Flashback: Laura Lippman interviews James Crumley

Orignally run in Crimespree issue 15 November 2006

Laura Lippman interviews James Crumley

I first met James Crumley in the Bahamas in 2000. That makes it sound a lot more interesting than it was. We were two of many writers at a Club Med conference mislabeled “Darkness in the Sunlight.” There was very little sunlight, but also very little darkness. In my memories of that charmed week, most of the writers – George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben, Steve Hamilton, Peter Robinson and Paula Woods, among others – spent the drizzling evenings clustered around Crumley, listening to him tell stories, mostly on himself. Note the distinction – on, not about, and only because we encouraged him to do so. He was the Buddha of the bar, a charismatic and warm mentor who had no use for the mantle of hero worship.

I first began reading Crumley in the early 1980s, starting with Dancing Bear(1983), then going backward to catch up with The Wrong Case (1975) and The Last Good Kiss (1978). In fact, I have a little theory – which, in the Crumley-esque spirit of full candor at all times, I should note that absolutely no one else seems taken with – that Crumley is the singular reason that a lot of today’s forty-something writers headed straight into crime fiction, despite having the ambition and the chops to write literary fiction. So let me speak only for myself: I began reading Crumley because he was published as a Vintage paperback when that line was in its heyday. Every Saturday, I would eat breakfast at Twin Sisters Bakery in San Antonio, then head across the street to the Book Stop, where I bought Vintage books by the armful. Dancing Bear was one of those books, and perhaps the one I remember most vividly. I was so inordinately fond of Dancing Bear that I still, twenty-plus years later, hold a grudge against the co-worker who left it poolside, allowing it to be drenched and ruined. (I now own a signed first edition of Dancing Bear in hardcover, and I’m still pissed. In fact, all my grudges center on books. Don’t get me started on what happened to my copy of David Thomson’s Suspects.)

The sad irony is that I discovered Crumley’s work just as he entered a fallow stretch, at least as far as publishing goes. Crumley’s always writing; he’s just not always publishing, in part because a lot of his work doesn’t meet his own exacting standards. His next novel, The Mexican Tree Duck appeared ten years after Dancing Bear, although there was a book of short stories (Whores, 1988) and a collection of short fiction and essays (Muddy Fork and Other Things, 1991). The Mexican Tree Duck won the 1994 Dashiell Hammett Award given by the International Association of Crime Writers. Crumley, who will turn 67 on Oct. 12th, has been relatively prolific as of late: Bordersnakes (1996); The Final Country (2001, winner of the Macallan Silver Dagger); and The Right Madness (2005).

In 1992, Crumley donated his papers to Texas State University. These include, according to the Internet description: “5 linear feet, 9 boxes, Oversize/Realia: 1 folder.” My two cents: Oversize/Realia would be a very good title for a Crumley memoir.

We spoke by telephone on Sept. 21, in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on his life, his fiction, why he won’t write a memoir, and the importance of Lyndon Baines Johnson bringing electricity to the Hill Country. (If you’ve lived in South Texas, as I did for six years, LBJ and the Robert A. Caro biographies are an almost obligatory topic, but Crumley has a very personal link to Johnson.) The interview has been edited – a digression trimmed here, a dangling thought chopped there — because one of us (me) needed a little verbal air-brushing. Crumley was his usual articulate and profane self, although he had been to the dentist that afternoon and claimed he couldn’t feel his nose. “This dentist I go to, he’s been using some French Novocain, which is really terrific. It numbs the whole side of your head.” He was drinking Ketel One and tonic through a straw, a concession to his slowly thawing face. I was drinking white wine, a weak move for which Jim magnanimously forgave me. “I’ve seen you play ball. You’re tough enough to drink white wine if you want to.”


LL: You’re a native Texan, usually a bit of a boast for a lot of Texans I’ve known. But I always had the sense that you felt like a changeling in the Lone Star State. What’s the story there? Did you not feel at home in Texas?


JC: We moved to New Mexico during World War II, so I first came to consciousness in New Mexico, a town called Deming out in the desert, and I never lost that. When I came back to Texas in the second grade – well, small town Texas, if you hadn’t grown up there, they didn’t want anything to do with you. I tried, I did everything. Baseball’s the only reason I finished high school. There was a baseball tournament right after graduation and I had to graduate to play in the tournament.


LL: And you played football, too. I thought that was all you needed to be popular in Texas.


JC: Yeah, but they didn’t like me. I was always smart, but no one ever liked me.


LL: In fact, you were a straight-A student, which surprised me, but only because I thought you wouldn’t have bothered to sit still, take the tests, show up for class.


JC: It was high school in South Texas in the 40s – anyone could make straight A’s. [Interviewer’s note – Jim’s aging himself a bit. He attended high school in the 50s.] The grade I was proudest of was the “C” I got in citizenship. I never took a book home, but I’m quick with tests. It caused a lot of disorder in my life. You’re not supposed to be a white trash kid and be smart. I was always caught between those two worlds. I never felt at home. This (Montana) is the only place I’ve ever felt at home.


LL: I got that sense, especially from the Steinbeck quote that you used as an epigraph for The Final Country. “Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.” (From Travels with Charley.)


JC: I waited a long time to use that quote. Someone once said that Montana is Texas with nuns and no fucking Baptists. I came here in ’66 and, Jesus, I never successfully left.


LL: Yet you donated your personal papers to Texas State University in San Marcos. What’s that about? Why that university? It appears to be one of the few where you haven’t taught. (From the mid-60s and into the 1980s, Crumley was a creative writing instructor not only in Montana, but at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Colorado State University, Reed College in Portland, Ore., Carnegie-Mellon University, and the University of Texas at El Paso.


JC: That’s the county my daddy was born in, Hays County [but] I think probably I should go get it all back. [The curator] came up and got everything I had, my three sets of divorce papers, my hard hat from my roughneck days. I don’t know how it got there. It’s okay with me.

Now that I’m getting old, my stance is that there are three things I want to see happen before I die – good news in the newspaper, one more real, rear-wheel drive car, like a BMW or something like that. And I want people in Montana to stop calling me “that damn Texan.”


LL: When did you discover a love of books, when did you first think about becoming a writer?


JC: I taught myself to read. I started my first novel when I was about twelve. It was a detective novel, written under the influence of Mickey Spillane books that my aunts who were my age had hidden under their mattresses. In college, I majored in eight different things before I got a degree in history. When I got into the writing program in Iowa, I hadn’t actually graduated [from Texas A&I]. But I’d been in the Army and I knew how bureaucracy worked. I got into graduate school and they didn’t catch up with me for six or eight months. I finished my undergraduate degree with correspondence courses from Texas A&I while I was in graduate school in Iowa.


LL: How did you like Iowa?


JC: Iowa? It was like heaven. It was the first time that I ever got to hang around people who read and write and talked about shit. Iowa was really good for me. Dick Yates was there . . . Kurt Vonnegut. I was the youngest of the bunch.


LL: How did you even hear about Iowa, know to apply there? I can’t imagine a lot of people at Texas A&I in Kingsville were talking up the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.


JC: There was some guy in Kingsville, Texas, and I heard he was a writer, and I took some shit to him, and he said: “Maybe you should read some modern poetry before you try to write some.” I read everything I could find, then took him some more poems, and then he said: “Maybe you should try fiction.” After my second story, he said: “How would you like to go to Iowa?” I was going to go to the University of Washington to get a degree in Soviet studies and go to work for the CIA. So I went to Iowa.


LL: One to Count Cadence was written as your master’s thesis, right?

JC: The first 120 pages. I didn’t finish it until after I sold it. I sold it to Random House [in 1966] and I finished it the next January.


LL: And did you think, “Hey, this is pretty easy, this book-writing thing”?


JC: I thought: “Wow, what the fuck was this?” I grew up dirt poor, in an area of the world that was a hundred years behind everything else. I had the sophistication of a guy who watches the Dukes of Hazzard, so all of this was new to me. I didn’t know books went out of print. I’ve always maintained that writing programs should have one course about the business, what’s going to happen to you, that they’re going to run your books through machines and turn them into shreds. If I had known what I was doing, I would never have been able to do it.


As for One to Count Cadence, I was deeply involved in the war and I wanted to say something. . . . One of the things I’m proudest of is I never get any shit from Vietnam vets on that book. I worked on that book, I did the research . . . That book was very important.


Then I tried to write some idiot shit about my childhood and six years later I wasn’t done. I had read Raymond Chandler by that time, thanks to Richard Hugo, and I thought: “I’d like to write one of those.”


LL: I know you used Hugo’s poetry as the source for two of your titles, but I admit I know very little else about him. Where did you meet him?


JC: I met him here [Montana]. I already had my voice, but I know that Hugo’s voice infected me, and also a lot of his attitudes about poetry. You see, initially, I wanted to be a poet, but that didn’t work out. In part because I’m not very good.


LL: Do you remember the first time you met him?


JC: We were drinking. We were having a cocktail, watching a football game, or telling jokes. Hugo could be great company. I still re-read his poetry.


LL: Your latest book, The Right Madness, took its title from a Hugo collection, The Right Madness on Skye. You quote the last stanza, so I’m going to include it here, as a tribute to your old friend:


Tell Harry of Nothingham stop and have the oxen relax,

I want off at the crossroads. That’s as far as I go.

I was holding my breath all the time. Didn’t I fool you?

Come on, admit it – that blue tone I faked on my skin –

these eyes I kept closed tight in this poem.

Here’s the right madness on Skye. Take five days

for piper and drum and tell the oxen, start dancing.

Mail Harry of Nothingham home to his nothing.

Take my word. It’s been fun.”


Tell me about “your” Right Madness.


JC: The Right Madness – that was a book I had in my head since, oh somewhere in the 70s, back when I was still playing flag football, but I never got it to go until I was reading that poem, and the thing about playing dead, and that was the thing I needed to get the goddamn book off the ground twenty-five years later. I keep books in my head, but I don’t necessarily write them. I need something to fire me off. Dick was a great addition to Missoula, and his untimely death was a great subtraction.


LL: May I ask how he died?


JC: It was the early 80s, I was teaching at El Paso at the time. The typical shit. He had lung cancer and they had taken a lung, and they told him to stay in his room and stay away from people, but he was a gregarious type and he couldn’t, and he got a yeast infection in the other lung. Dick Hugo — killed by gregariousness.


LL: You mentioned how long The Right Madness was lodged in your thoughts, waiting for the right time to be written. There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, that you pull the plug on a lot of works-in-progress. How many times have you destroyed a book, said: “This isn’t good enough,” and put it down?


JC: About as many times as I finished a book. I do it because the book is just not working. You can tell when a book’s not working. It doesn’t seem right to go on. The worst time was that endless fucking Texas childhood novel . . . the last draft, it was 800 pages long. Unfortunately, I remember every goddamn line of it, and it’s still not good. As a friend once said: “Not every idea you have is going to be good.”


LL: But do you literally burn them?


JC: It’s a terrible story. I don’t know if I should tell you, but I will anyway. My third wife and I were living at her father’s hunting camp down on the San Antonio River and all we had for heat was a fireplace, and I’d saw up mesquite and shit, and we got this one station from San Antonio and we were watching TV one night and smoking dope, and I had this conversation with myself, looking over at the desk where I worked, a picnic table, where all the pages were piled up . . . And I thought: If I could just get rid of that son of a bitch, it would be a great freedom. So I walked over and threw it in the fireplace. My wife was terrified, she didn’t know what was going on, because I hadn’t actually said any of these things out loud. It took hours to burn the son-of-a-bitch up anyway. I’m not joking about remembering everything about it. I can’t get that thing out of my head.


LL: Do you ever think about resurrecting it?


JC: I think about that all the time. But mostly I don’t. Who wants to read another fucking tender moment about a white trash redneck kid discovering Joyce? Or, even better, discovering Raymond Chandler. I have enough trouble writing novels anyway. . . . Someone once told me that you know it’s good if it raises hackles on the back of your neck. If it doesn’t do that, I don’t keep it. No matter how funny or smart or incisive the descriptions and the dialogue.


But when it works, it’s better than sex, it’s better than – well, it’s better than everything. That’s why people write, because it’s the best goddamn drug there is.


LL: I don’t know about the hackles part, but I’ll confess that I’ve burst into tears.


JC: That’s exactly it. You’d be a creep if you didn’t burst into tears.


LL: I know that most of your admirers cite the opening of The Last Good Kiss (“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma , California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”) as the greatest first line of all time, Wonderful as that is, I actually have a soft spot for the first line of The Wrong Case. (“There’s no accounting for laws. Or the changes wrought by men and time.”) In short, you write killer openings. Do they come easy to you? Or do you sweat them?


JC: Well, I don’t know, the opening paragraph of The Last Good Kiss only took eight years. But once again, it’s not a critical thing, it’s how I feel about the work . . . . That book was such a gift. That book just fell out like a bad kidney . . . [But] I never know what books are about until I get there. It’s not like I know what’s going on. I always thought my life would be different if I knew what was going on.


I’ve been hustling my ass off for years. . . . It’s always been hustling jobs for me. I’d see the guys, the friends I’d go back to see in Montana – the longer you have a job, the more middle-class you become. I’m politically against the middle class and the upper class. I’m a Trotskyite, the revolution needs to happen now. [But] I’ve been very lucky. Not many people get to live this life.


I just celebrated my 14th wedding anniversary in August and [my wife] Martha Elizabeth gave me a book, The Hippie Dictionary, and it has all these definitions. Turns out I’m not a hippie, I’m a beatnik. I’m not a redneck, I’m white trash.


LL: What’s the difference between redneck and white trash? (I’m part cracker, so I’m allowed to have this conversation).


JC: We’re poorer. We couldn’t afford the pickup trucks. You know, when you’ve got working class experience mixed up with a pretty good education, it gives you a different kind of ethic. The protests in the 60s – one of the most important things they did was teach middle-class kids what lower-class kids had always known: Policemen are not necessarily our friends. So we got rid of LBJ and ended up with Nixon. All these things have consequences.


LL: President Johnson wrote you some letters, I believe, that are in the Crumley archive, congratulating you on your academic achievement.


JC: He didn’t know me from Adam’s appendix. . . but my mother grew up next door to him, and my dad played high school basketball against him, and he hated him because Lyndon was tall and my dad’s nickname was Shorty. My old man knew how to hold a grudge. Lyndon’s obviously a very iffy character. I’m convinced that the first election he ever fixed was the student body election at Southwest Texas State.


[But] the first Caro biography was so vicious it almost made me defend Lyndon. Whatever Lyndon did, he brought lights to the Hill Country. And whatever he stole, everyone else was stealing. Who was that idiot he was running against [for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate]? Coke Stevenson, that was it.


LL: I admit, I gave up on the Caro biographies after the second one. He just seems to dislike his subjects so.


JC: I can’t imagine writing a biography. I have a friend, Les Standiford, down in Florida, who has started writing history. Les and I go way back. I wrote Les and I said, “I can’t write nonfiction because my first impulse is to lie.”


LL: What about a memoir?


JC: I don’t think so. Because I’d just keep making up shit. It would be one of those memoirs where they’d say: “This guy wasn’t really in the Spanish American War, he never knew the princess.” I love telling stories. And I came from a family that didn’t tell stories. Maybe my great-grandfather. He was in the Civil War and he was alive when I was a little kid, and my mother says he told us stories, but the only thing I remember was the smell of whatever tobacco he smoked. It wasn’t Prince Albert, but the stuff in the blue can. He lived to be 109. He drank a quart of whisky every day until he was 88.


LL: Great genes! I hope you inherited them, as I’d like you to live to be 109. What are you reading right now?


JC: A Wyoming writer named Craig Johnson, who just started a new series. And I’m also reading an old Irish novel, The Death of Love. I re-read, too. If that goddamn girl from Trinidad hadn’t stolen my copy of The Alexandria Quartet, I might be re-reading that right now.


LL: Trinidad? Where did you meet a girl from Trinidad?


JC: This was in Trinidad, Colorado. If she hadn’t smoked so much dope, I might have married her, too. Not only was she lovely, she owned a ‘55 Chevy red-and white coupe. It was absolutely cherry. Well, she never brought the book back. In her culture it didn’t count as stealing. I have no complaints.


LL: You write in the dedication for The Right Madness, about Martha Elizabeth: “She stood next to my bed and never gave up. Even when I made a drugged pass at her, when I didn’t know who she was, she forgave me.” She’s a gem. But then, it’s my observation that most of the crime writers I know also have fabulous wives. Any theories about why crime writers seem to get the best women?


JC: Just luck and geography, man. I’ve been out there pitching all my life, and finally there was someone to catch.