“As a Voice Speaking Intimately to Me” – An Interview with James Sallis

9781641290807_0d283Like James Lee Burke, Daniel Woodrell, and Reed Farrel Coleman, James Sallis’ work shows the literary merit of crime fiction. His latest, Sarah Jane, focuses on a woman who becomes sheriff after her boss has been murdered. The novel is less about the mystery than her life and it’s ups and downs in the Ozarks and Middle Eastern battlefields. Mr. Sallis was kind enough to take some questions about the book and writing in general from Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery.

Scott Montgomery: How did the character of Sarah Jane come to you?

James Sallis: As a voice speaking intimately to me – those first lines of the book, up to “I didn’t do all the things people say I did, not all of them.” So I have to start thinking: What things did she not do?  And what did she do?  And who is this?  At which point I knew I had a novel.  Oddly enough, whereas generally the novels gather from a visual image, both those with female first-person characters, Sarah Jane and Others of My Kind, began with that voice in my ear.

SM: My take on the book is that it’s the study of a survivor. What did you want to say about someone who has been through so much?

JS: Haven’t we all?  But beyond that, I was thinking quite a lot about what I call the biographic folly, where the biographer picks something from childhood and uses that as a tracer bullet for the subject’s entire life.  Yet it seems to me that, as we go through, over, under and around our lives, we are many different people, that our lives are labile, not scripted.

I worked for many years in hospitals with severely injured, ill and dying patients, first adult, then chiefly children and newborns.  This experience confirmed my innate liberalism and my sense of humanity, of the immense suffering that’s so constant in our lives, that every one of us is engaged from moment to moment in pitched battles of which few others are aware.

SM: One thing I’ve enjoyed about your books like this, is rural characters who never come off as caricatures and carry themselves with dignity. What should people not aware of those areas be aware about the people who populate them?

JS: I bid, as a footnote might suggest.  Or as Martin Amis said: All writing is a war against cliche.  It’s our job as serious writers to scratch away cheap veneer and show the fine aged wood beneath.

SM: You are a writer who has never been afraid to have a protagonist of different gender or race than your own. Do you feel there is something you need to keep in mind when doing that?

JS: Swim upstream.  Imagine yourself into that other life.  Push. We’re trapped forever within our own skulls, but the arts are a bridge from that, cracks in the wall, letting us catch glimpses of  how the world appears to others, of how they live in this world we share.

SM: SOHO is also reprinting your Lew Griffin series. What’s best about the books being back in circulation for you?

JS: These were the books in which a short-story writer and poet learned – taught himself – to write novels.  There’s really not much else like them. And them may not be the best pronoun.  I’ve often suggested that the six are one long novel, a sense confirmed as, decades after their writing, I reread all six in a couple of weeks.

SM: Do you see it as a challenge writing characters like Sarah Jane and Lew Griffin as opposed to Driver, who is in very brief moments a challenge?

JS: I certainly hope so, or I’m not doing my work.  One of the first and last things I tell students is that, should they be serious writers, it will never get easier, they’ll never be satisfied.  That their reach will always be far out ahead of their grasp, always.

Sarah Jane is available for purchase at BookPeople now in-store and online at bookpeople.com.

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