James Lee Burke, a rare winner of two Edgar Awards, and named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, is the author of more than thirty previous novels and two collections of short stories, including such New York Times bestsellers as Light of the World, Creole Belle, Swan Peak,The Tin Roof Blowdown, and Feast Day of Fools. He lives in Missoula, Montana.
As The Plot Thins (ATPT): Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s talk about Wayfaring Stranger first. Where did the idea come from? Specifically the idea to take the character from his teenaged years to WWII and back to Texas for his adult years.
James Lee Burke (JLB): I wanted to write a story that dealt with the America I grew up in. I dedicated it to the memory of my beloved first cousin Weldon Benbow “Buddy” Mallette, who walked all the way to the Elbe River and came home with two Bronze Stars, the Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts. The fictional narrator Weldon Avery Holland tells the story about the years before the war and during the liberation of Europe and the postwar decade that Gore Vidal called the Golden Age of Hollywood.
ATPT: Let’s talk about the Bonnie and Clyde aspect for a moment. What was the motivation or reasoning behind including them in the beginning of the novel? Was it just for foreshadowing towards the end?
JLB: Regardless of the reality of their lives, they became emblematic of those who fought back against the forces that brought on the Great Depression and who used their wealth to capitalize on the suffering of the less fortunate. Weldon becomes infatuated with Bonnie, and in a strange fashion she and Clyde and Raymond Hamilton have an enormous influence on his life.
ATPT: The story of Weldon Holland is one that spans over quite a few years. Did you initially sit down to write a story that took the main character through a good portion of his adult life?
JLB: Because of its biographical nature, I had for to wait for over a half century to write this book. Some of the names remain unchanged. I don’t think anyone has told this story before.
ATPT: You’ve written a few other Hackberry Holland novels over the years, but this is the first to feature Weldon. Do you have any plans to turn Weldon into a recurring character? Or expanding the Holland family even more?
JLB: I’m working on a book now titled Darling Pal of Mine. It begins in 1916 when Hackberry Holland, the grandfather, when goes on a raid into revolutionary Mexico. Then it travels back in time to 1890. I think it contains some interesting people, including Harry Longabaugh, also known as the Sundance Kid.
ATPT: The characters in Wayfaring Stranger are so fleshed out and lively. Are they based on real people that you’ve met/known?
JLB: Yes, I knew many of the people in this story. We meet Benny Siegel and Virginia Hill when the attend the grand opening of the Shamrock Hotel in Houston in 1947.
ATPT: You’re a rather prolific author, having written over thirty novels in your life. What keeps you going? What advice do you have for struggling and aspiring writers?
JLB: Don’t ever quit, not for any reason. Swallow your blood and never let others know you’re hurt and never give an inch and never let the naysayers have their way. If you have a creative gift, it’s there for a reason. The source of the gift will always back your play.
ATPT: What do you find is the most difficult part of the writing process? Mapping out your ideas? Editing?
JLB: It’s like chopping cotton. You do it from cain’t-see to cain’t-see, and you don’t keep score. You write the story as best you can and put it in the mail and never let it stay home more than thirty-six hours.
ATPT: Was there a point in your life that you knew you wanted to be a writer or did you ever aspire to chase another career?
JLB: Since I was a child I never wanted to be any other thing than a writer.
ATPT: Two of your novels have been adapted into movies. Are their talks of any of the other ones being adapted anytime soon?
JLB: My agent is Jody Hotchkiss. I think he’s talking to several people currently.
ATPT: What books have you been enjoying in 2014 so far that you would like to share with your fans?
JLB: Alafair Burke’s All Night and a Day. I’ve heard she’s pretty good.
Wayfaring Stranger was released on July 15th and is available for purchase on Amazon and your local book retailer.