- Author: Tom Marcinko
- Category: Arts
- Issue: Jan 2012
novelist and teacher
James Sallis is a Renaissance man. Over the years, he’s worked as a musician, poet, translator, biographer, essayist, critic, magazine editor, creative writing teacher at Phoenix College and ASU, licensed respiratory therapist and science-fiction writer. For decades, he was also the best-kept secret in crime fiction – until his 2005 novel Drive was adapted into the acclaimed 2011 noir flick starring Ryan Gosling. Set in Phoenix, Sallis’ latest novel, The Killer Is Dying, is an oddly moving page-turner about a hit man’s last days. Driven, his sequel to Drive, will be published by Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen Press in April. We caught up with the Arkansas-born Sallis, 66, at a favorite coffeehouse, across a battered wooden table obviously AWOL from an interrogation room.
In Drive and Killer, there’s not a wasted word.
I’ve been whittling down, becoming more and more concise as I write. With Drive, I was trying to recreate a pulp novel from the ’50s, and to update it, because I love that stuff; I still read that stuff. So wanting to have that muscularity predicated a certain way the book had to be written, which is sparse: short sentences, short paragraphs. It’s hard for me to keep the sentences short. (laughs)
How do you feel about the film Drive?
It’s different from the book. They had to make some changes. They couldn’t do the flashbacks, so that had to be translated into other techniques. But it definitely felt like my book.
What did you read as a kid?
I read and reread Sherlock Holmes. I was also reading Hemingway and Steinbeck and all of those literary folk. Science fiction had a very, very strong hold on me. That sort of sideways way I look at things, the metaphors I use, and the alienation of a lot of my characters, I think, came straight from science fiction.
Do you feel a lot of pressure while writing Driven, the sequel-in-progress to Drive?
No. Never. I learned years ago I can’t write to order and I can’t do what people want me to do. I just have to do what I do. I’ve made peace with myself about that. I’ve had readers who have stuck with me, have given the books to friends, and then made it possible for me to do this. I really shouldn’t even have a career, as quirky as the books are, as weird as they are. But I do. And I really appreciate that.
Is your New Orleans detective, Lew Griffin, coming to the screen?
The six books have been sold, to Parallel Entertainment, and at the moment Laurence Fishburne is attached as producer and actor, which I think is a great choice. They’re talking about a series of feature films.
Your acoustic-music group-about-town, Three-Legged Dog, wouldn’t sound out of place on a T Bone Burnett soundtrack, or on A Prairie Home Companion.
That’s on our list of wishes. We would love to do some film music. We just love playing so much. And most of the time we’re playing free. We find a coffeehouse and have a regular group coming and we’re in hog heaven.
What do you drive?
I drive as little as possible. Right now I’m in a Hyundai, which is my wife’s car, actually. That and the Nissan pickup are really both hers. I drive whichever one’s in the driveway. I don’t really like to drive – so I live in Phoenix. How smart is that?