Interview with James Sallis
Cecilia | On 26, Apr 2014
“James Sallis is a prolific man of letters. Author of Drive, Driven and the recent novelOthers of My Kind, as well as the popular Lew Griffin and Turner series of novels, he has also written an avant-garde novel, Renderings, a spy novel, Death Will Have Your Eyes, and countless short stories, poems, and essays. In addition, he has written and edited a number of musicological studies and works of literary criticism, including The Guitar Players, Difficult Lives, a study of noir writers, andChester Himes: A Life, a biography of one of his literary heroes. Jim has even turned his hand to writing screenplays, and pens a regular book review column for Fantasy and Science Fiction.” (from: http://www.jamessallis.com)
Thank you for your kindness and welcome on my blog.
1. What would you like your readers to know about you?
J.: That I play banjo. Having admitted that, I can confess to anything.
2. Where does the need of telling people stories come from?
We live by the stories we hear and embrace; we need them the same way we need air, food, and water. It seemed quite natural to me, as a child and constant reader, to wonder where those stories came from, and how they worked upon us. Then to get in the kitchen and try cooking up a few myself.
3. Can you tell us something about your beginnings?
J.: Small Southern town. Conventional (read: repressive), poor (read: resources and money controlled by a very few), segregated (read: racist). But also a huge blues town, where Robert Johnson once lived, home to Sonny Boy Williamson and the King Biscuit Hour. Lying in my bed at night I’d listen to Ferlin Husky, Jimmy Reed and Hank Williams from the drive-in down the street.
4. You’re from new Orleans and live in Phoenix. What are the qualities and the faults of these cities?
J.: Actually – see above – I’m from Arkansas, but went to college in New Orleans and adopted it as home, circling back there again and again.
It’s virtually impossible to speak of any major city as though it’s a single place. There are many New Orleans, many New Yorks, many Londons. One of the important things the arts do, is rescue us from generalizations, help us see the individual: this place, this moment in time, this person, how he or she exists in the world….
That said, New Orleans is a profoundly historical place, almost an island city, at one and the same time hugely representative of and sequestered from the rest of the States. You can feel the slave markets around you as you trek towards Congo Square, feel the city’s many layers; the horrible economic inequalities slam against you as you drive through the city; on your way to the opera you pass through parts of the town filled with abandoned buildings, burned-out stairwells, unbelievable poverty shoulder-to-shoulder with great displays of wealth.
Phoenix is, by contrast, an image of the modern U.S., the fifth largest of our cities: horizontal rather than vertical, remarkably discontinuous, disaffiliated, a city of newcomers and transients forever remaking itself, still at its heart a bit of a frontier town. Doggedly conservative, as you might imagine.
5. New Orleans is the home of blues and blues is strictly connected to noir. What do you think is the link between blues and noir?
J.: Both embrace the notion that nothing’s gonna end well but hey, we’re still in the game. This to me is resolutely an old-world take on the world – about embracing and rejoicing in what you have – as opposed to new-world, which is forever about rebirth and renewal.
6. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
J.: Lizards making their way along cracks in the wall. Wind strumming the trees. Light inching across table tops. Overheard conversations. A shopping cart or wheelchair abandoned near a bus stop.
7. One of the characters you created is Lew Griffin, who made his debut in the novel “La Mosca dale Gambe Lunghe”. What are his characteristics?
J.: He is an autodidact, a man who knows a tremendous amount about some things and is clueless about much else. He is a black man trying to “fit in” with various roles defined by the majority, white society through the decades of his life. All these roles fail him.
8. You formed a real attachment to this character, didn’t you? In which way did he evolve in your different novels?
J.: Largely the novels were exactly that: coming to know him. The Long-Legged Fly was written to be a single novel. After finishing it I realized that Lew was still with me, I had to know more about him. The subsequent books were pure discovery.
9. The other character I love is John Turner, in which way the idea of trilogy Cypress Grove, Cripple Creek and Salt River arise?
J.: From the simple vision of a man standing before a cabin in thick woodland listening to the sound of an engine moving towards him. Who is this man? Why is he there? Where is there? Who is coming towards him, and why?
As with the Lew Griffin cycle, the initial entry was intended to be a single novel, but Turner wouldn’t let me go – or I couldn’t let him go.
10. You’re a translator too. Inside my blog I run a column about the translating profession that isn’t often highly regarded in Italy. What about this profession in the U.S.A.?
J.: Here in the States, it barely exists as a profession. As for estime, there is none.
11. You’ve written a biography of Chester Himes, a noir author who through his works has tried to make the reader deviate from the clichés of the society and from the clever ability of creating a suspense in the description of the scene, so that you have just to close your eyes to be able to imagine everything. What do you think about it?
J.: Himes is under-read, under-appreciated – a shadow stalking across American literature. Certainly as deserving as any novelist of his time, and beyond doubt hugely important in his many facets as an early African-American writer, yet neglected and all but forgotten now as he was during his life.
12. Describe your personal definition of noir and tell me what this genre means to you.
J.: Like the word jazz, noir ceased long ago to have any useful meaning and has become whatever the speaker or writer happens to be pointing to at the time.
13. You have been a reviewer and a columnist of the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times. How do you feel on the other side of the fence (having to judge other people’s work)?
J.: In my capacity as a reviewer I’ve never been a judge, but an appreciator – an enthusiast for work I believe poorly known and valuable. The understanding between my editors and myself is that I only review books that I like and admire, and in each case I tended to specialize in one kind of book: for the Washington Post, avant-garde and foreign literature, for the L.A. Times, science fiction. The Boston Globe column lasted three years and was a dream job; I could review anything I wished. So the list includes Guillevic, China Mieville, Blaise Cendrars, Marek Hlasko, Walter Tevis….
With the shrinkage and elimination of book pages in newspapers, concentration on blockbusters, and little interest in the non-mainstream, reviewing has become problematic in recent years. Happily what I’ve done hasn’t gone unnoticed; today I’m often commissioned to write introductions to books by many of the authors I’ve championed in the past.
Thanks a lot, James and good luck for your new books!