The Interview: James Sallis

Article published on June 18, 2012.

He has written about books for the L.A. Times, New York Times, and Washington Post, and for some years served as a books columnist for the Boston Globe. In 2007 he received a lifetime achievement award from Bouchercon. In addition to Drive, the six Lew Griffin books are now in development as feature films. Jim teaches novel writing at Phoenix College and plays regularly with his string band, Three-Legged Dog. He stays busy.

Are you a bookgeek?

Absolutely.  Irrevocably.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?

The best single piece of advice is what I give my students: When in doubt, cut.  Part of a triad, the second leg being: Visualize.  And finally: Reject the first things that come to mind.

Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?

Those who do things I could never do.  Writing well, writing better, is all about reach — extending that reach, trying for different, for more.

Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?

I write to discover the story and the characters, to surprise myself, assuming that my own surprise and delight will broadcast to readers.

Where do you write, and why?

At my desk, sitting here with the cursor blinking: Come on, big guy, show me what you got!  This is my way of being in the world, my rescue from what Heidegger terms dailyness, a momentary ransom from disorder.

Tell us the book you most wish you had written.

Ulysses.  Or Miss Lonelyhearts.  Or L’Etranger.  Or More than Human.

Drive and Driver are often overtly existentialist, in fact you go to the point of namechecking Nietzsche on more than one occasion.  To what extent, if any, do you consider yourself a philosopher?

I don’t – my brother’s the philosopher — but I am a thinker.  How can I put these characters in such dire situations without wondering how it is that they came to this?

What do you think it is about “jazz” (we appreciate you now approach the label with suspicion) that lends itself to crime writing?  Both you and Michael Connelly often draw upon it, to name but two.

Well, we see those rainy dark streets, we just naturally hear the lonely bleat of a sax, don’t we?  I could go on and on about finding order, disrupting it, and finding it again, but it’s Monday, and far too early in the day.  For me, it’s the improvisation in jazz: You have the head, the melody, and the changes, the chords; then you start rooting about to see what else is in there.  That’s how I write.  And how, finally, we live.

Both yourself and Chester Himes have drawn the “unsung hero” tags from critics over the years.  Did you write a biography of Himes out of a sense of identifying with him, or was it a more academic exercise?

Not academic at all, save in the sense that I wanted to know more about him.  He was a man who began as a mainstream, “literary” novelist, penned The End of a Primitive, then turned to crime novels.  How did that happen?  Who was this man?  As always, I wrote in an attempt to understand.

You’ve tried more than most to blur the artificial boundaries between genres in writing.  Do you see the divisions as commercial necessities of publishing, or do they stem from a desire on the part of readers to define their own tastes?

If you look closely, you’ll see the labels emerging as mass market publishing begins to take hold.  You’re right: my chief agenda as reviewer, critic and teacher has been to jump those barricades and help people understand how much they may be missing.  As a child I sat on my porch with stacks of books beside me: Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, John Dickson Carr, Edna St. Vincent Millay.  No one had told me that some of those books were good and some weren’t; to me, they were all the same.  I’m still sitting on that porch.

You’re an artist and a radical, but is it always true that artistic temperament and radical sensibilities go hand-in-hand, or is that a glib comparison? 

Radical?  I’ve no idea.  Probably those like myself drawn to edge fiction – arealism, crime – stand somewhat apart from general sensibilities.  And there’s little doubt that the artist is often an outsider.  We watch, we try to see, we push to get as much as possible of the observed world in our work.  Frequently I’m asked about my “criticisms” of American culture, which surprises me.  I’m not offering critiques, I say, I’m simply seeing.

Author photo © Marshall J. Greer.

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