James Lee Burke discusses 'Creole Belle' and the end of 'traditional' America
'Creole Belle' author James Lee Burke talks about the inspiration for his new book and his detective protagonist Dave Robicheaux.
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He, like me, was born in the Depression. And our generation is transitional one. We’re probably the last generation that will remember what people call traditional America."Skip to next paragraph
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On comparing Robicheaux with other characters: "I’ve written three novels about Hackberry Holland. I’ve written a number of books that are outside the Dave Robicheaux series and they don’t receive the same attention as the Louisiana books. I write many different things that maybe people aren’t aware of."
On what he plans to write next: "I haven’t thought about it. I don’t plan very far into the future. I’m writing a very different kind of a book right now. I see two scenes ahead into a novel and I don’t see anything else. I never know how a chapter will end, you see. So the notion of a long-range plan has never existed for me. I don’t mean that isn’t a good way to do things, but it’s never worked that way for me."
On the creation of Dave Robicheaux: "The themes of my work have never changed. I wrote my first novel in my early-20s. And I’m older, certainly, now, but I don’t think much wiser. My themes have never changed. The only thing that ever changed in my work, and it had enormous influence in terms of commercial success, was the use of a first-person narrator who sometimes is a police officer. That’s what changed everything.
But nothing else changed. The characters, the settings, the themes, they’re all, for good or bad, out of the same source. Something that’s in the unconscious, I’ve never quite understood it."
On the appeal of Robicheaux: "Well, Dave Robicheaux is the everyman. He’s a very successful voice in the series because he’s someone whom the reader trusts. And the person who wrote first about establishing this kind of voice in narration was Washington Irving. We don’t talk about him much anymore, but Washington Irving – and Nathaniel Hawthorne – essentially invented the short story. Edgar Allan Poe is usually given credit; they were contemporaries.
Washington Irving said something I never forgot. He said the narrator must establish a familiarity and a sense of trust between himself and the reader. It’s a kind of an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist outside literature. I always remembered that quote from one of his journals. And years later, the guy who originated the Bonanza series, he was being interviewed and he was asked, 'How did you accomplish a series that ran for 15 years on Sunday night television?' And he said, 'We created a cast of characters whom the American family felt comfortable inviting into their living room.' It’s a great line."
On his characters’ persistence despite witnessing constant crime and corruption: "Cynicism is really the stuff of sophistry. It’s simplistic in nature, it requires no insight and it requires no creativity. Anyone can, in effect, be negative. This, ultimately, is the world we live in. We’re all nihilists. It’s an easier way of doing things, simply to see hopelessness in the world but to, in effect, allow one’s self to not be a part of the herculean effort it takes to do as well as one can and leave the world a better place.
I think it goes back to the Old Testament, the contract made between Yahweh and Noah. That’s a great story. And the rainbow was the archer’s bow that Yahweh hung in the sky and made a contract with creatures and people on board Noah’s Ark. These guys would try to make the world a better place. We forget that in the Old Testament that man lived in peace with the animals. The first creatures on the Ark are the animals. Man was meant to be a steward of the earth. That’s a pretty large responsibility. Take care of the earth. That’s the job."
Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.