Riffle Backstory: Q&A with James Lee Burke, Author of Wayfaring Stranger

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James Lee Burke is no stranger to classic mystery writing: he's written dozens of novels in his lifetime, two of which (Black Cherry Blues and Cimarron Rose) have won Edgar Awards. While his Dave Robicheaux series has won him acclaim, he has also written two other series about members of the fictional Holland family as well as several miscellaneous novels and short stories.

His latest novel, WAYFARING STRANGER, has a brand new protagonist: the intrepid Weldon Holland. Sweeping across decades of the 20th century, WAYFARING STRANGER is a gripping and soulful tale—and Burke's greatest source of pride.

James Lee Burke answered some questions for Riffle about WAYFARING STRANGER in time for its release on July 15, 2014.

What are you reading right now?

Clouds of Glory, a biography of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda.

Beginning in the midst of the Great Depression and carrying through World War II and beyond, WAYFARING STRANGER covers a fascinating era in history. Which elements of this time period are most important to Weldon Holland's adventure?

All of it is of one piece in the story. Weldon's first-person account begins with his encounter with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934. The story then jumps to the Battle of Ardennes Forest in 1944 and Weldon's discovery of a Jewish girl under a pile of corpses in an extermination camp. The girl will not only become Weldon's wife, but will set an example in courage and decency that will become a model for Weldon.

The story returns to Texas and the oil boom of the postwar era, where Weldon discovers a level of evil that his wartime experience has not prepared him for. The Song of Roland and the story of the Knights Templar are also elements in the story, as is Hollywood. Nothing else that I have written comes close to this book.

What was the easiest part of writing WAYFARING STRANGER? What was the hardest?

None of it was hard. I felt as though the book was written by a hand other than mine. I had to wait over fifty years to write this book because many of the players were still living. I had no plan or outline for this book, and I recreated the events as I remembered them and let the people who were there tell the story. This book will probably remain as the one of which I am most proud. The irony is, I think it was given to me by people who are already over the big divide.

You've written an impressive number of novels, some of which follow cousins Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland, but WAYFARING STRANGER is the first to follow protagonist Weldon Holland. What was it like to set out with a new main character, and is there any crossover between Weldon and the other Holland men?

Yes, we meet Weldon's grandfather, the lawman Hackberry, who put John Wesley Hardin in jail. Hackberry appears in several of the Holland novels and is also the grandfather of Hackberry the Korean War veteran.

The patriarch of the family is the gunfighter and Baptist preacher Sam Morgan Holland, who was my great-grandfather (without the 'D' at the end of his name). His daughter was Alafair Hollan, whose name Dave Robicheaux and I both appropriated for our daughters.

If you could meet any author in history, dead or alive, who would it be and what's the first question you'd ask?

William Shakespeare. If I met him, I'd ask for a role in one of his plays. I would love to recite on stage the following lines from Henry IV: "By my troth, I care not. A man can die but once. We owe God a death... And let it go which way it will, he who dies this year is quit for the next."

  • Wayfaring Stranger: A Novel (A Holland Family Novel)

  • Black Cherry Blues: A Dave Robicheaux Novel (Dave Robicheaux Mysteries (Paperback))

  • Cimarron Rose