As a critic, I admire James Lee Burke’s work. He’s had a long, successful career that began in the 1960s and is still going strong today. As a fan, I cannot get enough of Dave Robicheaux!
When the opportunity first came up, I leaped at the chance to ask the iconic author a few questions. The hard part, of course, was narrowing down my list (which was nearly as long as my kids’ Christmas wish-lists) to just five questions. In the end, I hope they’re the same questions other fans would ask. . . and James Lee Burke was very generous with his answers.
Scroll down to read the Q&A below, then keep scrolling to learn more about Robicheaux, in stores everywhere on January 2, 2018.
ROBICHEAUX: Five Questions with James Lee Burke
TRBS: First of all, congrats on the publication of Robicheaux, it’s fantastic! Did you ever think back in 1987 when the first Dave Robicheaux book, The Neon Rain, came out that you’d still be writing about this character thirty years later?
James Lee Burke: “I had been out of hardback print for thirteen years during the middle of my career, after having had three novels published early on. I amassed 111 rejections of my novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie, which eventually was published by LSU Press and nominated for the Pulitzer. During this time my old compadre Rick Demarinis and I were fishing in the Bitterroot River and he said, out of nowhere, ‘Jim, you’ve written every other kind of novel. Why don’t you try a crime story?’
“Three days later my wife Pearl and my daughter Alafair and I were in San Fran, up by City Lights Book Store. I bought a yellow legal pad and ballpoint walked down to an outdoor Italian restaurant across the boulevard from a Catholic church, and sat down and starting writing the first chapter of TNR. I knew it was going to change my career. I knew it and so did my old friend Charles Willeford, to whom I sent the first two chapters. His reply was, ‘You have created what may become one of the famous characters in crime fiction.’
“Not bad, coming from Charles, whose standards were always the best.”
TRBS: How did you come up with the plot idea for this novel?
James Lee Burke: “I was a member of Amnesty International for nine years and chair of our local chapter for one year. We had been hearing stories about Reagan’s arms for the Contras. I also knew details of the murderous policies that were at work in Guatemala and El Salvador, including the murder of the Maryknoll women and Father Stan Rother.”
TRBS: Louisiana is as much a character in your series as Dave, Clete, etc. Was that on purpose, and what about the culture do you think makes it work so well in your books?
James Lee Burke: “Louisiana is a gift from God to the artist. It a microcosm of our entire history. It is also a fresh-air mental asylum, what Clete calls Guatemala North. It’s also filled with Damon Runyon eccentrics and bohemians. Could a writer ask for more? As in San Francisco, it is impossible to shock anyone who lives in South Louisiana. Humor aside, many of the events of our time have been visible first in Dave’s beloved state, one of which is the rise of the dictator in denim. In this novel we meet him in the person of Jimmy Nightingale, whose antecedents are Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy.”
TRBS: You are widely considered one of the greatest authors working today. Which writers do you enjoy reading?
James Lee Burke: “Thanks for the compliment on my work. America is blessed with many fine writers. I think Dennis Lehane has written the best crime novel in the English language. Mystic River is an incredible accomplishment. So is the work of Ron Hansen and Cormac McCarthy and Michael Connelly. But one of the greatest and most common attributes of the American literary culture is one we often don’t discuss, namely the spirit of generosity and decency and goodness of almost all of America’s good writers, people such as Stephen King and Lee Child and Elizabeth George and and a young woman named Alafair Burke and Sue Grafton and John Grisham and George Pelecanos and Andre Dubus III and Rick Demarinis.”
TRBS: Lastly, what’s next for you once Robicheaux finally hits bookstores?
James Lee Burke: “I’m writing a sequel to Robicheaux titled Ball and Chain. This baby is in full-tilt, E-major overdrive and deals with the blues and a mojo-hand band and bucket-kicking, country-picking, and believe it or not the film ‘My Darling Clementine.'”
James Lee Burke’s most beloved character, Dave Robicheaux, returns in this gritty, atmospheric mystery set in the towns and backwoods of Louisiana.
DAVE ROBICHEAUX IS A HAUNTED MAN.
Between his recurrent nightmares about Vietnam, his battle with alcoholism, and the sudden loss of his beloved wife, Molly, his thoughts drift from one irreconcilable memory to the next. Images of ghosts at Spanish Lake live on the edge of his vision.
During a murder investigation, Dave Robicheaux discovers he may have committed the homicide he’s investigating, one which involved the death of the man who took the life of Dave’s beloved wife. As he works to clear his name and make sense of the murder, Robicheaux encounters a cast of characters and a resurgence of dark social forces that threaten to destroy all of those whom he loves. What emerges is not only a propulsive and thrilling novel, but a harrowing study of America: this nation’s abiding conflict between a sense of past grandeur and a legacy of shame, its easy seduction by demagogues and wealth, and its predilection for violence and revenge. James Lee Burke has returned with one of America’s favorite characters, in his most searing, most prescient novel to date.
First and foremost, thank you to James Lee Burke for taking the time to answer these questions. As someone who has already read Robicheaux, I cannot wait for Ball and Chain!
Robicheaux hits bookstores everywhere on January 2, making it the first must-read book of 2018. (For my full review, click here.) This is, without question, one of my favorite books in Burke’s series. Longtime fans will love it, but the story stands on its own enough that newcomers can jump in and enjoy it too. If you’re a fan of C.J. Box, Craig Johnson, Ace Atkins, or William Kent Krueger, and you haven’t already started this series, you have to get your hands on one of the Dave Robicheaux books right away.
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.