An Interview with James Sallis

Interview by Paul Kane

Do you see yourself as primarily a crime writer or simply a writer, period?

A quick look at my list of publications should answer that: collections of poetry, books of musicology, a biography, translation, a lot of science fiction, wide literary-magazine publication, a large body of criticism. I’m a writer who writes, among much else, crime fiction.

Did you choose crime fiction or did it choose you?

I came to crime fiction rather late, actually – after many years of involvement with science fiction, then, when that market changed, with “literary” fiction. I was introduced to Chandler and Hammett by Mike Moorcock when I was in London editing New Worlds; this would have been 1968 or so. I read constantly in the field: Ross Macdonald, Rex Stout, Himes [Chester Himes, the subject of the afore-mentioned biography], Ed McBain, Larry Block, Donald Westlake I didn’t turn to writing crime fiction for some years after. The Long-Legged Fly was the beginning.

What can you do in crime fiction that you can’t do in a straight literary novel, or in say science-fiction? What possibilities does the genre offer you?

Crime fiction shares with arealist fiction (fantasy and science fiction) a built-in edginess: an alienation, an apartness. It gives access to a straightforward skeleton of plot that’s able to hold as little or as much weight as you wish to pack on; and it’s connected more directly to the archetypes within us, which can be a source of tremendous power. I should probably add here that one of my agendas as critic has been to tear down as many of these artificial distinctions as possible – crime novel, “literary” novel, commercial novel….

You allude in your fiction to many writers. Which writers have especially influenced you?

Virtually every one I’ve read. For the tally, I suppose you’d best look at the essays and criticism I’ve written over the past forty years.

Has your upbringing influenced your writing?

I grew up as a very bright, very nerdy kid in a small Southern town, with a brilliant brother [John Sallis, the philosopher] seven years older who was off discovering the world. Always claim that I missed my childhood because I wasn’t paying attention, I was reading instead. And I tell people that I later missed the Sixties because I was shut away writing.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I always assumed that writing would be one of the things I did, one way I would have of being in the world. From the age of twenty or so, it just kind of took over.

For how long have you been a full-time writer? How easy or difficult has it been to write full time for a living?

I have been writing professionally for forty-plus years. My first book was published in 1971, many stories and poems before that, of course. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve truly been able to support myself wholly as a writer. Other times I managed to do so for periods, but we’re talking garage apartments and one meal a day, and I was always forced into other, subsidizing work.

What jobs did you do before writing full-time?

I spent several years just writing, and didn’t have my first job until I was thirty. Then I was lucky enough to stumble into being a respiratory therapist. That put me in demand – I soon specialized in critical care, then in newborn critical care – and mobile. I could work when I wanted, where I wanted. I’d write full-time, work a while, quit and write some more. Hospital work not only gave me financial support, it kept me in touch with real life, real problems, the pulse of the city.

What was the first story or novel that you had published? How much did you earn from it?

I had three stories accepted almost within the same week: one by Mike for New Worlds, one by Damon Knight for Orbit, and one by Ed Ferman for Fantasy and Science Fiction. This would have been about 1966, maybe? The first money was from Damon for “A Few Last Words,” $300 – a fortune. I was in highest cotton. For a long time I wrote only short stories. Then I looked around one day and there was no market for short stories. My high cotton had been picked.

What is your favourite among your books?

I’ve a tremendous soft spot for Moth, but I think the best novels are probably Eye of the Cricket and the one I just finished, Salt River.

Which contemporary writers do you especially admire?

The list would eat up your space and my time. Hundreds. Don Harington, Daniel Woodrell, Jim Burke, George Pelecanos, Lucius Shepard, Carol Emshwiller, Kim Stanley Robinson, Kate Braverman, Peter Robinson, Andrew Klavan, Joe Lansdale, John Shannon, Walter Mosley, Richard K. Morgan, Shira Rozan, China Mieville, Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, Kate Wilhelm, Kelly Link – okay, I’m out of breath. I probably should just send you a photo of my bookshelves.

Your main series character, Lew Griffin, is an African American, but you are not. Also, you have written a biography of Chester Himes and I note also that Cypress Grove – the title of one of your novels – is a great Skip James song. What is the basis of your fascination with the African American experience? (If that’s what it is.) I wonder also whether you’ve read any of George P. Pelecanos’ Derek Strange novels, which also have an African American protagonist. And if so, what’s your view of them?

I think George is one of the handful of great novelists working in the U.S. today. We are friends, and I’ve followed his work from the first, when he was published by another friend, Gordon Van Gelder, at St. Martin.

The rest of your question would require an extremely long response, and has been at least partially answered in a number of interviews (many of these at my website, and by the six-volume Lew Griffin series itself. Let me just say here that I’m a rural Southerner who grew up among African-Americans, my first-love music is blues (which I have played for most of my life), I went to school and lived several times subsequently in New Orleans.

Could you reflect on what makes a successful series?

I don’t know. I didn’t begin the Lew Griffin cycle expecting much commercial success. The Long-Legged Fly was rejected by twenty or more publishers, initially; what success the cycle has had has gathered over many years, most of it by word of mouth, and much of it due to the support of George Gibson at Walker.

What is the relationship between the novelist and their series character? I’m thinking of yourself and Lew Griffin, but also of Chandler and Marlowe, and Patricia Highsmith (whom you’ve written about) and Tom Ripley.

Every character is a redo of ourselves – what we’ve seen, what we’ve thought, what we’ve experienced, what we would like to be, what we are not. All we have as artists is what’s inside our head. That’s the basic material, from which we make what we will.

Some of your novels might once have been called “hard-boiled”, but are now called “noir”. Do these two terms mean the same, in your view? Are they terms you’d use?

Would I use them? No. They are words that, through overuse, like “jazz,” have lost all utility. “Hardboiled” does retain some slight meaning; “noir” is fully drained and drying on the stalk.

Lew Griffin lives in New Orleans, and you contributed to the Katrina Support issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in November 2006. What is your connection with the city?

I went to school, as did my brother, at Tulane, which now houses my papers. I have since lived there a number of times, most recently for four years before coming to Phoenix. Inasmuch as I have a home, New Orleans is it.

One of your poems, “Preparing for the Hurricane”, seems prescient when read in the light of what befell New Orleans. Do you recall the circumstances in which you wrote it?

You bet. I was living just off Napoleon in New Orleans and we were waiting for a hurricane. It hit, but not directly; we were flooded, and without power for a couple of days. The city is no stranger to floods. Shortly before we left New Orleans, one night at ten it began raining; by ten-thirty the streets were filled; I could see only the high porch opposite us, and watched our cars go completely under. The Miata blinked its lights, opening and shutting its headlight covers pitifully, as it died.

Do you have any view regarding the response of the authorities to Hurricane Katrina, or the precautionary measures that they had in place?

I remain, after all this time, too angry, too sad, and too filled with loss, to speak about it.

On another tack, would you say there are themes that unite all your work (poetry, fiction and perhaps even choice of translations)? What are they?

Yes, absolutely, but it’s not up to me to say what they may be.

When writing crime fiction is there a conflict between the need to keep an imagined future reader engaged and turning the pages and the need to keep it interesting for yourself as a writer?

For me, no. If it’s interesting for me, I have to assume it will interest the reader, so that is forever my first concern. However exaggerated our claims for it, art is a game. That means we should be having fun – myself as well as the reader.

Do you use (Oulipian) constraints in your writing? How?

No. But I do set myself certain hurdles and difficulties, generally more substantial than formal. How can I show you someone murdering a man on the first page, then cause you to like him (The Long-Legged Fly)? How can I destroy an entire town yet keep everything to the scale of the small lives that go on there (Salt River)? How can I take a stock, cliché character and make him or her real (Don Walsh and LaVerne in the Griffin cycle, Turner in his three novels)?

What would be a typical working day for you? Do you write a set number of words each day?

I don’t have a set schedule. When I’m well into a book, I may more or less work at it off and on all day, even when I appear to be doing something else. When I’m teaching, that takes priority a couple of days a week.

How much of a book is in your mind before you sit down to write it? Do you have the plot worked out beforehand, or are you surprised by what happens to your characters?

I gave up writing to plan early on in my career; it bored me. Now I throw myself off the cliff and hope I’ll be able to catch enough shrubs and outcroppings on the way down. Improvisation. I assume, again, that if I’m surprised as I write, and at what I write, so will be the reader. It’s all about finding out what’s in there.

How many drafts of a novel do you usually write?

Impossible to say. I rewrite obsessively as I go along, sentence by sentence, line by line, page by page.

Do you show your work-in-progress to anyone?

No. My wife is first reader, when it’s done; then my agent, Vicky Bijur. The sole exception is that, in teaching my novel course, I take in chapters of my own novel-in-progress for discussion.

What and where do you teach?

I teach two novel-writing courses at Phoenix College. They run three semesters, and students typically sign up again and again; some have been with me now for ten semesters or more. One just published his second novel, two completed intermediate drafts this past semester, others have multiple stories published and novels well underway.

What advice would you give to a writer trying to get published?

Work. Most of us have thousands upon thousands of bad words and bad writing we have to get out before the good stuff starts coming – if it starts coming at all. So you may as well get started. That you can play all the chords and scales and keep time doesn’t mean you have a career as a guitarist. A lot of it’s the luck of the draw. I tell my students: “This is work, hard work. It never gets any easier – in fact, if you’re serious about it, it keeps getting harder. And you will never, ever, be satisfied.”

What are your current writing projects?

Well, I just finished a new novel, Salt River, this past week. That’s the final of three Turner novels, with Cypress Grove and Cripple Creek. I have the draft of another, Others of My Kind, to which I’ll probably return soon; it’s about a woman kidnapped as a child and kept in a box beneath her abductor’s bed, who has turned out to be one of the good people of this world. But I also have the idea for another Drive-like novel, so….

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at