James Sallis is a seminal American novelist, poet and musician whose works encompass crime fiction and the avant garde. He is the author of the popular Lew Griffin novels and the recent novel The Killer is Dying, as well as 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, and Chester Himes: A Life, a biography of one of his literary heroes.
James met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about the great American novel and fractured identity.
You have written fifteen novels. What do you make of the huge success of Drive?
I assume you mean the film. The novel, I must remind you, was turned down by major New York publishers; it slipped into the world beneath the door of Poisoned Pen Press, reaffirming my respect and affection for small publishers. Hardly a secret that I’ve such admiration for small presses – having worked with them my entire career. So you have Rob and Barbara at Poisoned Pen and my agents, Vicky Bijur and Steve Fisher, to hold responsible. They’re the ones to blame.
Do you believe in the notion of the great American novel and if so has it been written, or is it an evolving literary entity?
It’s been written hundreds of times. The frontier novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Huckleberry Finn. Light in August. Woe to Live On. Blood Meridian. More Than Human. It will be written many more times. Often, though, it goes out in public wearing a disguise.
Resolutely I do. And though sadly our regions are disappearing – the levelling effect not only of democracy itself but also of pervasive (invasive?) communications – there is still, I think, a recognizable Southern character, part caricature, part curmudgeon, part last-of-the-frontiersmen.
The South has always thought itself a colonized nation, adhering to the common culture on the surface while surreptitiously continuing endemic traditions, rather like slaves playing and dancing at Congo Square in New Orleans. In that respect, perhaps, the Southerner can remain the eternal Outsider, the one who comes into the alien culture (Tocqueville, the Sleeper, Gulliver, Huxley’s Savage) and shows it for what it is.
Your novel Renderings has been described as avant-garde, yet it seems a meditation on grief and transience, in many ways, a poetic novel. How do you view it?
I was trying for the maximal compression. I’d been writing these quite short stories and was interested to see just how far I could push that. How short, how disjunctive, how associatively can I write and still have a novel? I’d been reading (as you might surmise) a lot of contemporary French novels and writing a lot of poetry. I felt that I was leaving in only the interesting stuff and leaving out the unimportant stuff. It’s been suggested that I had it backwards.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
Many writers are forever somewhat apart and dispassionately observing, even at our most passionate moments. But there are also splinters of kindling in there, and sparks to catch at it.
Tell us about your time editing Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine.
I was 21, had sold three stories, had read hugely on quite a narrow bandwidth, had no idea what I was doing. It’s important to remember that New Worlds was an amateur enterprise: four of us living in cheap flats and putting the magazine together while trying to stay afloat ourselves. We did it because we loved it, loved the writing, loved supporting the writers, loved having a voice. But I think we were well aware that what we were doing was important.
Artaud: what forces do you think motivated his assault on theatre?
Some of us as artists never have enough. We find the right words, then we want to dash them against stones, break them open, see what else might be in there.
You are also a musician. How does music inform and enrich your life and if you could select a playlist for one of your novels as a film, who would you count among the musicians, and for which novel?
Music has always been integral to my life; my first great childhood ambition was to be a composer. I’d sit in my room reading as Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Wagner and Vivaldi stormed the walls. Then I’d turn on the radio at noon and listen to local legend Sonny Boy Williamson on KFFA. Went to sleep at night hearing honky-tonk country and Jimmy Reed from the drive-in restaurant down the street.
I’m all over the place with listening, with what I love. My band, Three-Legged Dog, is a good marker: We play oldtime mountain music, vintage country, Cajun, calypso, blues, early jazz, Western Swing, devotional music, Civil-War era songs, bluegrass, originals that sound like all those. (Two of us write songs.) We climb onstage with sixteen or twenty instruments: multiple guitars, banjos, mandolins, bouzouki, cello, fiddle, electric fretless and upright bass, accordion, mandocello, Dobro, Hawaiian guitar, musical saw, harmonica….Someone once shouted: Looks like a music store up there!
As writer and musician I find humor in the fact that, on the day I was born, the country’s most popular song was “Don’t Fence Me In.”
There is often a sense of fractured identity in your fictions. To what extent do you see this as part of America today or is it a global phenomenon?
I think it’s simply a fact of our existential lives. Each of us is many selves scrambling for time; these selves surface and subside and surface again.
What advice would you give to yourself as young man?
As a writer: Don’t ever let yourself forget how important this is, why you were drawn to do this in the first place.
As an individual: You are of no more importance than that bird lying dead outside your window.
Of course, as a young man, I wouldn’t listen to what some old fart had to say.
Thank you James for a great and perceptive interview.
For all things James Sallis, go to The James Sallis Web Pages