Skip to content

Interview With James Lee Burke, Author of 'Feast Day of Fools'

At 75, he publishes his 30th novel

He's been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Named the Grand Master of his profession by the Mystery Writers of America in 2009. Won two Edgar Awards. And now James Lee Burke is publishing his 30th novel.

Man must be proud, right? Full of hubris? Stoked with ego?

See also: Excerpt from Feast Day of Fools.

Writer James Lee Burke, bestselling mystery writer on the eve of his 75th birthday discusses aging - portrait of James Lee Burke

Photo by The Missoulian/Linda Thompson/AP Photo

Author James Lee Burke.

That would not be James Lee Burke. "Thirty novels, yes," he says in a surprisingly gentle voice for someone who writes such rugged fiction. "But I'm old. That's the downside." And then he laughs — a big, hearty, infectious laugh that defies his 75 years.

Burke lives near Missoula, Mont., on a 120-acre spread "that tries to be a ranch," he says. He has a view of the northern Rockies, enjoys his two fox trotters, who "chase each other around the pasture," and stays healthy by working out every day. He and his wife, Pearl, married 51 years, have four children and four grandchildren.

His new novel, Feast Day of Fools, is set in southwest Texas and features a favorite returning character, Sheriff Hackberry Holland, as well as an array of complex figures and a gritty turn of events. He spoke to the AARP Bulletin about aging, his life and his new book.

Q. You feel age doesn't necessarily bring wisdom. Why?

A. It certainly has eluded me! Most of the things we take for granted about age just don't have anything to do with reality — for example, that we have less trepidation about mortality, that we lose romantic interests. That stuff is just nonsense. Blather!

Q. In your novel, you say, "The only wisdom an old man learns is that his life experience is ultimately his sole possession." How so?

A. Every older person knows exactly what I mean. I was born in the Depression, grew up in the war years. I have seen things that I know will replicate over and over again. So when we say to other people, "This is how the game goes" and their eyes glaze over, we understand why. When we were that age, we felt the same way — that elderly people think they're prescient. The truth is, they are!

Q. Is there a way to rectify this?

A. Here's how I see it. An exceptional person is a young person who seeks advice from someone who has paid his dues. I'm not saying I'm an exemplary person, but as a young person I always respected older people who had really been in the center of the furnace and lived extraordinary lives. I listened to them. It was a gift.

Q. Name a benefit of growing older.

A. When you're in the seventh inning stretch, you become content with people. You don't argue. You don't feel like it anymore. It's a great release!

Next: James Lee Burke on retirement. >>

Q. What are your thoughts on retirement? Will you retire?

A. No. I don't believe in retirement. People can retire from a vocation, but not from living. Inactivity should not be a goal. In America, lots of people are at war with the workplace. We're always thinking, when can I get rid of this? But the successful person wakes up in the morning, wants to go to his job and doesn't want to let go of it.

Q. Is that you?

A. I work all the time. But I don't think of it as work.

Q. Are you already planning your next book?

A. Yes. I always stay one book ahead of what I'm writing.

Q. Finish this sentence: 'I think of life as …'

A. A great party. A great playground! What better place to live than the Earth? And look at this country. It's an incredible place to live. Anyone who doesn't love the United States has a serious problem.

Q. We forget the riches we have, you're saying.

A. That's it. We have it all. Yet we constantly denigrate and flagellate and see ourselves as a collapsing nation. My heavens! We are the only superpower in the world. The rest of the world admires America and wants to be our friend.

Q. Do you ever think about your legacy as a writer?

A. I hope I have one! But you can't think in those terms. You do your work a day at a time and do it as well as you can. It's the only way.

Q. For readers of your new book, what is your hope?

A. That what I've written brings something into the life of another. When people tell me things in my books have really helped them, well, that is just a tremendous reward.

Also of interest: Unexpected pleasures of growing older. >>

Maureen Mackey is a writer and editor based in New York.