’ll just keep writing.”
“You get to a certain point as a writer,” he says later, “and you realize, if you really invested yourself in your art and you’ve written your vision of the world, your story, as well as you can, you have no reason to regret. There’s really no other consolation. That’s it. I’d like to say I created it, but I don’t think that it’s true. I think the artist has been arbitrarily chosen by some force outside of himself to be a vehicle for these strokes. A priest, a friend of mine, a redemptionist, once said something I never forgot. He’d sat by the deathbed of many a parishioner and he said, ‘Believe me, people do not go to their graves regretting their sins. They go to their graves regretting the lives and deeds they did not live.’”
Perhaps that’s why Burke comes off as so secure. Regret is something he seems not to know. And he’ll be damned if he stops writing his stories now, or even slows down, and lets that remorseful beast up his driveway now.