When I think about my favorite literary characters, one that always leaps to the top of the list is Clete Purcel, Dave Robicheaux’s sidekick in the classic series by master storyteller James Lee Burke.
I think it no exaggeration to call Mr. Burke one of the greatest literary figures of our time in any genre. His extraordinary gift exceeds time, place and politics. I’ve discussed Mr. Burke’s books with people of all ages, from all over the world, and with backgrounds as varied as the shades of green in the Louisiana bayou, and they all agree that his stories ring true. His painfully human characters—not to mention a certain three-legged raccoon and cantankerous cat—have thrilled, entranced, and frightened readers for decades.
Mr. Burke’s characters could never be described as one-dimensional, and Clete Purcel is no exception. He is violent and passionate, living by a code rooted in history. He is eloquent and honest. He is a good man who occasionally does bad things…but generally—although not always—for the right reasons.
When I thought about a question to ask Clete, the first one that came to mind was about place. I can’t imagine Clete ever leaving Louisiana for more than a brief time. He is far too rooted in the place itself. That said, I thought it would be fun to ask him if he here to move somewhere outside Louisiana or its immediate environs, where that might be.
Understanding that asking to interview an author’s character is more than a little odd, I sent off my request to Mr. Burke. I’ve never met the man—I hope to one day have that honor—but I can tell you from my own online experience and those of others that he is a real gentleman, a true class act. Even after all these years and accolades, he appreciates his readers, and he’s willing to indulge us sharing his insight, wit and humor regularly through the discussion board on his website.
And just like his books themselves, his answer to my question—which he chose to answer as himself rather than as Clete—gave me a lot to think about, and reason to revisit another author whose work I had not read for many years. Here’s what he said:
Thanks for your question. The books and stories I have written have been set all over the United States and Mexico. For me understanding the backdrop is important in terms of understanding the character. I was heavily influenced by the early naturalists— [John] Steinbeck and [James T.] Farrell in particular—and I suspect that has much to do with treatment of place in my work.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “place as a character” this year, having read books like THE CYPRESS HOUSE and THE TERROR OF LIVING in which the setting of the story was a character in itself, as well as influencing the interactions within the story. To learn that JLB was influenced by Steinbeck (who joins him on every Top Five Authors list I’ve ever made) and Farrell (an author whose work I’ve been revisiting lately and loving as much as ever) was exciting to me. Kinda like getting a glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain.
I’m reading THE GLASS RAINBOW, the latest Dave Robicheaux tale, now. So far, it’s as good as my favorite in the series, JOLIE BLON’S BOUNCE. And, yes, Clete figures prominently in the story.
If you would like a sneak peek at the cover of FEAST DAY OF FOOLS, the new JLB book that comes out on September 27, check our James Lee Burke’s new Facebook page.
Special thanks for this post to Pamala Burke, who is the amazingly helpful force behind JLB’s online presence.