After decades of toiling in relative obscurity, building a small but fiercely devoted readership, James Sallis, 66, may have finally made it to the big time. A major motion picture adaptation of Sallis's 2005 novella, Drive, is slated for release, close to the publication of his new novel, The Killer Is Dying (Walker). The writer/musician, best known for his literate, exquisitely crafted crime novels—the Lew Griffin detective series, the Turner trilogy, Death Will Have Your Eyes, and, of course, Drive—has created an impressive body of work over the past 40 years, with more than two dozen volumes of fiction, poetry, translation, essays, and criticism.
Asked if it feels a bit surreal at this point in his career to have his work translated into film, Sallis is philosophical: "Well, I suppose it could feel like someone's thrown all your clothes out the window–but it doesn't. Nic Refn [who won the award for Best Director at Cannes this year] has reimagined the book, breathing in the spirit of it, and breathing it back out as film. He's reached in and teased out the very heart of it."
The pulp fiction–inspired Drive is set partially in the Arizona desert, with a Hollywood stunt car driver who moonlights as a criminal wheelman. It's perhaps Sallis's most accessible novel, and his most successful in the U.S. (Sallis has a strong fan base in Europe.)
His new novel, The Killer Is Dying, is also set in Arizona—Sallis and his wife, Karyn, have lived there since 1995—in the sunburned sprawl of Phoenix. The story centers on three characters whose lives intersect in unusual ways, but who never actually meet. "They are all three, for reasons at once social, familial, and personal, sundered from society," Sallis says. Christian is a hired killer who has been sent to Phoenix to fulfill a contract, but another assassin beats him to the quarry. We soon learn that Christian, which isn't his real name, is dying from an unnamed disease and is himself being targeted. Sayles, a Phoenix detective, methodically works the case, which draws him closer and closer to Christian while Sayles's bedridden wife slowly succumbs to cancer. Then there's Jimmie, a boy of about 13 or 14, whose parents have simply abandoned him. Alone in the family house, Jimmie keeps expecting someone to notice, for the authorities to show up. When nobody does, he figures out a way to survive by selling toys on eBay. "Naturally I first imagined that their lives would intersect," Sallis says. "I mean, that's the way we do it, isn't it? But how much more interesting it would be—the stubborn writer thinks to himself as he pushes along—if they didn't meet. And how much truer to the theme. As I tell my students: reject the first three or four things that come to mind. Peel it back, go deeper."
Things get really interesting in The Killer Is Dying when Jimmie begins to have the same dreams that Christian is having. For Sallis, who likens his writing process to musical improvisation, this was one of the novel's big surprises: "The dreams, like everything else, were not planned. One learns to be still and listen to what the story wants to be. As I wrote into the book, I thought how it had started with a waking dream, that I might profitably carry that in-between state on into the body of the novel. Once I knew the kid was having the killer's dreams, I'd have been a fool not to use that structurally—recounting events in the killer's life, both his past and what was going on about him now, by way of Jimmie's dreams."
What's next for Sallis? He's at work on a sequel to Drive (tentatively called Driven) and continues to teach creative writing at Phoenix College. And when he's not writing, Sallis is with his band, Three-Legged Dog, playing guitar, banjo, fiddle, and other stringed instruments.■
Patrick Millikin is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Ariz.