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Sean SalaiJuly 24, 2014
James Lee Burke (Frank Veronsky - Photo Provided)

James Lee Burke is an American Catholic crime novelist who grew up on the Louisiana-Texas gulf coast and is based in Missoula, Montana, and in New Iberia, Louisiana. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Missouri. His past jobs included working as a “landman” for Sinclair Oil Company, a pipeliner, a land surveyor, a newspaper reporter, a college English professor, a social worker on Skid Row in Los Angeles, a clerk for the Louisiana Employment Service and an instructor for the U. S. Job Corps.

Author of more than 30 books, Mr. Burke has received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship as well as several book awards including the Louisiana Writer Award in 2002 for his contributions to Louisiana’s cultural heritage. He is best known for his series featuring Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, a character portrayed on film by Alec Baldwin and Tommy Lee Jones. He and his wife have four children, one of whom (Alafair Burke) is also a crime writer, and four grandchildren.

Mr. Burke’s latest novel, Wayfaring Stranger, was published July 15 by Simon and Schuster. On July 22, I interviewed Mr. Burke by telephone about his new book and his writing. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.

What inspired this new novel?

I’ve written a number of stories about the Holland family and this story was based on my mother’s family. This book in the post-war era is meant to deal with what Gore Vidal called “the golden years,” the Hollywood boom and neo-colonial era after the war when we stepped into the shoes of England and France around the world. It’s really a story that deals with America’s transition into the 21st century.

Who are you writing for?

Well, I write for anyone who will read it. But I hope this book—it’s doing very well, actually—gives people a sense of traditional America. It’s my sense that my generation, born in the Great Depression, will be the last one to remember traditional America. People might say it’s nostalgic, but it’s not. There were a lot of downsides to that period—segregation, McCarthyism and other things—but there was a lot of excitement too. In the post-war era, people discovered two portals to acquiring enormous wealth. One was Hollywood and the other was the oil business. Some of these oilmen called “wildcatters” could hardly read or write, but became men of enormous wealth and power. My father was in that industry and I don’t think anyone has written about it from the inside. What people don’t understand is that the grunts on the ground who drill for the oil are the bravest people I’ve ever known—it’s really easy to get killed in that work. They’re like the cutting edge of an empire, the Roman legionaries of our age. But the guys at the top do business with baseball bats. If you call them ruthless, they’re the first ones to agree.

The hero of your book connects what you call “a fateful encounter with Bonnie and Clyde to heroic acts at the Battle of the Bulge and finally to the high-stakes gambles and cutthroat players who ushered in the dawn of the American oil industry.” How much of your personal experiences influenced the story?

This is the most biographical book I’ve written, undoubtedly, and I’ve dedicated it to my beloved first cousin Weldon Benbow "Buddy" Mallette, who is the main character. He walked all across Europe and liberated an extermination camp. He came home with two Bronze Stars, the Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts. Many other characters in the book were also influenced by real people. In fiction, characters tend to change from their inspirations, but many of the people I write about in the book are pretty recognizable. My oil industry characters were some of the most dangerous people in America. I didn’t change some of the names. The oil depletion allowance, the biggest tax swindle in American history, goes back to a 1930s decision that allowed the oil companies to declare the oil they sold as a loss. Under this Orwellian scheme, the oil under their feet was considered a loss whenever they sold it, and they got away with this swindle for decades until the 1970s.

You’re known primarily as a crime writer. Is there a particular crime theme in this book?

Every good drama is concerned with crime. If we look at Hamlet, we see that Shakespeare realized people are intrigued by tragedy, but by tragedy that involves a fall from grace to defeat—of being in effect the victim of one’s own hubris, as the Greeks defined it. The crimes in my stories go back to three sources: the Bible, Greek tragedy and the Elizabethan theaters. The difference between pathos and tragedy is the important distinction. Pathos, as Aristotle said in the Poetics, incites feelings of disgust. Tragedy deals with memorable and sympathetic characters, like the warriors in the Song of Roland or the knight in Canterbury Tales. In this book, Weldon is a modern-day version of Chaucer’s knight.

What’s the message of the book?

I try not to think of it in those terms. Like any work of art, its success lies in what the reader takes from it. There’s reciprocity between the artist and the reader. If the artist is true to his vision, the reader will walk away with something that’s useful in the world. But art should never be didactic—that’s just propaganda. As soon as the writer starts using the personal pronouns “I,” “me” and “myself,” it’s the bottom of the ninth inning and he’s probably going to strike out.

You and your wife are practicing Catholics who have been married a long time. How has your faith evolved or changed over the years?

Well, I really wouldn’t know what to say. I always try to let others be the measure of that. I subscribe to the notion that people are what they do. I’ve never had much wisdom in life or figured out the great mysteries—it’s just passed me by with age. It’s a great disillusionment to realize that age doesn’t really bring wisdom. But we are what we do, not what we intend to do or what we think. The Bible says “we know them by their deeds.” My feeling is that the real saints, the gladiators of our time, are standing right next to us in the grocery line. And they’re so humble and effacing that we can’t remember their faces five minutes after they walk out of the room. But when push comes to shove, we find out who the real heroes are. I’ve always been stunned by the enormous amount of virtue, courage and compassion that people have.

In terms of my stylistic influence, Gerard Manley Hopkins is a big one, particularly his notebooks and the resurrection of the metaphysical image he inspired. I remember Marvell wrote in a poem to his coy mistress, “The sunlight hardens and grows cool on the garden.” The sunlight is given physical properties it doesn’t have, you see. Hopkins says, “I just saw a white cottage couched in the midst of a green forest like a man with an earache.” It was Gerard Manley Hopkins, you see, who was responsible for T.S. Eliot’s great experiment in The Wasteland.

Who are some people, living or dead, who have inspired your faith and career?

My cousin Weldon was inspiring to me. One of the great mysteries of life is that none of us really knows who we are until we get to times of trial. When you get to the Garden of Gethsemane in your life, I believe you understand yourself through the pain you experience. People are changed by suffering, and when they come out of the Dark Night of the Soul that St. John of the Cross describes, they discover that it takes everything in them just to get a C-minus and that’s been my experience. Hemingway said that about his experience in World War I. He said just to get through the day with a grade of average took everything he could muster. Norman Mailer said the same thing during his time in the Philippines. But ordinary people are really the ones I admire. I also think it’s been great to have lived in a time when I got to meet men like Father Dan Berrigan, even though I don’t agree with everything he says.

You’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in life. Has your faith helped you with them?

I don’t know how a person even describes his faith. I’ve never figured anything out myself. I believe in God, but I don’t understand God’s nature. I don’t know why the good suffer. I don’t know what lies on the other side. I’ve had one demonstrable supernatural experience, but I don’t try to tell other people about it. I don’t know that anyone ever solves these questions. To me, the idea of a universe such as we live in without the presence of a Creator is a more difficult concept to accept than belief. I’m a 12-step person and our work goes back to the idea “who am I to say there is no God?” That’s the ultimate vanity. At the same time, I think it’s an enormous arrogance when people say they know the will of God, and I’m guilty of it myself sometimes. Ultimately, I believe divinity lies right on the other side of the physical world and I believe spiritual presences in our lives are always there.

I’ve never been denied anything I’ve asked for from the man upstairs. My father used to call him “the Old Gentleman.” My grandfather grew up around African-Americans and used the term “Old Massah.” My father used to tell me: “A lot of people will say they know God’s will and others don’t know it, but there are only two things you need to know. Number one, he has a sense of humor. Number two, he’s a gentleman and he always keeps his word.” What a line! And I think that’s as much wisdom as I’ve ever learned. I really believe it. As a Franciscan priest once told me, the fundamental moment is when you make a choice for good over evil. You bear down on the batter one pitch at a time and then you’ll be pleased when you look back at the scoreboard in the bottom of the ninth. There’s a line from Henry IV that I’ve never forgotten: “By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death.” And then: “Let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next.”

Because you’ve written in the past about Catholic characters who struggle in life, many readers have come to see you as a Catholic novelist. Is that true of you?

This is the way I think about authors defining themselves: I’m a Southerner, but I don’t think of myself as a Southern novelist. I’m a novelist who happens to be Southern and write about the South. It’s the same way with religion. What I try to do as a Catholic is give voice to those who have been denied voice, to give recognition to those souls who have been forgotten. The people in El Salvador and the Maryknoll women who were killed there—it is disgraceful how our country behaved by providing the arms to do those things. What happened to the Indians in Guatemala is another example of American influence in Central America that I’ve written about. These governments were people the Reagan administration armed and we’re going to pay for it one day.

But I try to give voice to some of these people who had a hard time of it, who spoke out and were often abandoned by the Catholic hierarchy. They were martyred. To my view, the martyrs define the Catholic Church, and I’m bothered when the hierarchy abandons them. The church is the martyrs. I wrote about the guns being shipped to Nicaragua in my first Dave Robicheaux novel, The Neon Rain, and I’ll never forget what a CIA man said to me at the time: “Make no mistake about it, the guns went south, the dope went north. The guns were AK-47s that came from mainland China. They were assembled in California and shipped to Nicaragua.” The contras introduced cocaine into American cities to pay for the guns and it was crack cocaine that hit the housing projects all over America in the 1980s. A guy working for the CIA in the Reagan administration told me that.

I feel the best people in the Catholic Church are given no credit. People have attacked and ridiculed the church for the sex abuse scandal because what happened there was horrible—we’re still living with the damage of the dishonesty and the denial of the hierarchy. But no one gives credit to all those brave souls who put their lives at risk, even from a secular point of view, by going into morally insane third world environments where psychopaths are given weapons to use on their own people. I can’t imagine doing something like that. To go in there unarmed, with your own government not behind you, I can’t imagine a greater level of courage and dedication. It’s a level of courage that defies description. They knew what they were doing and they went there anyway. They’re the same kind of Christians who died in the Roman arena. The women in the early church, like St. Felicity and St. Perpetua, don’t get enough credit. Without women, there would be no church. I recreated Felicity as a modern New Orleans woman in one of my books, but nobody noticed!

Is there a Catholic element in this new book?

Weldon struggles against evil in the book as he becomes part of the oil industry. He sees the evil of anti-Semitism, comes home with his Jewish war bride from the Nazi camps and comes back to discover home-grown fascism in Texas. That’s what the book’s about. But it has lots of humor in it; it goes to Hollywood. As Weldon puts it in the book, “I live in a country that’s bordered on one end by Ebbets Field and on the other end by Santa Monica.”

What do you want people to take away from your writings?

You try to make the world a little better place, and if you can do that, you’ve had a pretty good life. This is the way I feel about art: Creativity is the one area of human experience where we share the providence of God. You just have to recognize in every human being that the greatest stories are locked inside the most humble human beings. My father used to say that all events happen as a dream in the mind of God. There’s no past, or present, or future. The dead are still among us and the unborn are still among us. We belong to something that cannot be measured in terms of sequential time. For that reason, we have to remember that the past is just the past. We can’t return to it, but God isn’t bound by that. Man puts calendars on time, but God doesn’t. That’s what I hope people will bring from my work. I get thousands of letters and emails from all over the world, from people who say the books have helped them in some way, and that’s a great gift. I believe what Orwell said: People are always better than we think they are and they are incredibly bright. So if people can take something good from my work, it feels incredibly good for me.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.

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