James Lee Burke’s office in his home outside Missoula, Mont., as seen on a Zoom call, is cluttered with the detritus of a long literary life. There are books, photographs, a clutch of pens, and family heirlooms, including a Confederate sword carried by his great grandfather through the Civil War.
The tenor of Burke’s voice is a bit like the wheels on a Ford F-150 rolling down a highway: bass tones highlighted with a higher pitch. There’s also a slight wobble, suggesting those wheels might need rebalancing. But that is likely due to age. Burke is 84 and has had a distinguished career: he was named an MWA Grand Master in 2009, his forthcoming Another Kind of Eden (Simon & Schuster, Aug.) is his 41st book—and he’s very much still at it. Another novel is already finished. And he promises more to come.
Somewhere in that office is Burke’s beloved Gibson J-150 guitar, which he bought in 1965 in Lexington, Ky. Music and musical allusions have long been threaded through his books, and he’s occasionally sung and picked his guitar for audiences at readings over the years. For the curious, YouTube has several videos of him playing Hank Thompson’s song “The Wild Side of Life,” tapping his toe in time. It’s a tune he says any Southern boy must learn.
Born in Houston in 1936, Burke was raised on the Gulf Coast. As a young man he spent time in Louisiana, Missouri, Colorado, and California, working jobs ranging from land surveyor and pipefitter to social worker. He published his first novel, Half of Paradise, in 1965; in its review, the New York Times compared it to Faulkner and Sartre.
Burke produced several more literary works (which remain hard to find and command high prices on the antiquarian book market), before turning to the hard-edged, gritty mystery novels for which he is acclaimed. He says the first, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was rejected 111 times, before being published by Louisiana State University Press and eventually shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. The novels starring his best-known protagonist, former New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux, came later.
Burke has long drawn from his own experience for the settings of his novels. He spent childhood summers in New Iberia, La., where Robicheaux lives, and Robicheaux’s adopted daughter is named Alafair, just like one of Burke’s grandmothers and his daughter, the lawyer and crime novelist Alafair Burke.
Another Kind of Eden marks the 11th entry in Burke’s series starring the Holland family. Set in 1962 in Colorado, the book is narrated by Aaron Holland Broussard, a peripatetic would-be novelist who, like Burke, has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. Broussard finds a job as a laborer, working for an abusive boss, on a big farm in Trinidad, Colo., near the New Mexico border. He starts a relationship with a local beauty (who is wrapped up in the life of a nefarious professor) and soon finds himself in a swirl of trouble involving drugs, cults, and what may or may not be the supernatural.
Broussard was also the protagonist of Burke’s 2016 novel The Jealous Kind; in it, he’s a teenager living in Houston in the 1950s. Asked if Aaron is an avatar for himself, Burke balks. “I won’t say I lived that life,” he explains, “but I will say I was there at the time.”
For many years Burke divided his time between Louisiana and Montana, where he and his wife of 61 years, Pearl, now live year round on a 120-acre ranch. “It’s pretty small by Montana standards—three stock tanks and three pastures,” Burke notes, and it serves as a horse rescue and an animal refuge. “I find the presence of animals very comforting. We owe them a great apology for our treatment of them. Right now, we have wolves, elk, moose. They are all good guys. We’re even teaching a cougar to be a vegetarian.”
Burke says he turned to the animals for solace during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We have had many pandemics over the years,” he adds. “The origin is most often with animals, because they are dying—dying of drought and what we are doing to the planet. It’s undeniable. The Old Testament again and again admonishes us to care for animals. We haven’t done that. We have done very cruel things to them, and I think that might be our undoing.”
The reference to the Bible should won’t be unfamiliar to readers of Burke, as the Bible and Catholic theology are frequent touch points in his novels. This is the case, also, in Another Kind of Eden. “The book is really a continuation of the rebirth of the Western novel,” he says. “But the Western novel is not really the American Western. It’s really the story of the search for the Holy Grail. That is the origin of all American literature, going back to James Fenimore Cooper.” He also sees that tradition as going further back, to the morality plays of the Middle Ages, the Bible, and Greek and Roman myths.
The events of Another Kind of Eden take place in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Burke says brought the U.S. closer to doomsday than ever before. “John F. Kennedy said in public statements that we were within perhaps two hours of nuclear war,” he notes—“an event in which 180 million Americans would have died.”
Another historical footnote that becomes important to the story is the founding of the United Farm Workers. Broussard has something like an epiphany while attending a church service near at the site of the Ludlow massacre, where 22 striking coal miners and their families were murdered by the National Guard in 1914.
Now in his eighth decade of life, Burke has seen a lot of history. He has come to believe that all history may well be contemporaneous. “The past is not even the past,” he says. “My father was something of a historian. He did not believe that time was sequential. He believed that all time occurred simultaneously, or as he would have said it, ‘as though in a dream inside the mind of God.’ So, that is the story I have written here.”
Ed Nawotka is the bookselling and international editor of Publishers Weekly.