Novel Thoughts: A conversation with author James Sallis

Trevor Hogg chats with James Sallis about the craft of writing and music as well as his latest novel Driven…

“No, from country folk who elevated themselves to lower middle-class,” answers James Sallis when questioned if he comes from an artistic family. “Something went horribly wrong, though; my brother [John], a well-known philosopher, is about neck-and-neck with me, as for books published.” The native of Helena, Arkansas observes, “Most things in our lives happen by chance; we seldom end up where we aimed. I’m a writer because I discovered early on that it was the one thing I’m really good at. The music developed alongside that. I’m not a particularly good musician, just an enthusiastic one. I write much as I play, improvising, reaching for surprise, for new sounds within the old; but the music is, at least in part, a refuge from my life among words.” Sallis believes that stubbornness is the key to being a successful writer and musician. “My personal music is actually more tradition-oriented: acoustic blues, old-time, vintage country, Western swing and the like. I love the freedom of it and that it was people’s music – demotic, gritty; it has an edge you can’t ever rub down. I began publishing poetry and science fiction at the same time, came to crime fiction much later, after years of publishing work in literary magazines. So I spent a lot of time covering the junk-strewn waterfront, in no great hurry to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. Crime fiction for me had much the same attraction as traditional music: a given form, story and character structures built into it, an inviolable sense of otherness, of having slipped into an alien world, or a world just beneath the surface of the visible.”

As for his definition for a great story, James Sallis remarks, “Something familiar that I’ve never read or heard before. For the rest, you’d have to look at my bookshelves and rummage about in the slag heaps of my mind.” The setting of a tale is as important as the plot. “Our minds, the minds of our characters, repeat the landscape.” The author of 15 novels reveals, “I prefer writing short stories, and did so for many, many years, but there’s little or no market for same nowadays. Nor did I ever intend to write a series. The Long-Legged Fly began as a short story, became a novel, and I was done. Then, intrigued by Lew Griffin, I wrote another – to find out more about him. Six novels later…” Questioned as to why he featured Griffen and the character of Driver more than once in his books, Sallis replies, “Don’t forget [John] Turner from Cypress Grove, Cripple Creek and Salt River, another case of writing a stand-alone then, fascinated by the character, returning for a second, then a third, visit to his world. They’re all walled-off characters and testaments to the fact that we really never know anyone, even our wives or husbands, our best friends. That we are forever, as they, trapped in our own minds, and in the sense we have of the world and our selves. I suppose the revolutionary within me wants to jump those walls and barricades. And I suppose further that this is my job as a writer.” The fictional fascination expanded into the real world with a biography about author Chester Himes who penned Cotton Comes to Harlem. “Much the same as with my characters, I wanted to know more about this mysterious, contradictory man.”

Known for a literary style which is Spartan yet visual, James Sallis notes, “The concision and the precision I learned from poetry are a large part of it, yes. But more important, for me, is the way poetry moves along, not by logic or ration but by accumulation, by image and association. Poets leave huge spaces around their words, and those spaces flower in the reader’s mind; that’s what I began reaching for in my fiction.” With the cinematic adaptation of Drive (2011), Sallis admits, “I’m surprised that any of them made it. These are pretty quirky novels.” In regards to the movie starring Ryan Gosling and whether it captured the spirit of Drive, the originator of the tale declares, “Brilliant. And brilliantly. The big screen acclaim had an impact in composing a sequel. “When my agent called to ask, I said, ‘Of course not.’ I hung up the phone, walked to the computer, typed in the title, Driven, and then the first page.” The image of a woman bleeding against the wall served as the creative spark. “Most of the novels began with an image. This time out that was the engine; it came to me as I walked back in here from speaking with my agent on the phone. When that image fell to earth within me, I knew I had a novel.”

Striking a balance where Drive and Driven were connected but also distinct was not a matter of following a particular formula. “Guesswork,” confesses James Sallis. “Feeling my way in the dark and stumbling over things. Pushing pieces of the puzzle together in my mind to see if they fit while the cursor sat blinking patiently at me.” Sallis notes, “Each book in a series, for me, must be different. The six Lew Griffin books, even though I tend to think of them as one long novel, are distinct. Here, Driver is seven years older, no longer a kind of late adolescent but a man who’s lived in the ‘normal’ or consensual world. It fell to me to show what happened between the end of Drive and his going down at 3 AM in a Tijuana bar. That suggests a more complicated book than the simple double-cross-and-revenge of the first. And he is a more complex character; has seen more of the world, begun to think about what he’s seen. Yet I wanted the second book to be every bit as muscular and fast-moving. You lean close and listen, and eventually the book tells you what it wants to be.”

Violence and human nature are entwined. “Can anyone sincerely doubt that they are?” asks James Sallis. “It’s in the struggle to overcome our shortfalls and baseness that we can sometimes find grace. And it’s in our struggle to break out of the prison of our mind – to go on stubbornly making signs through the glass, as Updike said – that we come closer to a true humanity, and to community.” A number of books deserve the cinematic treatment. “Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, Panama by Thomas McGuane, Billy Gashade by Loren D. Estleman, Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang [not a book in length, but it is in substance] and Anthony Burgess’ Enderby books. Should I go on?” As a child a particular movie moment left a lasting impression. “Age 10 or so, people being sucked into the ground in Invaders from Mars [1953] – the foundation of my outlook on life. Surfaces can give at any moment.”

Many thanks to James Sallis for taking the time to be interviewed and be sure to visit his website.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.