James Sallis hears voices.
They're of the literary sort, which is a gift many writers wish for. It happened with the neo-noir novel Drive, which was adapted into the film starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. Sarah Jane, his latest work, which came out on October 1 from Soho Press, began in a similar fashion.
Phoenix New Times wanted to learn more about Sarah Jane, so we caught up with Sallis in his central Phoenix home. It's filled with books, musical instruments, and cat tents. Sallis has lived in the area for over 15 years and several of his novels are set here, including Drive. Sallis is enjoying eight releases in total this fall, including the reissue of the six novels in his series of Lew Griffin crime novels and his fifth poetry collection, titled Ain’t Long 'Fore Day (out on Halloween). Additionally, a two-in-one volume of literary criticism and essays about noir fiction, titled Difficult Lives/Hitching Rides, is scheduled to come out this January.
When asked where Sarah Jane fits into his oeuvre, Sallis explains with a laugh. “It fits, so far, at the end of it," he says. "I don't distinguish the novels from the poetry, criticism, or even the translation. It's like I saved up all these rubber bands and I'm always adding on to it. But it's just really one big ball of junk. So I don't think it's actually separate.”
He should know. Beyond his 18 novels, which have been translated into as many languages, he’s published poems, fiction and essay collections, and musicology and book criticism in his more than 50-year literary career. He’s also a skilled multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, who was most recently in the band Three-Legged Dog. Yeah, he’s one of those guys.
Sallis is also a sought-after novel-writing instructor, editor, and mentor to many. Not that these are in order of importance. His talents often inform each other and cross-pollinate, like elements blending into a vast expressive palate.
Sarah Jane, like 2013’s Others of My Kind, is the second novel of Sallis’ featuring a female protagonist. His main characters are most often men of the genus hard-boiled.
“When I wrote Others of My Kind, I had a voice come to me, and I realized the voice was female," he says. "And I thought, wow, this is going to be hard ... Sarah Jane, same thing. I had that voice talking to me from the very, very first. What you read on the first page is basically what came to me.”
He counsels his writing students to strive for what he’s been gifted by these characters. He says, “I urge students to have something on that first page, first paragraph that has the sense of the writer leaning forward and saying: ‘I have something important to tell you.’”
He received a similar gift of voice with Drive. “Sarah Jane sat there for months, much like Drive, which I got the first page of, and it sat, for years actually, before it became anything,” he says.
Readers will be glad Sallis listens to the voices. Sarah Jane is a mesmerizing tale, noir-gothic fiction shot through with veins of a fractured cautionary tale. It’s lyrical but taut, a meditation on memory, choice, randomness, and death.
The setting for Sarah Jane bears some resemblance to the small town featured in its predecessor Willnot, the first Sallis novel to be set outside of a city’s underbelly.
“I grew up in a small town,” says Sallis. “Small towns are in desperate straits, most of them, and secondly, they're losing their individuality just as fast as hell. That's a terrible thing. It's a terrible blow spiritually and economically. It's something that needs to be poked at again and again. I don't go on harangues on the internet. I don't write op-eds. I write stories or novels about things I need to poke at.”
The character's past makes her an unlikely yet adroit small-town cop, but her inner demons loom large. Her past is shown like a broken mirror reflecting foreign stars, hinting at unknowable constellations. Mix in lots of death, murder, and a crumbling mansion or two. Add a shantytown and the joys and desperations of country life. Weave through this a confessional narrative that leaves out more than it tells, and you approach the multifaceted texture of Sarah Jane.
The book is getting some excellent notices, including a rave review in The New York Times Book Review by Marilyn Stasio, “Best of the Month” selections in Amazon for both Literature and Mystery, starred reviews in Booklist and Library Journal as well as a starred review and a pick of the week in Publishers Weekly.
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Another star in the constellation of Sallis’ catalog is Drive, both the novel and the film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. The movie unquestionably brought him to a broader audience. He’s grateful for this success, which has provided him the luxury of stretching out as a writer. It seemed inconceivable during his lean days coming up when “the early novels were all done in six months or so.”
“Drive validated and drew attention to all the other books I’d written, and would write," he says. "My happiest days were when I was out signing, and someone would give me a stack of books and say, ‘Can you sign these?’ Or someone would email me and say, ‘I saw the movie. I read the book, and now I’m on the third book of the Lew Griffin cycle.’ It’s wonderful readers found these books they wouldn’t have found otherwise. And that’s the best thing a writer can hope for. Drive brought all this stuff back to life and that's a huge, huge thing.”
Sallis expresses gratitude as he looks back on over 50 years of publishing books.
“I have readers from all over the world,” he says. “I have readers who are very intelligent people, who obviously appreciate and wait for what I write. That's what it's all about.”