Mark Terry

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Thinking About James Lee Burke

July 23, 2008
I was thinking a little bit about James Lee Burke today. In case you haven't heard of him or read any of his books, his dominant mystery series involves ex-New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. I discovered him somewhere around his 4th Robicheaux novel, went crazy and hunted down all the rest, bought all his books in hardcover, then abruptly stopped reading him. That's a blog post for a different day, that odd evolution away from a certain writer or certain type of book.

No, what I've been thinking about is Burke's odd career.

You see, a while back on Erica Orloff's blog I wrote once about fearing that I'd had my shot at being a successful novelist and I'd blown it. The Derek Stillwater novels were it, they didn't work out and that was it, show's over, folks. Erica responded that as long as I didn't quit, it was never over.

Maybe she's right. I don't know, given the current state of the publishing industry, but that's also a different blog topic.

So what's the deal with James Lee Burke?

Well, one thing, he had a novel he wrote that was rejected 111 times over nine years that when it did finally get published was nominated for the Pulitzer.

The other thing is, Burke published three novels in the late 1960s and early '70s. Then nothing. He couldn't give his books away. He sold one paperback original between 1972 and 1985.

He essentially had a 13-year dry spell before breaking back in with the Robicheaux novels, which have made him a bestseller and an award-winning author. In the January 1993 issue of Writer's Digest, Burke said:

"Those 13 years were really hard. I wrote a mess of short stories and so many unpublished novels that I can't even remember all of them. "

He later goes on to say: (and by the way, the piece was written by W.C. Stroby)

"My feeling is there's a time and a reason and a place for everything. I'm convinced that my career is not exceptional, but is instead indicative of the rule--namely, that you never quit. You can't be discouraged. But, at the same time, a person should not fault himself for becoming discouraged. It's going to happen, it's natural. But you still have to commit yourself. You have to do something every day for your art, or you'll never be a success at it."

Well, here's the problem. I agree with him. But I don't. Because, hell, we're all grown-ups here, right? We do realize that sometimes you can try your best and things don't work out. That not everybody can be first place? Right? Not every person who writes novels will get published, not every published novel will succeed, that success is different for each person, that success might be "published" for one and "multiple printings" for another and "bestseller list" for yet another and "number one on the New York Times BS List" for another.

Still, Burke's right. When you quit you only guarantee your failure. 

To which I would add, "And try to enjoy the process because the goal isn't guaranteed."

Mark Terry


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I only discovered JLB last year, Mark. What a wonderful writer. I'm amazed he went so long without a contract. Just goes to show how flaky the publishing business can be. I suppose Burke's story can be seen as encouraging or discouraging, depending on one's level of optimism.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I just got interviewed yesterday for a newspaper profile. The reporter asked me, "If you could only write in one genre, what would it be." And right now, I'm loving YA, and I told her so . . . I could see myself VERY happy with this middle-grade fiction thing I'm doing for a long, long time (which is good, since I am starting with a trilogy).

BUT, I did tell her . . . "I started as a comedic writer. It's what I LOVE writing. But right now, you can't sell comedy to save your life because it gets branded as chick lit, and chick lit is dead." And that's the thing. Sometimes the writing is great but they ain't BUYING what you're selling, so it helps to be multi-talented, I guess, or able to be flexible.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

That's a good point, Erica. Burke started out writing "literary" fiction. One day during his (13 year!) period of not being able to get a contract, he was fishing with a friend and the friend said, "Why don't you write a mystery?"

And the rest, of course, is history.

So yes, it definitely pays to be flexible.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Melanie Avila said...

That reminds me of the quote, "What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?"

Good post.

10:16 AM  
Blogger kitty said...

I occasionally re-read this NY Times essay, No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov, to remind myself that rejection happens:
In the summer of 1950, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. turned down the English-language rights to a Dutch manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh readers report. The work was "very dull," the reader insisted, "a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions." Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. "Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely," the reader wrote, "I don't see that there would have been a chance for it."
Knopf wasn't alone. The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952. More than 30 million copies are currently in print, making it one of the best-selling books in history.


12:52 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

Hey Mark, I agree with Erica. You haven't "failed" (whatever that means) until you're dead. And then you don't have to face the shame of failing, cause you're dead. I think it's a great system! :)

Erica, I think that's a real shame on the industries part. Nothing connects people more quickly than humor, IMO. I was reading the lastest Sookie Stackhouse book last night and I was having a hard time "getting into it" again, and then she had this incredibly hilarious line, and I remembered why I love Charlaine Harris. If humor starts disappearing from the shelves cause people might think it's "chick lit" I think readers will start disappearing from the bookstores. I know I will.

4:46 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

industry's. Sorry. stupid typo demons.

4:47 AM  
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