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James Sallis Peels Back

The Top Layer To Writing

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James Sallis Author of The Driver. Image courtesy Karyn Sallis.
Author Of The Driver And Lew Griffin Series Opens Up About How Young Writers Can Take The Leap Into Polishing Their Craft And Why Phoenix And Tucson Are Good Fictional Settings

By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

June 24, 2013 — James Sallis is an author, poet and writing instructor living in Phoenix. He is also a musician in the Arizona band Three-Legged Dog. Amongst other works, he has written the Lew Griffin detective series, The Killer is Dying, and Drive, the book that inspired Nicolas Winding-Refn’s film of the same name starring Ryan Gosling. Sallis currently teaches writing courses at Phoenix College.

Modern Times Magazine: As a professional writer, what does your daily schedule look like? I am guessing it is not the same as someone with a nine-to-five job.

James Sallis: No, no it’s not. That’s actually the best thing about it. I only had to put on clothes because I was coming to meet you.

It varies a lot. I do most of my most creative stuff in the morning. I get up and I answer emails, so a lot of business happens then. And then I work. But, as a book progresses, I tend to work more and more. As I’m getting more into the book, I’ll be writing on and off all day, and I’ll even get up at two o’clock in the morning and write and go work somewhere. It’s just kind of spread out.

I used to binge write. I would just sit down and write furiously—in five or six or ten pages. The connections don’t seem to happen quite that fast anymore. And there’s much more ‘oh, shit’ and standing up and wandering around the house and then ‘oh, yeah, that is what I want to do next.’ It’s a slower procedure, but you learn to go with what works.

MTM: Where do you find your inspiration from? I know that is a broad question, but you can take it any way you want.

JS: I mostly steal from other writers, quite frankly (laughs). You know, I read continuously, and I read stuff that is really, really different from mine. And you’ll be reading a poem and think ‘You know, I could do something like that in the story I’m working on.’ So, a lot of it is that.

A lot of it is just imagination. I teach writing, and I’ve never really understood someone who says ‘I don’t have any ideas.’ Karyn (Sallis’ wife) and I go out to dinner and I’m eavesdropping on the next table thinking ‘God, there’s a story there’ or we have ants on the counter in our kitchen and I send her an email saying ‘the ants have me. They demand a flight to Mexico and five pounds of sugar.’ It’s just using your imagination. You’re refusing to see things in the appropriate or received wisdom manner. Because things are never as they appear. It’s just peeling back that top layer. I think that’s where all writing, all creativity, comes from.

MTM: When did you begin writing? Did you start when you were a kid or was it something you picked up as you got older?

JS: The vast majority of us started when we were really, really young. The first I remember is writing little plays for my fellow students when I was in the third grade or something like that. I’m sure they were just dreadful.

And then I remember sometime around the fifth grade beginning to write stories. I was reading a lot of Robert Heinlein and I was trying to write very much in that same first person voice that Heinlein does so beautifully. And it just telescoped from there. I knew all along that I was lucky enough to find the one thing that I was really good at. You know (Raymond) Chandler said he could have been a second-rate anything, that’s kind of how I feel. But I knew that I could really, really write well. I kind of assumed that I would have to do something else for a living and did for the largest part of my life.

But, I think I knew by the time I was 11 or 12 that this is where I was headed.

MTM: Who are some of the authors that influenced you as you developed as a writer?

JS: I think the last time I was asked that was by an Italian interviewer and I said you’d have to come and take a picture of my bookshelves. One of the earliest was a science-fiction writer by the name of Theodore Sturgeon. And I was reading a lot of science-fiction. I had been reading science-fiction since I was about five-years-old. I almost taught myself to read.

I was loving all of it — Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury — all of those older writers. But Sturgeon was the first one that made me see how much more you could do. He was writing science-fiction, but he was really writing stories about people. People that I knew, people that I saw around. And I was seeing in his stories the things that I saw in the Hemingway and Faulkner and the other stuff I was reading, that same sort of intensity.

But I was also seeing that I might be able to do this. When I read Faulkner, I didn’t think I could do that. But with Sturgeon, I thought that maybe this was possible. So, he was, and remains, a tremendous influence. So, that the was the first big one.

Hemingway was a major influence when I first started writing because I sort of instinctively went for a sort of trim style and who better to learn from than Hemingway?

But the next huge influence on me was probably when I discovered contemporary French literature. I was in London editing a magazine called New Worlds, which was a avant-garde science-fiction magazine. We published J.G. Ballard when he was writing his best stuff. Just a lot of exciting stuff. And I was the book reviewer, so I would get stacks of these books that you would never see in the United States, French translations. And I found a wealth of poetry that was doing things very differently than American poetry at the time. So, I started reading a lot of French literature and taught myself French so I could read it and that really fell into place with all of the foreign films I had seen.

When people ask me my influences in short interviews, I say foreign films, mainly French, that I saw in the 1950s and bad science-fiction films.

MT: Moving on to your stories, setting seems to play an extremely important role in your work, almost like another character.

JS: I remember reading someone, I think it was John Ciardi, who said our minds repeat the landscape. And I took that to heart. I’ve lived in really interesting places and when I started writing the Lew Griffin books I felt that New Orleans, which I still consider home...I had read very few novels or stories where the New Orleans that I knew emerged. So, one of the things that I was trying to do was to show the different parts of the city, how varying it is and not just show you St. Charles and the French Quarter and the mansions but take you about half a mile away and show you where people are living on burned out staircases.

So, I think that became very ingrained in me. I think Lew Griffin is very much a part of New Orleans. He came there when he was young and New Orleans formed him.

When I started writing The Killer is Dying, I didn’t really know where I was going to set it and as it became apparent to me what I was writing about, sort of solitude and community, I realized that Phoenix was really the perfect setting for it. I didn’t plan that. But there is something about this huge teeming city set down in the middle of desolation that seemed to really work with that story.

MT: The Driver series takes place in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Tucson. How do Phoenix and Tucson lend themselves to the crime noir genre?

JS: You wouldn’t think noir when you think Phoenix. Since I was talking about movies, it kind of had to be in L.A. But for me the most interesting parts of the first book are the parts that happened here and Tucson and in between the cities. Driver is such a cut off person that I wanted to demonstrate that, and the easiest way to do that was to show him in the desert away from everyone. And, also learning to drive, because there is a lot of really interesting motor work and driving that goes on in between Tucson and Phoenix.

I didn’t plan on writing the sequel, but I thought that if I did write the sequel when I started thinking about the possibility I was pretty definite that I wanted to set it in Phoenix. And again, it was partially that same idea that I had in Killer, that there is this bustling city, very L.A. like, set down in the middle of the desert. But there was also the sense that Phoenix is the place where people come to make new lives and that’s what Driver did. He created a life from nothing, basically. And where else can you do that?

Of course, I live here. Like with New Orleans, which I thought people were not getting on the page, I felt people were not getting Phoenix on the page because it is a really difficult city because it is so sprawling. It is level after level after level. I am always looking at the landscape for its symbolic content or its emotional content as well as being able to locate the reader in a place.

MT: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

JS: Write your ass off. Someone I read years ago said you have to write out about 100 thousand bad words before you get to the good ones. And I’m not sure that’s true, I think there are people who sit down and say I am going to write a novel. And they sit down and write a damn good novel. There are very few of those people.

It takes a long, long time.

Read furiously. Read everything. One of the problems I see with aspiring writers, and I teach writers who are fairly advanced, is they say they read a lot, but when I start questioning them I find out they read in a very narrow band.

And that’s not what you want. You just need to open it up and read everything, read cereal boxes. And read the good stuff. But don’t assume the good stuff is good because everyone tells you it is. Read as widely as you can.

Then, just write, write, write. I’m not a big fan of writing programs, even though I teach in one. I taught in MFA programs for a while and I don’t do that anymore, because I think that is the worst thing. But I always wonder why are you in this class rather than home writing. This is three hours you could be home polishing up a story or writing a new story. What a writing teacher can do if they’re good, and most of them aren’t, is save you time. Can keep you from going down those blind alleys, but those blind alleys are what make you a writer.

So, I think the biggest thing is just write, write, write. And write everything. If you like urban fantasy, don’t just write urban fantasy.

And then, after, be analytical, not while you’re writing.

Wayne Schutsky is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at
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