MysteryPeople Q&A with James Lee Burke

MysteryPeople contributer Scott Butki interviews James Lee Burke about his latest novel, House of the Rising Sun

A bit about the book…


James Lee Burke is one of the best fiction writers around and I have yet to be disappointed by anything he has written. His renowned series about Dave Robicheaux has won many impressive awards, including the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Mr. Burke may be best known for his Robicheaux series, but he has also started two other series, one starring protagonist Texas attorney Billy Bob Holland and one starring Billy Bob’s cousin, Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland.

While Burke writes predominantly in the mystery genre, I think he excels in what ever genre he chooses. I submit, and ask in the interview, that these series sometimes enter into other genres too.

“The crime story is the center of any good drama. Good and evil, light and shadow, defeat and perseverance are the themes that entice us into art.”

I was lucky enough to interview Burke after he wrote an impressive short story following Katrina. Now I’m blessed to be able to interview him about his latest book, House of the Rising Sun, which came out on Dec. 1.

The book focuses on Texas Ranger Hackberry Holland as he tries to reunite with his estranged son, Ishmael. As with all Burke books, the characters care a lot about morals and ethics. Hackberry beats himself up for things he has done which he regrets. As with Robicheaux, Hackberry struggles with alcoholism.

It’s another great tale, filled with encounters and references to history of the early 20th century, from an arms dealer trying out new weapons to Pancho Villa to the Hole in the Wall Gang.

Added bonus for those of us from Austin, not only is much of the action set in nearby San Antonio but there are even scenes in Austin, including one at the historic Driskill Hotel.


And now the interview….


“I never wrote police novels. I believe if there is a hell it’s a place where the damned are forced to read police procedurals for all eternity.”


Scott Butki: How did you come up with the story of the new book?

James Lee Burke: I never know where the story is coming from, nor do I see deeper into the novel each day than two scenes. I believe the story is already written by another hand; it’s a bit like the sculptor releasing the statue from the stone (I believe Leonardo said that). My father always said art and science are simply the incremental discovery of what already exists.

SB: Why did you start writing your series on the Holland family? Was it partly to explore earlier moments of history, as you do in this new book?

JLB: The Holland series is based loosely on my mother’s ancestors. My great-grandfather was Sam Morgan Hollan (without the ‘d’). He was a Confederate soldier and drover and an alcoholic who shot and killed nine men and later became a saddle preacher. His conversion came about after dry lightning scattered two thousand head of his cattle across half of Kansas.

My great-great-grandfather was a member of Dimmit’s Brigade under Colonel James Fannin’s command at Goliad.

SB: This book includes talk of the Holy Grail. Has that topic been an interest of yours for a while? How did you go about researching this and other topics in the book?

JLB: For over fifty years I’ve written about the search for the Grail. It’s the oldest legend in the western world; it actually predates Christianity, but by the fifth century it became synonymous with man’s search for salvation. The tales of King Arthur and the Song of Roland owe their existence to the Celtic story of the horsemen galloping across the sky.

I do little if any research, except checking details here and there.

“Every real artist knows that his gift comes from a source outside himself. For an artist humility is not a virtue but a necessity. A writer who brags on himself is not at the peak of his career but at the end.”

SB: Your writing is so eloquent, your stories so beautiful I feel like you would succeed, and I and many others, would read you no matter what genre you write. Why did you choose to write in the mystery genre? And do you consider all of your books part of the mystery genre? I ask because with this book and series you seem to be experimenting somewhat with other genres too.

JLB: Thanks for the compliment. I don’t think there is much mystery in my work. However, the crime story is the center of any good drama. Good and evil, light and shadow, defeat and perseverance are the themes that entice us into art. We don’t read Hamlet to learn about Elizabethan England; we read it to learn about ourselves.

SB: Forgive a personal question. I’ve read that you are alcoholic and I wonder if it was a conscious planned choice to have your protagonists also have problems with alcoholism?

JLB: I’ve belonged for several decades to a fellowship that helps people who have had trouble with alcohol or alcoholism. They are the best and bravest people I have ever known. I learned through them that addiction takes on many masks. The most serious one is the addiction to power. The misuse of power is essentially the central theme of my work.

SB: What is it like to have authors like Stephen King and many others praising your work as well as giving you awards?

JLB: It’s a great honor. It’s an humbling one, too. Every real artist knows that his gift comes from a source outside himself. For an artist humility is not a virtue but a necessity. A writer who brags on himself is not at the peak of his career but at the end. I’ve yet to see the exception.

SB: In your books you manage to explore the inner workings of the human psyche while still serving as police crime novels. How did you come to fold so much sheer humanity into a literary genre that is all too often formulaic instead?

JLB: Your question is a good one. I never wrote police novels. I believe if there is a hell it’s a place where the damned are forced to read police procedurals for all eternity. Real jails and police stations have nothing to do with pulp fiction or television entertainment. The latter could not be farther from reality. Almost all my stories derive from the Bible, Elizabethan theater, the Everyman plays, and Greek mythology. I’m afraid when I get Upstairs I might be in trouble.

SB: Do you have favorites of all of your books? If so, which ones?

JLB: I think my two best novels are Wayfaring Stranger and House of the Rising Sun. I feel very happy about almost everything I’ve written, and I feel this way because I never wrote anything that wasn’t my best effort. I finished my first novel, Half of Paradise, before my twenty-third birthday. I’ve been at it ever since. My wife and four children stuck with me through all the hard years, and we indeed had some hard ones. I can never repay my family for their love and support. All and all it’s been a pretty good ride and it would be mighty hard to complain.

You can find copies of Burke’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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One thought on “MysteryPeople Q&A with James Lee Burke

  1. An excellent brief interview with an author whose work I greatly admire. But with all due respect to Mr. Burke–assuming I am or will be one of the damned–although I couldn’t read police procedurals through all eternity to the exclusion of everything else, an occasional 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain would hardly qualify as a hellish punishment.

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