Crossing Over

When genre-bending bestseller James Lee Burke switched from writing literary fiction to crime novels, he worried: Am I selling out? Burke shares his thoughts here.
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In the summer of 1984, a novelist friend of mine, Rick DeMarinis, and I were fishing on the Bitterroot River in Western Montana.

“Why don’t you try writing a crime novel?” he said.

“Why?”

“You’ve written everything else. All you’ve got to do is write one good chapter, and you can get an advance on it.”

That fall I again went back to work in earnest. I rewrote The Lost Get-Back Boogie a third time, began putting together a short-story collection and wrote two chapters of a crime novel titled The Neon Rain. I liked the two chapters, but they were obviously within a genre that was not considered literary. Was I selling out, I asked myself.

Then I asked myself another question: How is it possible to sell out when the fact is you can’t sell anything?

The following year Louisiana State University Press published my collection of short stories under the title The Convict. They also accepted The Lost Get-Back Boogie and told me it was perhaps the best novel ever to come across their desks. I completed The Neon Rain, and [it was] submitted it to three New York publishing houses. I prepared myself for more rejection letters.

All three houses made bids for the book.

I had been worried over the years about literary compromise. But like the venial sins I would confess as a child and which would fill me with such angst, I discovered that my concerns about aesthetic integrity were the stuff of self-manufactured illusion.

The real enemy was much closer at hand.

When I recall my university teaching experience, I like most to remember those fall mornings when maple leaves swirled across the lawns between redbrick buildings, and I walked to my lit class with a genuine feeling of expectation and happiness about the day that lay ahead.

But I learned another reality about university life. When money becomes short, when jobs are endangered, a pervasive and abiding fear can engender itself in the faculty and cause them to heave in a manner that you would not associate with higher education.

Don’t get involved, I would tell myself. It’s their bailiwick, stay out of it, you’ll only lose.

Sometimes I took my own counsel. Often I did not. And I lost every time. I had forgotten the lesson from a parish prison years ago. I had forgotten that collective fear can make murderers of us all.

Fear was the enemy, I thought. Fear allows the ape to be reborn in us. It kills all joy and charity in our lives. It alone was responsible for almost every mistake in my life, even my grandiose desire to impose what I thought was academic integrity on those around me. My frustration and anger were based on vanity and the desire to control, and my vanity and presumption of righteousness were so great I was even willing to let them damage my art.

Even though I no longer kicked over baskets of snakes in my mind with whatever kind of alcohol was at hand, I had found another way that worked just as well.

—Excerpted from Writer’s Digest Yearbook (1993)