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James Lee Burke on writing, inspiration, and what comes next

There were 13 years in the middle of his career when James Lee Burke was out of print. 'I wrote all that time,' he says. 'I work every day.'

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    'This is my best work yet. It’s one I feel very good about it,' says James Lee Burke about his new book 'House of the Rising Sun.'
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Sorting through the Holland family in the novels of James Lee Burke requires close study. In his new book, House of the Rising Sun, Burke's main character is Hackberry Holland, an on-again, off-again Texas Ranger prone to bouts of drinking and violence in equal measure.

Hackberry Holland’s grandson – also named Hackberry – took the lead in Burke’s recent novels “Rain Gods” and “Feast Day of Fools.” Burke has also written books about Billy Bob Holland, cousin of the younger Hackberry, as well as the family patriarch, Son Holland, a 19th-century Texan who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto. “Wayfaring Stranger,” published in 2014, was about Weldon Holland, another grandson of Hackberry the elder.

Don’t worry: No family-tree recall is needed to enjoy any of these books, including the new one. Burke became famous for his mystery series starring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, a character featured in 20 books – so far. The most recent Robicheaux book came out in 2013.

At 79, Burke shows no signs of slowing down. He is already well on his way to completing his next book, one he says will complete what he thinks of as a Holland family trilogy with “Wayfaring Stranger” and the just-published “House of the Rising Sun.”

And, as the passage below describing the Second Battle of the Marne in World War I makes clear, Burke knows his way around a poetic sentence. To wit:

“The terrain was cratered and devoid of greenery or vegetation, glistening with dew and in some places excrement, the root systems of grass and brush and trees long since ground up and pulped and churned by the treads of tanks and wheeled cannons and the boots of men and the hooves of draft animals and marching barrages that exploded holes so deep into the earth, the tons of dirt blown into the air were dry and eclipsed the sun at highnoon and robbed men not only of their identities but their shadows as well.”

What begins with Hackberry’s desperate gambit in revolutionary Mexico – and the discovery of what may or may not be the Holy Grail – leads to the kidnapping of his adult son by a wicked international arms dealer. In classic Burke fashion, Hackberry is a decent man filled with regret and remorse, capable of haunting violence but a man of deep humanity. Hackberry always flounders and often founders in his relationships with women, including a conniving former mistress of the Sundance Kid; a brothel madam who saves his life; and Ruby, the mother of his child and a lifelong love who grew estranged from Hackberry.

Burke, by contrast, has been happily married for 55 years.

During a recent interview from his home in Montana, the novelist told the Monitor why he thinks “House of the Rising Sun” is his best book yet and how his work ethic helped him complete 34 novels. Below are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

On the new novel: This is my best work yet. It’s one I feel very good about it. But I’m not entirely objective (laughs).

On what inspired the book: The story operates on two levels. I used the story of Abraham and Ishmael, his son, who is cast out. Remember Sarah, the story in the Bible, was jealous because Ishmael was born of the slave woman, Hagar. So I used this story about Hackberry’s son, whose name is Ishmael, and he has become alienated from his boy, who is an officer in the U.S. Army in 1916 with Pershing’s Punitive Expedition into Old Mexico (triggered by Pancho Villa’s attack in New Mexico).

The story goes from there to the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918. But it’s also about a search for redemption and I use the quest for the Grail as the second story, the great medieval allegory about man’s search for redemption.

On juggling series: There’s no rhyme or reason. I’ve been writing about the Hollands since 1968, that effort turned into “Lay Down My Sword and Shield.” (It was published in 1971.) It was the story of this Hackberry Holland’s grandson, a Korean War veteran.

On the Robicheaux series: Commercially, certainly, the Dave Robicheaux series have been the most successful novels. Oddly, the two best books that I’ve published – I’ve published 34 novels and two collections of stories – the two best ones are “Wayfaring Stranger” and this one. There’s no question about it.

On how aging has affected his writing: Well, I hope I’ve gotten better at it. A person’s prose, the style any author eventually identifies with as his own – we start off under the influence of others. My first literary influence was John Neihardt, who wrote “Black Elk Speaks” (published in 1932). I took creative writing with him [when Neihardt was teaching] in 1957 at the University of Missouri. Many people influenced me: James G. Farrell (a British novelist who wrote about the effects of colonialism), Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Eventually, you feel like you come to your own voice. You get better or worse at it. I hope I got better. Others will have to judge.

On what comes next: I’m working on it now. It’s called “The Jealous Kind” and I’m almost finished with it. It’s the third book in a trilogy (with “Wayfaring Stranger” and “House of the Rising Sun”). It takes place in 1952 in Houston and it’s a story about the '50s that I don’t think many people have heard about accurately. It’s been romanticized. It’s about another [Holland] grandson, Aaron.

On his prolific output: As of 1990, I could write full-time. Up until then, I worked at a number of jobs over the years.

That’s the real test of one’s investment in his art. It’s hard to get up before you go to the paying job and write and then come home and you’re tired and try to write again. And that’s how most people do it. I did it for decades.

In 1990, my novel “Black Cherry Blues,” the third book in the Dave Robicheaux series, won the Edgar award. That did it.

I’d been out of print for 13 years in the middle of my career. I wrote all that time.

I work every day. That’s the great gift of my life. I write all the time, I write seven days a week – I don’t take off for any reason. That’s the only job I’ve got.

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