James Lee Burke on writing, inspiration and sequel

Sorting out the Holland family in James Lee Burke’s novels requires careful study. In his new book, house of the rising sunBurke’s main character is Hackberry Holland, an occasional Texas Ranger prone to alcohol use and violence in equal measure.

Hackberry Holland’s grandson – also named Hackberry – has taken the helm of Burke’s recent novels “Rain Gods” and “Feast Day of Fools”. Burke has also written books on 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 reminder is needed to enjoy any of these books, including the new one. Burke rose to fame for his mystery series starring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, a character featured in 20 books – so far. The last Robicheaux book was released in 2013.

At 79, Burke shows no signs of slowing down. He’s already on track to finish his next book, which he says will complete what he considers a Dutch family trilogy with “Wayfaring Stranger” and the newly released “House of the Rising Sun”.

And, as the passage below describing the Second Battle of the Marne in WWI shows, Burke knows how to get by with a poetic phrase. To witness it:

“The land was cratered and devoid of greenery or vegetation, glistening with dew and in places of excrement, the root systems of grass, brush and trees long crushed and pulped and churned by the caterpillars of the tanks and wheeled guns and men’s boots and hooves of draft animals and marching dams that blew up holes so deep in the earth the tons of earth blown in the air were dry and eclipsed the sun at noon and stole from men not only their identity but also their shadows.

What begins with Hackberry’s desperate bet 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 nasty 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 still flounders and often breaks down in his relationships with women, including a former Sundance Kid accomplice mistress; a lady in a brothel who saves his life; and Ruby, the mother of her child and a longtime sweetheart who has moved away from Hackberry.

Burke, on the other hand, has been married for 55 years.

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

On the new novel: This is my best job to date. This is the one I feel very good about it. But I’m not entirely objective (laughs).

On what inspired the book: The story works on two levels. I used the story of Abraham and Ishmael, his son, who is cast out. Remember Sarah, the Bible story, was jealous because Ishmael was born to the slave woman, Hagar. So I used this story on Hackberry’s son, whose name is Ishmael, and he alienated himself from his boy, who is an officer in the US Army in 1916 with the Pershing punitive expedition in Old- Mexico (triggered by the Pancho Villa attack in New Mexico).

The story goes from there to the second battle of the Marne in 1918. But it is also a quest for redemption and I use the quest for the Grail as the second story, the great medieval allegory on the quest for redemption of the man.

On the juggling series: There is no rhyme or reason. I have been writing about the Hollands since 1968, this effort has 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. Strangely enough, the two best books I’ve published – I’ve published 34 novels and two collections of stories – the two best are “Wayfaring Stranger” and this one. there is no doubt.

On how aging has affected her writing: Okay, I hope I’m improving. One person’s prose, the style that any author comes to identify with as their own – we start under the influence of others. My first literary influence was John Neihardt, who wrote “Black Elk Speaks” (published 1932). I took creative writing with him [when Neihardt was teaching] in 1957 at the University of Missouri. Many people have 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 are coming to your own voice. You get better or worse. I hope I am better. The 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 done. This is the third volume 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 1950s that I don’t think many people have heard about with precision. He was romanticized. This is another [Holland] grandson, Aaron.

On his prolific production: From 1990 I could write full time. Until then, I have held several jobs over the years.

This is the real test of his investment in his art. It’s hard to get up before going to paid work and write, then come home and get tired and try to write again. And that’s how most people do it. I have been doing this for decades.

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

I had been exhausted for 13 years in the middle of my career. I’ve been writing all this time.

I work everyday. It is the great gift of my life. I write all the time, I write seven days a week – I don’t take off for no reason. It’s the only job I have.


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