James Lee Burke

With a writing career that stretched as far back as 1965, you’d figure James Lee Burke would have had plenty of time to hone his writing chops, and you’d be right, though not in the way you might have thought. His first novel, Half of Paradise, was published in 1965, followed by To the Bright and Shining Sun five years later and the first Hackberry Holland title Lay Down My Sword and Shield in 1971. While the first two sold fairly well, Hack Holland didn’t do so well, and there was a gap of over a decade before Two for Texas, which was followed in 1985 by a collection of short stories published by Louisiana State University Press as The Convict and The Lost Get Back Boogie, published the following year.

That fourth novel has the dubious privilege of being the most rejected book in New York publishing history, being knocked back by publishers one hundred and eleven times before it was finally accepted and subsequently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Now, you might think that rejection count is taking things a bit too far, but Burke’s long term system of dealing with rejection is to get the manuscript back in the mail and off to another possible source of publication within thirty-six hours of receiving the rejection notice.

Born in Houston in 1936, Burke spent most of his childhood on the Gulf Coast, and attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and University of Missouri, and worked worked in a variety of industries while he was getting the writing bit together. If you’re reading Burke and noting his obvious familiarity with the vocabulary and mindset of the American working and under classes you can probably ascribe those things to the years he spent as a land man, pipeliner and surveyor  for an oil company, driving trucks for the Forest Service, teaching in the Job Corps, reporting for The Daily Advertiser, and doing social work on Los Angeles’ skid row, working at (in his own words) anything that made money.

While his writing career was taking off he taught creative writing program at Wichita State University during the '80s, before resettling in Montana, where a conversation with fellow writer Rick DeMarinis on a fishing trip prompted him to start sketching out a crime novel on a yellow legal pad in a coffee shop next to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. That was the beginnings of The Neon Rain, the first novel featuring Iberia Parish detective  Dave Robicheaux.

It was the third Robicheaux novel, Black Cherry Blues, that allowed Burke to give up teaching and turn to writing on a full time basis write full time. There was a battle with alcoholism along the way, and when Robicheaux is haunted by his alcoholism and his desire to do black and white right in a world ruled by insanity, depravity and vulgarity you can’t help sensing there’s a degree of personal familiarity with the demons in there along with the Jeffersonian notion that ultimately the individual deserves the protection of his government, that the government has to give power to and protect those who have no voice, who are disenfranchised. The government is there to make the society work in an equitable and just way. 

That’s the philosophical background that underpins Burke’s work, with its combination of sudden and apparently irrational action, vivid description and pithy dialogue in a credible vernacular as psychopaths and social misfits interact with sycophantic politicians, right wing demagogues and mercenary industrial, commercial and speculative interests. 


© Ian Hughes 2012