Followed from Life to Life
If all goes to plan, 1999 will be a very busy year for James Sallis. A collection of essays, Gently into the Land of Meateaters, will be published, as will a biography of the legendary crime writer, Chester Himes. There will a volume of recent poetry (Sorrow's Kitchen), a volume of science fiction and fantasy stories, and a volume of mystery and crime stories. Add this information to the fact that Sallis has already published such volumes as A Few Last Words (1972, short stories), The Guitar Players (1982, musicology), Saint Glinglin (1993, a translation of Queneau), and Difficult Lives (1993, a non-fiction book about paperback writers), and we start to appreciate the bewildering array of Sallis's interests and achievements. More than any other accolade, Sallis's own description that of 'Man of Letters' seems appropriate.
In the series of books that began with The Long-Legged Fly (1992), Sallis has produced some of the most striking, funny, chilling, and above all, intelligent detective/mystery fiction of the decade. These books contain a black detective, Lew Griffin, who is also a teacher of Literature, writer of detective stories, and an alcoholic. The Long-Legged Fly is something strange and wonderful, but risky, perhaps, in that it's not about a private eye solving a case, end of story. It's a portrait of a clever and fractious man over a long stretch of his life: closer, in a way, to a Bildungsroman than a private detective tale. Lew writes in the first person, but the reader cannot be sure (and will not be sure even after the final volume, Ghost of a Flea, is published) how much of what Lew says is the truth and how much is what he, as writer, is composing. We cannot assume "that the character called Lew Griffin is the actual narrator of these volumes with insect titles". We cannot assume "that Lew Griffin is really a writer, not merely a character, and has actually written these other books. Perhaps the novels you are reading are versions of those that Lew mentions in the text. (There's ample evidence to support this.) But the writer himself the Lew who tells us the story of Moth, say is himself, in each novel, each page, each sentence, being written."
Sallis continues by saying, "I don't want to get too heady with all this, but it's at the foundation of much of what I'm about in the series. Such issues are central throughout, touched, upon everywhere and finally to be 'resolved' in the sixth novel. I'm hesitant to address your query not only because I want to avoid impinging on the sixth novel but also because these are extremely difficult matters to talk about without sounding pretentious. I'd prefer to let my 'fictive' discussion of these very questions the books themselves stand: I can hardly give a better, more thorough answer than the one I've given therein."
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has not read and of the "Lew Griffin" books that Sallis has set some high personal standards. He says, "Though current attitudes lead us to this unthinking assumption, novels and mysteries are not mutually exclusive. If today (to borrow a phrase from my friend Mike Moorcock) more mysteries aspire to the condition of Muzak than that of music, this is not to say that they are delimited by anything more than the expectations we ourselves, as writers and as consumers, place on them. If recent American literature has accomplished anything at all, it has been to kick down some of the walls and baffles, ask questions about its heritage, who its true parents were... Are the novels mysteries? Yes, resoundingly. Mystery reviewers complaining that the books are underplotted miss the point: it's not any lack of things happening that throws them, but the fact that the story is not told, the various aspects of the plot are not given, in the way they've grown to expect. Are the novels literature, that is, novels? Yes, absolutely."
The Long-Legged Fly and its follow-ups, Moth (1993), Black Hornet (1997), Eye of the Cricket (1998), and the forthcoming Bluebottle and Ghost of a Flea, contained and will contain a great deal of literary allusions. Sallis feels that he is "upping the ante for intelligent readership. Generally I don't think of the novels, or approach their writing, in terms of their being mysteries. When it came out, I spoke of The Long-Legged Fly as being what might have happened if Chandler and Beckett had collaborated on a novel. I was only in part joking. Current 'literary' novels seem to me scarcely less parochial or convention-bound than the common run of mysteries. Much genre fiction has withdrawn behind walls, making excuses for itself (hey, we tell stories!), adding layer after layer of bricks to the wall until no one can see over anymore. Occasionally rocks are thrown across. And much 'literary' fiction has been vitiated by its disconnection from genre energy, by a kind of abstraction, bloodline thinning as the generations straggle out. There's all too often a dreary sameness to both..."
Lew Griffin's life has many overlaps with Sallis's. "All of us, of course, use the materials of our own life, whatever we can easily retrieve from the physical world about us bits of string and cloth, twigs, straw, plastic to build our nests. First, becuase they're so close by, one has only to reach out and snag them. And second, because such usage lends emotional resonance to our writing. Our own lives, what we have thought, the people we've known this is all any of us have as capital, as writers. Having spent a good deal of this past year writing about Chester Himes, a novelist in whom autobiography and fiction are inextricably and often maddeningly intertwined, I've been thinking about this connection. David Lodge's general observation on the point is an astute one:
Faced with two versions of the same story, one historical and one fictional, most people in our culture will tend to regard the former as more 'real,' hence more meaningful; but the novelist is someone who believes the opposite otherwise he wouldn't go to the trouble of writing fiction. These fictions, however, have the superficial appearance of the historical, and the novelist works his effect partly by concealing the seams that join what he has experienced to what he has researched or invented.
"There's plenty to think about in that brief paragraph. I love 'works his effect partly by concealing,' for instance... The Primitive's Jesse Robinson, that character closest to Himes himself, though he shares much of Himes's character and background, is not Chester, but a facsimile: the man Chester could have been if things had gone just a little differently, the screws been tightened a notch or two closer. Something similar could be said of my own Lew Griffin. Lew's not me, but I could have been Lew. Though in the past I have done my share of hard drinking perhaps a few other people's in the bargain I would caution you again that Lew's alcoholism is a fictional construct. Lew's drinking is emblematic of all the things that distract us from nurturing relationships, from carrying on with our work, from striving to become the person we are capable of being.
"The detective is a product of his social times, the Forties, when drinking was chic (I mean, can you imagine Nick and Nora really dancing after all those martinis?) and as such, it's come down as part of the tradition. Drinking is also, of course, a stamp of 'manliness', and, in terms of the larger society, a kind of communion. That a man should undertake it alone is signature to his isolation. It is so integral to the genre that Geoffrey O'Brien has said that much noir fiction, stripped of details, boils down to one man alone in a room, drinking."
Of course, one of the heroes of the Lew Griffin novels is the city of New Orleans itself. Sallis replies, "One of the many, many lessons we've taken from Joyce is that one may strive to limn the actual city (Joyce, while writing Ulysses, was forever sending letters back home to elicit details of Dublin's layout from friends and family) and at the same time fold this portrait into something larger, structures capable of bearing up beneath the weight of human history and human aspiration, all those huge things looming in the shadows behind each of us.
"Just as I am trying simultaneously to write a detective story (in my insistence that it is a detective story nodding again and again to that genre's traditions), a novel of character, and a kind of useable, modern, urban myth, I am also trying to have my cake and eat it too in rendering New Orleans in all it actuality its mutable, mongrel character, its fascinating denizens, its beauty and the hideousness never more than a few steps away while also trying to make it as Himes did Harlem and Chandler did Los Angeles, a symbol of America.
"New Orleans is the most thoroughgoing crossroads this nation has ever known, a jumble of French, Creole, Spanish, Native American, African-American and European cultures. Because the city is so diverse, it's extremely difficult to 'get' New Orleans. Like most things with character or prominent traits it's easy to caricature hey, just throw in some palm trees, a jazz funeral and Mardi Gras but very hard to draw, so that much of what you see has more the appearance of cartoons. I cannot imagine Lew living anywhere else. He and New Orleans are inextricably intertwined. The city is what made him what he is; they are mirror images of one another; the city's brilliance, dark depths and contradictions are his own."
Sallis moves about often, and expects his work to be altered when he moves (as he will soon) to New York. "The first thing I notice with each new move is an instant surge in production. (Which alone would be reason enough to relocate regularly.) This, I think, has to do with newness, with not seeing the same objects and places day after day, not taking it all for granted. One recovers a certain innocence, an openness and sense of discovery that reflects upon the work, reinvests it." And can he think of any British writers who are honouring a particular city in the way that he is doing for New Orleans? "Mike Moorcock," he answers: "Mother London, one of the great, great city books. And in much, perhaps most, of Iain Sinclair's work (Sinclair being possibly the finest British writer working) it's the city, London, that the books are really about. I'm thinking here not only of Lights Out for the Territory, but equally of Downriver, or White Chappell Scarlet Tracings." Sallis has set a few stories in London himself: "'Jim and Mary G' (published in Orbit), 'Récits' (Transatlantic Review), 'Bubbles' (New Worlds), a few others. These were all written long ago, naturally, when I lived in London or shortly thereafter. I'd no longer be able to do this, much as I should like to. I don't know the city anymore barely recognized it, in fact, when I was last there, and I don't think it remembered me at all. If I had sufficient income, or some other means to sustain myself there, grant commissions or the like, I'd love to live in London again."
The Lew Griffin novels are published by No Exit Press in England, a small(ish) publishing company, which has its obvious advantages and disadvantages. "There's a lot to be said for being able to call up the publisher directly and not have to go through layer after layer," Sallis explains. "You get a lot more attention from everyone, obviously. And if your sales are marginal, as mine are, the small publisher's not as likely to get scared and run away. But of course, with a small publisher the money's not there, nor is distribution. And he's simply not going to have the pull of larger folk. On the other hand, he's likely to try a lot harder. My experience with Ion Mills at No Exit has been completely positive. He's a wonderful man. He's published the books well and gotten them attention, got them noticed. Little short of nuclear weapons would cleave me from No Exit.
"But remember that, although I write within a genre and am well known there and elsewhere I'm not a mainstream, popular novelist. Most large publishers aren't going to be terribly interested in the sorts of things I do. The publisher who brought out Death Will Have Your Eyes here in the States actually has had others come up to congratulate him on publishing such a non-commercial novel. That, I think, speaks volumes.
"American publishers for the Lew Griffin books, first Carroll & Graf, now Walker, have also been small publishers. And much of my other work is brought out by university and small literary presses, some of them essentially one-man operations." All of which means that despite the critical and popular success of the Griffin books, they have not made the author rich. "I'm tempted to respond with a Chekhov stage direction here: laughter through tears. No, the books have not brought me financial security. Far from it. They have allowed me to go on writing, but it's still a gamble and very treacherous footing from book to book. Every time." Nor has he supplemented his income by teaching for some time. "Universities in the States have little use for working writers nowadays: those once-common positions are filled by graduates of writing workshops. Something of a closed-shop, prophecy-fulfilling-itself situation... What saves me is the sale of foreign rights. Gallimard has bought all the novels; and recently we've begun selling to Japan and Germany as well. There's not a great deal of money involved in any of these sales, but after a while it does start adding up. I also do book reviews and other pieces for magazines and newspapers, the occasional introduction, that sort of thing. In the past I've picked up extra money doing freelance editing."
But back to the subject of writing...
"Over the years, I have learned that the only way I can write, that is, the great enjoyment of the thing for me, is to give up all notions of 'the well-made tale', to improvise rather in the way a musician would. This is the way the novels develop. From line to line, page to page, I've little idea what will happen, why, or how. I hope that my own sense of wonder and discovery, this finding of the story that's in there, will communicate itself to the reader...
"Flinging yourself into uncertainty is what art, any serious art," it seems to him, "is all about. Each time you face that first page, that blank canvas, you think: I have absolutely no idea what I am doing, and while in the past I've managed to fool others and myself, this time I am not going to be able to pull it off. There is, too, the other side of that particular coin: I've said elsewhere that one of the deepest problems of creative work is that with time you develop a facility, you know how to do things; that the challenge is to turn away from doing the things you know how to do in the ways you know how to do them."
Writing each of the novels, he set himself a particular (and difficult!) problem. With Moth, it was "to have the central incident occur exactly halfway into the novel, with the two halves radiating symmetrically from it; with Bluebottle, to write from the viewpoint of a blinded Lew, to tell a story that the reader knows (being repeatedly warned of this) is compounded mostly of rumour and wild surmise, and to include in this very short novel a barrage of plot elements (enough for three or four novels) without losing centrality of character. These problems form the core of the book, the 'chart' or 'changes' against which I improvise... It does somewhat surprise me when reviewers complain there's not enough plot.
"I begin a novel, then, with my basic structure in place. Say, as in Bluebottle , that Lew (in a mirror image of the shooting in Black Hornet) will be shot, wake blind and with a year gone from his life, then try to piece that year together from memories of those about him, from his own investigations, and, all else having failed, from his novelistic imagination. The rest accrues, as does a poem, in the very fact of writing: by association, emendation, reversal, appropriation. Sometimes it's little more than a matter of letting the language have its way. Other times the whole engine has to be kick-started with allusions and echoes, to literature or myth, or to incidents and characters from Lew's life. With both Black Hornet and Bluebottle my intention was to return to a leaner, more plot-driven novel. The books are twins in many ways, radiating out from a variant of the same incident (a shooting), the first dealing with black-power movements, the second with white supremacists. Both come after closely structured, internal novels, and as such are intentionally looser-jointed, more open freer improvisations."
The Griffin novels work because of Sallis's skill at psychological sleight of hand. The sand shifts, and all of a sudden we slide through into a hidden chamber that we didn't know existed. Would it be fair, given any of this, to say that surrealism made an impact on him? "Surrealism made a profound impression on all of us," he replies, "even those who have no idea what surrealism is. (Have you watched any videos lately?) What the surrealists were saying is that there is another world behind this one the same thing the paranoid says. The difference being that the surrealist world, for all its implicit terrors, is a strangely beautiful, appealing place.
"For many, the belief that the visible world is the only world, that we have no existence apart from dailyness, is an intolerable state of mind. We seem to have a desperate need for there to be another world behind or to the side of this one, whether supporting or subverting it; the world of religious belief, of conspiratorial webs, of pitched struggles between dark and light. I wonder if that very sense of something beyond the glimpses we have of it, or imagine we have may not in fact be the source of all art."
Still on the subject of surrealism, we should not forget that Sallis reads French fluently and has a "predisposition for French literature, which has never completely let go the hold surrealism had on it." He has written a cycle of poems, loosley termed "Surrealist poems", a dozen or so of which are collected in his Black Night's Gonna Catch Me Here: Selected Poems 1968-1998. And there is also the "background in science fiction" which means that "elements one might be tempted to term 'surrealist' may actually derive as much from having come up saturated in the work of people like Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber and Phil Farmer (who also said there was a world apart from this one), or from the influence of non-realist European models. Science fiction and fantasy, for instance, at their best go on pursuing a goal largely abandoned by centralist literature: they attempt to put a framework around man's place in the universe...
"I love surrealist art, and for many years planned plans now abandoned to write a book on the movement and its influences. Apollinaire, for instance, was my earliest profound French influence. I've many times cited De Chirico in my work. Few things in the world seem to me more mysteriously beautiful than those dreamlike scenes Paul Delvaux painted. I love Magritte's metaphysical wit and Duchamps' divine impudence. And if I had to pick a single favourite filmmaker, it would almost certainly by Luis Buñuel."
Another of Sallis's major crime-writing projects is, of course, the biography of Chester Himes. How did that come about?
"I've been writing about Himes off and on for twenty-some years. Himes is essential to the Lew Griffin books as well: he's mentioned in them all, the second is dedicated to his memory, in the third he actually does a walk-on. It was Jamie Byng at Canongate Books/Payback Press who came to me and asked if I'd be interested in doing a biography. We worked out details (small ones, such as what I was going to live on during the time I worked on it) and I began. I've plugged away at it for over a year now, although I did take time out to finish Bluebottle. It has been, as so much work is, by turns exhausting and exhilirating. I think, once it's done, I'll feel much the same as I felt about another impossible project, my translation of Queneau's Saint Glinglin. You climb back up to the light and you think: 'Hey, that was great!' But while you're at it you're thinking: 'What am I doing down here in the dark, and isn't that another pile of guano just ahead?' But I'm very, very proud of and pleased to have done the translation. And I suspect I'll feel the same about the biography.
"My greatest constraints have been time (since I contracted for delivery within a year), lack of funds for necessary travel (to archives and interviews), and my desire all the while to be writing novels instead... When I am actively writing poems, I keep getting ideas for new poems. And when I'm writing short stories it's the same. Now, this is no huge problem. You just water the little buggers, and they grow. But for the past eight years I've been writing novels, and when you have six or seven novels, you want to write..."
Himes's name is not mentioned, however, in Sallis's theoretical list of collaborators on a writing project. In Sallis's opinion, Himes is so individual a writer that he cannot imagine a collaboration. The question posed is: If you could work with any writer, dead or alive, who would it be and why? "Beckett, Chandler. (I've said in fact that The Long-Legged Fly reads as though Becket and Chandler had collaborated on a mystery novel.) Gerald Kersh. Ted Sturgeon. Kenneth Fearing. Stanislaw Lem. Marek Hlasko. I could well go on 'pages of illustrations,' as Wallace Stevens says. The result? I suspect it would be much like what I write now. Every one of my novels is a collaboration with all these writers, and with hundreds of others."
And who does he feel is currently doing good work in the detective/crime fields? "Here, I hesitate. There are so many fine writers working today. And I really don't read an awful lot of crime fiction far more poetry, for instance; European novels, old standbys such as Joyce, Cervantes, Beckett, Himes, Pynchon, Pale Fire, Blood Meridian or necessarily make the distinction. I do seek out, and have for many years now, anything new by Larry Block, Jim Burke, Donald Westlake. Daniel Woodrell does wonderful work: I've been recommending his Woe to Live On for years. It would be hard to imagine a more powerful novel than Poppy Z. Brite's Exquisite Corpse. Word for word, line for line, she is a fine writer, though generally overlooked as a 'horror writer.' Iain Sinclair is astonishing: a dedication to language virtually unknown these days. And I think George Pelecanos without a doubt one of the dozen or so most exciting, most important novelists of our time. It's a long list."
The name of Pelecanos is mentioned again when Sallis discusses the age-old argument about whether or not violence in art contributes to real-life violence. Sallis says, "I believe that, as in all discussion, we must first define terms, sketch in the boundaries of our argument. Here, the fulcrum is that word 'art.' I seriously doubt that anyone watching King Lear is going to go out, find an old man, and blind him. Or watch The Seven Samurai and head out for the mall to lay assault to incoming shoppers. But I suspect that the miasma of violence seeping in from popular culture movies, TV shows may be quite a different thing. This does not expand your view, or give it focus: this distorts it... One of my favourite working writers today is George Pelecanos, and one reason I admire him, quite aside from the fact that he's an incredible storyteller and a fine writer, is that with George, who writes, after all, street books, really tough urban fiction, when violence happens, it's real. George knows that people don't spend too much time waving guns at each other and discussing their motives. When it happens, George says, it happens fast then there's blood everywhere.
"There's a moral, and behind that a social, and behind that an intensely personal, weight to violence. Somehow we must strive to get the heft of all that into what we write."
What other advice would he give on the subject of writing? For example, for somebody just starting out. "I'm not sure I could do better here than to quote Texas writer A. C. Green: 'My advice to young writers is to become old writers, because young writers get disappointed and give up, that sort of thing, very easy.' Nowadays, with even long-time pros falling off their horses at every crossroad, it's particularly difficult to sustain the illusions so essential to literary life: first, that one will finish work and get into print; second, that others will read it; finally, that somehow this all matters..."
James Sallis is an analytical man, and directs his sharp eye on his own work frequently. "I am, as I hope becomes evident here, a thoughtful writer. Remember, too, that frequently I put on other hats, or sweep a protective cape about me, to transform myself to editor or critic. Once the work is done, and in intermediate stages, I direct those skills upon it. So, yes, I believe I'm quite aware of what is going on in my books." Is he better at introspection than the fictional Lew Griffin? "I'm not at all sure that Lew is a good self-analyst. He seems always to be floundering, doesn't he? Forever beginning books that turn into something else, disdainful of his early work; as in his life, rife with good intentions that for one reason or another never come to fruition. This man, who can understand so well and sympathize so purely with others' pain, never gets a hold on his own. So it is, I might suggest, with his work."
Final question. What is the most treasured book (of someone else's) in James Sallis's collection, and why? He answers, "I'm not really a collector of books. Moving about so much, I tend to lose, misplace or abandon them in large numbers. I've a stack of old paperbacks of Sturgeon that I treasure, a small collection of early editions of Gerald Kersh, a copy of Hopscotch that I've had since I lived in London in the 60s, editions of Auden and Yeats that I find myself returning to again and again, a fairly comprehensive shelf of Chip Delany's books, half a dozen of Mike's best. These all follow me from place to place, life to life."
David Mathew is a freelance writer and copyeditor. His work has appeared in The St James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, Interzone, Foundation, Tomorrow SF, The New Writer, Shots, and a dozen other magazines.
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