This is the fourth year I’ve had the incredible honor and privilege of doing a short interview with James Lee Burke. (Here are previous years’: 2011, 2012, and 2013.) I can honestly say that my excitement about this has waned not one iota, and my admiration for JLB as a consummate storyteller and fantastic human being has only grown.
In addition to being the title of your latest (amazing) book, Wayfaring Stranger is an iconic American folk song, which has been recorded by Burl Ives, Johnny Cash, and Emmylou Harris among many others. What’s your favorite version of the song?
In the novel Weldon, the protagonist who comes home from Normandy and St. Lo and the Ardennes with three purple hearts and two bronze stars and the silver star, makes mention of the A.P. Carter composition “Hello, Stranger,” which he associates with reconciliation and resilience.
My favorite performance of this song, in fact, the most haunting duet I have ever heard, was done by Emmylou Harris and Jon Randall in Switzerland. You can find it on YouTube. [Note: I’ve embedded it below to save you the search.] I have listened to it over and over and over again. It stays with you the way “Bolero” does. I believe A.P. Carter would be proud of Ms. Harris and Mr. Randall’s interpretation of his wonderful ballad.
One of the most striking aspects of Wayfaring Stranger is Weldon and Rosita’s love story. Do you believe that love as deep and transcendent as theirs exists outside of fiction?
Yes, I do. Is there anything greater than love? The answer is no. As Robert Frost said, is there any place better for love than the earth? Again the answer is no. Love is transcendent; love is eternal; love is both earthly and divine. Is there any greater misfortune than to not have it in one’s life?
Weldon and Herschel’s story illustrates clearly how even the smallest decisions we make can have an enormous impact on our lives. Are there any small decisions you’ve made that have changed your life dramatically?
Yes, when I met my wife Pearl fifty-five years ago in a romantic poetry class at the University of Missouri. Neither one of us has been the same since.
The historical detail in Wayfaring Stranger is breathtaking. Did you do a great deal of research for the book?
I do little research on what I write, although I check a few details here and there. Over the years I discovered that America’s reference librarians are the greatest friends a writer can have. Of course today we have the internet. It can be invaluable, too, but there is no adequate replacement for the reference librarian. I always maintained that a dozen of them could have been put in a room with the right equipment, and they would have had Osama Bin Laden nailed to the wall in forty-eight hours.
Weldon’s grandfather is an anti-stereotype in many ways, not least of which is that he is as tough as the day is long, but also has a true moral compass and a strong, kind heart. Is he based on a real person (or people)?
My great-grandfather was Sam Morgan Hollan (without the “d”). He was a confederate soldier, a drover, a gunman who killed at least nine men in duels, and a Baptist saddle preacher. Hackberry Hollan was also my ancestor and is buried at the Hebron Baptist cemetery in Yoakum, Texas. My grandmother was Alafair Hollan, whose first name Dave Robicheaux and I both expropriated as the name of our daughters.
For anyone who reads news reports, it’s hard to miss that some modern American societal attitudes mimic those expressed by characters—particularly the Wisehearts—in Wayfaring Stranger. Do you think we can learn from the attitudes and actions of our forefathers in this regard? Can we become more kind, peaceful, and strong by peering through a historical lens?
The Wisehearts, with the exception of Roy Wiseheart, the marine aviator tormented with guilt over the flaming death of his squadron leader, represent a pernicious form of evil that has wrapped itself in the various banners of neo-colonialism. The greatest tax swindle in American history was the oil depletion allowance. John Kennedy planned to end it. Maybe that’s another story. But it does bear on the book to a degree.
Why do you think America’s fascination with Bonnie and Clyde endures?
They were a symbol, and not one without redeeming virtues. When Clyde was in Eastham prison, he promised his pals he would be back to free them when he got out. These were not idle words. He and Bonnie shot their way into the prison and took I believe three prisoners out with them, including Raymond Hamilton, who later died with an appreciable degree of dignity in the electric chair at Huntsville.
You’ve been called, among other things, “America’s best novelist,” and many (if not most) of your readers would echo this sentiment. But what do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far?
That’s a very laudatory statement that has been made about my work, but there are many great writers in the United States today, many of them who labor on no matter how many times they are rejected or denigrated. These are the guys who deserve the laurels.
My greatest achievement in life is my family — my wife Pearl and our children James Lee 111, Andree, Pamala, and Alafair, and of course our grandchildren. I think of them as a gift, just as I think of my work’s success as a gift. This is not modesty. I believe there are others more worthy of reward than I. Every artist knows that his talent comes from a source outside of himself. As I’ve said on many occasions, humility in an artist is not a virtue; it’s a necessity.
Folks who aren’t on Facebook might not know that you’ve recently welcomed a horse to your ranch from a Montana horse rescue program. What made you decide to welcome this beauty to your pastures? How long will she stay with you?
Our first adoption in the Montana horse rescue program is a beautiful black Morgan mare named Gloria (as in “glorious”). We’ve just rail-fenced a third pasture and are digging a new well and building a secondary barn, and will soon be making more adoptions. This is a great program. It provides a second chance for animals that might be destroyed or sold to dog food companies.
We have a 120-acre ranch where all animals are protected and all people of goodwill are welcomed. Provided they like country music.
What are you reading now?