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What I Know About Aging

An original essay

I think of my continuing characters primarily as the center of a continuing story. Again and again, the most familiar characters in my novels — Dave Robicheaux, Hackberry Holland and Billy Bob Holland — indicate to the reader that in their belief, the story is ongoing. Each of them becomes the Everyman figure in medieval drama. The story that this Everyman narrates to us is the story of us all. Or at least that is my intention. The historical epic does not change; only the names and faces of the players do.

See also: Interview with James Lee Burke.

The characters in my work age, as we all do, and it would be unrealistic to portray them otherwise. With luck and a degree of longevity, I hope to portray perhaps the changes a person experiences as he or she goes forward in life. I've come to believe that numerical age, both in fiction and in life, is not of consequence. In many ways I knew more when I was 21 than when I was 40. I've also learned that if age brings wisdom, it has by and large slid right past me. If age brings any knowledge at all, at least in my opinion, it is the acceptance that we know very little.

As a novelist, my challenge is to create a character that is somehow emblematic of what is best in us, and at the same time one that reflects our weaknesses and the hubris that is often our undoing. We do not watch Hamlet in order to learn about Elizabethan England; we watch it to learn about ourselves. A good writer creates a character that is a crucible of love and pain, joy and remorse. To do this, a writer has to approach his subject, the nature of his fellow man, with both humility and empathy or he will produce only stereotypes or stories that contain little of value.

I began writing about Hackberry Holland in the 1960s. My first story about him is titled "Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans." In this story, Hackberry is a high-school baseball pitcher who falls in love with a young Mexican girl and has to learn that rejection by his peers is often the price a brave and virtuous man must pay for the sake of honor. I also published a story about Hackberry's ordeal in a North Korean POW camp. Later I wrote a novel that dealt with Hackberry's alcoholic political career, titled Lay Down My Sword and Shield. In this novel, Hackberry was cynical and bitter and often flippant. Many years passed before I wrote about him again, this time in a book titled Rain Gods.

I wrote this book because I felt I owed Hackberry an amends. I think the sequel, Feast Day of Fools, is an even better book, the best I've written, and I hope my amends to Hackberry is complete — and that he will pardon me for portraying him as I did in 1971.

The older characters in my fiction carry only one burden, namely, that if there is any wisdom in age, it consists of the sad knowledge we cannot pass it on to others. Unfortunately we try, and therein lies our frustration and often our anger. But as Dave Robicheaux says, what finer experience is there than joining the Earth in its dance through the heavens?

Also of interest: Wendy Lustbader on How 'Life Gets Better.' >>

Best-selling author James Lee Burke has written 30 novels. His latest, Feast Day of Fools, was published in September.