Q&A with James Lee Burke

Light of the WorldFew would argue that James Lee Burke leads the list of the finest novelists America has ever produced. On the occasion of the release of his latest, LIGHT OF THE WORLD, which is featured in today’s FridayReads Giveaway, he was good enough to answer some questions for us. 

What drew you to Montana, in real life and in fiction?

In 1966 I was teaching in the Job Corps in eastern Kentucky and was offered a job in the English Department at the University of Montana in Missoula. That phone call forever changed our lives. As Steinbeck said, Montana is a love affair, one that never ends.

In LIGHT OF THE WORLD, Dave and Clete fret about their kids, as do parents the world over. Growing up, what did your parents worry about for you?

I was born in the Depression and grew up during the war years. People had very little money back then; however, my father and mother both had jobs, so we were quite fortunate in that regard. Our worries during that era had to do with personal and national survival. But it was also a grand time to be around. There was a great sense of national unity and pride. The light of civilization would have gone out had we lost the war. We knew we were on the right side of things. That’s a very good feeling to have.

In Asa Surrette, you have created one of your most fearsome villains to date. Surrette bears certain resemblances to Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, most notably that he’s a vicious serial killer from Kansas. Did Rader’s case factor into your creating Asa Surrette?

Surrette is an allegorical character, the darkest I’ve written about. There are people in our midst for whom there is no explanation. Surrette is one of them. He’s identified in the book with Geta, the brother of Caracalla. But he’s undone by Felicity, the woman who died in the Roman arena and showed the ancient world that ultimately good triumphs over evil.

Wyatt Dixon is one of the most compelling and complex characters readers have ever met, and in LIGHT OF THE WORLD, he moves from your Billy Bob Holland series to Dave Robicheaux’s world. Were you surprised that he showed up in this story?

Wyatt is undoubtedly one of the most interesting people I’ve ever written about. Many of my favorite scenes in the book are about Wyatt. As he says, he’s a rodeo man, the real deal. Wyatt is the only man ever up to dealing with Clete Purcel. I think Wyatt is heck on wheels.

Dave Robicheaux and his wife Molly, a former nun, are two of the most deeply spiritual characters we know, and yet they rarely set foot inside a church. Do you think the role of organized religion has changed in modern American society?

Dave and Molly are both commnicants, and of course Dave is a member of AA. My belief is that divinity lies just on the other side of the physical world. How we reach it is the question. When we meet a spiritual person, we know it. They seem to glow with a presence that has nothing to do with denominational or institutional considerations. I sometimes believe there are angels living in our midst, and their physical surroundings are irrelevant; they work in burn units in third world countries and daily risk their lives for the rest of us. To borrow a Biblical phrase, they are the ones who are sent, or at least that’s what I think.

All of your books include female characters perhaps most concisely described as “strong,” and none more so than LIGHT OF THE WORLD. Do you see this strength in the women around you? In women generally?

My experience has been that women are more complex than men, more unpredictable, more reasonable and intelligent. They can bear physical pain much more readily than men do, and they usually show much greater judgment. I don’t how they’ve been kept in the back of the bus so long.

LIGHT OF THE WORLD returns to the theme of the exploitation of our natural resources by corporations that are led by individuals whose hearts are as black as they come. You’ve spoken at some length about this issue as it relates to Louisiana; do you see it in Montana as well?

The issue in Montana is extractive industries. The same is true of Louisiana. I believe we’re destroying the earth. If we don’t change our way of doing things, I don’t think we’re going to make it.

One of Dave Robicheaux’s most endearing and enduring characteristics is that despite the horrors he encounters, he continues to see light. What gives you hope?

I believe that most human beings are essentially good. Our weakness lies in our collective willingness to place our trust in militarists in times of national emergency, whether real or manufactured. All demagogues use fear to control the electorate. They’re very good at it.

What are you reading now?

Old Man River by Paul Schneider. It’s a fine book.

And finally, for readers who might not know, what’s a tater pig?

A baked potato loaded with fat and pork and cream and chives and butter and bacon and enough grease to clog a sewer pipe. But wow are they good.