Life Advice from James Lee Burke

Frank Veronsky

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mother said, “Never borrow trouble.” Don’t go out and find it. It’ll find you. 

You hold the record for a manuscript’s being rejected by publishers. How did you keep your literary aspirations alive?
It’s not easy. ‘The Lost Get Back Boogie‘ was rejected 111 times. It was a big lesson because it came in the middle of my career. I’d already had a good amount of success. I finished my first novel when I was 23. I had a six-column banner headline review in the ‘New York Times.’ And I thought, ‘Boy, that’s pretty nice.’ I published two more, and then I couldn’t sell ice water in Haiti. I had a friend who said you should be rich twice and go broke three times. And that’s what it feels like.

How did you keep going?
There’s just no better life than to be an artist. It’s a gift, and eventually it will pay off. Years ago a Franciscan theologian told me, “Don’t keep score. Just bear down on the batter, one pitch at a time, and toward the top of the ninth, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the arithmetic on the scoreboard.”

Is it difficult to be labeled a genre writer?
I call my work crime novels. There’s not much mystery in them. I believe that almost all great work involves crime. Hamlet was a crime. The Bible is filled with crime, all Greek tragedy is. I try to abide by Aristotle’s view that art requires the descent of man, from a noble place to one that is ultimately humble. The noble protagonist is the creator of his own doom and usually because of hubris of some kind. It’s that view of art that has always influenced my writing.

What should a man know about government?
I was a journalist, and every journalist learns the lesson: When we hear about bad guys in government, we always identify them with the prince of darkness. The guy is demonic until we meet him. And instead of Satan, we discover we’re talking to Elmer Fudd. The banality is just mind-numbing.

What’s the secret to a successful marriage?
My generation never threw away anything. You learn to make things work. I think today we live in a more disposable society. Younger people hit some bumps, and rather than work it out, they 86 it over the gun hole and full throttle and forget it.

What have you learned about the value of work?
I learned a lesson from my dad. He was a decent man who always wanted to be a journalist, but in 1925 he was very lucky to get a job out on the pipeline. He hated it, but the Depression came along, and if you had a job, you didn’t quit. He used to come home every day and wash his hands over and over to get the oil off. He used to say, “Jim, don’t work at a job you don’t like.” But he didn’t have that choice. People compare our time today to the Depression. They don’t have a clue.

How should a man handle his fears?
The bravest people I’ve ever known are so nondescript, you can’t remember what they look like five minutes after they walk out of the room. Did you ever see the photo of the black children going to school in Little Rock in ’57 who were attacked by the mob? It was disgusting. One white woman went out there swinging her purse, saying, “You cowards, you white trash, you make me ashamed to be a member of the white race.” These big guys who were twisting the arms of children were just stunned. She showed them up in front of the entire world. It’s always the people you never expect to be generous.

How should a man handle getting old?
Oh, you don’t handle it; it handles you. My feeling is you make your own deal with the man upstairs.

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