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Track the Untold Stories

James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke on Hemingway, Orwell, and a New Chapter in the American Battle Against Fascism

The work of James Lee Burke functions as a searchlight, exposing and illuminating the contradictions of the American experience. Full of grand beauty and haunting brutality, Burke’s novels and stories, like the country in which they take place, map a collision course between heroic idealism and corruption, exploitation, and evil. Burke is most beloved for his series of novels chronicling the struggles and triumphs of Dave Robicheaux, a New Iberia, Louisiana detective with the sheriff’s office, and a separate series about the Holland family, which includes a sheriff and a Texas Ranger. 

Burke uses the genre of crime like Miles Davis used the trumpet. It is an instrument for artistic exploration, not a limitation. Throughout his prolific career, Burke has examined all the hallmark subjects of the police procedural, while also inspecting race, movements for social justice, war, environmental degradation, and the most salient subjects of American debate. 

He returns with two books – the profound short story collection, Harbor Lights, published in January, and the novel forthcoming in June, Clete, which makes Robicheaux’s popular sidekick, Clete Purcel, the protagonist. Harbor Lights provides riveting episodes of characters battling to maintain virtue – sometimes their own, sometimes their community’s – against hate movements, and supernatural forces of evil. Clete deals with the same topics, making it read like a rollicking continuation of Harbor Lights.

I recently spoke with James Lee Burke about the two books. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the latest conversation in a series of interviews that I have had the pleasure to conduct with Burke for CrimeReads.

David Masciotra: You have two new books out in 2024, the first, the short story collection, Harbor Lights, published in January, and the second, Clete, a novel, publishes in June. Let’s start with Harbor Lights, specifically the form. What is the difference, for you, if any, when writing a short story from writing a novel?

James Lee Burke: Writing a short story is harder for me. It is like trying to put a gorilla inside a phone booth. Short stories are their own artform. Many novels that I’ve written began as short stories. I think of a short story as something that has already ended. I’m looking at the center of it before it is actually alive, whereas with a novel, I never have a beginning, and never have the ending. I have no idea – other than a vague impression – what it is about. Then, when I get to the end, I feel like I’m looking at something through a telescope. It’s all there. I don’t put myself up there with these guys, but Hemingway and Faulker both said the same thing. Hemingway, when talking about The Old Man and the Sea, said, “It was as though someone else wrote it.” Faulkner, before his death, said that if he had not written his novels, someone else would have.

David Masciotra: The Hemingway reference is interesting, because with some of the short stories, I sensed that the prose was more reminiscent of Hemingway than in your novels. You seemed to have stripped down the prose for the short stories.

James Lee Burke: Absolutely. Faulkner learned that kind of writing from Hemingway, even though he is known for his lyricism. You’ve got it. This is the lesson that Hemingway taught writers of short stories who wanted to do it right: Say more with the blank space than you do with what’s on it.

David Masciotra: There are two threads that you weave throughout all of the short stories: The dangers of hate, and questions surrounding mortality. We also see those ideas in Clete. Why were those topics on the forefront of your mind when you wrote these stories?

James Lee Burke: It has to do with the generation in which I was born. I was born during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, and the twentieth century was the most violent in human history. It is frightening to think that we may be finding ourselves going in the same direction – the direction of fascism. Some people thought fascism was gone forever. Wrong. There’s been a movement here in the United States for it since the 1840s. I think the stories that I’ve written – I didn’t plan them. They are simply a reflection of the twentieth century. Many of my books are not recognized, and that’s because a whole generation does not recognize the past. I’m not beating up on young people, because my feeling is that certain political groups have decided to create what is commonly referred to as the “dumbing down of America.” They’re doing a great job. 

David Masciotra: I fear that you are correct. If you have a citizenry that cannot recognize the historical forces that endanger democracy, and the lives of many people who live under that system of government, they are ill-equipped to stop them.

James Lee Burke: That’s exactly right. The autobiographical book of George Orwell published after he came back from the Spanish civil war has a first line in which he says, “Truth ended in 1936.” What he argued is that we cannot trust authorities to tell us the news. He was a great writer, and his work is so relevant now. 

David Masciotra: One of your stories set in the past in the new collection, “A Distant War,” has a profundity and depth that is almost difficult to describe. The main characters enter into a portal where evil characters contest their souls. What are you trying to explore with a story like that?

James Lee Burke: That story scared the heck out of me. I feel that we are entering a time when all of our dragons are aborning themselves. In the story, we meet a young academic, a veteran of the Vietnam War who had some CIA connection. He married an Asian woman, and his life has changed by the war. He’s trying to make up with his little boy, taking him on a trip through Colorado and New Mexico. He walks into a place that is a hell – an actual hell. He looks around, and fears for his son. The vehement attitudes that the simple people there – so full of bitterness and hatred – frighten him. So, he must find a way to survive, and save his son. This is because the story of our lives is the story of liberalism versus fascism, and we as a country have stepped back into that battle. 

David Masciotra: One of the bedrock principles of social liberalism is respect for diversity and multiculturalism. Stanley Crouch, one of the great critics of the 20th Century, faulted many American writers with failing to depict the mosaic that is American life in their work. That doesn’t apply to your work. In this collection of stories, we meet characters of all races, various religions, various sexual identities. Are you setting out to achieve that representation?

James Lee Burke: Every artist has to see what the physical world retains. It isn’t necessarily the artist’s own experience, but it is always what is visible to the eye. Hemingway once said that the writer has to have the “honesty of a priest of God.” The writer has to learn to see and learn to listen. I write what I see and hear in this country. 

David Masciotra: Onto Clete – Clete Purcel is such a legend in my mind, and the minds of your readers. Why write a novel with Clete as protagonist, rather than in his usual role as Dave Robicheaux’s sidekick?

James Lee Burke: People have asked me to do it for years, but I always said that Dave and Clete are two sides of the same coin. If I tried to remove one, the whole thing will fall apart. Well, that’s true, but for some reason, I had never thought of the obvious that just because Clete is telling the story doesn’t mean that Dave has to leave. I hate to admit that, but it is true. 

David Masciotra: One thing that you did very effectively is the shift in language. Robicheaux has such a beautiful, lyrical way of speaking. With Clete as the narrator, the prose changes, but it still has your own style.

James Lee Burke: Well, thanks for the compliment. That is what I set out to do. Dave is more cerebral, but both men are extraordinarily intelligent, and they both are the light bearers. They have the same ethos, which is the ethos of the knight-errant.

David Masciotra: And they bring that ethos to the new novel, which deals with many topics of contemporary relevance: antisemitism, and hate movements more broadly, drug trafficking, sex trafficking. How as a writer do you address issues of contemporary relevance, while avoiding having the book read in an overly topical way? It is a difficult trick, but you pull it off.

James Lee Burke: It is, and once the writer starts proselytizing, and starts yelling with a bullhorn, he’s no longer an artist. He might be doing something that’s good, but it isn’t art. The trick is to step into a story that is political without imposing a definition of the terms on the audience. 

David Masciotra: Clete is visited by Joan of Arc in the new novel. That continues the deconstruction of the linearity of time that you began in your work years ago, particularly in regards to good versus evil. Characters are often visited by people throughout history. What are you trying to capture with those supernatural occurrences?

James Lee Burke: I’m drawn to folklore, particularly from the Middle Ages. The chivalric guys, clanking around in swords. It is a kind of magic. Clete is such a popular figure, because he is a huge man with fists like big hams, but he’s also a genteel man. So, guess what? In this book, “Clete,” Clete actually sees Joan of Arc. I don’t know how people will take that, but if people want to read an unusual book, this is it. However, Dave Robicheaux, in the book, talks about mysteries, and Clete says, “People who say there is nothing out there are really dumb.” And Dave says, “You don’t have to worry if you accept that the mystery is there.” I would say that the mystery will always remain a mystery, but its presence indicates something. 

Most of my work comes from the Greeks, Shakespeare, the Elizabethan age. My characters are Dave and Clete, and also the Holland family. In one way or another, these are legendary figures. There are only so many stories that can be told. So, in a certain way I’m retelling some of the old legends with my own characters. The truth of the human experience goes way back to Homer, and we’re always learning and telling it new ways. 

Look, we’re a young country, and we are revolutionary country. Revolutionaries typically consider the past as irrelevant. That’s a mistake. Tennessee Williams seems to be talking about degeneracy in his plays, but what he’s really doing is giving us a look into hell. He was a leftover from the late 19th Century. In his plays, you feel that we are in a kingdom that is wonderful, but it is decaying. He was one of our greatest writers, but he was denied the Nobel Prize, I think, because he was gay. 

David Masciotra: That’s similar to your depiction of America – “a kingdom that is wonderful, but in a state of decay.”

James Lee Burke: Well, I’m worried for us, because we will not accept the origin of our problem. In the 1840s, there was a group of people who hated immigrants – the Know Nothings, the Nativists. That’s where we are today. That’s who we are dealing with. And their leader, Donald Trump, is a psychopath.

David Masciotra: On that note, Clete mentions how he keeps a photo of a Jewish woman walking with her children into a gas chamber in his pocket at all times, and one of his adversaries in the new novel is a white supremacist. Throughout Harbor Lights, there are stories of anti-Black racism, bigotry toward Asians, and in one story, there is a horrific hate crime against a gay man. Why did you make sure to put hate in the focus? 

James Lee Burke: Well, number one, I lived next door to a lady named Miss Sharff, and her nickname was Sharffie. I almost died once, because I got wrapped up in a rubber sheet. I almost suffocated to death. Sharrfie was walking past our house, and saw, and rushed in and saved my life. She was Jewish. Her son was a magician, and he would put on acts for us kids in the neighborhood. She gave me a teddy bear that I loved to carry around. I just loved Sharffie. So, antisemitism has always haunted me. My first cousin, Waylon, who became a character in my novel, Wayfaring Stranger, was the hero of our family. He was in the Battle of the Bulge of the Second World War. He had the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. He was one of the bravest and kindest men I’ve known. He was at one of the concentration camps, and he never would talk about it. But we all knew. 

So, yes, Clete carries that page that he’s torn out of a magazine that shows the infamous photograph of the woman with her three children.

David Masciotra: What is the fictional storyteller’s role in the preservation of memory and history?

James Lee Burke: It is enormous. If you have a gift for storytelling, you have to use it. If you do not use it, and you let it die, you will have failed your culture, and you will never be happy. You’ll always wonder why you didn’t do it.