James Lee Burke Interview

James Lee BurkeIf ever someone asks me “which author impressed you most?” the name James Lee Burke inevitably passes my lips.  In addition to Ray Bradbury and Clive Cussler, he has most influenced me to become a writer, too.  He is best known for his offbeat and moody mystery novels featuring a former police detective turned bait shop owner, Dave Robicheaux.  Many authors write mysteries, but this man has no peers.  I spoke with him via phone at his home in Montana a few years back.

JONATHAN LOWE: You’re in Montana now, where your novel Bitterroot was set.  I take it you’re what they call in Arizona a “snowbird?”

JAMES LEE BURKE: Well, I guess that’s fair to say. We live in Louisiana part of the year.

Lowe:  It is New Iberia or Lafayette, Louisiana where you go in the winter?

Burke:  New Iberia, now, which is a couple hours west of New Orleans.

Lowe:  What is your background. When did you start writing?

Burke:  A long time ago. I published my first story when I was 19, and my first novel back in the mid-1960s.  It was titled Half of Paradise. After college, and before Black Cherry Blues, I did a lot of other things to make money, and that included teaching, social work, driving a truck, and working in the Texas oil fields.

Lowe:  Where did your characters Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland come from?  You seem to be alternating point of view between those two in some of your books, much like you alternate between states yourself during the year.

Burke: Well, all the characters have been published in over twenty books now.  I think they all have the same origin, and are composite biographical characters, but have a reality of their own.  Like any writer, I draw from the subconscious.  The elements of myth, which comes from the unconscious, figures into it, and there are allusions from classical literature too.

Lowe:  You’re one of my personal favorite authors, and I can tell you why. It’s because you don’t use lazy clichés like “he screamed like a stuck pig,” something I read in a bestseller by another author who shall be nameless.

Burke: (laughs)

Lowe:  I also like it that you actually take the time to create images, making characters out of objects and settings. Just like John D. MacDonald did in the Travis McGee series. Who are your favorite authors, and who influenced you?

Burke: I’d have to say Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and William Faulkner.

Lowe: You’ve been compared to William Faulkner, who used stream-of-consciousness as a literary device.

Burke:  Well, that’s an old method. The Sound and the Fury is one of the best books we have.

Lowe:  What do you think about the state of fiction today?  I’m pretty disappointed with the serial killer sub-genre.  I don’t want to know who-dun-it, but rather why they did it. Get the feeling you’re the same, true?

Burke:  I feel that the psychological story as narrative art is what interests me. Hemingway did it well, and you can spend a lifetime learning it.

Lowe:  Will Patton is the perfect narrator for your own stories on audio. He’s got the accents down, but more than that, the attitudes of the characters. Very believable.

Burke:  He’s done a very good job, and also Mark Hammer on the unabridged. They’re both excellent as narrators.

Lowe:  My favorite book of yours is Sunset Limited, I’m not sure why. The last CD of that one contains some of the best writing I’ve ever heard.

Burke:  Thank you.

Lowe:  Do you have a favorite?  I suppose you have to say it’s your latest, in answer to that question, though, right?

Burke:  Well, actually, my favorite is Purple Cane Road. Everything came together on that one.

Lowe:  Thank you for that. It’s a great novel as well.  Very personal and also a culmination of redemption for its first person point of view character.  What about Bitterroot?

Burke:  Well, it’s set in Montana, about a former Texas lawman who helps a friend in trouble and then runs into a prison parolee who’s out for revenge. That’s the overview, anyway.

Lowe:  What was your Hollywood experience like?  I loved your movie Heaven’s Prisoners, which starred Alec Baldwin.

Burke:  Yes, it was adapted, and my experience on that was really good. Everyone on the creative team very vibrant.  Of course in Hollywood it’s all a matter of money.  If you have a hundred million for the budget, you can take anything and make it look good.  It doesn’t take much to be a producer, either, besides knowing how to write a gaudy bill.  You just get you director Michael Mann and screenwriter Joe Esterhaus, and you’re off to the races! (laughs)

Lowe:  So is there another movie in the future, do you think, based on another book?

Burke:  I don’t know, I kinda stay away from that.

Lowe:  Do you work all the time, or just part of the year? A book a year, or more?

Burke:  Oh, I work all the time. I work every day, seven days a week.  It’s what I do. Been at it for a long, long time. 

Download his novels on audio HERE.


Rudy Maxa on Paris

Rudy MaxaRudy Maxa is best known for his PBS travel series RUDY MAXA’S WORLD, and videos like HAWAII TO THE MAX. He also knows Paul Theroux, and so, since I’ve reviewed an interesting audiobook titled “What French Women Know,” and my favorite episode of No Reservations is Paris, I wanted to ask him some questions related to books in general, and to travel in France in particular.

Jonathan Lowe: You once wrote an unauthorized biography of a con man titled “Dare To Be Great.” Then you did some reporting for The Washington Post that was nominated for a Pulitzer, also unrelated to travel. What, then, are your own favorite books?

Rudy Maxa: Love “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” by Joan Didion, “The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester. Anything by Simon Winchester, in fact. “Memoir From Antproof Case” by Mark Helprin, “Up In the Air” by Walter Kirn, a movie starring George Clooney. “My Secret History” by Paul Theroux, and “Snow Blind” by Robert Sabbag.

Q: What did you most enjoy exploring France, and what itinerary stops shouldn’t be missed by those wanting a mix of chateaux, Paris, and wine country visits?

A: In Paris, I enjoy walking. For hours. Almost every residential block offers architectural marvels, and commercial neighborhoods are filled with fascinating shops, cafes, bistros, and restaurants. Outside of Paris, I like Burgundy and the Loire Valley for a great mix of restaurants, pastoral beauty, and chateaux.

Q: Any thoughts on package tours as opposed to just hoofing with the aid of a rental car?

A: I think there are some folks who enjoy the predictability, organization, and simplicity of a package tour that stipulates an itinerary and includes a guide. But my guess is on a second or third visit, many travelers would prefer to roam about and make some discoveries on their own. I’m in the latter camp.

Q: What’s the best time to visit France, and are there any tips on customs or culture that American tourists generally overlook?

A: I think the last half of May, all of June, and July through Bastille Day are the best times to visit places in France that are especially popular with visitors. The weather is more likely to be good, and the French are still at work. August, when the entire country takes off, is my least favorite time. Paris is empty, the south of France is traffic gridlock. Customs? Air kissing involves one time on both cheeks. Know the basic words in French, such as “please” and “thank you” and “hello” and “goodbye.” I know it sounds silly, but locals in every country appreciate Americans making an effort to speak a few words in their language. Don’t ever touch the fruit and vegetables in an outdoor market in Paris–just point for the shopkeeper. Only three passengers to a taxi, please.

Q: What about safety and economy? How does France stack up against the rest of Europe?

A: I consider France as safe as any other country in Western Europe. Probably a lot less theft in France than in parts of southern Italy. As for affordability, well, given that it takes $1.50 to buy a euro these days–and only $1.30 this time last year–the entire continent has become fairly pricey. I’d recommend getting out of the big cities to find less expensive hotels and restaurants.

Q: Paul Theroux recommends sticking to the ground when traveling, whenever possible. Have you ever shared a bottle of wine in some bistro with him, and what’s his best travel advice?

A: I’ve never been to France with Paul, though we did travel together for about ten days in India. I like sticking to the ground, as well. Paul often says it’s not the things that go right when you’re traveling you remember the best–it’s the things that go wrong. If you’re driving, you can always take the wrong road, which may well turn out to be a good idea.

Q: What fun for you lately, traveling?

A: I shot a Silk Road episode in Uzbekistan for “Rudy Maxa’s World” on public television. I had a great time in Central Asia, even though, two days before we were to depart, a camel threw me off its back while we were shooting a closing scene. Bottom line: Three stitches in the back of my head and a broken right clavicle. Tip: Avoid a camel named Catherine in the town of Khiva.


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Lawrence Block on Keller

Lawrence BlockLawrence Block has written over 80 novels, has had several films produced on his books, and also scripted “My Blueberry Nights” starring Jude Law, Norah Jones, and Natalie Portman in 2007.  This brief exchange occurred when his novel HIT LIST was released, a mystery that featured a hit man named Keller. His latest book on audio is GETTING OFF.

Jonathan Lowe: In your Keller mysteries the killer/protagonist more concerned with his stamp collection, and sees money from this “job” as a means to buy more rare stamps. In one, the tension came from a third party, another hit man who wanted to eliminate Keller in order to score more work for himself. As Woody Allen might say, it’s a great job–you get paid well, travel, meet interesting people, and you’re your own boss. My question is, can they sleep at night unless they’re sociopathic?

Lawrence Block: Well, sociopath is a term we’ve coined to label a person who can sleep at night after all that. I’ve known a couple of them over the years. Nobody quite like Keller, however. And he doesn’t seem sociopathic to me. Just your basic urban lonely guy.

Lowe: But not one Steve Martin might play in the movies. Or would he? About your own films, I know Whoopie Goldberg played Rhodenbarr from “Burglar in the Closet,” which was filmed as BURGLAR. Then there was EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE, and NIGHTMARE HONEYMOON. What’s up with the Keller movie?

Block: “Hit Man” is in the works as a film, to be called KELLER, with Jeff Bridges slated to star. I’ve seen the screenplay, and I have to say I like it.  (Note: the movie was never made.)

Lowe: About Keller’s obsession with stamps, I’ve heard you collect them yourself.

Block: I collect what Keller collects, too. Worldwide before 1940.

Lowe: You must enjoy stamp art, since artists wandered into “Hit List,” and talk about artists like Mondrian, as in the novel from your burglar series “The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian.”

Block: I do. My wife’s an artist, and I painted a Mondrian of my own over 20 years ago, figuring I’d never be able to own an original, and how hard could it be? That’s what gave me the idea for that book.

Lowe: If you could compose a hit list of other writers you’d like to eliminate from the competition, who would they be?

Block: Oh, that wouldn’t work. The fellows I’m apt to be envious of are ones I wouldn’t dream of eliminating, because then I’d have nothing to read.

Lowe: Any thoughts on the future of crime writing? How about a crime writer who’s a criminal?

Block: Well, we all are. I thought you knew that.

Lowe: I do. And by the way, thanks for your time, it was nice talking to you. Now please just wait right there, and I’ll be over with a silenced 9 mm.

Block: I’ll look forward to it. But do me a favor. When you leave your house, don’t look behind you.


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