James Sallis is a master
of the short, sharp crime novel in which every word counts. He’s
also known for the philosophical bent of his protagonists, from New
Orleans-based sometime-PI Lew Griffin to John Turner, ex-cop,
ex-con, ex-therapist, Vietnam vet and hero of Sallis’ latest book,
Salt River. Sallis has written an acclaimed biography of crime
writer Chester Himes and published translations, poetry, books on
music…The list goes on. Sallis took some time out to speak to SHOTS
about Salt River and his career to date.
Damien: How would you pitch Salt River to readers unfamiliar with
James: It’s very short and doesn’t require a great investment of
Damien: Salt River is quite a melancholy book. Would you agree?
What, if anything, are you trying to say about the world in its
James: Everything – and in less than 30,000 words. Ambition knows no
bounds. But to get serious: It is, if you peel back the surface,
actually quite a hopeful novel.
Damien: You didn’t see Lew Griffin as a series character but you
wound up revisiting him in six novels. You didn’t see Cypress Grove
as the beginning of a series, but here we are now on the third book
featuring Turner as protagonist. Are there any more Turner novels in
James: No, that’s it. We should leave the poor man in peace.
Damien: What was it that made you expand on your first Lew
Griffin and Turner novels? Financial pressures or something more?
James: My interest in these characters – realizing that there were
still things about them, things around them, that I didn’t know.
Damien: Turner is full of observations and philosophical nuggets
on human nature. How much of what he thinks and says comes directly
James: Literally, of course, all of it. But the joy of writing in
character is the ability to inhabit, at least briefly and fitfully,
Damien: Many readers see a philosophical or intellectual aspect
to your work that is unusual in crime fiction. Is that a fair
James: Probably so, and I think much of that derives from my
background in science fiction and the European novel.
Damien: You write without any sort of detailed plan yet your
fiction is typically terse and efficient. How much longer do you
spend on revisions than on first drafts?
James: It’s all largely one process for me: I revise endlessly as I
go along. When I finish the last page, the novel, save for
last-minute tweaking, is done.
Damien: Is there an average time it takes you to write a book, or
does it vary? Can you give me some insight into your writing
routine? Do you write a certain amount of words or for a certain
amount of time each day, for example? Do you divide your time
between writing and editing?
James: For many years, my books were written in six months: I set
that deadline in my contracts. Now that I’m teaching, playing music,
and host to a dozen further distractions, the books take longer.
Drive, however, was written in a month, during a period when I was
recovering from surgery. Salt Creek, which is close to the same
length, took over two years. I kept writing, cutting – then going
off to other pursuits.
I’ve no set schedule or expectations. I work every day, sometimes
for an hour or two, sometimes for hours without coming up for air. I
have instruments all within reach, and will grab a banjo or fiddle,
play a while, then get back to the computer. Two days a week are
given over to reading student work and prepping for classes. Then
there are the emails from readers to be answered, contracts and
proofs to be read, reviews to be written, European trips, interviews
such as this one – what a hard life!
Damien: Has teaching creative writing changed the way you write?
James: I don’t think so. What I teach is a reconstructed version of
the way I write: Concision, specificity, an emphasis on the scene,
packing as much weight as possible onto each word, phrase and
sentence, yet keeping a light touch.
Damien: ‘An American writing European novels.’ You agree with
this assessment of your work? In your crime writing do you see
yourself as part of a literary tradition or an exception to it?
James: That seems fair, and flattering. And yes, I see myself as
part of a tradition – in fact, as part of several traditions, which
may be, at its heart, what my writing is all about.
Damien: From writing sci-fi/fantastic literature in the sixties
to crime literature today – how much of this arc was deliberate?
What drew you to the genre we typically describe as ‘crime’?
James: Extremes. That is what most interests me, I think: People in
extreme circumstances, characters catapulted into worlds they do not
understand. When I began writing, science fiction harboured the most
interesting, innovative writing; with the field’s swing to a more
conservative bias, I found my way to crime fiction, which I felt at
the time was carrying on the torch. But remember that,
simultaneously, I was publishing widely in literary journals:
poetry, fiction, criticism, essays.
Damien: Do you still feel crime fiction is carrying the torch of
interesting, innovative writing? Are there any emerging talents in
the genre you find particularly exciting?
James: Absolutely – one of the torches, anyway. Look at George
Pelecanos, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Lethem, Daniel Woodrell, _____.
(The blank is left for the reader to insert his or her favoured
name.) At the moment I’m reading the manuscript of a first novel by
Keith Gilman, Father’s Day, that I think wonderful. But there are
people like Kelly Link in fantasy, or Jeffrey Ford, Tim Powers –
writers doing amazing new work. It’s everywhere, it’s the air we
Damien: Is it true that Michael Moorcock introduced you to
American hardboiled literature? That you weren’t familiar with this
tradition until coming to London in the 1960s?
James: I knew of it, naturally, but I’d not read Chandler, Hammett.
This sort of writing, like science fiction, was not discussed in
university at the time; its influence upon American fiction went
Damien: You’re still friends with Moorcock today. How much has he
influenced your work?
James: His courage, his intelligence, his catholic tastes, his
enthusiasm – profound influences. Mike threw his arms wide to invite
in every kind of literature, every kind of writer and writing. What
an amazing lesson that was for me, a fledgling, hopelessly callow
Damien: You speak Spanish, French and Russian so well that you
have translated books into English from all three languages. What
sort of impact has this had on your fiction writing?
James: I don’t speak any of those languages. I have studied Spanish
and Russian, but most of what I had of them are gone by now. I do
read French – my admiration of French literature being another thing
I picked up in London.
Damien: So am I right to think you've translated works from
Spanish and Russian? If so, how did you go about that?
James: I’ve translated both from Spanish and Russian, mostly during
the time I was formally studying these languages. Working with
language in this manner – mostly with poems – gives me a feeling for
the language, an intuition into the language, that I can find
As you know, I’ve translated far more from French: many poems, a few
short stories, Raymond Queneau’s novel Saint Glinglin.
Damien: How has reading French shaped or influenced your work?
James: It’s given me a far greater awareness of language. Writing is
all about choices, about possibilities; and in translating, we’re
constantly reminded of how many different ways a thing might be
said, constantly considering the weight a small choice – an
adjective, a verb, even an article – can carry with it. We also may
become more attuned to the rhythms of language, to the roll and
momentum of phrases, the ways in which ideas move across the page.
Quite aside from that, the work of such as Blaise Cendrars, Boris
Vian, Queneau, Camus and Jean-Patrick Manchette has become an
integral part – right along with science fiction films from the
Fifties, Faulkner, Theodore Sturgeon, Hammett and Chandler, Donald
Harington -- of how I see and how I experience the world.
Damien: You’ve described writing as like trying to capture on the
page a form you can see in the corner of your eye. How close do you
get on the page to the original idea or ideas you were trying to
James: A little closer each time, perhaps – which is all we can hope
Damien: Lew Griffin is perhaps your most celebrated character to
date. One that happens to be black. Many people would see a white
man trying to write from an African-American perspective as bold,
even controversial. Did you ever doubt that you could pull it off?
And have you ever received criticism for the attempt?
James: Interestingly, I’ve received far more acceptance than
criticism. My stock answer is that, were I to be allowed to write
only about a white, middle-aged man, I would myself be bored – far
more, the reader. What we do as writers is try to cross that bridge,
to climb out of the cell of our minds and momentarily to look out
upon another’s world.
Damien: You’ve been a writer for a long time and published
poetry, sci-fi stories, biographies, translations, books on
music…With such a broad publishing history, what advice would you
offer to writers just starting out today? What’s changed in the
industry? Is spreading your talents the way you did a good way of
spreading the risk or of responding to market demand? Or was your
career more personal than that?
James: As with much of life, in retrospect it may seem that I chose
to write science fiction, that I then chose, after careful
consideration, to deflect to crime fiction, and so on. But that is
illusion. I followed my interests where they took me. Recognizing
what I could not do, I concentrated my efforts on doing, to best
effect, what I could. Never expecting that it would prove so long
and marvellous a ride.
SALT RIVER COMPETITION
We have 3 copies of SALT RIVER to give away in an easy
to enter competition.
All you have to do is answer this question:
Name the PI character James Sallis is most noted for. Clue see
Send your answer in the main subject line eg
Add your postal address in the main body of
Competition is open WORLDWIDE.
Closing Date MIDNIGHT FEB 28th 2009
Email your answer to
SALT RIVER is published by No Exit Press pbk £9.99
Read Damien's review of SALT RIVER