James Lee Burke occupies a small room in the world of American literature. Joined by only a few contemporaries and predecessors, he writes books that provide entertainment and suspense, but also possess the rare capacity to alter the reader’s perception of art, history, and the most intractable mysteries of life itself.
As the author of more than 40 books, he is astoundingly prolific. Readers around the world have fallen in love with his tales of detective Dave Robicheaux, who solves homicides in New Iberia, Louisiana. Far more than mere police procedurals, Robicheaux’s cases, in large part due to the Milton-esque poetic prose of Burke, have a grand philosophical and theological sweep.
Burke has also written several books in the Holland family saga—an ongoing series, set in the early to mid 20th Century, depicting the tests and trials of one heroic family with members working in law enforcement and criminal justice. The Holland series also constructs a telescope through which to view the massive mystery of America. Through the fictional battles of the Holland family, Burke manages to confront the self-serving and destructive falsities of American historical perception. In the cosmology of the Holland universe, by way of Burke, the heroes are farmers, day laborers, organizers, civil rights workers, and ordinary Americans striving to rescue the natural world and its most endangered residents. The villains are not only the spooky murderers and maniacs who stalk the open country of the west, but the sociopaths who sit on corporate boards—those who would target ecology and innocent people for violence solely to enhance their profit.
At the age of 84, Burke has written an ambitious and punchy new novel, Another Kind of Eden. The story involves protagonist Aaron Holland Broussard, an aspiring novelist and drifter who lands in Colorado in 1962, finding work on an Edenic farm, and falling in love with a waitress. Trouble soon visits paradise in the form of corporate tyrants looking to crush the labor movement, colonize family farms, and aim a wrecking ball at any prevailing notion of government “of, by, and for the people.” At the same time, the dark side of the hippie movement is beginning to reveal itself with the emergence of a nihilistic and masochistic drug culture.
I previously interviewed James Lee Burke for CrimeReads in 2020, and before I could ask him my first question about Another Kind of Eden in a new interview, Burke, with infectious energy and delightful enthusiasm, was off and running. He informed me that “Everything that has occurred today had its beginnings in the year that the book takes place, 1962. At least, that’s my contention.”
Our conversation moved on from there…
David Masciotra: That’s a perfect segue way into my first question. Our last conversation was mainly about your Dave Robicheaux book series. With the exception of the most recent installment, A Private Cathedral, those stories take place in present day. The Holland family saga is historical. When you write a historical novel or, at least, a novel set in a different historical era, as you have with Another Kind of Eden, how does your approach differ, and how do the novelist’s responsibilities differ?
James Lee Burke: Yes, the books that Dave Robicheaux narrates are all about now. Of course, the influence of the past is always there. But the Holland books are acutely more conscious of the heritage of the frontier, and it is one that many people are not aware of. We talk about “conquering the West,” which means conquering nature. Furthermore, the story of “conquering the West” is the story of stealing land. Anywhere between Wichita Falls and California, the corporations stole it, and they got every other section of land along the railroad. Most people don’t know that 6,400 acres of land along the railroad track, from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean, was given to them by the US Congress. The real issue of the West was, in effect, get rid of the troublemakers, and it has all been distorted. This is why the story of the Earps and Clantons is emblematic. The Earps worked for the corporations. The Clantons were the troublemakers. So, I am depicting that history, through the Holland saga, with a more truthful rendering.
David Masciotra: In Another Kind of Eden, the struggle for organized labor is in the background, and the union organizers are the unwanted troublemakers. There are references to actual historical events and figures, namely the Ludlow Massacre, and one of the founders of the United Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta. One of the most magnificent scenes of the book takes place at a vigil honoring those mineworkers who were killed by an anti-strike militia in the Ludlow Massacre, with the aid of the Colorado National Guard, in 1914. John D. Rockefeller orchestrated it. In the novel, you have Huerta speaking at the vigil. This is not the first novel in which you reference the Ludlow Massacre. Why is that such an important story of American history as it pertains to your literature?
James Lee Burke: I write about it consistently because it was an event of enormous and very sad importance. It was a mass murder. I also write about it because it was suppressed for many years. I had never heard about it in high school, or even at university or graduate school. Of course, Woody Guthrie wrote about it, and he was the only one—the only contemporaneous one. He was the people’s poet, and he was the only figure of note who told the story of this cold-blooded murder. So, I am trying to write in that tradition.
David Masciotra: It is interesting that you use the word, “tradition,” because it also has significance in the background of your new novel. The protagonist, Aaron Holland Broussard, declares in the opening pages that his generation was the last to see and experience “traditional America.” What do you mean by “traditional America” in the context of this story, and some of your other novels in which that phrase has appeared?
James Lee Burke: I think of “traditional America” as far more agrarian, and also far more blue collar. It was also an era in which familial values of unity were certainly more important. Two things have changed, predominantly. First, the attitude of values. People were poor when I grew up. We didn’t think of ourselves as poor, because we got by, and life meant much more to people. What little people had, they shared. There was a humility to people that we lack today. Maybe we enjoyed things more, because we had less. But also there was a love of country that made people proud to sacrifice for the good of the nation. When the war broke out in 1941, everyone put aside anger with the government or their neighbors, and they went to work, in some fashion, to save the light of civilization. Everyone knew it. If the imperial Japanese and Hitler’s Nazis shook hands over the Mississippi River, a lot of us wouldn’t have grown up. This isn’t nostalgia. It is the truth. Now, there are people who will not even sacrifice so much as wearing masks in the grocery store during a pandemic, when doing so might save their neighbor’s life. Also, we did not horde. Everyone saved things, and took them down to the firehouse—old tires, newspapers. We would take bacon drippings to the butcher shop. There were even gun drives in 1942—large donation barrels in the sporting stores where people would drop their weapons. Supposedly, they were sent to England. Most people were happy to sacrifice for their country. Furthermore, we no longer have a draft. So, we are left with something that the Founders never wanted when they formulated the American documents—a professional military. I am not making an argument for the draft or militarism, only pointing out that a consequence of having a professional Army is that the poor go to war, and those with money stay home. And the real issue is that we have become a neo-colonial power. It happened in the late Truman era, and in the early years of the Eisenhower era. All of these elements, from lack of individual sacrifice to our neo-colonial foreign policy, have helped to end “traditional America.”
David Masciotra: There is another phrase that recurs throughout Another Kind of Eden: “the other America.” What is the “other America”?
James Lee Burke: The “other America” is the corporate one. I chose the year 1962, because we are today what we made ourselves in 1962. For these reasons: First, the beginnings of the drug culture. The drug culture is of enormous and deleterious influence in our history. We don’t even argue with it anymore. It is everywhere, and we’ve surrendered to it. Second, an American president was murdered, and to this day, no one is sure that it was the work of a lone assassin. Following the murder of John Kennedy, so much work was done to eliminate evidence, and insert flat out lies, into the Warren Report. I mean, Jack Ruby had no mafia ties? That’s ridiculous. The guy ran a skin joint in Dallas, Texas. You don’t do that without the mob. Come on. Anyway, we’ve reached a moment in history where we’ve not just forgotten, but actually cauterized from our memory bank, the Cuban Missile Crisis. We came within two hours of nuclear annihilation. This is what John Kennedy said two weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Victory would have been ashes in our mouths.” He also said, “That within three weeks’ time, 185 million Americans would have died.” We came that close to annihilating major portions of the earth. If it could happen then, it could happen now. What has occurred since then? We’ve allowed our Constitutional entities to be subsumed by corporations, and what Dwight Eisenhower called, “the military-industrial complex.” One consequence, among many, is that we allowed a man—Donald Trump—who praised Mussolini to become our president. This is the conflict of “traditional America” versus “other America.”
David Masciotra: Forgive the theoretical pontification, but it seems like the way you write your novels, including Another Kind of Eden, is that the interpersonal crimes that become central to the plot have some spiritual connection with the major crimes of American history.
James Lee Burke: That’s exactly right. The obvious evolution of a different kind of America is beginning to surface in 1962. The drug culture is part of it. In the novel, we meet these Charles Manson-like kids, and they are less like Manson than they are a new generation of American kids who are disinherited. We also see resistance to not only the United Farm Workers, but all of the labor movement. Well, here is a statistic: In the 1950s, 35 percent of workers were unionized. Now, it is 10.8 percent. The decline of organized labor became severe with Reagan. Also, it was during the Reagan era that the Contras introduced crack cocaine into the inner cities. It doubled the crime rates in the cities, and it allowed the right wingers to blame it on the liberals. They did it, and got away with it.
David Masciotra: And the CIA had knowledge of it the entire time.
James Lee Burke: I’m glad you mentioned that. I had lunch with a CIA man, and I won’t say anything else about him or even mention the city where we had lunch, but I asked him about the introduction of cocaine into American cities by the Contras. This is a literal quote, he said, “Make no mistake about it, Mr. Burke, the cocaine went north, the guns went south.”
David Masciotra: Getting back to Another Kind of Eden, like A Private Cathedral, it has a spectral, almost supernatural depiction of evil. With your recent work, you are getting deeper and darker in your exploration of evil. What is the motivation for doing that now?
James Lee Burke: I think that the power of corporations, which I used to not fear, is today almost insurmountable. We do not have national flags. We have banners that, in effect, represent corporations. The corporations have subsumed our political system, destroying the working class and placing us in ecological catastrophe. To misdirect people from what is happening, the Republicans use race. Nixon talked about “busing,” but he really meant race. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, he told his advisors, “I just gave the entire south to the Republican Party.” Lyndon knew it. What’s really troubling now is that racism is not just a problem down south. It is the problem, and it’s everywhere. The reason people voted for Donald Trump was race. No matter what they say—forget abortion, forget gay marriage, forget taxes or whatever else they come up with, it’s race. Now, in terms of the depiction of evil in my writing, I’d refer to the foreword in which Aaron tells the reader that the ink of Nathaniel Hawthorne flows through the storyline and the characters in Another Kind of Eden. No writer understood the Puritan psyche better than Hawthorne. The Puritans are still with us. Jefferson and Adams discussed their fear about the rise of a new class, one that was substituting an ethos based on greed and mediocrity as a surrogate for the idealism of the founders.
David Masciotra: Another Kind of Eden functions as allegory. How as a storyteller can you weave these large historical and philosophical ideas into the mystery without undercutting the mystery itself?
James Lee Burke: That is a good question. Here is the basic plot: It begins with our narrator, Aaron Holland Broussard. He’s a young fellow who is trying to deny his past, because he feels he deserted his best friend at Porkchop Hill. He finds this ranch—an old farm owned by a man named Lowry—and everyone loves him, and his beautiful Irish wife. The old farm in Colorado is so beautiful, it seems like heaven. But he doesn’t realize that the corporate entities around him are the enemy, and they undo this beautiful place that all these migrant workers have found as a haven. We then discover that something is wrong with the ownership, and the times are changing, and with those changes, the lives of the working class will become uprooted. Simultaneously, the drug culture finds its way into the breadbasket of America, and it will never be the same again. All of this happened in the broader sense. Corporations started importing beef from Argentina, devastating the farmers of Colorado. Now, big agriculture has completely subsumed farming in America. Family farmers are pretty much gone. The story is about the changes that we were about to issue into our lives in 1962. John Kennedy made a speech in 1961, famously saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Compare that with the greed, the anger, the hatred, the misogyny, and just the mediocrity of the people who just left power, and would like to regain power in the United States today. They are undoing democracy, undoing the right to vote just as it was done in the 1890s, and they are not even trying to deny it.
David Masciotra: What does a novelist bring to these issues that a historian or journalist cannot?
James Lee Burke: That’s the challenge. The challenge is to tell the story without proselytizing. To proselytize is a violation of one’s art, and it is dumb. The artist does not tell one what to think, because art is a different kind of truth. It is the essence of truth. Every good artist knows the truth about the world around him, because he is in tune with something that others are not. Some Freudians believe that the conduit to the unconscious is a form of neuroses. Freud himself, however, had total contempt for the novelist. Have you ever read his essay on the novelist? He believed that people like me were weak-kneed, and created heroic figures with whom they identified as a coping mechanism. I don’t know who he read.
David Masciotra: Maybe he needed to read better books.
James Lee Burke: Maybe he did! But anyway, George Orwell—a fellow neurotic—believed that every artist of any kind has a vision of the truth, and has a compulsion to relate it to other people. Whether in a story, a play, a poem, a song, or a painting, the real artist has to bring that understanding to other people.
David Masciotra: I agree with you that your stories function as captivating literature. They don’t read like political manifestos. However, in the “Acknowledgements” section of your book, you thank your readers, writing, “They are more than just readers; they have become friends of the most loyal kind, sharing in our mutual desire to protect and save the earth and all its inhabitants.” You don’t proselytize, but given that statement, you obviously feel that there is a purpose to your literature that goes beyond entertainment.
James Lee Burke: Yes, but in my view, that’s not proselytizing. As I say in the epilogue of the new novel, what gives us our humanity—the glue that holds us all together—is something that is undeniable in our nature, and that is that we all come from the same clay. Millions and millions of years ago, something happened that allowed us to walk out of some swamp someplace, and from that moment we began a journey that continues with where we are now. This is reality. It is not an argument or a debate. So, the real proselytizing is the manufacture, by the people on the other side of the equation, of reasons to ignore that foundational, fundamental reality. These people who invent, what they call, “alternative facts,” try to convince us that the world was created 6,250 years, 30 days, and 5 minutes ago—they’ve got it down to the minute. If you can sell people that—that the earth is only six thousand years old—you can sell them anything. That goes for masks, vaccines, distancing, go down the list. It is an attack on knowledge and science to put creationism on the same level as evolution. It is the intentional dumbing down of America. In Florida, for example, the personnel of every Florida state government agency are not allowed to write down the words, “climate change,” in any official document. And this happens as the corporations are turning the world into a desert. Now, if that is not Orwellian, I don’t know what is. The artist, as Orwell wrote, has to advance the higher truth, especially in the face of this madness.
David Masciotra: For perhaps a novelist or playwright who reads this interview, and shares your sense of political urgency, but also wants to avoid didacticism and proselytization, where do you locate the line between writing with political and philosophical ideas, but avoiding evangelism and the trap of propaganda?
James Lee Burke: Well, to the artist there is no line. Art does not acknowledge “politics” in the sense that we conceive it. It is just a word. Everything is political—even psychiatry. Every psychiatrist will concede that the issue with the unconscious is about power: its presence or its absence. Every story is political in that it is about the acquiescence to power, or the persecution of those who do not have power, or the lust for power.
David Masciotra: Is that the heart of all of the stories you write—the struggle over, for, or against power?
James Lee Burke: That’s it. That’s always been in it. I distrust anyone who seeks control over other people. I get a lot of gone between me and them. What we’ve learned, and what I try to tell, is that power must be given, not taken. The difference is that despots take power, whereas in a democracy the people grant power to the leadership.
David Masciotra: Forgive the abrupt transition, but readers of Another Kind of Eden will recognize in Aaron many of your own characteristics. Is there an autobiographical element to the development of this protagonist?
James Lee Burke: I happily claim all the virtues! On a serious note, I am very grateful for the literary and commercial success of the Robicheaux series, but I believe my three best books are all in the Holland series, and those are House of the Rising Sun, The Jealous Kind, and Wayfaring Stranger. Wayfaring Stranger is my best book. I once told another journalist, “I don’t claim that I deserve the Pulitzer Prize, but that book—Wayfaring Stranger—deserves it.”
David Masciotra: I agree.