James Lee Burke: "used to write poetry, but by popular demand, I stopped”
Author: James Lee Burke, born in Houston, Texas, in 1936. Son of an itinerant oil pipeline worker, Burke grew up on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast. Burke has worked in the oil field and on pipelines, taught English at several colleges, has been a social worker in Los Angeles, a newspaper reporter in Louisiana, a landman for Sinclair Oil, a land surveyor in Colorado, and an employee of the U.S. Forest Service in Kentucky.
In 1960 he finished his first novel, Half of Paradise. The Neon Rain, the first of now nine novels narrated by detective Dave Robicheaux, was published in 1987. Burke and his wife Pearl, married 36 years, are parents to a grown son and daughter. The Burkes' son is an assistant U.S. attorney in the Department of Justice and their daughter is a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon. The Burkes split their time between Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana.
Cadillac Jukebox; Hyperion, 1996; 297 pages; $22.95 Type: Fiction Setting: Louisiana Time: Present
The problem that faces Dave Robicheaux in this newest novel is former Klansman Aaron Crown, imprisoned for the shooting death of a Lousiana civil rights leader. As much as Robicheaux deplores Crown’s racial politics, he isn’t sure Crown hasn’t been wrongly convicted. Also involved are Buford La Rose, author of a book on the Crown case and front-runner in the Louisiana gubernatorial race, and La Rose’s guru, Clay Mason. Robicheaux’s exuberant sidekick Cletus Purcell is up to his usual shenanigans — what Burke describes as “rolling mayhem” — and Dave’s gorgeous wife, Bootsie, gets out in the kitchen and rattles those pots and pans. As in all Burke novels, the food — oyster po’ boys and sugar-powdered beignets — is delicious and the music rollicking. Fans of ’50s rhythm-and-blues and contemporary Cajun will particularly enjoy Burke’s take on the tunes on Robicheaux’s “Cadillac Jukebox.”
A principal bad guy in the new novel is Clay Mason. Burke describes him as “the Pied Piper of hallucinogens, an irresponsible anachronism who refused to die with the 1960s.” I asked Mr. Burke, who was at home in Missoula, if Mason weren’t a Timothy Leary-like character.
After assuring me that Mason was entirely a “fictional character,” not “a biographical figure,” Mr. Burke went on to say. “He is a ’60s-type. He represents a ’60s-type intelligence. For Dave Robicheaux in this novel, Clay Mason is the creature from the deep lagoon; he is a resurrected specter that feeds off another generation, and of course many of those drugs which Clay Mason champions are back in fashion. There is a whole new generation messing around with angel dust and that kind of stuff. Their naivete, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, makes them very vulnerable when they are proselytized by someone such as Clay Mason, who in the book influences the lives of thousands of young people.” Back in the days when Mr. Burke taught, what advice did he give to talented young writers who sought him out?
“The truth is when kiddos have real talent, all you need to do is get out of their way. When they ask for help, you try to give them the benefit of your experience. Otherwise, they are going to do just fine. My feeling, too, is that all good writing is learned from reading. Many beginning writers don’t read, at least not adequately, in my opinion. You always read the best people, never read mediocre people. Never read bad writing. It messes up your own art. It’s like watching bad tennis. It will mess up your own game.”
Who did he give students to read?
“The people who influence them will be the people whom they find on their own. As far as my writing is concerned, I was influenced most by John Dos Passos, Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, certainly Faulkner. I guess to a degree Eudora Welty, Katherine Porter, Caroline Gordon, and certainly Robert Penn Warren, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Thomas Wolfe. There are so many great American writers; you can give dozens of names and still have dozens left.”
I said that Warren was among my favorites.
Mr. Burke allowed as how he was definitely one of his favorites, too, and added, “I think he was one of the great writers of the modern times, also one of the most neglected. It may be because he spent so much of his life in universities that he’s overlooked. I’ve never understood it. Because he’s a man of all seasons — a poet, essayist, playwright, man of letters, novelist.”
I asked if Mr. Burke writes poetry.
He laughed. “I used to write poetry, but by popular demand, I stopped.” He went on more seriously to say, “A while back I reread Beowulf which actually became the genesis of Burning Angel.”
And what was the genesis of Cadillac Jukebox?
“I started fooling around with that book as an idea a number of years ago in Mississippi. I was there when an infamous former Klansman was arrested for a murder that took place in the 1960s. I was bothered at the time by the unanswered question, ‘Why did he leave behind the rifle with one thumbprint on it?’ I don’t know if anyone has ever answered that question. I thought about that story for years, and it became Cadillac Jukebox.”
This new book, I said, read as if it were particular fun to write.
It was, Mr. Burke said, and added, “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.”
James Lee Burke will read and sign copies of his book on Wednesday, July 31, 2:00 to 3:00 p.m., at Hickey’s Place, 7882 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa.