12/12/2017 09:31AM ● Published by Robert Frey
James Lee Burke On Creating “Robicheaux”
By Shanna P. Dickens
He has penned more than 30 widely celebrated novels. He is the two-time winner of the prestigious Edgar Award and has been presented the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His fans include John Grisham, Stephen King and Michael Connelly. Even still, literary icon James Lee Burke will insist you call him “Jim.” Not surprising from the author who created one of the most iconic “every man” characters that modern literature has known. Six years after the Dave Robicheaux series seemed to have met its natural end in “Light of the World,” Dave Robicheaux returns with the intensity of a south Louisiana summer sun in the 21st novel of the series…“Robicheaux.”
Burke had not planned to resurrect his most popular character, but droves of letters from fans demanding the return of Robicheaux began to flood his Montana ranch. It became clear that Dave Robicheaux and his wayward sidekick, Clete Purcel, had more justice to serve and menace to make (respectively), so Burke sat out to create “Robicheaux.”
“I’m kind of bias here, but to me, it’s maybe the strongest book in the Robicheaux series,” Burke says frankly. “It deals with larger events, the microcosms in Louisiana. It’s about rise of a demagogue. He’s a guy with great charm and charisma, a really intriguing person from St. Mary Parish. He’s a man who has enormous political power because of his ability to deceive.”
“Robicheaux” has already amassed astounding praise. In the gritty crime novel, set entirely in New Iberia, suspense hangs as heavily as humidity while Dave and Clete face the darkest and most deviant villain they’ve encountered yet. The rich characterization of the atmosphere is as tangible as the danger that awaits the pair. Dave Robicheaux is working to clear his name, solve a murder and, as always, keep his own demons at bay. But as Burke reminds, “Dave often says, ‘The battle is never over. The field is never ours.’”
Burke is gifted with the ability to seamlessly weave the quotes of his heroes into conversation. He recites Hemingway, Faulkner and Shakespeare as effortlessly as if he were saying his own name. Dave Robicheaux is among those whose words Burke frequently borrows. He quotes Dave as if he is an old friend and not a character of Burke’s own creation.
The Dave Robicheaux character was created during one of the most disparaging points of Burke’s career. For 13 years, the novelist struggled to sell his work. His best piece from that period was “The Lost Get Back Boogie.” The novel was under submission with his agent for nine years and was rejected by 111 editors. It was one of the most rejected novels in the history of American publishing. It was eventually published by LSU in 1986 and went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
“At that time I was trying to get other stories published, too,” Burke recalls. “One of them was about a young boxer from New Iberia who falls in love with a girl out at Spanish Lake. I never sold that book, but it became the Dave Robicheaux series. I think the success of the character, the narrator, has to do with the fact that he is really the every man figure. He gives voice to those who have none.”
The Robicheaux series captivates readers from around the world. Travelers from the farthest reaches of the globe make the pilgrimage to New Iberia to witness first hand the striking and vivid scenes Burke describes. They come to smell the burning sugar cane, to hear the accents, to taste the food, to be near the bayou and, hopefully, to find a mystery of their own. Artists spend their entire lives trying to replicate south Louisiana’s haunting beauty and paradoxical society; few have succeeded in this more so than Burke.
“The gift of Louisiana to the artist is enormous,” he stresses. “Louisiana is a misplaced Caribbean society that washed loose from South America and adhered to the southern rim of the United States. Well, Clete Purcel put it better than I, ‘Dave, this Louisiana is not the United States. It’s Guatemala North.’” Burke has a bounding and infectious laugh that he uses to punctuate sentences like these. “Eccentricity is a way of life in Louisiana. To the rest of America, conformity was always the goal.”
Through various seasons of his life, Burke called Louisiana home, allowing him to expertly infuse Dave Robicheaux with the essence of the swamp water. While the books have often taken place in other states and are inspired by Burke’s own eclectic life (I.e. his time working as a truck driver for the U.S. Forest Service or as a social worker on Skid Row in Los Angeles), the feeling of Louisiana drapes off of his words like Spanish moss. This is because for Burke, it’s more than a setting.
“Louisiana is a microcosm of the larger story,” Burke explains. “The microcosm should reflect the larger story – the larger reality. If it does not, it will be a very regional account. It will not have lasting qualities.”
Burke speaks of Louisiana, New Iberia in particular, with an air of reverence, as if he still can’t believe all of the inspiration it has provided him. The vibrant realm of Robicheaux that Burke artfully crafted…he refuses to take credit for it. In fact, he isn’t even positive he wrote it.
“I always believe that stories are written in the unconscious,” he muses. “It’s a matter of incremental discovery. My father used to say that all knowledge and art are the incremental discovery of what already exist. When I write, it’s like a non-chemical blackout. I have no memory of it. My own feeling is that the unseen world is right at the ends of our fingertips. My father and I always subscribed to that; Dave Robicheaux subscribes to that point of view. Like William Shakespeare’s great line, ‘All power lies within the world of dreams.’”
Peer into Burke’s world of dreams on January 2, 2018 with the release of “Robicheaux.”