A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite authors, James Lee Burke, was gracious enough to do an interview with me in conjunction with FridayReads. In case you didn’t see it, it is below, with hearty thanks to Lauren O’Brien for her help with the questions.
In addition to being a consummate storyteller, JLB is a kind, funny, and thoughtful person who shares readily of himself with his readers. I hope he continues writing for a long time to come, and if you have yet to read his stories, I suggest you start immediately. I’ll have a review of Feast Day of Fools for you soon.
If a reader is new to your books, with which do you suggest he or she start?
I believe my best novel is Feast Day of Fools. However, all the books I have written were intended to read independently of one another, so a person could start anywhere.
“Feast Day of Fools” brings back one of your scariest villains in Preacher Jack Collins. When you finished writing “Rain Gods,” did you plan to bring him back?
I never know the ending of a story, but toward the last part of the last chapter of Rain Gods I believed Jack would probably be back. Hemingway said he never outlined a story, because if he did, he would know the ending, and if he knew the ending, so would the reader.
There was a long period of time between “Lay Down My Sword and Shield” and “Rain Gods.” Why did you circle back to Hack Holland after so long? Is there something specific about him as a character and the stories around him that appeal to you now?
That’s a very good question. When we first meet Hackberry, he is profligate in his personal life and often cynical and bitter. I believed he was a better man than I portrayed him, and consequently I felt I owed him an amends.
“Feast Day of Fools” addresses numerous timely societal issues. Do you feel your success as an author has given you increased freedom to tackle subjects some consider controversial?
The themes in my stories have never changed. My political views have never changed, either. I’ve always feared approval more than rejection or animosity. To paraphrase my father, if everyone agrees on something, it’s probably wrong.
You’ve set your series in Texas, Montana and, perhaps most famously, Louisiana. Why did you choose these locales? Have you spent time in south Texas?
I was born in Texas. My mother’s family was from Yoakum. My great-grandfather was Sam Morgan Hollan (without the “d”). He was an alcoholic gunfighter and cattle drover who eventually became a Baptist saddle preacher. He’s also the grandfather of Hackberry Holland (with the “d”).
Many of your books deal with forgiveness and redemption. Do you think there are people incapable of redemption and undeserving of forgiveness? Or is there hope for everyone?
Jesus forgave those who murdered him. What person could be beyond redemption or forgiveness?
You’ve described “Feast Day of Fools” as your best book. Why?
I believe stylistically it’s my best, and in terms of scope and literary experiment it’s my best. The downside is I may never never surpass it. When I catch the bus, I’m taking this one with me.
We’ve seen a number of authors, including Lee Child and Lawrence Block, explore series characters’ backstories in recent books. Do you have any plans to do this with your series?
No, my books and stories are linear in nature. In my view, yesterday’s box score is yesterday’s box score. Everybody gets to the barn soon enough. Why go back to the places you’ve already been? I respect what others do, particularly Larry and Lee. Everyone writes differently.
Have you noticed a difference in the reaction to your books from men and women? If so, how do they differ?
At first most of my readers were men. Today the majority of my readers are women. But I think the attitude toward the content of my books is the same in both groups. Those who enjoy them are usually people of good will who believe in an egalitarian democracy. It has been a great honor to meet and talk with them during the fifteen years my wife and I were on the book circuit.
How did you come to be aware of the medieval Feast of Fools custom? Did you think of it as the title of a book first, or write the book and then select thetitle?
I’m a fan of the culture of the Middle Ages and also of Elizabethan theater. What we call “the dark age” was actually a festive one. How about Chaucer’s characters? What a hilarious bunch! Do you remember the Miller’s tale? In terms of ribald offensiveness, it has no peer. I used to tell my lit students they might forget everything else they learn in college, but they would never forget the Miller’s tale.
You’ve won many awards and accolades over the course of your career. Is there one that is particularly special to you?
I appreciate equally all the rewards I have received. The greatest reward, however, has been in the letters and the emails telling me that my work has helped some people find sobriety.
What are you reading now?
“The Man Who Never Died,” a biography of Joe Hill.
Thanks for having me on board.