AT A HARD RIGHT ANGLE: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES SALLIS
"Literature isn't a bureau with discrete drawers marked crime novel, 'serious' novel, science fiction, poetry. It's more like this huge buffet table heaped with all kinds of food: shellfish, cold cuts, fruit, eight or nine cheeses, hors d'oeuvres, a smoked ham, chafing dishes of vegetables, soups. Both as reader and as writer you walk around it, taking what you want. What you need."
Richard Marshall interviews James Sallis
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3AM: You're a writer of vast range -- essays, novels, short stories, poems in a wide variety of genres and styles -- and you get published in a range of places too, from mags, zines to books. How did this happen? Is it to do with wanting to break free from genres? Don't you don't really believe in genres?
JS: We live our lives forward and try to understand them backwards. Literary commentary is much the same. There's forever the assumption, generally unwarranted, that the writer has some master plan. I didn't start out thinking, Okay, I'll publish poems in the Ann Arbor Review, dash off a quick science fiction story for Galaxy, write up my thoughts on music as a book for Morrow. Sometimes these came about from commercial motives since I've always tried to make a living from my writing; sometimes simply from pursuit of my own interests; sometimes because editors approached me with assignments.
My first publications, almost at a blow, were poems in literary magazines and stories in New Worlds and Orbit. It's not so much that as a writer I've refused to fit into a genre as that I seem constitutionally unable to do so. I didn't want to be a poet, a novelist, a science fiction or crime writer; following European models like Queneau and Stanislaw Lem, I wanted to do it all, be a true man of letters. As critic I've lamented over and over how fine writers such as Walter Tevis, Theodore Sturgeon or Gene Wolfe are marginalized by the canon, lamented our ever-increasing compartmentalization of literature. Literature, I've insisted, isn't a bureau with discrete drawers marked crime novel, "serious" novel, science fiction, poetry. It's more like this huge buffet table heaped with all kinds of food: shellfish, cold cuts, fruit, eight or nine cheeses, hors d'oeuvres, a smoked ham, chafing dishes of vegetables, soups. Both as reader and as writer you walk around it, taking what you want. What you need.
3AM: You worked with Moorcock in the sixties, with science fiction and fantasy in the sixties. You still work in that genre.
JS: At the time, it seemed to me, all the most interesting work was being done at the borderlines of fantastic literature -- non-realist, non-mimetic writing. That's what drew me to the genre, just as it drew Tom Disch, Ursula LeGuin, D.M. Thomas, J.G. Ballard, Mike Harrison. New Worlds was at the hub of all this. There's little doubt, I think, that we helped raise, immeasurably, the standard of writing in the field. What I think has not been widely recognized is the far greater influence we had outside the field, on contemporary "literary" work.
3AM: Was there a sense of making something happen that was new back then and do you still feel the same about the work today?
JS: Absolutely we believed we had a mission. We were Young Turks, over-talented, disrespectful; mavericks spurring ourselves and others to go ever faster, ever further. Now, of course, the Young Turks have turned to old farts, the wild horses to tame swaybacks. But we're still out there trying our best to give a good ride.
3AM: I guess it would be interesting to know about working with Moorcock -- how did that come about and what kind of working relationship have you established over the years?
JS: Mike is among the three or four most important editors the field ever had. He is also -- a fact often obscured by the quantity and diversity of his work -- one of the great writers of our time. On my website there's an essay I wrote for his sixtieth birthday, which will tell you something of how much I revere Mike, and how much I owe him. He remains a good friend.
New Worlds was essentially a jam session. Some issues were put together by Mike or Charles Platt, others, once I'd arrived in London, by me; still others by Graham Hall, Hilary Bailey or Mike Harrison. We often disagreed. I found Jimmy Ballard's work bloodless and programmatic. Thinking "A Boy and His Dog" and "Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones" recidivist, Mike didn't want to publish them, but deferred to me. We were making it up moment to moment as we went along, really, guided mostly by our abundant energies. Like many people out to save the world or some tiny corner of it, we were also sometimes a bit silly.
3AM: You've just killed off one of the great fictional detectives - it's been a hell of a time over the last two years what with Inspector Morse dying too. Ghost Of A Flea is a very melancholy book -- what brought you to write such a book and end the series like that? Was it a sense of thinking you'd done all you could with that character and that world, or was it a reflection of the "meanings" that you felt you had to bring about? After all, in this last novel, here was a man in profound trouble -- couldn't write, wasn't detecting anything much, etc. In a sense it's a haunting "existentialist" type of work. Are you conscious of these issues as you write or do they emerge afterwards, when you look back at what you've produced and it dawns on you?
JS: Thank you for the compliment. Ghost of a Flea is, yes, a melancholy book, but Lew is melancholy. Bear in mind that everything in the series -- which I think of, by the way, more as one long novel -- is adumbrated in The Long-Legged Fly, and remember the sadness of those last two pages. I never meant to write six novels about this guy, you know. First, it was only a short story, then one novel and I thought I was done with him. Then, when I wanted to find out more about him, a second. But I was always working with the material put forth in that first novel, pulling it out, turning it in my hand to see it from different angles. There's really nothing more I can do. Lew's there, on the page, as complete a character as I'm capable of creating.
When I'm writing I have only a general sense of where I'm going: a shape, or a kind of palpating absence waiting to be filled. I work by intuition, feeling my way through thickets and around walls, forever improvising. In the revision stage I'll look back explicitly at themes and at structure, analyze, see what I can do to tighten things up. But I find that if I've paid sufficient attention word to word and line to line, the rest pretty much takes care of itself.
3AM: And now that that series is over, are you planning to embark on a new one? Where are you going next with your novels?
JS: I doubt there'll be another series. The novel I'm finishing up now is about a policeman in Memphis who shoots his partner, goes to prison where he is forced to kill in self-defense, and while serving his time studies for a Master's in psychology. The title is Cypress Grove, from an old Skip James song:
If you kneebones aching
And you body cold...
You just getting' ready, honey,
For the cypress grove.
After that, I don't know. Nor will I, until the day I sit down and begin writing. I have part of another book in manuscript, a comic novel that's a take-off of The Seven Samurai. I just wrote a story for Dennis McMillan that I think would make a good short novel. I've also found myself seriously thinking about writing -- finally, after all these years! -- a science fiction novel.
3AM: I guess linking with that is the notion of what you think readers get from reading your novels -- do you have a clear view about your readers or do you just stick to writing for yourself and let the readers find you? I guess that's a question about who you write for -- yourself or others? Is there any sense that you've changed what you feel you need to write because you feel the readers are changing? And how does what is happening in the world mean that you change what you think you want to write? Would September 11th make a difference to what you want to write?
JS: I do have a handful of faithful readers, but no, awareness of audience plays no role in the actual writing. I'm too firmly burrowed into the text, trying to pull out what's in there, struggling to read correctly the signs it keeps pushing up for me. I'm continuously striving to write a sort of book I'm unable to find: to combine elements I love from all the various literatures in order to create what, for me, as a reader, would be the perfect book. I'm at that buffet I mentioned, and I've got a big plate.
I've spent almost sixty years now watching people kill one another, watching the U.S. topple the governments of other countries, seeing the gap between rich and poor in this country widen into a canyon, observing how repeatedly we are set against our neighbors and ourselves. Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Chile, Afghanistan, America's inner cities. The ongoing stupidity of the Cuban embargo. Dangerous men like Ronald Reagan and treacherous women like Margaret Thatcher elected to high office. My world view is hardly likely to be much changed by today's events, or last year's. And that, of course, is what my writing comes out of.
Among Karyn's and my friends here in Arizona is a Vietnamese family. Their home looks like any other moderately affluent suburban home. A huge TV, carpeting, spotless furniture, large couches, a copse of portraits on the mantelpiece. But above one doorway is a photograph of the helicopter that carried this family to freedom. If even for a passing moment, even for a handful of readers, my work can be anything like that helicopter, it's all been worth it.
3AM: Your poetry output is as various as your prose. Is there a different motivation for you when you write a poem from when you write prose, fiction or otherwise? And again, do you sense that it's the same people who will read your poems as those who read your prose? Can you talk a little about which poems you feel have most successfully expressed what you wanted to express?
JS: I make no distinction between poems, stories, essays, the novels: they come from the same mysterious place, and feel to me much the same. Stories tend to arrive in bunches; I'll write five or six at a blow, then none for a while. Poems too. I'd truly be surprised if many fans of my crime fiction turned to the poetry, though. I think there are ever fewer crossover readers. By and large nowadays it seems that only poets read poetry. So I have this one community consisting of science fiction writers, this second community of mystery and crime writers, yet another of "literary" writers, poets, journal editors and so on. Neither group knows much about my activities in the other. I remember seeing Bob Silverberg again after many years and having him ask where I'd been. He assumed, since I hadn't been publishing in the sf magazines, that I'd stopped writing, whereas my work had been appearing in music and literary magazines all over.
The poems I like best and think most successful are of two kinds. The long poems, things like "Last Best Friend," "Memory's Empire" and "Among the Missing," have a depth and texture to them, an engagement, that I love. On the other hand, I also love short, almost epigrammatic, vaguely "surreal" poems that show the influence of poets such as Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub. I'm thinking here of poems like "Dawn," "Piano Poem," "Newspapers." That last one gets me each time I read it, still.
You'd bring them to me
Hidden at the bottom of your purse
Like us they were restless there
Their answers brief
I opened them inside mornings
Filled with my fingers
Waking in the afternoons we watched
Heads down they pulled themselves
Across the carpet towards sunlight
3AM: You express admiration for English writers Aylett and Sinclair -- looking around at current writers, who do you admire at the moment and what are your views on the current state of writing? Do you get the sense that there are many really good writers coming through -- and would we find them in the usual places -- or is it bad at the moment?
JS: I suspect this may be an heretical view to all those bemoaning the death of literature, but I believe there is more good writing around today than ever before. Of course, there's also more bad writing, but heyi The work's getting done. Just look around. Off the top of my mind: George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Lethem, China Mieville, Carol Emshwiller, Kelly Link, K.C. Constantine, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stepan Chapman, Terry Bisson, Howard Waldrop, Neal Barrett, Denise Duhamel, Anselm Hollo, Steve Dixon...
The real problem has more to do with continuity than with talent. Creating and carrying forward anything like a "career" has become, at best, problematic. Increasingly, new books, especially challenging books, books turned a bit sideways to the general stream, are brought out by small publishers. This is marvelous -- I've spent a lifetime of reviewing in praise of such publishers, and publishing with them myself -- but this also makes it difficult for the writer to sustain belief that what he is doing matters in any larger way: a belief that's essential to continued production.
3AM: What are your latest projects?
JS: Cypress Grove goes off to my publisher this month and should be out next spring. New collections of poems and stories are pounding the streets, knocking on doors and posing for passing cars: Hey, mister, want a date? There's a fairly good chance I'll be translating Boris Vian's L'Herbe rouge. In France, Gallimard will be publishing a collection containing all my crime and suspense stories, those from my "collected stories," Time's Hammers, plus six or seven new ones such as "Ukulele and the World's Pain" (just in Hitchcock's), a novella, "Concerto for Violence and Orchestra" (written for John Harvey's anthology Boys from Men), "Your New Career" (upcoming in Crimewave). I also have a manuscript titled Touring Oblivion that brings together most of my literary essays and introductions -- on Vian, Guillevic, Kate Wilhelm, Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Queneau, Walter Tevis -- as well as a selection from forty years of book reviews and the full text of Difficult Lives, my little book on Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Himes. It's a swaggering hippopotamus of a manuscript, really. People carrying it from door to desk are required to show evidence of medical insurance and to wear support belts.
3AM: America since Sept 11th -- how difficult has it been for someone with radical dissenting views as you to work in America and express yourself honestly?
JS: It has always been difficult to work in America and express oneself. The strain of anti-intellectualism in American life is fundamental, running far deeper than you can possibly imagine. Democratization does that: it flattens the field, conspires to draw everything down to a common level -- just as Tocqueville observed. Meanwhile, we've suffered through a long run of repressive, conservative leaders here in the States, and the entire history of American liberalism seems to have been expunged from the general consciousness. Our current Supreme Court is terrifying. As we carry on this conversation, Bush makes serious plans to oust the leader of a sovereign country by military force simply because he doesn't like him and wants to outdo his own father. I mean, these guys don't even pretend anymore....
As writers we stand at a hard right angle to our own societies, exercising what Lionel Trilling terms adversary intent. We must say again and again that all is not well in the town square, that the prevailing wisdom is anything but, that history rides us as, in voodoo, spirits of the dead ride living bodies, which they call horses. That, per Rimbaud, everything we are taught is false -- or well may be.
This piece is part of our feature on James Sallis.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a prolific man of letters. Author of the popular Lew Griffin novels (The Long-Legged Fly
, Black Hornet
, Eye of the Cricket
, and Bluebottle
), he has also written the avant-garde novel, Renderings
, and the spy novel, Death Will Have Your Eyes
, as well as more than one hundred short stories, poems, and essays. He has, in addition, 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, most recently, Chester Himes: A Life
, a biography of one of his literary heroes.
A multi-faceted man of many talents, Jim has worked as a creative writing teacher, respiratory therapist, musician, music teacher, screenwriter, periodical editor (including a stint with the celebrated science fiction magazine New Worlds
in the 1960s), book reviewer, and translator, winning acclaim for his 1993 version of Raymond Queneau's Saint Glinglin
Jim was born in 1944 and spent his childhood in Helena, Arkansas, a rural town on the banks of the Mississippi River. Widely travelled, he has subsequently spent portions of his life as a resident of New Orleans, London, New York City, Boston, and Paris, among other cities. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Karyn.
A former Tulane Scholar and Fellow, Jim donated his personal papers to the New Orleans university's special collections in 1999.
He has been shortlisted for the Anthony, Nebula, Edgar, Shamus, and Gold Dagger awards.