As part of a special CBS.com series profiling mystery writers, CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason interviews James Lee Burke.
Since this piece first aired on Sunday Morning, (October 29, 1997), Burke has published another best selling crime novel, Sunset Limited. This is his fifth best-seller in a row. Also, earlier this year he was honored with the Edgar Allen Poe award for best crime novel of the year. This award was for Cimarron Rose. This is the second time that Burke has won the prestigious Edgar award for best crime novel.
James Lee Burke is the hugely successful author of the Dave Robicheaux series of crime novels. Set in New Iberia, the books are full of the flavor of Louisiana, where Burke grew up. Correspondent Anthony Mason follows him back to Louisiana and to his home in Montana, where he takes us with him fishing on the Blackfoot River.
Through nine novels now, including Dixie City Jam, In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, and A Stained White Radiance, Burke's Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux has tracked evil from the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department through the Louisiana swamps and bayous where he grew up.
But the boy who grew up here wasn't much for studying. His first real test as a writer came when he encountered an English professor in college named Mrs. Williams:
BURKE: She gave me D-minuses on all my papers. And finally I had enough courage to go see her. And I said: 'I don't know why I keep getting these D-Minuses.' And I thought she was going to apologize at this point. She picked up my paper this is an exact quote. She said, 'Mr. Burke,' she was very Southern. 'Mr. Burke, your penmanship is an assault on the eyeballs. Your spelling makes me wish the Phoenicians had not invented the alphabet. But you write with such heart, I could not give you an F.'
MASON: How hard was it for you to get up the courage to go see her?
BURKE: After that first meeting, it was pretty hard.
Mason: What did you think when you walked out the door?
BURKE: My lesson in humility - my odyssey on the road to humility had truly begun.
That odyssey would pull Burke far from the bayou:
BURKE: I worked in the oil field and on the pipeline a bit. I was a land surveyor in Colorado. Social worker on skid row in Los Angeles, newspaper reporter in Louisiana. I drove a truck, over the road truck - hauling. Freight hauling. I taught in 5 colleges and universities.
But whatever job he held, he was always writing. A compulsion, Burke calls it. By the age of 34, he'd published 3 critically acclaimed novels.
BURKE: That was heady, yeah. And I thought, 'Gee whiz. I had my career assured.' And I found out that was a terrible presumption.
A Louisiana boy learns early, the bayou flows both ways. And when the tide turned for Burke it washed him back to obscurity:
BURKE: I went 13 years during which time I couldn't sell anything in hardback in New York.
MASON: What did you do when you got all the letters from all the publishers? Because, from what I gather, some of them weren't very nice.
BURKE: Well, sometimes they were quite severe. I saved some of them. I always said 'I'm going to autograph these one day and sell them.' But I got some real doozies for The Lost Get Back Boogie. It was rejected 111 times in New York. It was the most - it's a record in New York. It's considered the most thoroughly rejected manuscript in the history of American publishing.
"Very sorry," the letters to his agent would begin. Publishers branded his style "odd," "depressing," and "unsaleable."
BURKE: It's the only manuscript I've ever seen wounded with ballpoint pens. It's like somebody was actually mad at it.
During this long dry spell, Burke himself was drying out.
MASON: You hit bottom in '77?
BURKE: That's right.
He wasgoing sober after 18 years as a practicing alcoholic:
BURKE: And it's like going to Hell without dying. It used to be treated with lobotomies. And it's that bad.
Burke had entered a 12-step recovery program by the time The Lost Get Back Boogie was finally published in 1985. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
BURKE: I learned some time ago it's a matter of just hanging around. You know I call it Richard Nixon Syndrome. You know you stay around awhile and people say 'aw, give him the White House, you know, he's really hung in there.'
But it was his next book, The Neon Rain, that gave birth to Dave Robicheaux...and brought James Lee Burke back to stay:
MASON: When the first Dave Robicheaux came out, something happened didn't it?
BURKE: Oh yeah, yeah. I got great reviews.
By then Burke had settled in Montana, where he still lives not far from the Blackfoot River. For two months every year, he and his wife Pearl hit the road. (He hates to fly.) With a carton of roadmaps as their companion they embark on a marathon book tour. In Houston, they threw a barbecue for him at the Murder by the Book bookstore. The line to buy his latest novel snaked across te mall.
Cimarron Rose inaugurates a new series about a Texas lawyer. One character comes directly from the diaries of his own great-grandfather:
BURKE: His name was Sam Morgan Holland. And he was a Confederate soldier, then a drover during reconstruction on the Chisum Trail....I guess he shot 5 or 6 men in gun duels.
BURKE reads from Cimarron Rose: In the Indian Nation, July 4th, 1891. I always heard women in the Cherokee Strip was precious few in number and homely as a mud fence, but it was not held against them none. The Rose of Cimarron surely gives the lie to that old cowboy wisdom. She is probably part colored and part savage...She is also the most fetching creature I have ever set eyes on...
Cimarron Rose is a story of found faith...from a writer who believes he's been bestowed with a gift:
BURKE: It's a mystical belief, obviously. But I believe the gift is arbitrarily presented to individuals for reasons that we never know. If a person is vain or arrogant with the gift and presumptuous and imperious, it'll be taken from them. It'll be given to somebody else. Faulkner said that, before his death, he said 'Had I not written the books, someone would have done it instead.'
MASON: And you believe that?
BURKE: Oh, yeah. Without a doubt. Without a doubt. When you see an author on TV talking about himself, he's not at the height of his career. He's in the bottom of the ninth... I'm being interviewed on TV. (Laughter.)
MASON: Time to start worrying.
BURKE: The stands are emptying out.
He has a survivor's laugh, a guffaw imbued with his own endurance. For James Lee Burke success is also a gift, one he's still suspicious of accepting:
BURKE: ... Success is a fickle companion. Boy, it says goodbye to you as soon as it says hello... It could all end tomorrow. I'd still be very happy.
Reported by Anthony Mason
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